Tuesday, August 22, 2006

On Criticism

A typical letter in Entertainment Weekly reads: I think you guys are way off the mark on (enter movie here). I found it to be (enter accolades here).

I've been wanting to discuss film criticism for awhile, as I find the tangential complications deriving from divided opinion rather fascinating. Most of the tangents involve the comment, "You were wrong," which is contrary to the very definition of "opinion."

In the past, I have lightly touched on how everyone is different and everyone has a different perspective and therefore, opinions are never "wrong." Although I have found myself to be in incredulous conversations with people who liked a movie I hated, I've never really been the kind of person to say, "You're wrong," as if we're talking about scientific fact.

I think the reason why critics often come under fire is for disliking movies that the general public usually likes--front and center this year is Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest. Now in the top 10 grossers of all time, for whatever it's worth anymore (although I still feel factors like inflation are overrated when discrediting these kinds of performances--that may be for another post down the road), the general public has voiced their content with POTC: DMC and Entertainment Weekly seems to have some reference every week to readers wanting the head of resident reviewer Lisa Schwarzbaum for giving the movie a low grade.

I can't speak for everyone, and of course, to group critics into one consensus body is hogwash, but I know for my own experience, I watch nearly every damn movie that comes out (In 2005, I watched every major release and then some), and many start running together (especially the animated entries this year) and you expect and demand more with each new release.

For my own experience, a lot of times I watch a movie and for some reason it fails to grab me, and sometimes the reasons for that are hard to explain. Take, for example, Snakes on a Plane. Reading some reviews, it is apparent that this is a wet dream for many, and my instinctual response is, "Are you crazy?" Of course, no, they aren't crazy--the movie hit them just right. But as I watched this movie, I tried to make sense of why this movie wasn't hitting me. This is where criticism in general opens itself up for criticism in its own right, because I believe critics in general feel rather ambivalent or indifferent about 95% of the flicks that are released each year--but by public demand they are required to grade how well they enjoyed the movie (this is why I don't grade movies with stars or letters or any kind of numerical scale), and they must describe why a movie didn't hit them. Where the critics open themselves up for fire is when those explanations aren't satisfactory, as if it is easy to explain in black and white why a movie didn't hit them just right.

The most typical response you see is "Well, that movie wasn't trying to be an Academy Award winner," as if critics only respond in kind to movies that are trying to be Academy Award winners. Critics didn't become critics because they are stuffy, hateful beings who don't like movies; it's the exact opposite. And as such, they have seen lots of movies, have just about seen it all, and expect more from a Pirates of the Caribbean. I know, for me at least, both POTC and SoaP got my head whirring with imagination as to the choices I would make with the materials given, and both movies failed to either live up to that expectation or surprise me with something I hadn't considered--this is the root of most of my own negative reviews. You can see this concept laced through all of my lukewarm/negative accounts. Little Miss Sunshine is another one of those movies--currently warming the hearts of most moviegoers who watch it, the movie's choices, I felt, robbed it of being something even better. There is no balm for unmet hopes or expectations.

Also, a critic's printed word is not always the final one. People can change their minds down the road and wonder what they were thinking, although this is rare I feel. But think of the circumstances critics watch films--usually with minimal people in the audience (and for me, usually no one but me) and therefore have no "audience bias." Comedies and horror movies, and to some extent action movies, those that are best seen with crowds, where a certain sort of energy affects everyone inside an auditorium, flavor a normally unbiased opinion. The question is, which opinion better suits an individual? Clearly, movies can be seen from many angles--I think most respected critics try to base an opinion without external influential factors.

I think of "The Simpsons" where Homer gets the crayon taken out of his nose that has been making him dumb all these years, and he goes to see the Julia Roberts/Richard Gere romantic comedy in an auditorium full of people laughing at all the usual cliches, and the smarter Homer looks around, saying, "What's so funny?" This is the fundamental difference between critics and typical audiences--critics want something different, and typical audiences want to see a movie where they expect the things they have always enjoyed and get it in droves. Perhaps this blankets too many people, and is unfair in some way--but those who actually study films can rightly wonder why a movie with no (at least, perceived) real creativity can be such a huge hit.

As I mentioned before, not all critics have the same expectations and a great many did like POTC: DMC. But there is a perception, when looking at a general consensus, that the most respected critics all have the same reaction. And the attacks on these individuals are not given complete thought before umbrage is taken. Again, simply, it's a matter of opinion. It's not like someone who hated POTC sat there and said, "You know, I really like this movie, perhaps I should give it a bad review."

My personal criticism of some critics involves their lack of opinion. You ever read a review where there isn't any mention of why a movie is getting 1 star? They get onto some preface, talking about one of the states of film, then they discuss the plot, and then there's one throwaway sentence at the end that doesn't really mention the movie at all but relates to their mini-essay at the beginning? Maybe the only thought one could derive from such a passage is that the movie wasn't worth reviewing in the first place, but it's these people's jobs to discuss why it isn't worth talking about. Ironic, yes, but I feel necessary.

Also, sometimes opinions can be based on what I feel are wrong perceptions. In Little Miss Sunshine, a review in EW (which gave the movie a "C" and has gotten the requisite flood of mail for it), in one of the various reasons for not liking it completely, mentions that the finale is hypocritical for praising Breslin's character for what she does in the pageant--but I felt that this was one of the few scenes that got it right, that it exposed the hypocrisy of pre-teen beauty contests and was therefore not a "praising" of her character as much as it was a tool to express a certain message. This is the other aspect of criticism, when you don't like a movie, just like another person, but not for the same reasons. If anything, I think you should be fair about what you write. I've sometimes begun a paragraph and written a hundred words about something only to notice I didn't feel it was fair or correct--it has sometimes gotten me to consider a movie differently than when I first started writing the review.

That's all I have to say for now; I know by no means are we a big blog and touch the lives of millions, but at the very least it's therapeutic.


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