5 Truths About Film Criticism, Straight From Nathan Rabin
For a little under 20 years, I made my living as a film critic. And during that time, I was fascinated by the profound disconnect between my actual life and how readers and commenters saw my work. The intense, visceral rage that a lot of people apparently felt was bewildering. I was just stating my opinion on Joe Dirt 2, and people acted like I had given their only child a one-star review. "Though Cody attempts to rise above his pre-kindergarten work, he is undermined by a constant tendency to think that he's good at soccer. Two thumbs down."
And it isn't just me. Film critics everywhere face constant backlash from those who believe that some snooty, pencil-necked nerd is trying to tell them how to feel about about Ice Age 6: Christ, 6? Really? Here are some of the most common criticisms of film critics that I have discovered, from the inside, are not legitimate and reflect a hopelessly distorted take on their work.
Critics Do Not Expect Every Movie To Be Citizen Kane
When a critic pans a silly popcorn movie, they tend to get comments taking them to task for being a joyless scold incapable of enjoying even well-crafted entertainment out of a stubborn conviction that all movies must aspire to a Shakespearean plane of excellence and ambition. "That half-naked person being machete'd in half lacked the poetic excellence of Oberon's Act III monologue. Now I am off to the Knickers and Tea Convention. Happy travels, merry gentlemen!"
Citizen Kane and The Godfather are frequently, snottily invoked in these arguments, because they're movies everyone can recognize as being great art as well as crackerjack entertainment. A typical argument goes something like this: "Oh, sorry if the Michael-Bay-produced Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot didn't meet up to your exacting standards. Not every movie has to be Citizen Kane, you know. Sometimes it's okay to just turn off your brain and have fun."
"Or turn off your brain and write a screenplay. Or turn off your brain and create a character design. Or turn-"
But the TMNT reboot did not get overwhelmingly negative reviews because snooty critics felt it lacked the deep-focus compositions and emotional depth of Orson Welles' legendary debut. No, they gave it overwhelmingly negative reviews because even by the lenient standards of CGI-heavy franchise reboots starring Megan Fox in tight jeans bantering stiffly with disconcertingly realistic-looking beasts, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is poorly conceived. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles doesn't need to be compared to timeless art to be found lacking; it's pretty damn awful on its own terms.
Much of a critic's job comes down to contextualization, in placing the film in a specific cultural and historical context. For the TMNT reboot, this might involve analyzing the film within the context of the incongruously gritty comic books that spawned both the film and the previous film and TV series. And above all else, a good critic asks, "What does this film set out to do, and how successful is it in realizing its goals?" They do not ask "Is the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot as good as The Godfather?" We're not morons, and we're not insane. Mostly. I hope.
There's no objective truth about a film's quality. Everything is subjective, and when movies are rated on a scale, it reflects that subjectivity. Then people get confused and, in the inevitable tradition of the internet, pissed. When I reviewed movies for The AV Club, for example, Crank 2: High Voltage got a very controversial A-, which led commenters to complain that whenever a film that was supposed to be conventionally "great" got a grade under an A-, that meant we were saying that Crank 2 was better than it. That's not true at all. Crank 2 got an A- because the critic felt it was wholly successful at realizing its ambition to be a crazy, go-for-broke B-movie, not because it deserves to be catapulted into the pantheon of great cinema. Not everything has to be high art, or even remotely artful, even for critics.
In other words, we're not ranking all movies from best to worst with these scores. That would take a serial killer's level of obsession and compulsion to pull off. And very few of us are serial killers.
Film Critics Are Not Influential Or Important Enough To Bribe
When DC Films endured vicious critical beatdowns for its massive comic book tentpoles Batman V. Superman: Dawn Of Justice and Suicide Squad, the internet was filled with ridiculous and angry accusations that Marvel was using its financial and corporate muscle to bribe critics into giving negative reviews to the work of its comic book archrival. If Marvel did bribe film critics into sabotaging DC Films' commercial chances by giving negative reviews, they failed spectacularly. Oh sure, Batman V. Superman and Suicide Squad each garnered scathing reviews, but that didn't seem to have much of an effect on their box office performances. People simply threw up their middle fingers and slapped down the cash.
Even after indignant fans called, hilariously enough, for a boycott of influential review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes, Suicide Squad made three quarters of a billion dollars at the box office (that's good) despite not playing in China, one of the largest markets in the world. Batman V. Superman did play China, which helps explain why it made close to a billion dollars despite seemingly everyone on earth trying to physically scrub its memory from their brains. These grosses are in line with those of Deadpool and Guardians Of The Galaxy, which didn't really make any more or less than DC's films, despite being critically acclaimed and popular favorites.
Yeah, I know.
Reviews do not dictate a movie's commercial performance. They're merely one of a series of factors at play in a film's eventual gross. The importance of critical opinion fluctuates according to film type. Arthouse movies are most dependent upon critical praise. These are the movies where a high-profile rave can make a huge difference. Yet people who hate film critics enough to subscribe to loony conspiracy theories tend not to think that, say, Moonlight became a critical favorite because the studio behind it was lining the pockets of inkstained wretches with greenbacks in exchange for rave reviews.
They do, however, seem to think bribery comes into play with superhero movies. This boggles the mind, because superhero movies are a genre where critical reviews are fundamentally irrelevant. Audiences didn't see Deadpool and Guardians Of The Galaxy because they received some of the best reviews of superhero movies ever. No, they flocked to those films because they wanted to see Ryan Reynolds be a profane, wisecracking badass and a space raccoon that wears people clothes do awesome shit, respectively.
No Tomato score was getting in the way of people wanting to see this.
Similarly, audiences didn't see Suicide Squad and Batman V. Superman in huge numbers because they expected quality cinema. No, they went because they were huge movies with huge budgets and huge stars and huge advertising campaigns and are rooted in some of the hugest pop culture icons of the past century. They are essentially critic-proof, so it would be insane to bribe critics to either attack or praise them.
If critics dictated 100 percent of what people saw, the number-one movie this weekend would be Seven Samurai, as it would've been for the past 60 years.
Critics Are Not All Failed, Bitter, Would-Be Filmmakers
A common criticism of film critics is that they're all aspiring writers and directors who couldn't make it as creative professionals and decided to enact revenge on a field that rejected them by angrily panning movies made by people who succeeded where they failed. As with some of these criticisms, there's an element of truth to this. It's in the same vein as "That tree is on fire. It must have committed suicide via arson." Well ... yeah, the tree is on fire. You got that part right.
Are there critics who aspired to be filmmakers? Of course. Some of them succeeded spectacularly. Luminaries like Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut, who have contributed so much to film, began as film critics, and mapped out the course of their later careers with their passionate and important early writings about film. But it has been my experience that people who write about movies for a living are less failed filmmakers sourly enacting vengeance on the more successful (and attractive*) than they are passionate film lovers overjoyed to be able to make a (modest) living writing about something they love.
*With amazing genitals as well.
Plenty of little movie lovers grow up wanting to be Martin Scorsese, but plenty of them also grow up wanting to be Roger Ebert. I was one of them, and I'm proud to say that for a number of years, I had the honor of sharing a screening room with him, and that he blurbed my first book, though I never quite mustered up the courage to talk to him.
Film criticism is a rich world onto itself. Hell, Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino have the souls of natural-born film critics themselves. They just happen to work on the other side of the business. In one of the most moving and surprising scenes in Life, Itself, the wonderful documentary about Roger Ebert, Scorsese talks about how the tough love of Ebert's pointed criticism helped give him strength and confidence at a time when he was at a low ebb, emotionally.
And while it's rare for that kind of connection to form, it is beautiful when it happens. Film criticism and filmmaking aren't bitter enemies, with the former trying to destroy the latter out of jealousy; they are simply two moving parts in the wonderful machine that is cinema. Not every Penthouse letters writer aspires to be a porn star.
Critics Are Not Snobby Elites (And Have The Salaries To Prove It)
Full-time critics occupy a strange place in our society. Their position within the media and their public profiles marks them as elites -- people who work with their minds and cast judgment on one of our nation's biggest, most important industries. Yet by virtue of the money they make, the average full-time professional film critic is likely living ramen to ramen, barely getting by on exceedingly modest salaries and even more modest benefits -- and that's when they get salaries or benefits at all. It's more likely that they've been switched to freelance if their position wasn't outright stuffed into a cannon and fired into the sun.
Spoiler: If a portion of someone's diet had to come from grabbing half-full popcorn bags before the cleaning crew did, they are not elite.
Like a lot of blue-collar workers, the jobs of professional film critics are disappearing at an alarming rate. For a good stretch, it seemed like a distinguished veteran film critic was being laid off by a major newspaper every few months. I suspect the bloodletting only abated because there were so few full-time newspaper critics left. We didn't become any less disposable; the bosses just started to run out of people to fire.
Our culture, as a whole, does not value film critics or film criticism. True, the day-to-day life and work experiences of a factory worker or a Target middle manager might be vastly different from that of a film critic. When I was a film critic, I was grateful every day that I got to make my living watching movies and writing about them. I tried to never lose sight of how fortunate I was. I've been extraordinarily lucky. However, I also know that I'll have to scrap and hustle and work like hell just to make sure my family doesn't have to boil shoes for sustenance.
Just gonna leave this here ...
So blue-collar commenters who complain that movie critics are out of touch with their lives aren't entirely wrong. Alaskan fishermen and people for whom a grueling day at work involves watching six movies at Sundance don't inherently have a whole lot in common, lifestyle-wise (although they both smell like fish). But if they realized how much they had in common in terms of money and financial uncertainty, they might have a little more compassion and understanding for each other and their viewpoints.
If You Think A Critic Is Judging Your Taste, That Has More To Do With You Than The Critic
Commenters have a disconcerting tendency to see criticism of movies, or music, or books, or TV shows they love as a personal attack on them, their intelligence, and their taste. The thinking seems to go "Oh, because I lost my shit laughing like a maniac at Larry The Cable Guy: Health Inspector, you think you're better than me? And because I feel asleep during Brokeback Mountain, you think I'm some kind of dumb hick?"
No, although I think you might actually be Larry the Cable Guy ...
On some level, I understand this weirdly antagonistic approach to film reviews. Critics and non-critics approach moviegoing from sharply different angles. A film critic is seeing a movie for free for the purpose of reviewing it. They're at work. They do not have the luxury of turning off their brains, as commenters often encourage them to do, because they will need that brain to analyze the film in a critical manner, while also never losing sight of the joy of the filmgoing experience. A moviegoer, in sharp contrast, almost invariably refinanced their house to see a film they have already decided is worth a sometimes-steep investment in money and time. They go to movies because they expect them to be good. Since nobody wants to feel like an idiot who wastes their time and money on garbage, the average moviegoer has a stake in the film that the critic does not.
But despite this seeming disparity, critics and non-critics all have the same goal: They want movies to be good. When I was a critic, hope sprung anew every time I would sit down in a theater seat or click an online link. And I made it a point to always review films and not audiences. When I panned Joe Dirt 2, for example, I was not making a withering statement about the intelligence of Joe Dirt 2 fans. I was merely giving my own subjective experience of watching Joe Dirt 2 on my laptop on one weird day in 2014. If you think that I'm personally attacking your taste or saying that you're stupid because we disagree on the merits of a particular film, you're vastly misunderstanding what a movie critique is in the first place.
If there's one thing to take away from this, it's that. If there are two things, it's that and the "attractive, with amazing genitals" part.
Many film reviews are written in the third person. This eliminates a lot of self-indulgence, but it can also lead to readers thinking the critic is delivering their judgment from on high, as if it were the incontrovertible truth about a movie's worth and not just one person's opinion when they wrote it, possibly on tight deadline, possibly at the end of terrible, exhausting day. And sure, critics take themselves seriously, sometimes to a fault, but that's a measure of how deeply committed they are to doing their jobs, despite the total lack of security and sour contempt from a strange alliance of filmmakers, actors, and the public at large. And like you, they are bitterly disappointed when filmmakers make such poor use of such a miraculous medium.
So the next time you see a movie review that fills you with rage, put yourself in the sweaty, uncomfortable skin of a movie critic. You might just find yourself overcome with a strange feeling known as "empathy." Empathy is a quality far too rare in our strange contemporary world, yet it's one you will find in the very best film critics, as well as the very best films. I'm talking about films like Citizen Kane. That's a good one. I would go so far as to say that it's even better than Joe Dirt 2. But that's just one man's opinion, and hell, I ain't even no damn film critic anymore.
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