Sunday, December 7, 2008

What good are critics, anyway?

Jean-Luc Godard once claimed the best way to criticize a movie was to make another movie. Decades later, with criticism comprising its own flawed industry, Godard’s quote could use a little broadening: The best way to denounce any practice in media production, distribution or consumption is to supply an imitable opposing model (alas, we’ve lost most of Godard’s lyricism). I created this site as a rejoinder to the irresponsible, misdirected prose that threatens the integrity of modern film reviewing—to censure criticism itself, through fierce antipathetic commentary. Whether or not that’s viable, it’s reached my attention that these aims should be made more explicit; that a manifesto of sorts would help explicate my position in the critical community. And though I’m hardly qualified (and scarcely interested) in compiling a list of “thou shalt not”s for critics everywhere, a few musings on the role of the evaluator would do no one serious harm.

The toughest truth any practiced reviewer must face is this: Bad movies are critic-proof. People will see what they want to see. Last week’s box office champ was deemed unworthy of attention by five in six major critics (i.e., its “Cream of the Crop” score was 18). Popular franchises have built-in audiences, impervious to case-by-case reckoning. If Chris Nolan’s next Batman installment consists of penguins hurling Wiffle balls at a CGI Calvin Coolidge, it will recoup its budget in a week and Halloween parties will be dominated by our thirtieth president. (In fairness, Peter Travers will proclaim, “There’s magic in it!”) While it’s true that many disparaged movies fail, critics would be amiss to claim these as victories. Some concepts will simply never connect with sentient viewers (here’s looking at you, Baby Geniuses!) Others perish by word of mouth, which is reasonable; for all their wisdom and expertise, critics can only impart a sense of their own experience, not the customized briefing you get from a friend.

The bottom line is, we’ve lost our veto power. That’s not categorically a bad thing. In the recent past a myopic old fogey like Bosley Crowther could get a film blackballed with a few caustic phrases (Bonnie and Clyde: “as pointless as it is lacking in taste”). Viewers are more individualistic these days; a bad review is something to be chuckled over while standing in line to buy a ticket. So here’s my manifesto: Let’s expend our energy where it can do some real good. Certainly we should not soften our assaults on the mindless, the artless, the gratuitous; but come on, Rex Reed! We all know you’ve worn out your thesaurus dredging up synonyms for “awful.” Don’t dignify those movies with your (dubious) wit. Push beyond them. Write a hundred words on The Incredible Hulk and a thousand on My Winnipeg, a film to remind people why they pay to sit in the dark with strangers. Roger Ebert, for all his latter-day lenience, has never lost his alacrity or his willingness to take a movie on its own terms. Why did I drag my poor father across state lines on a weeknight to see a curio like My Winnipeg? Because Ebert recommended it “to anyone who loves movies in the very sinews of their imagination.” Indeed. Mission accomplished.

A few more points while I have your ear, concerning the unprincipled strain I hope to counteract. Professional reviews are not made to order like private ones, but they should be serviceable for more substantive impressions. Pedantic plot synopses conjoined with cut-and-dried binary verdicts are what we expect from our buddies, from our uncles, from Regis Philbin. Quite fine if you haven’t turned pro. Critics should ruminate on aesthetics, dynamics, ideologies and motifs. No movie is an island; why, then, do we omit all acknowledgment of influence—of films or filmmakers outside the purview of direct scrutiny? This implies artistic products stand alone, unburdened by technical or thematic debt. The sooner we concede the fallacy of that tacit assumption, the sooner we can start thinking about cinema as the cyclical, collaborative, polyvalent medium it has always been.


Oh, and critics who waste valuable column space on box office forecasting, awards speculation and trivia should be forced to run a three-legged race with Ben Lyons across a field of burning cash and molten Britannium. I’m just saying.