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.


3NT said...

My dear Mr. Lime, while I understand—and to a degree empathize with—your reluctance to produce a list of injunctions for critics worldwide, I'd to point out that, traumatic as it may be to the liberal mind, institutionalization is very difficult without (something resembling) commandments. You can't get much done with an amalgam of vague, smirky criticisms; much as we may hate it, only bright-line prohibitions are truly efficacious, and inasmuch, they're definitely here to stay. Which is all to say, you're right that musings don't do anyone serious harm. But that just begs the question: What's so bad about serious harm? There's a reason why Moses was successful as a ruler, not just a philosopher. Essentially, the function you're outlining for yourself here is—GASP—that of a deconstructionist-type critic, a superego force who just sort of hovers in the background making sure that people are complying with an abstract set of "principles." Not to put to fine a point on it, but: fuck that. (In all fairness, I think you actually DO achieve bright-line rules of a certain variety. I also understand that you're writing under particular auspices and therefore subject to particular standards of analysis. To which my only response is: I thought that visual media would have substantially enhanced this entry. Maybe, at the top, an image of an upside-down fist with a choice appendage raised toward the sky? Yes, I quite think so.)

Your admission of the futility of film criticism is an excellent segue into this passionate exposition, which should definitely be expanded into a longer, more formal article for (e.g.) Sight and Sound. Seriously, the world needs to hear this. I know that I've expressed such gushing support in other blog posts that certain readers may be wondering whether you, I, or both of us have recently experienced dramatic shifts in sexual preference, but this time I mean it in a way that goes beyond the usual, "I'm here to affirm you and all you stand for, Mr. Lime." You have the opportunity here to make an original case for a doctrine that could very well shape the landscape of film criticism to come. The time has come for the reemergence of manifestos, in all arenas, film criticism among them. In fact, it is—or should be—high on the priority list. (And to anyone who would counter, Manifestos Kill, I say: don't bring everyone else down just because you were on the losing side of History [with no offense to your ancestors, Mr. Lime]).

As to the rest, No more binary verdicts? Embracing the "polyvalent medium"? My dear boy! You may be a theory-head, after all.

Chris said...


It's not exactly topical, but I'd like to follow the blog. Will you fix the "Follow this Blog" link so I may do so, or is the problem on my end?

harrylime said...

Hey Chris, thanks for your interest! What happens when you click the link? Does it ask for your gmail address/password? You need a Google account to subscribe, but can get one very quickly. If it tells you something else the problem may be on your end, since two people have managed to register as followers. Let me know what it says and I'll try to fix it.

3NT said...

Does innocent little Chris know that your pride-and-joy blog is on its last legs, Mr. Lime? I thought not.

You, like Monty, have three options:

1) You can end it all. Give up on your entire critical enterprise. Say to yourself, Fuck it; the world will never understand, and just throw in the towel.

2) You can run. Keep going as you have been all these years. Not revealing your insights to the world. Working solipsistically. Swearing off most everyone as moronic and by all accounts unworthy.

3) You can go to prison. Suck it up and keep writing, keep blogging, keep trying to allow your voice to emerge from the cacophonous tumult.

I think I speak on behalf of both myself and Chris when I say: for God's sake, choose option 3.

To put it in perhaps more persuasive terms, consider our boy Rudyard. What would say to you (after a long day of massacring natives)? Surely—surely—this: "Choose option 3, and then you'll be a man my son!"

harrylime said...

"Innocent little Chris" (seems our boy Rudyard's not the only infantilizer in the room) would appear to understand one thing that you, Mr. T, do not: the doctrine of Truth at 24, the "lovely intangible" that accounts for its snugly passing grade and its readership in the high single digits.

"People yakkety-yak a streak
and waste your time of day,
but Harry Lime will never speak,
unless he has something to say..."

Bingo. It's not about bloviating on everything from the rising cost of Sno-Caps to the decline in quality roles for penguins. I'm not keeping a diary here; hiatuses happen. Maddox, bless his repugnant little heart, hasn't posted a thing in seven months. If I'm on my last legs, he must be down for the count. Or perhaps it's not our style to drown out the cacophonous tumult. Maybe instead of serving as garrulous pundits, we choose to position ourselves--with apologies to Clive Owen--as clinical observers of the human carnival.

But don't worry, Frank, when my prison summons arrives I know you'll be on hand to punch me in the face.