The Case for Critics – A Defense of Film Criticism in an Extra Sensitive Culture

critics

I won’t pretend that I have the fullest insight into what the film critic profession is all about.  I write this blog mostly for my own expression and I’m grateful to the handful of you who take time out of your day to read my opinions.  But, I also run this by myself and fund my own way; meaning I still buy my own tickets and attend events along with the rest of the general public.  Professional film critics have the privileges of private screenings and press passes that give them special access and that is just part of how the business works.  Those who have a wider base of readers have the special access, and that’s how it should be.  But, in the end, what matters most is that a person is allowed to express their opinion about a movie whether they write for a major publication, publish their own private blog (like me), or are just giving a rating on their Flixster app or Cinemascore after leaving the theater.  And that’s the sign of a healthy interaction between the consumer and the people making the movies; the fact that public reactions matter.  But, for as long as there has been film-making, there has also been the presence of film critics, and the relationship has not always been a comfy one.  In fact, the interaction between Hollywood and the film criticism world can be a schizophrenic one where at times the studios go out of their way to highlight critical praise for their films (critical quotes often being used on trade ads for example) and then there are other times when the studios try to circumvent the opinions of the critics when they are seen as negative.  For the most part, audiences can take or leave a critics opinion depending on what they’re interested in seeing, but an unfiltered critical expression is still important to have in today’s society.  But, that’s a right that’s also abused and attacked in some dangerous ways as well.

Recently there has been controversy surrounding the reception given to the new Ghostbusters remake.  Because of the change in casting, making the titular team all female instead of male, there has been a complaint by the filmmakers who made it saying that criticism of their movie is due to sexism.  In particular, Paul Feig, the director, revealed hateful backlash that he’s received on social media, as he stated in a recent report.  And while it’s true, the internet and especially social media can be terribly sexist towards women, it shouldn’t also be lumped together with legit complaints about the movie.  I for one am not happy with the upcoming film, as I’ve made clear before, but my complaint has more to do with the fact that I think that this is a shameless cash-grab by a studio and not a earnest comedy project like past Ghostbusters were.  And yet, the specter of accusation over a supposed misogynistic bias against the movie has totally clouded the discussion of the film and it seems that anyone who now has to review it must also watch what they say.  Feig may be genuine about his concerns, but I feel that some of this controversy has been drummed up by Sony Pictures (the studio behind the movie) as a way to safe guard themselves against negative reviews.  It makes it much easier for them to wade their way through critical reception if they can simply say that all the naysayers against their film are speaking from a sexist point of view.  This is a dangerous misuse of legitimate issues purely for a self-serving purpose and it tells me right away, without having seen the movie, that it will indeed be bad.  The studio has become defensive and they’re willing to marginalize their critics.

Of course, the misuse of critical opinion has also factored into this story as well.  The sad reality of media today is that it’s so heavily intertwined with social media and that now anybody can have their opinion heard; even the dumbest among us.  For someone to have such a narrow minded reaction to the gender swapping of characters in Ghostbusters is really hitting a low bar for film criticism.  This and the fact that many of these same trolls are so rabid with their opinions and will harass the filmmakers regardless of the end result is also a sickening aspect in our culture.  But, we are a society that can’t censor someone for just having an opinion.  Unfortunately, these idiots cast a bad light on the rest of us film critics, and it is what Hollywood is increasingly trying to spotlight as the state of film criticism in today’s media.   The broad span of opinions on the internet has created this load mess of things in the critical world and the thing that gets lost in the shuffle is the sense of trust from those on the outside just looking for some guidance.   Audiences look to critics for helpful opinions, but when a few bad apples give out thoughts that are so off-putting, it makes the whole critical world look foolish and less trustworthy.  And that’s when the studios can trick the public into thinking that critical opinion doesn’t matter and that they are the ones worth listening to.  Now, I don’t honestly think that every studio is trying to eliminate criticism altogether; they certainly need critical praise for marketing purposes.  But when a studio is pointing a finger at the critical community saying that it is poisonous as a way to avoid negative reaction for itself, there becomes a dangerous tilt toward suppressing dissent in our culture.

Sadly, the horrible opinions found on social media are all too common, and they are really not a good indicator of what film criticism can be.  Film criticism is much more than just a simple star rating or a twist of the thumb up or down.  In fact, some of the greatest examples of film criticism that we’ve ever seen have not been on any webpage or newspaper column, but in film essays written over the years by scholars and students alike.  That’s what I learned from my years in film studies, and this blog where I give editorials in addition to reviews is a manifestation of this philosophy.  Film critics don’t just react to a movie; they deconstruct them as well.  A great film analysis often looks at movies beyond whether it is good or bad and makes you think of the larger issues inherent within the content itself.  There are so many different ways you can read a movie, and these criticisms all have their own classifications; structuralist, post-structuralist, deconstructionist, humanist reading, feminist reading, queer reading, class reading, auteurism, the list goes on.  This is film criticism as an art-form and it can be accomplished by anyone who takes a strong critical stance on something and is able to back up their opinions.  When film criticism is intellectually stimulating, that’s when it’s able to broaden an appreciation of the art-form itself.  Film journals like Sights and Sounds as well as trade magazines like Empire and Entertainment Weekly all understand that opinion pieces are a valuable part of their business and they include them as part of their publications.  It’s an important aspect of the film industry to inspire a thoughtful look into the world of cinema, because entertainment without purpose has no long lasting impact in our society.

So, how do you discern the good criticism from the bad.  Well, first of all it should be obvious that everyone is entitled to their opinion.  But, when it comes to expressing that opinion, a person should take into account their ability to back it up with facts.  This is especially important for those of us who write our reviews for public digestion.  You can’t just simply say you hated or loved a movie and just stop at that.  People want to know the reason why.  Think deeply about exactly what drove you towards your opinion.  And it can’t be stressed enough; have some knowledge about what you are talking about.  I know I’ve been guilty of prejudging things before I see them (I was especially wrong about Edge of Tomorrow), but when I set out to critique something, I try to give it a fair examination before I tear it apart.  It helps to look at some of the positives first before going into the negatives, and this is a good way to gauge how your ultimate reading of a film will turn out.  Every bad movie has a silver lining and every great film has some nagging nitpick that prevents it from reaching perfection, and it’s finding those interesting distinctions found in each that helps to craft an interesting film analysis.  It at least helps to make the reader feel more informed as they take your critique in.  Distilling a film criticism down to a simple good or bad is not worthwhile criticism because no movie is ever that simple.  So anyone who looks at the opinions given on social media and sees that as legitimate film criticism clearly doesn’t understand the medium.  And yet, social media is carrying more weight in the critical world now than it really should be.

Much like in the realms of politics and sciences, it’s better to listen to people who actually sound like they know what they are talking about rather than just the random person talking nonsense on the internet.  I know that I am just another random person to some people, but I try my best to sound informed.  Not that you have to be a scholar in all things in order to be able to speak you mind online, but just know that when you opinion matters, you better not abuse that authority by spreading nonsense out there.  What I often recommend is that people should read up on all sorts of film criticism from multiple points of view in order to gain a different appreciation for the medium as a whole.  If there is a film you love, read what a negative review had to say and discern from it why you disagree.   Your defense may actually teach you something new you never realized about a movie.  I especially like looking at how a historical context informed the creation of a movie and how the reception of a film changes over time.  Looking at film criticisms from years ago is also interesting.  Some of the most interesting essays written about the subject of film culture have come from legendary film critics like Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert, and their writing often gives cultural perspective on a movie’s significance as well as judging it based on it’s quality.  Constructive film criticism even finds it’s way into film-making too .  Cahiers du Cinema, a French film journal, included contributions from critics like Jean Luc-Godard and Francois Truffaut, who were so driven by their opinions on cinema that they began to make movies themselves.  And the movies they tuned out were self reflexive and movie reference heavy such as Breathless (1960) and The Last Metro (1980), which helped to create what we now know as the French New Wave.  Other self-knowing cinematic films like Robert Altman’s The Player (1992) or the Coen Brother’s recent Hail Caesar (2016) also play with this idea of dissecting and critiquing the art of film within the medium itself and it shows the positive effect that criticism can have on movies as an art-form overall.

But, criticism can be a movie’s worst nightmare and that’s why there’s the often tumultuous relationship that Hollywood has with it.  Film criticism is a powerful tool in the industry, and it’s one that they fear when it turns against them.  Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert hit a cultural touchstone when they patented their thumbs up or down meter for grading a movie.  The thumbs rating proved to be so effective that it became a part of the culture.  Soon, it became common to see a movie promote in their advertisements that they received “two thumbs up.”  Though not uncommon in Hollywood’s past, this use of critical praise within a movie’s promotion became much more prevalent, especially with the rise of home entertainment, where critical reviews became just as common on the box art.  At the same time, Hollywood tried other ways to work this to their advantage.  Siskel and Ebert were too independent in their profession, and their votes were hard to sway, but there were many other attempts to coax better critical reception for a movie made within the industry.  Sometimes this would include highlighting the most obscure critic out there just because they were the lone positive voice in a sea of negativity, or sometimes a critical statement would be taken out of context and re-purposed to make it sound like a positive review.   And then there was the scandal of David Manning, a film critic completely fabricated by a major studio just for the purpose of positive reviews, and was later exposed as fraudulent.  All of this shows us why an informed and independent critical forum matters in our society, because without it, an audience can be easily manipulated into believing the wrong thing.

That is why I believe it to be dangerously self-serving on Sony’s part to be dismissive of the critical reaction to their Ghostbusters remake.  Yes there are some idiots complaining about gender on social media, but there are just as many if not more genuine arguments to be made about the movie as well.  Now there’s nothing that can be done to stop the movie now; it’s in the can and ready to premiere, and at after that point all the complaints beforehand will be moot when we finally see what the end result will be, good or bad.  But, what I believe is that things aren’t looking good for your movie when you choose to brush away complaints by labeling them all as a misogynist conspiracy against your film.  Marginalizing a critical community and making them feel afraid to give a honest opinion for fear of being labeled sexist is a bad precedent to make.  My hope is that the critical community doesn’t lose focus and judges the movie fairly, but given the threat they face, I don’t know if the final verdicts given to the Ghostbusters remake will be as genuine as they should be.  If the studio succeeded at deflecting criticism with this as it’s tactic, it would be a disgustingly petty way to do it and a clear violation of the critical community’s freedom of speech.  Film critics need their independence to tackle a film without interference, and it would be a disservice to the medium as a whole to paint all of them into such a bad company as misogynists, even if a small minority of them are.  I value film criticism as a valuable tool in the appreciation of film art as a whole and anything that would taint that as a means to avoid negative press would be a terrible mistake to make.  Film critics can be wrong, they can even go too far sometimes, but they should also never be afraid to say whether or not they loved or hated, hated, hated a movie.

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