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Yes, there are critics. Get over it

May 17, 2012

My senior year in high school, the one class I always looked forward to, without reservation, was “Seminar”, a junior college level class I took first period three days a week. Basically, it was a survey of various philosophies (as well as some non-Eastern religions), and one of the books we read and discussed (quite vociferously) was Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig. For those who haven’t read it, the book is partly about the cross-country motorcycle trip he takes with his teenage son, and partly about how he was nearly driven insane during his time as a creative and technical writing professor when he got caught up in trying to figure out whether he or anyone else could define what “quality” was. This last part is what I remember best about the book, particularly the part where Phaedrus (the name Pirsig gives to himself when talking about his life as a professor) mentions that if 19 out of 20 of his students like an essay, then it must be good (I may have the number figure wrong, but it’s something like that). At the time we studied this, I, and I think most of the people in the class, probably assumed that consensus on something was a way of measuring quality, or the lack thereof. But nowadays, I wonder about the one person who didn’t think the paper had any quality; should that person automatically be considered a total moron, or is there something else going on?

That question always comes up for me whenever a blockbuster movie comes out and the prevailing opinion is either it’s good, or a sizable portion of the audience wants it to be considered good, and is very intolerant of those who don’t think it is. The latest example of this is The Avengers, which had the highest opening weekend of any movie in history, finished at the top spot at the box office two weeks in a row, and to date has grossed $1 billion worldwide  (of course, somebody somewhere will still insist it hasn’t made a profit yet, but that’s an entirely different discussion). And to judge critic sites like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, critics are generally appreciative as well for the most part, even those who are not generally disposed to comic book movies (like Anthony Lane of The New Yorker, Peter Rainer of Christian Science Monitor, and Kenneth Turan of Los Angeles Times). And as I wrote in my review, while I don’t find it transcendent in any way, and had some small problems, I generally found it entertaining. All of that, however, is not enough for some people. They want everyone to come out of it as enthralled as they were (or, if you wanted to be cynical, as enthralled as they’ve convinced themselves they’ve had to be). What may come as an understandable impulse – who hasn’t, after seeing something cool, wanted to share that experience with others, and was disappointed if others didn’t like it? – however, has been distorted into something ugly, and the ones in the crossfire, are, as usual, critics.

A.O. Scott, one of the first-string critics for The New York Times (Manohla Dargis and Stephen Holden being the other two), is the latest public target of disgruntled fans who, to put it mildly, disagree with his assessment. What was unusual in this case was an actor involved in the film – Samuel L. Jackson, who plays Nick Fury – was the one who fired the first salvo. On his Twitter feed, Jackson told fans of the movie Scott “needs a new job! Let’s help him find one! One he can ACTUALLY do!” Now, Jackson is a separate case here, as he’s an actor reacting to a bad review of his movie, and while I don’t approve of what he wrote, I can at least understand the impulse. But the way Internet commentators have reacted to the reviews of those who were less than enthused with the film, like Scott (the Times doesn’t have a public comments section for Scott’s Avengers review, which might be fitting in this case, but there’s a comment section for the review on Rotten Tomatoes), Stephanie Zachareck (of  Movieline, and like Scott, she’s a fan of director/writer Joss Whedon), Andrew O’Hehir (of Salon) and others, you’d think this group of critics were lower than pond scum simply because they didn’t like the movie as much as they should have. (O’Hehir, in the first paragraph in his review, even commented on what he knew was to come). To be fair, it’s true there have also been plenty of people who, even if they disagree with the review, have tried to engage the review, or the critic, in a conversation about the movie (many comments on O’Hehir’s review, for example), but more often than not, you get people writing things like, “It’s a popcorn movie; what did you expect?”, “Why can’t you just be entertained?”, “(This critic) is trying too hard and is pretentious”, “(This critic) is a moron for not seeing how awesome this is”, and my favorite of all, “Why do you have to be so critical?”

Well, I beg everyone’s pardon, but I thought that’s what the job description of a critic was; to be critical. That doesn’t mean I automatically rubber-stamp a movie, or automatically dismiss it. It means I try to figure out what the movie is trying for, whether or not it succeeds, and why, what themes there may be (assuming there are any), and even try to figure out what it says about life today (or, if it’s a period piece, about that period), and what it may mean in the long run. And all of that means evaluating it in terms of the acting, the writing (and, if it’s an adaptation, how well it adapts the source material) the technical aspects of the film – cinematography, editing, the score, the set design, often the special effects, and so on – and the past work of the filmmakers or whatever influences they might have drawn on to make the movie. Oh, and I also need to be able to write well enough to communicate all of that and still be readable as well as (hopefully) insightful. Finally, while I don’t happen to work under this burden, professional critics have to do all of that within a deadline, using only so much space or so many words, and may have to do that at least two or three times a week, if not more.

Of course, there are critics who aren’t good at any of that, and are either little more than shills for the studios (Ben Lyons), or are contrarian simply for the sake of being so (Armond White). But there are also good critics out there – including the ones I list above – who nonetheless are arbitrarily dismissed, or worse, if they dare give a negative review to blockbusters. This dismissal manifests itself in a couple of different ways. A critic might be told they’re thinking too much about the film, that they should just be there to be entertained, and/or – especially in the case of The Avengers – told they shouldn’t be reviewing these types of movies if they obviously have a bias against them. The first part of that is especially a sore point for me, as I don’t understand why people think a movie that insults your intelligence is entertaining. The latter point is more credible in part; certainly a reviewer who’s familiar with, and even a fan of, the source material of a movie can bring something deeper to their review, and any good critic should do that. And while everyone, even critics, has a bias of some kind, certainly someone who appreciates the genre more will probably bring more insight. However, the people who are raking O’Hehir, Scott,  and Zachareck over the coals over their pans of The Avengers seem to forget none of those critics are “biased” against comic book movies. All three of them, in their reviews, have expressed enthusiasm for earlier movies in the genre (Tim Burton’s Batman movie gets praise from all three of them). And while all three of them have praised low-budget or offbeat films, they also have praised mainstream and even blockbuster films in the past (Scott recently gave a good review to Girl in Progress, Zachareck has been a fan of many mainstream comedies, including the just-released The Dictator, and even O’Hehir, who professes himself to be more “artsy-fartsy” than most critics, loved Toy Story 3 and Watchmen, among others). The point each of them – and others who didn’t like it have made – is they’ve perhaps grown a little weary of the comic book genre these days, and given how that genre and other blockbusters seem to be mostly what Hollywood is interested in these days, I’m not sure I blame them. Finally, this is a matter of opinion, of course, but I didn’t think any of those reviews stated their opinions in a condescending or pretentious matter. They said they didn’t like the movie (in the case of Scott and Zachareck, it was disappointing to them because they’re fans of Whedon’s work), they said why, and even managed a little humor in the process.

I know whenever a critic says this, they get accused of taking themselves way too seriously (at best), but I’ll say it anyway; a critic is there not just to inform the reader what the movie is about (to some extent), but is also valuable because they offer an opinion about it that not only comes from the experience of watching many other movies (similar or otherwise), but also is an opinion that isn’t bought and paid for by the studios. Yet somehow, for some, that translates into critics being another example of “elitist” “experts” whose opinion has no real value. I don’t believe the attitude towards critics has necessarily changed that drastically over the years; it’s merely that the naysayers have a bigger voice thanks to their being more outlets for those voices to shout their opinions, as well as critics these days having to compete in that environment. To those naysayers, I say this; while I understand how exciting it would be to have a movie like The Avengers have a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic, there will always be those who didn’t like that movie, or others of a similar nature, for whatever reason. And that’s fine. There’s always going to be a difference of opinion somewhere; otherwise, life, and movies, wouldn’t be as interesting. So please, do yourself and us critics a favor, and get over it. I shudder to think what will happen when The Dark Knight Rises comes out and this becomes a topic all over again.

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