A Critique of Contemporary Cinema Criticism

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By Don Hanway On FilmProbably no one becomes a film critic unless they love movies. Nevertheless, critics who write for hire have to see a lot of movies they don't really like. We would expect them to express their distaste, but it would be gratifying if they used the opportunity to be educational as well as colorful. To be sure, many people tune into the early episodes of each new American Idol series on television, not just for the fun of watching some no-talent hopefuls make fools of themselves, but to see how witty the judges may be in expressing their disbelief and pity or contempt. No doubt film critics are tempted to pander to this impulse. Nor is this the end of their temptations, as I will delineate. While critics write for a variety of personal reasons, one might assume that they are trying to help readers do at least two things: choose the films they will see on a more informed basis and get more out of the films they do see. Let us examine each of these purposes in more detail. Many readers of film reviews are asking essentially one question in regard to any particular film: "In a world of wide-ranging choices as to how I will spend my time, is this a movie I really shouldn't miss?" Or conversely: "Is this a film I can easily afford to miss?" While this is a fair question, it does introduce an element of bias and temptation, namely: All it takes for a viewer to dismiss a movie from serious consideration is for the reviewer to find one serious flaw-any flaw-as a basis for rejecting the movie. While movie trailers do everything they can to sell a picture by hooking the viewer on a character, a premise, a promising situation or setting, or showcasing a great performance, a critic may be tempted to go exactly the other way: to say in brief what is wrong with a movie and not much about what is right with it. To put the matter in these terms is to raise a fairly obvious question: What if the tastes of a potential viewer are different from those of the reviewer? A review that disqualifies a movie from consideration may, in doing so, omit many of the features that are attractive to a potential viewer. One way to avoid this trap is for critics to be more open about their biases. Another way is for potential viewers to read more than one review. Related to the temptation, for both reviewers and potential viewers, to disqualify a film based on a single fault or prejudice, is a tendency I call the "bandwagon effect." This was seen, for example, in the trashing of the 2003 film Gigli, starring Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck. The off-screen romantic involvement of these costars had become a matter of popular interest and subsequently popular derision, which may have been a contributing factor as to how the film was received. Because one or more influential reviewers mocked the film, it quickly became established in the popular mind that Gigli was a bad movie. After that, almost no one dared to question that judgment. To Roger Ebert's credit, he protested-mildly. I would go further and say that I find Gigli, while not a great film, one that is entertaining and well worth seeing. In fact, it is in my personal collection. Sometimes the critics and the general film audience are far apart in their perceptions of a film's worth. A recent example is the 2004 film Love Actually, which has an all-star cast and was wildly popular despite tepid reviews. What may account for the discrepancy between popular and critical judgment? I will suggest a couple of reasons. One is the fact that the movie has a number of subplots-all of which are interesting: two of which involve unhappy endings, while the rest are happy. I suspect that critics felt the film was going in too many directions, and subplots that seemed realistic may have been overshadowed by the stories that were wildly improbable. In other words, many critics have a limit as to how far they are willing to suspend disbelief and how often they are willing to change gears emotionally. Another problem is that the general category in which we would place this film is romantic comedy, although there are moments of heartbreak as well. Critics often have a problem mixing genres. The overall tone of the movie is joyous with many comic moments; this accounts for the fact that the movie invites repeated viewings, while for many more serious films once is enough. Are audiences simply easier to please than critics? This certainly varies with the viewer. There are many reasons why I go to see a movie, only one of which is what the critical opinion has been. I like to follow particular performers and filmmakers who have impressed me in the past. Many times I am hooked by a movie trailer, just as other trailers convince me I would be wasting my time. Some movies I attend because I think I will learn something. Some movies I know will be painful, but the story will be vital enough to carry me through. Every movie is multidimensional, having the possibility to affect me through the powerful visual and dramatic medium of cinema in ways that are emotional, intellectual, sensual and spiritual. If there are at least these possible reasons to see a movie, as well as the expectation of having a nice break from everyday reality, why shouldn't critics be attending to them, along with the flaws they see and the warnings they feel bound to issue? Sadly, it seems to me that a majority of film critics today are more interested in expressing their disappointments than in assessing what the filmmaker may have attempted and in what ways she may have succeeded. An example from just the past year is Marie Antoinette, a film by the very talented Sofia Coppola. Sofia's expressed intention was not to render an objective view of the period leading up to the French Revolution, but rather to show what it might have been like to be a vulnerable young girl, a foreigner faced with many challenges, to be placed in such a public and difficult position as well as in such an opulent and privileged setting. In terms of what Sofia was trying to show, I think she was quite successful. Critics are free to say what they want, in an effort to inform and otherwise influence the viewing public and movie industry. Nevertheless, they should not be immune from being challenged, along with the art they assess. For instance, critics on the one hand dismiss many films as not original, while on the other hand insisting that each film should fit into a clear and single genre and obey all the rules of that genre. When a film is difficult to classify, a critic is tempted to express this as a fault or a confusion on the part of the filmmaker: "If only he could have been more clear about what kind of movie he wanted to make ... tsk, tsk." Where is the reward for being adventurous and breaking the mold? Another frequent temptation of reviewers is to contrast current films with the classics, or what is regarded as the canon of great films, whose like we may never see again, alas. To quote from one of the classics, "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a...." What I do want the reviewer to do is tell me what is good about the present-day film, and if not much, so be it. In this vein I appreciate the reviewer who can say, "I've seen this story before, and I think I enjoyed it this time, with these actors, as much as ever." Perhaps the most annoying temptation to which film critics are prone is to tell way too much of the story as a substitute for analysis. While I don't insist that every detail be kept secret for a first viewing, I would like the chance to be surprised and to experience the story as it unfolds. Instead of telling me the plot, the reviewer could more helpfully tell me about the camera work, the location, the soundtrack, the acting, the script, and other details of how the filmmaker went about trying to tell a story and compose a piece of art. Of course, it's easier to criticize a critic than to do what a critic does. But just because it is hard to convey an experience secondhand, it is all the more important that a critic be open-minded in approach, artful in observation and description, selective of just the right details to tell us what we might gain from seeing this particular production. God bless the ones who really try!

Comments

Submitted by cdreed85 (not verified) on

I agree with Mr. Haraway's assessment, however my experiences may help understand the other side of the story. As someone who writes reviews for a University newspaper in Nebraska and also dabbles in blog reviews, it can be a delicate balance as a reviewer/critic to be trained to seek out a film's flaws but at the same time try and write to an audience that isn't always looking for those flaws. I can certainly agree that critics, on the whole, should stop focusing purely on the negative. I try to focus on the positive first and then add negatives as they apply. I think that if you are willing to give the reader a bit of good news, they're likely to see a review more as an argument rather than a criticism. And I think that's what reviews should be doing anyways. It is the job of the critic to let the public know whether a film is worth watching or not, and sometimes it is easier to attack a film for what it does wrong than what it does right... or fall back on the strategy of substituting summarization for analysis. However, while you don't want to completely ruin a movie within a review, there is a certain level of exposition needed so that people who weren't necessarily looking to find a film that interests them can think "oh, hey, that actually sounds good." These two things are the biggest challenges for a critic. Telling the story without telling too much and being critical without being cynical. And in an industry where there are numerous sequels made purely for profit, it is easy to get depressed or cynical if your interest is in film as art. But I think people who are looking to just film on its artistic merit should be film theorists rather than film critics. My experience tells me that people reading the newspaper aren't going to care if the lighting of a shot is a throwback to 40s film noir or whether the directors attempt at an effective mis en scene worked, if they even understand the word mis en scene at all. Film critics should be those who put themselves in the mind of the public, rather than their own, and explain why a film works, why it doesn't and help direct people deciding whether they should see the film where stuff blows, where people are killed or where the animal voiced by a celebrity makes it back home safely. As someone who enjoy how a film is made, what its message is and how things look on the screen, I would personally love it if critics pointed out the amazing cinematography of Children of Men or gave a short bit of history before discussing a shlock homage film like Grindhouse. But critics aren't writing for the person well educated in film, because really, if you know film even on a basic level, you should be able to tell what films you want to see and those you don't. The critics are more for people who, much like political independents, can't make up their mind one way or the other and need that little bit of extra information to help them decide whether to spend their money or not. But that is just my point of view.

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