Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The State of Mainstream Film Criticism

Mainstream film criticism in America almost exclusively means movie reviews.  Outside of an academic setting, Americans don't explicitly think of movies in a universal or theoretical light very often.  Movie reviews still leave room for a surprising amount of dynamism.  They can fulfill all sorts of purposes.  Film criticism of this type can lend itself to many problems, especially involving the commercialization of the process.  The ideal critic has a number of useful qualities.  The one movie review website that I love is Rotten Tomatoes and there are also a handful of critics that I follow and like.  Mainstream film criticism is in need of a renaissance, both in movie reviews and in a move towards new material.

The average film criticism reader is roughly the average movie viewer.  Mainstream viewers, watch movies, either like them or don't, but do not care enough about the process to think up any theoretical framework involving movies.  There are elements of theory vaguely peppered in their thoughts, but most people think through examples, what they've seen.  This could be one reason that movie reviews are the most popular and nearly exclusive form of movie writing in America.  Film theory has been mostly needlessly relegated to academia.  Academia hasn't helped the problem by making film theory needlessly esoteric.  Movie reviews and famous reviewers, however good, become a distraction from deeper film writing and become the final frontier for most readers.

Movie reviews have a great number of purposes.  One can come to them to figure out which movies he wants to see.  They can also transcend this to see or not to see function, existing as individual pieces of writing with inherent value.  In the case of the movie Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, the superlatively negative reviews often had an element of entertainment value in themselves.  Movie reviews can be an opening to theory.  They can shape one's ideas of movie.  People can read reviews to find different approaches to movie viewing.  The last reason people might read movie reviews, and I will admit to this in my own case, is to have their views validated.  I think the internet loves confirmation bias.  I personally love to check reviews and see if at least a few critics had similar feelings to a movie as me.

The world of movie reviews is fraught with trouble and commercialization that undermines the highest ideals of what film critics are supposed to be.  The first problem is that negative reviews really only have so much power.  If a review is positive, it gets used in the marketing, but if it is negative, it either gets downplayed or ignored.  Rudolf Arnheim wrote of critics that "as a matter of survival, their standards shift with the times."  I tend to agree with his assessment today, although it is hard to objectively prove.  I think there is also a pressure to be "populist" and not a "snob," which can turn critics into merely another layer of advertising.  In some cases, this is completely true, as when critics are payed off or even fake.  It seems to me that to a very real degree, critics must either be sell-outs or failures at shifting public opinion, because the film industry still churns out so much garbage that the public pays to see.

What qualities would an ideal film critic have?  For starters, he would be independent, free to like or dislike whatever he wanted.  I believe a good critic should be relatively anti-populist.  One has to note that the cinema is a medium that has always leaned populist, not always for the worse, but why pay these people and put them on a pedestal in their field if their opinions are no more cultivated than anyone else?  Would you read a wine tasting column by a layman who just drinks the cheap stuff?  Some consider this snobbery, but I consider it honest connoisseurship, depending on how it is worded.  To me, the difference between a snob and a connoisseur is attitude, not taste.  Critics shouldn't exist to validate others' opinions.  It's okay to not have a cultivated interest in everything, but you shouldn't be a paid writer in an area if you don't have a cultivated interest.  Also, mainstream entertainment media needs no apologists!  They aren't going anywhere and they need no defense against big, bad arthouse.  There is no exact quota system of what percentage of movies a critic should like, but both liking everything and liking nothing are two poles leading to a critic's irrelevance.  A good critic can not be defined with precision because it is silly to be an absolutist about individual movies.  Every critic should be somewhere in the middle.  In my experiences of watching the old Ebert and Roeper show a few years back, they both seemed to like about fifty percent of the movies they reviewed, which to me feels a little high.  Not only do I believe there are not that many good movies, but most audience members will see no more than one to two movies per weekend so telling them that half the movies are worth seeing doesn't strike me as helpful.  I would probably thumbs-up about twenty percent.

The only movie review website I consistently read, the greatest movie review site on the web as far as I know, is Rotten Tomatoes.  The central idea of Rotten Tomatoes is to bring together multiple reviews of each movie and then have a percentage approval rating of the top critics.  I find the large group of critics normalizes the reviews and is more trustworthy than following a single critic, being as there are few critics who I agree with the vast majority of the time.  The rotten and fresh system avoids the subjective difficulties of a star rating.  The site only has three problems, which are easily avoided.  They call a movie fresh if it has at least a sixty percent approval rating.  Sixty percent anywhere else is a D-.  This can be overcome by setting the bar at whatever percentage suits you.  Secondly, the core of the site is surrounded by silly, trivial, fanboy features.  A small amount of their articles are genuinely interesting, but I find it rare.  The last problem is the comments on the site.  Half the commenters on the site are very bitter about everything, especially any and every divergent opinion about any and every movie.  There is no movie, however terrible, that doesn't have at least one bitter champion throwing out shallow, personal attacks.  If a critic dislikes something highbrow, he is an idiot and if he dislikes something lowbrow, he is a snob.  Lastly, going through someone's archives to find one movie they were "wrong" about from ten years ago and bringing it up to trash them is stupendously lame.  I guess that's just the nature of the internet, but I have found better message boards elsewhere.  (More recent note: Rotten Tomatoes has removed comments because people aren't mature enough to respectfully discuss movies online.)

Critics I read

I mainly read Roger Ebert because he is famous and following his reviews gives some continuity, especially considering the sheer breadth of movies he has reviewed.  I don't find him particularly clinical or intellectual in his writing style.  He is usually more poetic and is known for incorporating personal anecdotes into his reviews.  His reviews are often a little soft for my taste.  While his work is often personal, he usually has the viewer in mind.  Ebert also has a blog which I read sometimes.  It started as a way to plug myself, but grew.  His views on politics and religion are nearly the polar opposite of mine which is a good growing experience for me.

Jeremy Heilman

Jeremy Heilman runs a site called moviemartyr.com.  I came across him through Rotten Tomatoes.  He seems to share my taste on a great many movies, at least when we've seen the same things.  His reviews are often pretty clinical and intellectual and he seems to largely avoid mainstream American movies and do more reviews of arthouse-type movies.  He has a knack for going against the grain at all the right times.  Even for those who disagree with him, they have to realize the thought that goes into his writing.

A.O. Scott

Scott is a reviewer for the New York Times.  I like his anti-populist bent.  He is not a shill for the film industry.  He has a great appreciation for the slow, existential, European-style movies that I also tend to like.  He also has written some good essays on general topics. 

Movie reviews must find a way to divorce themselves from commercialism and the marketing apparatus and American film culture needs to move beyond its current dimensions.

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