Critics: Who needs 'em?

In a culture increasingly driven by hype, you do.

By Charles Taylor
Published August 18, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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A couple of years back, while I was working at an office job, a co-worker who knew I wrote about movies asked me what I thought of "Twelve Monkeys." I told him that I was surprised at how much I liked it since it was based on one of my favorite movies. "Which one?" he asked. "La jetie," I answered. He gave me a look and said, "Oh, yeah, that," and walked away. The demon brand was upon me. I was now a weirdo, a film geek. The incident confirmed something I'd suspected for a long time: Movie criticism is the only job in which expertise is held against you.

"If I'm sick, I don't ask a plumber for advice," says the hero of Neal Stephenson's novel "Cryptonomicon" as he dares to tell an academic that perhaps some background in technology makes one better qualified to have an opinion on technical matters. But the background that good film critics bring to their jobs -- a thorough knowledge of movie history (including the experience of having seen many different types of movies from many different eras), an ability to place movies in a social context and some instinct for how that context affects what we see and how we see it -- is often the very thing that readers (and sometimes even their own editors) cite as proof that critics are snobbish, out of touch or impossible to please. No one would hire anybody without any knowledge of dance or classical music to write about those subjects. But that's often the case with movie critics, who all too often have been plucked from another section of their newspaper.


The reasons are easy to understand. When we were kids, movies were often a relief from the approved culture our teachers or parents told us we were supposed to be enjoying. And they are so big and strike us so viscerally and so immediately that we tend to think we don't need anyone to tell us how we feel about them. That's the reality behind the joke about how everybody has two jobs, a regular one and movie critic.

We don't need critics to tell us how we feel, or how to feel. But bouncing your own reactions off of a critic's can sometimes help you explain why you feel the way you do about movies. Critics have long been the only independent voice standing between moviegoers and the millions of dollars (today, hundreds of millions) studios use to promote movies. Like any advertisers out to push their product, studio publicists campaign to control public perception; that's one of the reasons for the current emphasis on the business side of movies, the blurring of the line between journalism and publicity. Movie journalism has become more and more dictated by hype.

It's essential to keep a sense of excitement about movies, a willingness to surrender to them and even to be overwhelmed. But many people seem to think that the natural maturating of taste is proof of a loss of innocence, of corruption and jadedness. A few weeks ago a colleague of mine at a daily paper told me he was stopped by a staffer who said, "You hated 'The Haunting'? Well, my 11-year-old daughter saw it and said it was one of the best movies she ever saw!"


There's always been an element of insecurity in the way people bridle at the opinions of critics. I don't know any critic who hasn't gotten letters like the ones I received in response to my review of "The Sixth Sense": "Maybe if you take a second to enjoy life you will be a little more positive with your thoughts." Or "When you begin to review a film from your experience of it rather than your thoughts about it, perhaps you will have something useful to say." How is it possible, I wonder, to separate our thoughts from our experience, unless you regard thought and emotion as mutually exclusive? This last reader also says, "Why is it that reviewers must wax and wane from the technical views of cinematic history and parade their knowledge of cinematic works before the public as a 'proof document' of their authenticity? Most of us don't give a rat's ass about the academic view of a film or a stage work. We are moved or not moved by a given film. Like all art, we either 'like it or not.'"

Well, so do critics. But my job doesn't end with saying I liked it or not. I have to explore my responses and tie them to scenes from the film, and inevitably that entails recalling other movies that may have done the same thing better. It wouldn't make me a better critic to pretend I know less than I do. Critics who don't fall for big hits are often told that they've seen too much. But if you've seen what movies can be, why settle for less? And by the same token, if you've had a good time at a movie, why be dishonest about it, even if it isn't the highest art?

The flip side of "You can't enjoy anything" is "How could you enjoy that?" Last summer, when I wrote a piece saying I had more fun at "Dance With Me" and "How Stella Got Her Groove Back" than I did at some highly praised indie pictures and box-office hits, I got letters telling me that it was my duty as a critic to uphold high standards. I've gotten the same reaction this year when I've told people that I loved "American Pie" (one of the smartest American comedies about sex in a long time) or that I had a good time at "Lake Placid." When I praised Bruce Willis in my review of "The Sixth Sense," one wit wrote in to advise me against changing crack dealers on the same night I have to review a movie. He doesn't explain why liking Bruce Willis lessens my credibility.


We've all had the experience of reading critics who, like some know-it-all at a party, use their knowledge to browbeat people into accepting their opinion and try to make people feel like idiots for disagreeing with them. Even good critics can strike out in that way when they're frustrated by having to explain the cheap manipulations that to them seem obvious. But too often critics who express their opinions forcefully are accused of being snobbish and superior. Movies feel so close to us that many people take it as a personal insult when a critic disagrees with them, and they respond insultingly. There's a perception of critics as handing down their opinions from on high. Reading those opinions makes people feel helpless, desperate to add their voice to the debate. Paradoxically, the Internet, which offers readers far greater access to writers, provides a way for people to vent that frustration, often without thinking things through first. I've never been threatened with leg-breaking or dismemberment, as colleagues of mine have. But I'm young yet. The e-mails I got after "The Sixth Sense" piece ran called me a snob, a moron, a joke, an egghead, a "fuckin' idiot," a "soulless and mean-spirited man." One reader wrote, "Quite frankly, you are a complete tool with some thing long and sharp stuck up your arse." Marginally wittier was the reader who, after my "Eyes Wide Shut" review, observed, "You write like a turd sweating out a tight asshole." (Since I've never looked, I'll take his word for it.) "YOUR REVIEW SUCKS," someone else wrote, more succinctly, and of course I also got the ever popular "Fuck you!"

Career advice is always a ripe area for discussion. "The Sixth Sense" review prompted one reader, after telling me he'd been a "movie buff" for more than 60 years, to "strongly suggest you try a different occupation. You are so far out of the mainstream that I see no help for you." Another wrote, "I realize now why you are a freelance writer and cannot get a job with a real publication. Freelance stands for 'I suck at writing and can't get a job doing it, so I just try to make myself sound like I'm looking for the next opportunity.'" (Actually, I'm on contract at Salon.)


And inevitably there are the people convinced that every critic is a failed film director: "Before considering your review of 'The Sixth Sense' I would like to see your CV including the list of films you have written, directed, and been a major actor in. Or, are you just another wannabe like most critics?" People who make this argument never stop to consider that if filmmakers are the only ones capable of judging movies, then their opinion is as worthless as they claim the opinions of critics are. And it's always odd to have your knowledge of film history and the way the business of movies affects what we actually see resented on the one hand and discounted on the other because it isn't actual filmmaking experience. I've never wanted to be a filmmaker -- I'm a writer, and writing is what I love. (Or having written something -- like most writers I know, when it comes time to write I'd rather do anything else.) And if you're going to dismiss the critics who never worked in the fields they wrote about, then Ruskin, Shaw and Hazlitt are just some of the names that get tossed out with the bathwater.

Actually, I prefer the fuck-yous and the accusations of sourness and jealousy and the inability to feel to the e-mails that analyze my hidden motives. Sometimes when I go through reader mail, I think the two jobs everybody has are the regular one and psychoanalyst. "The Sixth Sense" prompted one reader to write, "If this movie didn't move you then you either haven't lost a really close family member or are just too young to understand." (What should I do -- trot out a list of my dead loved ones to defend myself?) Failing to respond to movies on worthy topics -- as I did in my pan of "Beloved" -- provides a field day for the shrink squad. "I am not saying that everyone who does not like the movie hates black people," one Table Talk participant wrote. Then, unable to resist, she said it anyway: "Anyone who finds the 'racial message' of 'Beloved' oppressive ought to think carefully about their own relationships to people of other races."

The most common complaint lodged against any critic who pans a movie is lack of objectivity. Last fall, when I reviewed "Beloved," I was upfront about saying that I thought Toni Morrison is a lousy writer and that I thought Jonathan Demme's recent films showed none of the virtues of his earlier work. A recurrent strain in the Table Talk discussion of the review was that I was therefore unable to judge the movie fairly. One poster even said that, like a judge, I should have "recused" myself from reviewing it. The comparison is revealing because it's so utterly wrongheaded. A judge's job is to be impartial; who goes to movies impartially? You choose certain pictures (and stay away from others) because you're interested in the story or the stars or the director. It would be dishonest of me to pretend that there aren't filmmakers whose work I expect to like more than that of others. What's necessary is the willingness to be surprised; there's no greater pleasure than seeing an actor or director turn in better work than you expected. I don't go to 200 movies a year hoping they'll be bad.


It's simple to see what's at the root of all this hostility: the inability to accept a contrary view. The most disingenuous letters are the ones that begin with something along the lines of "While I believe everyone is entitled to his opinion ..." Wanna bet? They always get around to questioning your right to a different opinion. Instead of writing, "Apparently we had two completely different responses to this film," people write, "Apparently we saw two different movies." Often, I'm told I should go see the movie again, as if a negative response just has to be a mistake. But the final authority is always the numbers, as in these letters: "The box office and I both say you're wrong" and "Doesn't it make you feel a little strange to know that you are the only one to give a BAD review to this movie?"

The press has to share a good deal of blame for many of the misconceptions about critics. Reporting the top 10 grossing weekend movies has become a staple of Monday news reports and business sections; "The No. 1 Movie in the Country!" is now the blurb with the most weight. People now talk about grosses and projected earnings the way they used to talk about what they wanted to see or what they'd heard was good. There's something very unsettling about walking past a theater showing "Eyes Wide Shut" and hearing, as I did recently, a woman say to her friend, "I hear it dropped 54 percent last weekend!"

The way to get ahead in movie criticism is make people aware of your name, and the way to do that is to get quoted. (That's why it's such a joke when a critic is accused of using bad reviews to make a name for himself. Yeah, at the unemployment office.) And in a culture driven by hype, a critic who takes a negative stand on big pictures risks, if not his or her job, at the very least looking like a crank. With so many publications playing into the hype surrounding movies, and with mergers and acquisitions resulting in many newspapers and television stations owned by the same company releasing movies the critics at those outlets have to review, there's even more pressure on the critic to jump on the bandwagon. Nobody has put the current state of affairs more bluntly than Boston Herald critic James Verniere: "Movie criticism has become a job in which there is simply no incentive to be honest."


So why do we do it? Maybe because the good movies are, as they always have been, good enough to sustain us, and we want to make sure somebody is sticking up for them. Maybe out of sheer cussedness, out of disgust at seeing hype passed off as criticism. Maybe just because we're arrogant enough to think we have something to say. In my case, part of the reason is the encouragement I've gotten from readers. If the immediate access of the Internet allows us all to give in, on occasion, to our worst impulses, it also gives critics access to their audience in a way that print never has. And I have to acknowledge not just the kindness that readers have offered but also the insights and common sense they've shared with me and the hunger for good movies they've showed. Their letters clear away the dross and recall for me the reasons I wanted to be a critic in the first place.

The nastier responses aside, reader mail is actually one of the perks of writing for the Internet. I've had more contact with readers in the few years I've been with Salon than I did in more than a decade at print publications. And often that contact forces me to work harder, as it does when I hear from readers who are frustrated by my response to a movie but genuinely curious about why I feel the way I do. It's great to have readers agree with you, but agreement isn't the only basis for a conversation. It's almost a greater compliment to get letters from readers who don't agree with me but still find value in my responses. One of the letters I treasure most said, "I disagree with your reviews and opinions so often that I've almost come to expect it as a matter of course ... I read your reviews because they are thoughtful and interesting; not because I agree with them or use them as a guide on which film to see." A critic can't ask for more than a reader who realizes that everyone has an opinion, but good criticism rises or falls on the quality of the critic's thought.

Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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