The Uncrossable Divide Between Critic and Audience

It’s true that the only thing outpacing articles about the death of film criticism these days are articles about the articles about the death of film criticism. In fact, we’ve now reached the third stage of meta-commentary: articles about the articles about the articles about the death of film criticism. I suppose this counts for the latter, which is fitting. I had something to say in the first wave, too.

That’s to be expected. Critics are by their nature prone to analysis and exposition, and if they’ve got the pulpit, by God, why not use it? (Again, here I am doing that same thing.) What’s odd in all this discussion about the relationship between critics and audience—whether there is one, for instance, and what its general health might be—is that no one is bringing up the very real differences between critics and their perceived charges. I don’t claim to be an expert on film criticism—I think the high watermark of my career might be called “semi-professional”—but I’ve been writing about movies for twelve years and I’ve been reading other critics for a lot longer.

Without further ado:

The Blockbuster Conundrum

There’s general agreement that a certain level of movie is “critic-proof,” that is, the hype is so great that no level of bad reviews will sink it, and so critics need not even apply. There’s some truth to this; plenty of crap makes its nut back no matter what anyone says about it.

Some studios and distributors have taken the “critic-proof” designation as a badge of honor, or as justification for not screening an ever-increasing number of movies in advance. Why bother letting critics get a word in edge-wise? The belief is that the bad buzz about not having a screening is not as bad as the potential drubbing a film might get on Friday morning.

They’re dead wrong and that kind of behavior just reinforces the notion that there is no such thing as a critic-proof movie, but hey, that’s studio logic for you.

But it’s true that some movies are just going to make a ton of money no matter what anyone says. It’s also true that critics, ideally, do not care; as must so often be pointed out, the critic is not in the business of echoing the general public’s opinion of a blockbuster. The critic is only in the business of telling you what they thought about a movie.

Critics, Not Entertainment Journalists

“Entertainment journalism” is and always will be a dirty business, but these days it seems particularly fascinated with reporting box office predictions and returns, per-screen averages and demographic trends as if anyone but studios, stakeholders and theater owners should give a damn.

Used to be, when a studio wanted to brag about their hot new movie’s three-day pull or arbitrary box office record, it’d take a full page ad out in Variety; nowadays every major newspaper in the country breathlessly reports that information for them, free of charge. Why? Because that crap’s easy; it’s just math and PR spin. The dots are easy to connect, and that can be a merciful thing for a writer on deadline. But it’s not criticism, and too many people are conflating the two.

The second draw of entertainment journalism, gossip, is equally lumped in with criticism and equally invalid. Unless the who’s-fucking-who question directly affects what goes up on the screen, it simply does not matter.

Same with box office. I only care about box office insofar as it allows creators and artists I like to continue doing what they do. That should be the end of it.

It’s Not About Whether You Agree With Them

To mangle a maxim from favorite movie critic and blogger Jim Emerson, whether or not you agree with a critic should be the least important thing about the review. It’s their arguments that should engage you and generate the conversation or debate, and being objectively “right” (and more importantly to the Internet, getting the other person to say that you are) should be irrelevant.

Way, way too often I have seen people (often nerds of the comic book/sci-fi fan variety) take personal offense when I express distaste (or, worse, indifference) to a movie they love; to them, my not liking their treasure is some kind of personal affront, as if my divergent reaction challenges their grip on the world. Often they assume I just didn’t get it or that there is something objectively wrong with me that they can fix with an endless barrage of opinions presented as objective fact.

They are wrong. I assure you, friends: no matter what political discourse tells you, it is possible for two intelligent people to agree to disagree and still be respectful to one another. In fact, it makes life way more fun and challenging. Enjoy the unique perspective and witty writing; the “consumer’s guide” aspect of criticism is just one part of a greater whole.

The Monotony Of It All

Your average movie-goer may go to the theater only once a month or, given ticket prices, less. So when they take a trip to the movie theater it’s more of an “event,” and the escapism of the thing counts as enough of a novelty to make even a mediocre movie into an enjoyable experience.

A critic lives a different life. It’s likely that they run movies on a constant stream at home, and professional critics may see anywhere from one to five screenings a week. This is or can be—prepare your tiniest violin—deadly dull work, and believe me when I say it is work. That fun action/rom-com movie you caught this summer may be your first excursion into that genre, but it was the critic’s third one this month. Do you see why they might be a little harsher than you toward that “harmless” bit of fluff?

This isn’t a call for pity, by the way. Writing about movies is rad. But seeing movies as often as critics do makes plain how very repetitive, formulaic, and safe the majority of them are. You can only take so much of that before you lash out… because it’s easy to forget that every movie, even the most brain-dead example of its genre, is someone’s first time . To you it’s old hat. To them it’s a revelation. I sometimes suspect this is the greatest disconnect between critics and general audiences.

The Love of the Exotic

In escaping the banal, critics often embrace the strange. Sometimes, I love a movie just because it tried something different. A lot of critics do this. I may blow my love for something a little out of proportion (hello Speed Racer), but by God those people were trying. When 75% of the stuff I watch has been beaten into shapelessness by the Formula Hammer, novelty—or any sign of a creative pulse at all—can go a long way.

This is basically my explanation for liking Silent Hill, by the way. I get that, objectively speaking, it’s not terribly well made. But it’s just so damned weird that I can’t help but admire it. “I can’t believe a movie like that got made” is a phrase I often use with a dose of admiration. For this reason, a genuinely awful movie experience is often preferable to yet another dull, uninspiring one.

Not That We Don’t Miss the Mark
Then again, seeing an endless barrage of template-stamped formula can numb even the savviest critic’s brain to something new and wonderful. When you see a lot of same-old-same-old, the tendency to pigeonhole everything that plays in front of you becomes overwhelming and, most insidiously of all, invisible.

So when some exotic new blend of a movie plays and proves itself hard to categorize, it’s too easy to label it a misfire or a half-baked stab at one of the genres or styles it sort of resembles. This happens in every genre of criticism; the annals of history are replete with short-sighted derisions of everything from Star Wars to the Beatles’ White Album.

“Turn Your Brain Off”
I have been told many times that I would have enjoyed a movie if I just “turned my brain off.” To be blunt, this drives me bonkers for a number of reasons, but I’ll try to stick to the top two.

The first point should be self-evident: as a critic I can’t “turn my brain off”; the job would not exist if I did. Unlike the general audience, I cannot forget everything I saw the second the lights come up. And unlike the general audience, I cannot simply let a movie pass in front of my eyes without trying to engage it on an intellectual level. I must chew on this meal, no matter how meager, and then turn around and produce a coherent argument about its merits or lack thereof. If a movie has nothing to offer on an intellectual level, well… that ain’t my fault.

Second, it’s pretty damn insulting to be told I should enjoy something because it’s in front of me and is not actively terrible. It’s also infuriating that people let themselves be talked down to like this by moviemakers, and in fact will defend a studio’s right to do so. Entertainment doesn’t have to be empty calories, nor does it have to be Lars Von Trier; I contend that a movie can be both entertaining and worthwhile. We all have limited time on this Earth, and it completely baffles me that we’d ever settle for less.

We Don’t Enjoy Hating On Stuff…

As explained above, it can be kind of a drag to watch a few relentlessly mediocre and interchangeable movies a week, knowing that you’re going to have to write a review about them that isn’t just the word “Eh” copied-and-pasted 700 times. It can be a hell of a lot worse with a genuinely terrible movie, and if the assignment didn’t exist, don’t you think I’d rather just have my two hours back?

I have lashed out, sure. I trashed Across the Universe and hated on Transformers 2 quite a bit, but those were purgative experiences; the only defense I have against those genuinely awful movies was to fire back with both barrels. But I did not enjoy watching those movies, and I did not enjoy shitting on them. The only pleasure I can take from the experience is that, at least in my opinion, I articulated my position well.

…Except When We Do
Witness the dog pile on Sex and the City 2. What can I say; there are members of the profession who like a good blood sport as much as anyone else. Personally I find them embarrassing.

And finally, to my peers and heroes,

Critics Care Way More About Armond White Than You Do
It’s just a thing. Sorry.

So Do We “Need” Critics?
A lot of critics, facing what looks like professional extinction, certainly think so. But do I think we need them?

As I said in my earlier article, “need” is a strong word. If there’s a “need” here, it’s for a critic to do what he does; I know that I will continue to write about movies no matter how obscure my audience, because I simply cannot not write about movies. It’s a compulsion, and I’m glad I’ve got just enough skill to get it out of my head in a (hopefully) productive fashion.

So no, I don’t think we “need” critics.

But I do think critics help us. At their best, critics ask an audience to take a greater appreciation for what they spend their time with, which in turn makes those experiences more enriching and worthwhile. They can point you to new things you might have otherwise missed, or help you greater appreciate something you already saw and enjoyed.

You may agree with a critic or not, but if they get you to think about your opinion—rather than just calcify it—then they’ve done their job. Critics, at their most basic and best, will for a moment get you to feel what he or she felt when taking in a cultural experience shared by many. Empathy, in other words. And that’s never not a good thing.

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5 thoughts on “The Uncrossable Divide Between Critic and Audience”

  1. Excellent piece, Ken. As you point out, I just love it when some wag decides I “just don’t get it” when I disagree that some piece of entertainment or other is the bee’s knees. When I was hating on LOST around Season 3, a local (and fairly well-known/well-respected) comic book writer decided I just wasn’t “paying enough attention” to really “get it.” (Funny how many people agree with me now the show’s over.) This same guy once posted a comment on Pop Syndicate in a review (not written by me) that the reviewer must not have “been in the right mood” when he saw a particular film and gave it lukewarm write-up.

    Disagree with me all you want, but don’t tell me I’m an imbecile because I don’t see it your way. But hey — that’s the internet in a nutshell.

  2. I think I know which writer you’re talking about, and I believe that movie review comment section he wrote in was mine… for CHILDREN OF MEN. I get this a lot with friends who love Joss Whedon. Some of them still insist I haven’t seen the right things or haven’t take it in the right way or I’m just being a snob or something, but after taking in about four seasons of his shows, all his movies and most of his comics, I think I can safely say I both “get it” and “don’t care for it.” And life can still go on.

  3. Oh wow, you’re right… I totally forgot it was you that wrote that review. So yes, we know of whom we speak. I was completely bemused by his comments at the time.

    Me, I like most of Whedon’s stuff, but I can see where people don’t. And hey — nobody seems to understand why Aptow and Seth Rogan do absolutely nothing for me, so I can sympathize.

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