Friday, April 2, 2010

Everyone's a Critic

On March 24th, At the Movies was officially canceled. The show had gone through a long, tumultuous history with multiple hosts. Originally born as Siskel and Ebert at the Movies in 1986, the popular program helped bring the "thumbs up/thumbs down" model into popular discourse, and was generally considered one of the more reliable pieces of film criticism out there. However, with the death of Gene Siskel in 1999, followed by Roger Ebert's debilitating jaw surgery, the show could not survive the rapidly changing set of hosts, as well as a television environment not necessarily conducive to weekly syndicated shows. As such, one of the most well-known American critical institutions is at an end.

Film critics have begun complaining that this is another misfortune in the long line of disasters befalling their profession. Of course they have. They are critics, after all, and their defense of their own profession ("Criticism is necessary") is similar to many such professional upheavals these days. After all, we have journalists defending journalism, teachers defending teaching, even multi-millionaire bankers defending banks too big to fail.

But is film criticism a cultural necessity in our hyper-Democratic Internet age? Are the film critics merely trying to prevent their own boat from sinking? Or are they correct, and in fact necessary for the continuance of quality art in American cinema?

First of all, I'm not simply talking about film reviews, which will probably exist at least as long as people continue to leave comments on YouTube. The insidious fanboy wars that have infected the Internet are certainly opinions, but I don't think any of these people could be considered critics in the classic sense. By a critic, I mean a professional arbiter of taste, one who has educated his or herself as to the history of the genre, and understands the past movements of the artform that have led to the present manifestation of film in all its different guises. This is not just a nerd who could handle your average Star Wars vs. Star Trek debate - a film critic is someone who appreciates cinema as an artistic institution as well as a commercial one.

A snob, in short. But we don't want film critics to be defined as dry scholarly historians or detached observers (though, unfortunately, more than a few of them are). They also need to enjoy simply going to the movies. The epitome of this might be Roger Ebert - say what you will about the man's tastes, but there's no doubt that he enjoys a popcorn flick just as much as an arthouse movie. Ebert judges pretentious art movies on their own terms, but judges comic book movies on comic book movie terms, which I think makes him an ideal critic.

But why do these critics exist? Nominally, to help us figure out what movies to go see. Going to the movies, after all, is not an inexpensive ordeal. With plenty of 3-D blockbusters selling tickets at over 15 bucks a piece, that's 60 dollars to take a family of four to the cinema, even before you hit up the snack bar. Critics are supposed to guide public opinion, and help us decide what movies are worth our time and money.

The problem is, I don't know if critics fulfill that role anymore. How many people read reviews before deciding to go see a movie? Quite a few recent critically-panned movies have gone on to perform exceedingly well at the box office, indicating that perhaps critical opinion is not the force that it used to be. Rather, word-of-mouth and good old-fashioned marketing still seem to rule the day.

And I'll admit that, even though I like to think of myself as a smart, educated consumer, I tend to rely on the opinions of my friends more than anything else. (Although I don't know why I do this...just the editors of this blog, for example, have convinced me to see She's the Man, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and the French version of Revenge of the Sith without subtitles).

Meanwhile, the Internet is rife with the half-criticism, half fanboy promotion of the Ain't It Cool News variety. Individual critics are derided as pretentious and removed from the expectations of the common moviegoer (just look at the backlash when Roger Ebert dared to give Transformers 2 a bad rating). Anytime a critic dares to disagree with the Internet hivemind, the Internet turns on him or her. Aggregators like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic are given more weight than actual reviews.

The hell of it is that these critical aggregation sites reduce film criticism to a number. But criticism is not quantitative, and merely reciting that The Hurt Locker got a 97% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes says nothing about why one should go see the movie, nothing about its merits or its faults. Real criticism can't be summed up by some sort of arbitrary formula - real criticism not only discusses the movie, but the movie's place in culture today, touching on what makes it relevant. Real criticism tackles what the movie was trying to achieve and whether or not it succeeded at those goals. We've been preconditioned to look at the number of stars a critic assigns a movie, but that's the least important part of a review. A movie with a poor numerical rating might still be worth seeing, if only to appreciate a noble failure. A movie with a high rating might end up being boring - exactly what you thought it would be. The number doesn't really tell you anything.

Everyone remembers the infamous "thumbs up/thumbs down" dichotomy from Siskel and Ebert, but no one seems to remember that the pair also talked, even deigned to argue about the movies they liked and disliked. And this is what I think the true role of (any) criticism is - creating discourse. To think that critics can somehow shape the economic landscape of consumerism is absurd. But critics can write and speak about things, bringing an interesting and informed perspective, that allow people to continue to talk.

For example, I'm a big fan of reading critical reviews of movies that I've already seen. It helps me reflect on what, exactly, I liked or disliked about a certain film. Judging whether or not you like a work of art is easy. It's a lot harder to articulate why you felt a certain way about a work of art, and a lot of people get by without ever doing this. But reading criticism forces one to do this, to confront one's own opinions - and I don't think self-reflection is ever a bad thing. Figuring out what sort of art we like tells us a lot about ourselves, and reading criticism is the first step toward discovering this.

The critics will try and convince you that they are some sort of pure academic judge - the only thing standing between you, the consumer, and unabated marketing ploys and sinister studio releases of bad films. Don't believe them. Go to movies based on your gut and your friends' recommendations with similar tastes. But don't completely discount the critics, either. Even if their reviews are meaningless in terms of who goes to see what movie, I think that we, as a culture, would be a lot worse off without this sort of dialogue happening.