The Critic Problem

Russell Michaels

Russell Michaels

Russell is inside his own mind, a comfortable yet silly place. He is also on Twitter.

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14 Responses

  1. Avatar Jaybird
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    says:

    Back in 1995? 1996? I was still in college and working at the restaurant and we had a tip jar that we split at the end of the day. A good day would have you walk out of there with $20 in your pocket (and those were Clinton dollars!).

    Movies cost about $4 for an adult at that point in time and while I had evening classes on Tuesday and Thursday, I didn’t on Wednesday. So I usually went to the theater one Wednesday night and caught a movie at the multiplex.

    And… yeah. Once you start seeing a lot of movies, you start seeing that there aren’t really that many formulae that the movie people use to make their films. Oh, this is a murder mystery. Oh, this is a revenge movie. Oh, this is a courtroom drama.

    When you see something like Twister, you know exactly what’s going to happen. Oh, the corporate-sponsored tornado chasers are evil because they are sponsored. They drive black trucks. They were born to be a chalk outline.

    When you see something like Dead Man, you’ve got no idea what’s going to happen. Well, you can probably guess that the man character is going to die. But, other than that, you don’t know what’s going to happen along the way.

    And too many movie critics will gush over something like Dead Man because it’s like nothing they’ve seen (recently) while Twister is, more or less, every single big-budget action movie from the 10 years previous. Just with a tornado this time.

    And so if you’ve got somebody who sees two, maybe three, movies a year in the theater, they’re going to want to see Twister. And someone who tells them to see Dead Man will be someone who they’ll know not to listen to in the future. (“It was in black and white? Did you know it was in black and white when you told me to see it?!?!?”)

    I’ve never watched Jeremy Jahns before. I didn’t know where to start so I started with his take on Hail, Caesar! (which I loved) and… well, he wasn’t crazy about it.

    And I was going to make a joke about “back to Red Letter Media” but they didn’t even see it.Report

  2. Avatar Gabriel Conroy
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    says:

    I actually like reading/watching film critics, especially if they’re discussing movie I’ve seen. It’s not so much that I want to see if they liked a given film or not. Rather, I like the process of discussion, in a similar way that I like reading commentary on books I’ve read. I read Dubliners for the first time in college, and I was so taken by it that I not only reread it (some stories more than others) many, many times, but I started reading others’ critiques of it.

    I get what you’re saying, though. Sometimes “criticism” can be too nitpicky. Maybe that’s even most of the time, but if we sort out the nitpicks, I often find kernals of enjoyment that the critic is discussing something I’m familiar with. I feel like I’m part of a conversation about something I actually know, about something (the fact we’ve both seen the film) I share in common with this other person.Report

  3. Avatar Oscar Gordon
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    says:

    Perfect becomes the enemy of the good, just like Libertarians.

    HEeEeeey…

    Just because it’s true doesn’t mean ya have ta rub it in…Report

  4. Avatar rexknobus
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    says:

    As a “gotta watcha lotta” film guy, I find it helpful (for me) to differentiate between a film reviewer and a film critic. It isn’t necessarily that easy to make the distinction, so you would have to draw the line in your own way, but here’s a quickly made-up sample for me:

    Reviewer: “John Wick has great gun-fu. If you like smooth, exciting action, give this one a shot, ha ha.”

    Critic: “Watching the almost balletic moves in the John Wick action scenes reminded me of some of the finer moments in.a Fred Astaire dance sequence. It’s not just the choreography, but also the grace of both man and camera…” etc.

    Cable channel people are reviewers; Pauline Kael was a critic; Siskel and Ebert were somewhere in between (doing review work on TV and critical work in print). (My god, did that sentence date me or what? Hit the Google for all those folks, kids.) Maybe it comes down to a reviewer tries to let you know if you want to buy a ticket. A critic discusses the film in the context of, well, context. History, etc. Both provide a service.Report

    • Avatar Gabriel Conroy in reply to rexknobus
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      says:

      I like your distinction, and I think I like the in between people, like Siskel and Ebert, but I’d have preferred them maybe a bit more in the weeds and not limited to the five-minute discussions. (I alas didn’t read a lot of Siskel’s print work, though I occasionally go to Roger Ebert dot com to read his reviews of movies I saw years ago, or old’ish movies I just saw.)

      For me, my tolerance for the critic-type you mention (“…the almost balletic moves in the…”) is very low. You’re right, though, that that type of criticism provides a service and while I won’t consumer a lot of it, I don’t begrudge others dong so. What I also personally don’t like are movies that seem made for those critics without speaking to an audience that includes me. That’s purely a preference on my part and not a value judgment, but it’s a true preference.Report

      • Avatar CJColucci in reply to Gabriel Conroy
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        says:

        How refreshing that someone distinguishes between a preference and a value judgment. The internet, and the world, would be a much more serene and quiet place if everyone did.Report

        • Avatar Jaybird in reply to CJColucci
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          says:

          I saw a lovely “political compass” that had as its axes:

          Good/Bad as in Quality
          Good/Bad as in “I liked it”

          I have a bunch of movies that I like a lot but wouldn’t want to defend to a “serious” critic. I also have seen a bunch of movies that are critically praised but my response to them was a hearty “meh”.

          And, on top of that, there are a lot of little tricks that you can use to make the one sound like the other but, when you peel away the adjectives and flowery language, you see that the “critic” is really complaining that Die Hard didn’t have any musical numbers (or similar).

          There is a lot of grey area and no real clear delineation between “matters of taste” and “matters of aesthetics”… but too many people take the fact that there’s no clear delineation as evidence that aesthetics do not exist.Report

    • Avatar Stillwater in reply to rexknobus
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      says:

      Siskel and Ebert were somewhere in between

      Some of my favorite memories of watching those guys involved Ebert saying Movie M is a fun romp through X, Y and Z, followed by Siskel saying “as much as I’d like to back Roger’s view of the movie, I can’t: the lighting in the final scene was unsuited to the genre and the editing was slightly too choppy.” Man, I miss those guys.Report

  5. Avatar Kristin Devine
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    says:

    Dude, I love this, and have a complementary piece in the pipe about the purpose of critics and how we’ve gotten away from what is actually a necessary service. Thanks for writing it!Report

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