In Praise of Criticism
They may have lower approval ratings than the Vietnam War, but film critics perform an incredibly valuable task for the industry.
By Ben Zhang, Duke University
When creating a snapshot of the American experience, apple pie and football quickly come to mind.
But there may be an even better representative—criticism of movie critics.
Yes, movie critics. To many, they are the egotistical killjoys of cinema, the arbiters of bad taste who only exist to make others suffer. It is hard to get people to agree on anything these days. If you bring up such topics as climate change, healthcare or government spending, you are sure to get dozens of differing opinions.
Mention movie critics, however, and the majority of responses are likely to mirror those you can find all over the internet. “Five reasons why you shouldn’t trust movie critics,” reads one site. “Why Movie Critics are complete Garbage,” says another. You get the idea. Wherever you go, distaste for film critics seems to be pretty much universal. But what could be the underlying cause of such vitriol?
The answer is fairly simple and can be found in listicles such as this one from Business Insider: “50 movies that critics really hate but normal people love.” Lots of people flock to see summer blockbusters stuffed with action and lacking pretty much everything else. They love weepies like “The Notebook” and comedies like “Daddy’s Home.” Such movies may not always be the most thoughtful or the most realistic, but they provide many people with a few hours of entertainment and a temporary escape from the difficulties of life. For some, that’s all they need to be satisfied.
Unfortunately, many critics see films as being more art than entertainment. A lot goes into the making of movies–lighting, camerawork, costume design and more. These aspects of moviemaking can be studied, and good critics do just that. They understand what techniques directors use to manipulate audiences and give their films meaning.
They can point out why a particular movie’s message may be heavy-handed or why another suffers from lazy scriptwriting. But many theatergoers care little about such things, as long as they can have a good time and enjoy themselves. What results is a classic struggle resembling that of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, the city and the country, the highbrow and the lowbrow.
Neither side in the debate can claim to have all the answers. There are times when thoughtful flicks should be seen and times when they ought to be set aside for another day. What should not be up for debate, however, is the necessity of film critics. It isn’t hard to find people these days who wonder if critics serve any useful purpose. The truth is that they do, and in more ways than you may think.
For instance, there is evidence that suggests better-reviewed movies do better at the box office, thus challenging the notion that reviews can’t hurt or help a film. Critics can help influence the results of award shows (and sometimes even hand out awards themselves).
Perhaps more importantly, however, critics can help bring attention to films that normally wouldn’t see the light of day. Sure, people in general may not like indie movies, but such films often tackle important issues in thought-provoking ways on shoestring budgets (2007’s “Juno” comes to mind). And behind every “Juno” is a crew that is fighting for recognition, knowing that its film will always live in the shadow of Hollywood blockbusters but forging on anyway. Shouldn’t these people be rewarded for their hard work if the product they create is good?
So, yes, it isn’t a waste of money to pay people to watch movies all day. Diversity of opinion is almost never a bad thing, and film critics provide it in spades. They certainly don’t deserve to be hated as much as they are. Perhaps those who mock critics need to take a closer look at themselves. If they did, they might realize that they share quite a bit of common ground with their loathsome enemies.
After all, anyone who has ever said a movie was “good” or “bad” fits the definition of a critic, whether they realize it or not. People pass judgment on movies all the time and debate the merits of certain films vigorously with their family and friends. So why, then, are only those who critique films in professional media outlets blamed for having opinions on movies?
Perhaps the biggest hypocrisy of all is that deep down, most people have no real objection to film criticism.
They will whine nonstop if their favorite movie of the summer gets bad reviews. But if a movie they like is received positively? Then, they have no complaints, and they might even parade around the fact that said film is “critically acclaimed.”
The same can be said of the award shows that critics influence. People often trash the Academy Awards for rewarding “undeserving” films. But if their favorite film won an Oscar? Well, they would love the critics for helping the “right” movie win.
Clearly, it isn’t the act of critiquing a film that is the problem. Rather, people only hate it when others dare to have a different opinion than them. Of course, such behavior is selfish and silly. After all, you can always find someone in the world who likes any movie, no matter how poorly conceived it may be. And it certainly isn’t fair to yell at people for doing something you yourself do all the time.
Of course, some disparaging comments made toward movie critics are not completely without merit.
Sure, critics can come across as overly harsh and petty. Yes, they may write lazy reviews or not judge films based on their genre. But in the end, critics are still human beings, and they should be treated as such. They spend hours watching movies to filter out the good from the bad, to be able to tell others what to see and what to avoid. And there are a lot of bad movies, so it’s not that hard to see how some critics became so cynical.
In the end, the job of the critic is a thankless one, so maybe it’s time to give them some credit. After all, even critics we hate give us something to talk about, and every good movie needs a good villain.