Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Where have all the film critics gone?

You may not know this, but it is nearly impossible these days to make a living as a film critic. We can thank crowd-sourcing for this. Go jump on Netflix and take a look at the user reviews. Some of them are reasonably well-informed, but even the highest rated reviews betray a kind of stubborn ignorance, in that they almost never break free of the "I liked it"/"I hated it" foundation of commentary. What is usually missing from lay-criticism is careful evaluation of the actual quality of a film, which should account for what the thing was trying to do, and whether it was successful. The personal response of the viewer/reviewer is a factor, but it is not the end-all.

The current landscape for movie reviews is a bit dismal. Film critics almost always get lumped together, as though they are in some kind of club that meets weekly and decides whether they liked a movie or not. I can't tell you how many times I've heard, "I don't usually agree with what the critics say." What does that even mean? Are you aware that "critics" differ vastly from one another, and that their opinions represent a wide spectrum of valuable analytical thought? You can't disagree with all of them. It's not possible.

It is possible, however, to take note of some kind of critical consensus, if and when it happens. If a whole lot of critics seem really enthused about a particular film, it's probably worth some consideration. If you find yourself in love with a film that most critics seem to hate, it might be time to acknowledge that you have  something of a guilty pleasure. Loving a film doesn't make it good, and hating it doesn't make it bad.

I digress. The point is that film criticism is a dying profession. It's now the hobbyist's world, and the hobbyist doesn't have to be any good, just passionate, and Internet-savvy. But it stands to reason that as the professional critics go, so goes the professional criticism.

Thankfully, we've still got Rotten Tomatoes and MetaCritic. Sure, they house a good number of idiots masquerading as film buffs, but those review aggregators are the last bastion of hope for professional film critics. To get included in the "tomatometer" requires significant accreditation, and so Rotten Tomatoes' scores maintain a certain value.

Unfortunately, that value doesn't seem to affect the box office over-dramatically. Here is a telling snapshot:

Striking, is it not?

Anyway, I was motivated to write this ranting, disorganized post because, despite the thanklessness of it, I can't seem to stop writing movie reviews. And while I try my best to make them meaningful, whether I succeed in that effort is not really my call.

Here's my latest. And it provides a great illustration of that thing I mentioned. I had major problems with Hugo, but it's got a 94% on Rotten Tomatoes. Does that mean that I think all critics are wrong and stupid? Of course not.

Anyway. I'm done.


  1. This is what I would pose:

    All film is subjective. Gerald Peary, who runs Cinematheque loves Habit. I think it's an awful film. He has his reasons, I have mine. Subjectivity is a wonderful thing.

    I still think INCEPTION is terrible. One of the worst films I've seen in a while. I would pose it's even worse than Avatar (which I liked).

    As long as you have a basis and an intelligent argument I'm willing to hear it out. The problem with the sites you mention is that they rely on public feedback (a la IMDB) as well as critics who are not established. Try checking "Top" critics on RT - they usually differ from the majority.

    I though J Edgar was a masterpiece and apparently 60% disagree with me. Subjectivity. You only like it when it's on your side.

    Do you read Armond White?

    Follow some links my friend:

  2. I'd like to clarify my position just a little, in light of these excellent points. Certainly opinions are subjective. What a silly thing to have to re-iterate. No one is RIGHT or WRONG for liking or disliking, loving or hating a movie. It all depends on so much personal experience, and preference, and understanding of the medium, etc etc.

    BUT I will also contend that film criticism ought to concern itself with what a particular film is TRYING to do, and whether or not that film SUCCEEDS. Films can be judged somewhat objectively by this measure. Not totally objectively, but somewhat. A good critic will take into consideration both his or her own preferences, reactions, and so forth, and then work to understand the film on that objective basis. In this way, a critic can make qualitative statements about the film, though they may stand separate from his or her own personal sentiments. There are movies that I love, which I know are not very good, and there are movies that I really detest, but which I will admit are very well-made, in that they proficiently accomplish what they intended.

    I would add that I am only able to draw those kinds of distinctions because I've made the study of film, as an art, a mode of entertainment, and a business, very much a part of my life for the past five years. I've learned how to make reasonably well-informed judgements. Those judgements are absolutely not the last word, but they're worth just slightly more than my reactionary opinion.

  3. Also: Armond White is both an exceptionally intelligent (and qualified) critic, and something of a troll. He loves disagreeing with popular opinion possibly more than he loves movies.

  4. Since, as you know, I was once one of those who'd say "I don't generally agree with the critics," could you explain to me what the insignias above mean? What do the percentages mean, as well as the tomato as opposed to the green squiggly thing? Can't hurt to get an ignorant question--it might embolden more and then we all learn something! :-)

  5. Good question. The tomatometer is a review aggregate, which takes the average of most or all legitimate reviews, based on a pass/fail model. Any film which scores below a 60% is deemed "rotten," and received the rotten tomato icon. Scores above that mark are rated "fresh," accompanied by the icon of fresh red tomato.


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