Leaving Yourself on the Page

What Criticism Should Be

Preemptive strike: Mayor Ebert in 'Godzilla'Movie studios have been struck with the brilliant realization that predictably bad reviews for self-evident shit such as The Benchwarmers can be silenced by not showing the movie to critics!

Here’s another blinding insight: Movies that aren’t released at all never get bad reviews! (Sorry. Wishful thinking on my part.)

The 2006 trend of studios withholding movies from the media has led to some debate about the role of movie reviewers in the world. Some have pronounced that film critics are becoming irrelevant:

“Like other professional arbiters of taste, movie reviewers just don’t matter quite as much as they used to. Once upon a time, they were the point of origin for popular opinion. In an age of ratings Web sites and consumer-generated content, they are just one voice of many. Maybe a particularly authoritative voice, but no longer the popes they used to be.”

Soon we’ll be seeing the Eberts of the world, like George Romero zombies, pawing the locked doors of movie theaters, led there by habit but unable to fulfill their constitutional need to scribble in the darkness.

But the reviewers-are-dead argument is obviously fallacious. If film critics didn’t matter, there would be no harm at all in showing them bad movies that they’d rip to shreds; the deaf, dumb, and blind public would still go see the fuckers.

It is true that movie (and music and book) critics play a smaller utilitarian role given the democratization of popular culture that the Web has brought. People have more sources of judgments these days, so they’re less likely to rely on the movie critic their daily paper publishes to drive what movie they go to see this weekend.

Yet it doesn’t follow that critics are therefore less important. On the contrary, this trend could actually clarify the role of critics and lead to more enlightened writing and discussion about movies. If it’s no longer important whether a critic likes or dislikes a film, the writer is therefore stripped of the need to assign those meaningless stars, and consequently freed from the compulsion to spend the bulk of the review justifying that rating. The writer would spend less energy reviewing — pause to think about the meaning of that word — and more thinking, analyzing, and synthesizing. The result would be commentary on film that is more thoughtful, more provocative, more fun, more personal, and more meaningful.

Zach Campbell at Elusive Lucidity recently wrote about why we write about certain movies and not others. In doing so, he touched on what makes criticism sparkle and engage:

“[W]hat moves us toward commentary in films (or any art) is that ultimately we have a firmer understanding of our relationship to them than we do with films for which we have little, or only functional or conventional, understandings. What I mean by this is that there are films, for all of us, which (for great films: whether they touch us too profoundly or which we admire too coolly) we can write a little about, but find that we may either come up short, or that we write about with a certain anonymity. We point to this thing, that thing, quite visible in the film to anyone else, and we can perhaps ‘explain,’ a little, about why the film is great (or not great), or why it’s formal/thematic integrity exists, how it’s put together ... but because we’re too overwhelmed or underwhelmed, or for some other reason perhaps, we leave nothing of ourselves on the page (or the screen).”

He continues with a good analogy:

“Criticism (very broadly defined) is perhaps like cooking, where great dishes require two things, two ingredients: the artwork and the spectator-writer. Competent analysis of a film which does not inspire, which does not necessitate, analysis in the writer is a bit like a restaurant offering a plate of a raw fruit or vegetable — potentially delicious, but not real cooking, merely evidence of good taste.”

Campbell is articulating, more passionately and eloquently, something I strove for in the introduction to this site:

“Criticism is, before anything else, a personal reaction to a work, and good critical writing will reveal as much about the author as it does about the works discussed. I try to focus on aspects of a work that interest me and haven’t been addressed by other writers.”

Campbell makes the excellent case for criticism as the expression of a relationship between the artwork and the spectator. And because the old model (or power dynamic) of the critic standing in judgment of the movie is crumbling, that relationship hopefully will be able to flourish.

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