Point Of View

Why Do Film Critics Exist?

Illustration by Samantha Swan

I remember as a kid seeing great movies like Star Wars, Jaws, Taxi Driver, Dog Day Afternoon, Midnight Cowboy, A Clockwork Orange and others for the very first time. When the curtain came up I was left feeling stunned, energizied, exhausted, worked over, elated, and full of questions. I only vaguely remember the conversations I had with my peers at the time about these masterpieces that still give me similar thrills even today. “How cool was it when Han Solo came flying out of the sun during the Death Star battle?” and “That was totally amazing!” And then we would act out the scenes and kill each other with imaginary light sabres. That was not film criticism. It was sheer inarticulate enthusiasm that teetered on masturbation. Great fun, though.

I was lucky enough to meet a person who loves movies maybe even more than I do, and who introduced me to the pleasures of advanced film appreciation. She knew how to read a film, how to examine the many techniques a movie uses to get it’s intended meaning across to the audience. We would stay up all night after a movie, high on caffeine and cinema, excitedly discussing the finer points of an actor’s performance, or the musical score, or the editing. Occasionally someone will express irritation at how involved our conversation becomes, as if we were purposely being annoying twits. If you have a passion for something, it becomes a very important part of how you experience the world and make sense out of life, so, you know, get out of my face.

Eventually we started making movies together, and the conversations became even more absorbing and enjoyable. The experience of taking a project from conception through script, shoot, edit and exhibition sharpened our appreciation of the art and craft of filmmaking immeasurably. I’m always looking to have a deep conversation about a worthy movie, but they can be hard to come by. In fact, it’s kind of stunning to read many of the current professional film critics and find their work so lacking in worthwhile content. As a source of masochistic pleasure, I will sometimes browse the unending torrent of opinions from the general public that are everywhere. Everyone with a computer or a smartphone now has an opinion, and a way to share it with the world. Let me see if I can find an example of the kind of moronic, indefensible opinion that makes my blood pressure go through – oh we’re in luck, here’s one:

“I mean, seriously. What is it with this movie? I’ve seen it twice, read stuff about it, got a lecture on it, and I still can’t see how anybody could call this movie a masterpiece. So Scorsese shows us a shot of an empty hall while DeNiro is talking on the phone. So what?” – some primate on imdb.com writing about Taxi Driver.

Then again, at least the guy mentions a particular shot, as opposed to just saying he thought the movie was stupid.

These days, if the opinion of the majority matters more to your decision on which movie to watch than your own taste or a sense of adventure, there is no shortage of sites like imdb that can tell you that the anonymous mob declares Forrest Gump a better movie than Goodfellas, and The Shawshank Redemption greater than any other movie ever made. Opinions, opinions, opinions. We’re drowning in them. Thank goodness we still have professional movie critics to provide stimulating analysis of the techniques of filmmaking. Except we don’t, so much.

Most film critics/reviewers today would more properly be called film summarists. They spend most of the review describing the plot and characters, then try to squeeze in a couple of witticisms, either bitchy or cute, depending on their mood. This is a useless exercise. There is no difference between this and the infinite river of compulsive commentary spewing out of every pore of the internet. It gives you nothing of substance to think about.

There are a few critics worth reading out there. Andrew O’Hehir is frequently hilarious and is excellent at writing about the subtextual meanings of films. A famous example of how far O’Hehir can take a train of thought is his review of the 2010 movie Secretariat.

A critic who does a great job at touching upon the many facets of film literacy in his reviews is Matt Zoller Seitz, who is currently the Editor-In-Chief at RogerEbert.com. To read one of his reviews is to gain a new appreciation for how many elements there are to savour in a good film. In fact, he has written a terrific essay on this very topic titled Please, Critics, Write About The Filmmaking.


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