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A Few Things Movie Critics Will Tell You

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by Matt Singer
June 5, 2013 11:12 AM
3 Comments
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"Ratatouille."
"Ratatouille."
I didn't think an article could be both accurate and flat-out wrong. Then I read Charles Passy and Ian Grey's "10 Things Movie Critics Won't Tell You" at MarketWatch

The piece, which is a revision of a similar 2006 article from SmartMoney by Grey, reveals all the supposed dirty secrets of the film critic trade. The article is incredibly frustrating, but I have to admit: it's 100% on-the-money. A film critic would never tell you these things, mostly because they're gross generalizations or completely irrelevant or deeply contradictory or wildly obvious or just plain dumb. There's no conspiracy here, except the one by MarketWatch to milk the maximum possible pageviews from this article by forcing you to click through ten different pages to read it all.

Maybe it's the fact that this list is largely a revision of a seven-year-old piece that makes it feel so utterly out-of-touch with the state of modern film criticism. Passy and Grey's first disclosure is: "We're not as powerful as we once were..." which includes this comment on online critics:

"Of course, film criticism now flourishes online, but it's often being practiced by amateurs who have little schooling in the art of cinema or appreciation for film history, according to old-school professionals. In short, everyone has an opinion and is able to share it digitally. 'You can't throw a box of popcorn without hitting a movie critic,' says Patricia Draznin, a film reviewer for The Iowa Source magazine."

Okay, yes, there are amateur film critics writing on the Internet. A few could stand to brush up on their pre-1977 movies. But you know what? Almost all of the best writing about film in 2013 is done online, much of it by "amateurs" whose schooling mostly consists a lifetime of obsessive movie viewing. In my experience, a lot of these "amateurs" are just as smart and talented as their more "professional" colleagues -- and unlike the pros who are working for a check, they're writing out of pure, unbridled love for the medium. 

So Problem #1 about the critical Cosa Nostra and their Omerta-like code of professional silence: there are too many amateurs with unrefined taste. On to Passy and Grey's fourth discovery: "We could say the main character 'is a lovable misfit,' but we'd rather say he 'limns alterity.'" In other words, they use big words:

"Even ardent readers of film reviews will sometimes come across a critique so steeped in jargon or five-dollar words that it seems written in another language. Consider how critics described 2012's 'The Master' not just as a religious-themed drama, but also as a roman a clef (aka a story using thinly veiled fictional surrogates for real people and events). Or how they referred to the mise-en-scene (a vague term that often speaks to the way things are arranged in front of a camera) in films ranging from 'The Hunger Games' to 'Do the Right Thing.'"

But wait; a minute ago they told us film critics were too dumb, with not enough "schooling in the art of cinema or appreciation of film history." Now they tell us film critics are too smart, delivering critiques "steeped in jargon or five-dollar words." On another page, Passy and Grey cite a film expert named "one movie fan [who] wrote on a Yahoo message board," who claims that "most critics are trying to impress the public (and other critics) by flaunting their perceived affluent taste and intelligence." Man, I hate those untrained, uneducated writers who also have a deep, extensive knowledge of their subject matter! They're the worst.

Passy and Grey's piece continues on in this fashion, reversing and then re-reversing itself. It continues to take critics to task for their distinct lack of a common touch, noting on page 2 that while filmmaker Tyler Perry's movies have grossed hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office, they've received middling-to-horrible reviews from critics. Then a few pages later, Passy and Grey pull another switcheroo. Their #9 secret is "When all else fails, we turn to Tarantino," and they slam critics for their support of movies that "take violence to an extreme that many filmgoers can't stomach." But Quentin Tarantino's last two movies grossed $282 million at the domestic box office; Tyler Perry's last two grossed $116 million. When critics buck popular opinion, they're elitists. When they agree with it, they have bad taste. 

I really don't understand the point of this article beyond riling up critics so much that they hate-tweet the link to their followers, who hate-read it and pass it along again, ensuring plenty of hate-traffic (in which case, hate-mission accomplished). Otherwise, what purpose does it serve? And what does it have to do with watching markets?

Mostly it seems that no matter what a critic does, it's wrong. If they like something, they're idiots. If they dislike something, they're snobs. If they use film terms they're too smart. If they don't get an advanced degree in cinema studies, they're too stupid. If they write something pithy and it gets quoted on a poster, they're whores. If they're so bold as to recommend an independent movie like "How to Survive a Plague" or "Holy Motors" they're pushing movies "nobody's seen."

Here are a few things a film critic will tell you: this magical land of luxury junkets and starfucking journalists is real, but it's relatively tiny compared to the vast world of film criticism. Most film critics today write in the off-hours from a crummy day job for pleasure and for passion. Most don't have a degree in film studies, and simply draw from the knowledge they've built through years of fandom -- just like Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert before them. Even the professionals get paid poorly, as little as three or even two figures per article, so that their existence is an endless, exhausting hustle. But they do it because they love movies. Their reward is when they convince someone to try "Holy Motors" or "How to Survive a Plague" that might otherwise not. These lovable misfits want nothing more than to limn alterity in peace.

Read more of "10 Things Movie Critics Won't Tell You."

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3 Comments

  • Joy Bishop | June 10, 2013 7:53 PMReply

    I think what most film critics and "intellectuals" have forgotten is that a movie (yes, they can be called movies) should first and foremost be entertaining. These should not be designed with film students in mind, who then dissect them and have orgasms over the (no doubt) endless metaphors, symbolism, and allusions to any number of philosphical themes we have all heard since college. This is why many stories/novels do not necessarily make good screen plays: the transition to another dimension clouds the vision the author intended and results in something akin to fingernails across a blackboard. Some movies are great because they entertain superbly with outstanding actors, editing, and crisp dialogue. It can be a romcom and be first class (but critics turn up their nose at these scripts before they even see them...not very professional, is it?). Having said all of this, I think the best movies/films are those that are character driven, but that have a plot that makes the audience want to know more about the characters--and are edited so they move along (too many movies could be so much better if they were at least 20 minutes shorter). One more point--I enjoy special effects and action movies, but they should be enjoyed for what they are and criticized within those categories. At least they entertain and don't make you want to pull a Kevorkian after seeing such films as "Melancholia." And by the way, I have watched many indie films and enjoyed them immensely, so it's not that I only watch mainstream movies; it's that many indie movies have gotten out of hand and forgotten the original purpose of film (as I stated in my opening line): to entertain. Let the film students make movies for themselvs; spare the rest us, please!

  • gluexlich | June 7, 2013 3:38 PMReply

    Great article, thank you! I love reading film criticism online, but I try to avoid user comments, for the exact reasons you mention here. To some people, critics are always the bad guys, no matter what they do. It's too frustrating to try and defend the art of film critcism to those people, but in the future, I'll simply link to this article!

  • Brian W. | June 5, 2013 2:15 PMReply

    There is so much wrong with that MarketWatch article, and in fact all of those items are things many in the industry actually do say, are aware of and, you know, discuss. (surplus of writers on the web, biases for and against certain artists, junkets, state of the movies, purpose/usefulness of top 10 lists, spoilers, state of criticism)

    I'm hard pressed to not address each one of those points on my own blog, but the points made in that article are so old hat that why even bother? Rather, what you've done here is great, not ranty, not pretentious, not snobby, not all the things that this article claims critics are.

    And at the end of the day, when I read an article like that, I realize that there are still a ton of people who think of critics in this bizarre way that contradicts itself, that they're elitist and that they're trying to spoil your fun or ruin the movie for you, tell you what to like and what not to. Yet even though there are articles like this written and that no critic will tell you that is the reason they got into the business or that is their philosophy, I don't see that perception changing any time soon, and I wish I knew what to do about it.

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