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The Pros and Cons of the Critic of Everything

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by Matt Singer
March 22, 2012 2:18 PM
3 Comments
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"The Hunger Games."

A conflict of interested excused MSN Movies' Glenn Kenny from reviewing this week's big release, "The Hunger Games."  And, Kenny says on his blog, he's totally cool with that:

"I feel rather fortunate, I must say, that I'm not required to have an opinion on 'The Hunger Games,' and am gratified that the state of my mental health is such that I don't even feel a slight tug of compulsion to have an opinion about it. People are still stroking their chins about the difference between the state of "criticism" back in the day versus now-in-the-world-of-the-Jetsons or whatever. I suppose one salient difference has to do with the way that the so-called 'cultural conversation' (and good God how I gag on that thoroughly fucking insipid phrase) has spread into so many aspects of our being that there's this outstanding illusion/delusion among media professionals and amateurs that their 'take' is ALWAYS required."

It's an interesting question: do critics need to have an opinion about everything?  Coming on the heels of my interview with "Siskel & Ebert" oral historian Josh Schollmeyer, it reminds me of a section of his piece where Siskel describes what becoming a well-paid film critic did to his psyche.  "The greatest effect of criticizing films for all of my adult life has been to turn me into an instant critic of everything," wrote Siskel in a Chicago Tribune column.  "I'm a terror when I visit a restaurant or a store for the first time, immediately commenting on the services and products, constantly suggesting ways to improve the operation."

The critic of everything.  As the hosts of a show that reviewed almost every major film released in the United States, Siskel and Ebert were essentially required to be critics of everything (cinematically anyway -- complaining about the wellness of a hamburger at the Steak N Shake was a different story).  But in an ideal situation, an outlet would employ several film critics, each with their own beats and areas of expertise; you might have one critic who focuses on mainstream American films, another with a background in Asian cinema, a third who can recite every film by Jean-Luc Godard.  But, as we all know, these are not ideal times for professional film criticism, or for the journalism industry in general.  

Publications that employ large fleets of freelancers (like, say, The Village Voice) might be able to keep specialists on hand, but for the most part, any working critic today is pretty much expected to be a critic of everything.  Still, it's impossible for anyone to watch, read, study, and know the totality of pop culture, a point Kenny stresses in his piece. Many film critics this week are being asked to weigh in on "The Hunger Games" with very little knowledge of it beyond its status as a teen lit phenomenon.  Which begs a second question: who is more qualified to criticize a movie like "The Hunger Games?" Those who've read the original novel and can compare the two objects, book and film, and place them in a larger context?  Or those who have no background in the world of Katniss Everdeen, and can judge the film by itself, separate from of its merits as an adaptation?

I guess from my perspective -- the perspective of perhaps the dorkiest film criticism nerd on the planet -- both types of reviews have their place.  I want to know what a smart but open-minded "Hunger Games" fan thinks of this movie, and i also want to know what a smart "Hunger Games" neophyte thinks as well.  I can understand not caring about "The Hunger Games" -- frankly I didn't care about "The Hunger Games" a few weeks ago, and I still don't care all that much -- but let's not overlook the fact that the movie is poised to have one of the biggest openings weekends in movie history.  That sort of financial success and massive popularity doesn't make the film itself any better, but it does make it a bit more interesting.  And that's worth writing about.  

True, people don't need to have an opinion on everything.  True, we live in the age of the perpetual overshare.  True, not every film is worth discussing in minute detail.  But maybe "The Hunger Games" is.  Maybe you want to write about its relationship to modern superhero movies, and the way its message of female empowerment speaks to the male fantasies of other blockbusters.  Or maybe you want to talk about the violence in the film, and the fact that a movie about kids sadistically killing one another gets a PG-13 rating in this country, but a movie about kids using profanity gets an R.  Maybe you want to get all auteur theory up in here and compare director Gary Ross' depictions of outsider teens in "Pleasantville" and "The Hunger Games."  Who knows.

If Glenn Kenny doesn't care about "The Hunger Games" and doesn't want to have an opinion, that's his choice.  But as a fan of his work, I would have loved to hear what he thought about it.

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3 Comments

  • Gabe Toro | March 23, 2012 2:36 PMReply

    The film is the text. Anything else is distraction.

    Good piece.

  • Glenn Kenny | March 23, 2012 12:31 PMReply

    Thanks for the kind words and for a stimulating piece, Matt.

  • Andrew Welch | March 23, 2012 10:31 AMReply

    This post raises a question I've never articulated before but have definitely wrestled with. As someone who does freelance reviewing from time to time, in addition to running my own blog (http://adventures-in-cinema.blogspot.com/), I've been in that position of having to review something that's beyond my area of expertise (which, admittedly, isn't a big area yet).

    The "pro" of this is that it forces me to explore things I might have otherwise avoided. As someone who loves "high" art AND "low" art (I'm using those terms somewhat facetiously), I consider this a good thing. It helps me broaden my horizons, refine my tastes, and sharpen my critical eye.

    The "con," though, is that familiarity with something doesn't make one an expert. So, while I may have grown as a critic and an appreciator of pop culture, I may have also produced a review that is too hasty to judge something I never really understood in the first place--which benefits no one.

    All of which explains why I find blogging slightly more satisfying. With a blog, I can focus on what I'm most passionate about, instead of trying to make hasty judgements about things I don't fully understand in order to meet a deadline.

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