When "Upstream Color" opens in theaters later this spring, it will not do so in a vacuum. Last month, it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival -- and immediately after that premiere, dozens of film critics in attendance shared their immediate and instantaneous reactions to the film, 140 characters at a time, on Twitter. Without seeing the film or reading a single full review of it, knowledgeable, tech-savvy film lovers could probably already tell you a lot about "Upstream Color" just from following those instant tweets: that it's director Shane Carruth's follow-up to his beloved time travel story "Primer," that the movie is beautiful, strange, and maybe kind of impenetrable; that the story involves pigs in some way.
Carruth spent nearly a decade on "Upstream Color." Critics might have spent a minute pondering it before tweeting their thoughts. By all accounts, "Upstream Color" is dense and unique and not really something that lends itself to simplistic soundbyte-y reactions. So are the simplistic soundbyte-y reactions on Twitter really the best way to critique a film? If you're tweeting about how you "haven't fully deciphered" a movie yet, should you perhaps put down your cell phone and leave your thoughts to yourself until they congeal?
These are interesting questions, and they're addressed at greater length in this excerpt from a Tribeca Film conversation between Slate's Dana Stevens and Deadspin's Will Leitch:
Inspired by that conversation, I turned this week's Criticwire Survey into a referendum on critics and Twitter: should critics tweet their reactions to movies? And are they too quick to blurt out their thoughts?
The results, I must admit, surprised me. Way more critics than I expected sided with Leitch and Stevens -- and they had way more arguments why Twitter is bad. Many claimed that tweets are unrefined, and that critics' opinions don't fully form until they sit down to write their reviews -- like Melissa Hanson, who said "it's only after reflection that a true assessment can be made." Some felt a tweet essentially eliminated the purpose of a review -- like Gary Kramer, who asked "if I can summarize a film in a tweet, what's going to prompt someone to read my review?" A few cited circumstances similar to the ones I suggested above in my "Upstream Color" example; like Jana J. Monji, who noted that "when you consider the time producers, actors, writers, and PR people put into each movie, you should be willing to give the whole enterprise more thought than the one-minute it takes to post on Twitter." Others felt that tweeting was building expectations that were either too high to match, or so low that they were killing the film before most people could see it -- Sean Hutchinson, for example, argued that "tweeting about a movie tends to implant a false sense of expectation in people who want to see [it]."
I respect these critics and their opinions about Twitter, but I tend to disagree with all of them. Let's look at each of their arguments one at a time.
Argument #1: Tweets are unrefined; critics should take the time to hone their opinion
True, tweets are instantaneous, brief, and straight from the gut. That doesn't necessarily mean, though, that they're worthless. There's a great deal of value in hearing someone's first-blush reaction to a movie: in some ways, tweets are the best expression of how a film hits someone on a deep, lizard brain level. Our opinions of films can ripen with time as we ponder their themes and consider their hidden meanings; they can also deflate as we lose whatever enthusiasm or revulsion was coursing through our veins as we took our first steps out of that darkened theater. Where some see a lack of refinement, I see a certain kind of perfect simplicity.
The other side of Argument #1 is the idea that critics need time to develop their ideas, and that sometimes the thoughts and feelings that fill their minds in the initial moments after a screening might not be the same ones that remain hours or days later when they sit down to write their review. To some extent, this is a matter of each writer's personal style, and to each his own; Will Leitch likes to be alone with his thoughts after a screening before he says or writes anything. But my question is this: how much is your opinion really changing from tweet to full review? You may discover more nuances, or find motifs you hadn't noticed. But who flip flops so much that they might tweet "That was horrible!" and then review the same film with "It was a masterpiece!"?
Even if it's wildly unlikely, many critics in the Survey seemed very nervous about about being held to an opinion they might tweet a few minutes after a screening and then abandon when they write their review. Personally, I think putting yourself out there like that is part of the fun of the job. But even so: why can't a critic revise an opinion? A really intense initial response and a more muted attitude six months later are both perfect valid readings -- and they're not mutually exclusive either. If we wait too long for our "final" opinion to form, it may never happen; sometimes I think critics are waiting for others to make up their minds before they make up theirs, and at that point we're all just speaking with the benefit of hindsight. If criticism is in any way a form of journalism, then timeliness is not a bad thing -- and neither is Twitter.
Argument #2: If you tweet your opinion, people will have no reason to read your review
God, I hope this isn't true. Maybe it is. But in my experience, if you think you don't need to read a critic's review after you've seen their tweets, then they're either not a very good critic or not a very good Twitterer. I want both tweets and reviews from the critics I follow, not either/or. I look at tweets as if they're teasers for the feature presentation that is the main review.
It's funny that Dana Stevens says that writers should save their witticisms for their reviews. I look at it totally differently. If I am working on a line for a review, I often tweet it out to see what kind of response it gets. If people retweet it and favorite it, then I know I've got something good. If it drops like an anvil, I know I need to try something else.
Most days, I work from my home, alone. I have no co-workers to bounce ideas off of, and no editor looking over my shoulder. I kind of use Twitter to fill both those roles: when I want to hash something out, I bring it to the hive mind; when I want to check if something's working, I ask for feedback. I honestly believe Twitter enhances my finished reviews, rather than drives people away from them.
Argument #3: Movies take years to produce; your reactions shouldn't take seconds
As you might have guessed from my introduction, this is the argument I find most persuasive. I think critics are sometimes willfully blind to the amount of effort that goes into even the worst, hackiest movies. If someone poured a decade of their life into something, you owe it to them to consider it thoughtfully and honestly. And some movies, like maybe "Upstream Color," are too ambitious to sum up in 140 characters.
On the other hand, effort does not equal quality. It is a sad fact that sometimes movies that were the hardest to make are also the worst ones to watch. It's also worth noting that audiences share no such sensitivity to the feelings of the director. They pay their $15, and when they walk out of the theater, they start talking about it. They don't wait to decide how they feel based on how hard it was for the director to make it. Good people with good intentions make bad art all the time.
Argument #4: Tweeting creates "false" expectations and clouds critical judgment
This is the inverse of Argument #1. There critics need time to form their opinions. Here, time is the enemy: people tweet and that creates these expectations which then have to be met in some ways by the viewers that follow. Before the vast majority of audiences can see a movie, the well has already been poisoned -- they've been told what to think and they're conditioned to respond in a certain way.
I'm sure there are ways in which talk on Twitter can predispose a viewer to feel a certain way about a movie; but let's be honest -- any critic who decides how they feel about something based on what they see on Twitter about it is probably not one worth investing too much time in.
All of these arguments may all come down to a fundamental disagreement about what criticism is. The anti-Twitter camp prefer criticism as a solitary act: one writer, wrestling their thoughts onto paper and releasing it into the world. And there's definitely value in that approach. Growing up on a steady diet of "Siskel & Ebert," maybe I just think of this stuff in more conversational terms, and working in relative isolation like I do, maybe I'm just a bit more hungry to start a conversation myself, and to hear what other people have to say as we travel together through that social media stream. That's why I'm going to keep tweeting.