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I Assure You, We're Open (to Criticism): On Kevin Smith, Critics, and Hockey Announcers

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by Matt Singer
July 18, 2012 4:02 PM
6 Comments
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"Clerks."
"Clerks."

"Critics helped build my career." -- Kevin Smith, Indiewire interview, 2010

"If you've written a bad review of ["Cop Out"] and you didn't pay to see it, I'm sorry, I don't care." -- Kevin Smith, the same Indiewire interview, 2010.

This is a really uncomfortable time to be a film critic and a Kevin Smith fan.

I grew up in New Jersey, not far from the legendary strip mall where Smith filmed "Clerks." When I saw "Chasing Amy" for the first time in July of 1997, it blew my mind. When I later wrote for Smith's pop culture website Movie Poop Shoot, it changed my professional life. Without Movie Poop Shoot -- and therefore without Kevin Smith -- I might not have this job. And, as Smith freely admitted once, critics helped build his own career. But last week, he essentially said that film critics' careers -- including mine, I guess -- were worthless.

Smith's vocal dislike of film critics is not news; in fact, it was already old news by the time Eugene Hernandez conducted the aforementioned interview at the 2010 Provincetown Film Festival. By that point, "Cop Out" had already opened to the worst reviews of the director's career, and Smith had responded with his first Twitter rant on the pointlessness of film criticism ("Writing a nasty review for #CopOut is akin to bullying a retarded kid who was getting a couple chuckles from the normies by singing 'Afternoon Delight.'"). But old news or not, when someone at Smith's annual Q&A panel at San Diego Comic-Con asked the filmmaker whether he thought there was a place for criticism in today's pop culture landscape, he unleashed this nine minute tirade.

Smith has hammered some of these points before -- particularly his belief that paying customers' opinions are more valid than unpaid critics' -- but this time the message came with a new inspirational wrinkle. Don't be a critic, Smith says. Create something instead.

"In that world... where you can be a God, where you can create characters and life, shape shit, put it out there for the world, where people are moved by it, where it does something for them, where something you've created or a story you've told has become their favorite movie, maybe that thing that saved them from fucking killing themselves -- when you have that ability, why the fuck would you sit around write about someone else's shit?"

In the age of "democratized media," Smith says, there is no need to be a critic. He assumes that all film critics secretly harbor a desire to to be a filmmaker, and he cites Roger Corman's career path as an example. He could have cited any number of others, from Francois Truffaut to Peter Bogdanovich to C. Robert Cargill, the Ain't It Cool News contributor and co-writer of the upcoming horror movie "Sinister" who had his own criticism-related feud with Smith.

His assumption, though, would be incorrect. Not every film critic wants to be a filmmaker, and not every critic gets into criticism as a shortcut or preamble to filmmaking. Despite Smith's assertions, eliminating the criticism from film would be just as destructive as removing the film from criticism. In his Comic-Con speech, Smith calls the relationship between filmmakers and critics "a parasitic existence." I think it's more symbiotic. Whether any filmmaker or critic wants to admit it, both needs the other to thrive.

Smith loves hockey, so let's put this in hockey terms. In hockey, there's the game itself and then there's the commentary around the game: the pre-game show, the post-game show, the announcers, the locker room reporters. Could you enjoy hockey without the commentary? Absolutely. Is it better with the commentary? Hell yes. Otherwise you're just watching ten guys skate around the rink. To go deeper you need outside analysts to explain strategy, point out the strengths and deficiencies of the players, and provoke discussion. Hockey announcers wouldn't have a job without hockey. But hockey wouldn't be the same without them, either.

I look at the world of film and film criticism the exact same way. Do we "need" critics to enjoy films? No, but we enjoy them more with their help. Critics shine a light on small independents -- just like Janet Maslin and Dave Kehr did in their early reviews of "Clerks." They provide historical context and cultural insight. They enhance our understanding and our appreciation. Critics write negative reviews, sure; hockey announcers criticize players when they commit dumb penalties, too. But they're also cheerleaders. They're experts. They're guides. They're explorers. They're even entertainers. Smith himself fills all of these roles himself on his movie review show "Spoilers."

Smith encourages everyone to make movies, and he's right that in this day and age, anyone can try. But it takes more than access to make a good movie, it takes talent too, just as it takes talent to be a good hockey player. But it also takes talent -- a different kind of talent, but talent nonetheless -- to be a hockey announcer or a film critic. Smith is talented at what he does. Maslin and Kehr are talented at what they do. They're just talented at different things.

Are some critics hacks? Of course. There are some lousy sportscasters, too (not to mention lousy filmmakers). But you don't throw out the whole carton over a couple of bad eggs. You ignore the bad eggs and make a bitching omelette with the good ones.

What's so interesting about Smith's anti-critic stance is the way it's reflected, in subtle ways, in his work. His early films, particularly "Clerks," are thinly veiled parables about the perils of amateur criticism. In "Clerks," Dante and Randal sit around the Quick Stop pointing out absurdities in "Star Wars"; by the end of a disastrous day of griping, Dante realizes he needs to stop complaining about his problems and do something to fix them.

Later, Smith's movies became full-on calls to action ("Deeds, not words," Smith told his audience at Comic-Con). In "Clerks II" Dante and Randal finally stop accepting wage slavery and open their own convenience store. In "Zack and Miri Make a Porno" the titular pair of low-paid losers try their hand at adult filmmaking. Even "Red State"'s sinister religious cult is not content to let evil exist in their world -- they actively seek to punish it.

Smith's disgust with film critics, then, would have been obvious to anyone paying close attention to his movies. But, of course, I only know that because I'm a film critic. And I'm a film critic, in part, because of Kevin Smith.

For another take on Kevin Smith's Comic-Con speech, read "Weinberg vs. Kevin Smith on the Value of Film Criticism."

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6 Comments

  • Brian W | July 23, 2012 5:18 PMReply

    Smith is actually kind of eloquent about his views on criticism (in a dirty way admittedly), but he kind of has the same faulty perception that most people have about what critics do, which is that most critics, or good critics, aren't just nitpicking and finding ways to take the fun out of a movie by making comments on it or shitting all over it. They're performing a journalistic service, one that in its own way is its own art form. Smith is also generalizing about all critics, assuming that no critic has experience in making movies. Most critics aren't likewise titans in film, mainstream or indie, but some have come from that background either in school or elsewhere in life. Peter Bogdanovich, for instance, is a good example of a big name director who is now doing a lot more blogging and commenting than movie making today.

  • Don R. Lewis | July 18, 2012 9:17 PMReply

    and lest anyone make fun of my lack of paragraphs, they were in there when I wrote that! I swear!

  • Don R. Lewis | July 18, 2012 9:16 PMReply

    Good piece Matt, but (and I'd never try to or want to try to speak for Smith) but I think you're missing the point as is every other critic who's soapboxing it up on this issue today. Yes, "Clerks" was helped by critics. PRINT critics. "Clerks" came out in 1994 before taste-making garbage sites like Ain't it Cool News popped up all over the net and ruined film criticism. Maslin and Kehr were (are?) respected film critics in print, not bloggers who have risen out of the comments section of some geek site to write about movies. You know as well as I do there are many, MANY more worthless writers and sites out there today than there are good ones. I obviously don't mean you or Indiewire as I think you guys have done the work and earned a place at the table. But anyone who likes movies and can run wordpress can be a film critic overnight.

    Sure, maybe no one reads their stuff BUT they're still clogging up the internet with misinformed and uneducated views and many of these people get a place at Rotten Tomatoes which, for better or worse, is an arbiter of taste. They're still getting pull quotes on posters and trailers and speaking for critics at various conventions and film fests.

    So while I do wish Smith would STFU and just do what he wants and I do agree "Cop Out" was unbearable, he has a point in that the democratization of film criticism has rendered it basically, useless. Add to this issue the fact that many people commit intentional conflicts of interest weekly, observe no code of journalistic ethics and have no education in film studies, english, grammar or journalism and you have a "career" that's become a freeking joke.

    And I say this all as a film critic. I've written for Film Threat for over a decade because I love writing and exploring film. But the situation around film criticism has become laughable in the past 5-7 years I'd say and it was deteriorating before that. I feel this all ties into your comment about "talent" but as you also pointed out with Smith's last few films, he's also proving his dislike for critics with "Spoilers" by creating a show that is succeeding based on the idea that anyone can be a critic. I've tried to watch it and find it lame. I'm a Smith fan but him hamming it up on there is annoying as hell. Plus, if I wanted to ehar uneducated film buffs tell me what's good or bad about a film, I'd go hang at Starbucks or read more movie blogs.

    So I do agree with the passion in your piece but again, like the others of it's type, there's almost a willful ignorance about the STATE of film criticism and I think Smith gets that part right. Your comment about needing talent to be a critic or sports announcer is *true* but in sports announcing, Jimmy Jenkins who lives in his moms basement and announced all the New York Mets games isn't appearing on an aggregated sports talk show like "film critics" are. He's not getting retweeted by Joe Buch whereas any local yokel can say something nice to a filmmaker or something about their film and be patted on the head. Somehow people doing the actual heavy lifting in film criticism (like you and the folks here at Indiewire and others) have allowed a bunch of kids at the grownup table and they're screwing it up for the rest of us.

  • Brian Z | July 18, 2012 6:25 PMReply

    As someone who sees movie for free as a freelance critic, minus the screenings I can't make and then pay for later, I think Smith misses the point about film criticism; it can be creation. I get great joy out of writing words, trying to improve how I do that, and reading other people's words as well. Truly great criticism can inform and give new angles one can't find elsewhere. Sure there are messageboards and the like, but for me, that's akin to reading a short online piece of news versus a feature-length article on the same subject.

  • Jared | July 18, 2012 5:40 PMReply

    The paying customers have called his last two shitty movies Rotten on Rottentomatoes too. Certainley as a general mass critics can be far away from the audience (Smith's Mallrats is an example), but just because the occasional poorly recieved movie finds a fanbase doesnt mean critics are invalidated. There are a lot of poorly recieved movies, Cop Out for example, that are just that. Poor.

    Positive buzz from people in the business is what put Smith on the map initially. If it werent for a couple podcasts I listen to and websites I read I probably wouldnt know Kelly Reichart or Ramin Bahrani. I dont think a democratized media or whatever the hell he thinks there should be would allow that cream to rise to the top.

  • Bart Smith | July 18, 2012 4:15 PMReply

    I'm still trying to figure out what differentiates Kevin Smith's movie-review show on Hulu from what he despises about film criticism.

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