Film Critics: Your Myths Debunked

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1.    Film critics don’t know their arse from a hole in the ground.

You wish. Whereas it’s perfectly true that a large cohort of film journalists barely break a sweat, putting your perfunctory, knee jerk, post-film pub conversation into print, there are many more – Anthony Quinn in the Independent, Nigel Andrews in the FT, the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw, to name but three (of five), who can read a film as well as watch one. Knowing the difference is key when it comes to good criticism. The ones that are unaware of the difference aren’t film critics in any meaningful sense of the phrase. We’ll call them hacks for the sake of brevity.

The best critics have no interest in writing a plot synopsis with a little unsubstantiated opinion tacked on the end; they dissect the movie’s themes, its technique – they know how movies work; in short, they encourage you to look again at something you may have already seen with greater scrutiny. The critic matters because he or she documents the social and artistic preoccupations of the time. If you’re not interested in that, you’re in the airport lounge of the film world. It’s about time you got on a plane and started exploring, though you can leave that Robert Harris novel behind.

2.    Film critics are frustrated filmmakers whose reviews are barely concealed resent-o-rants, aimed at the community they envy.  Therefore they can be safely dismissed.

There’s no thought terminating cliché more beloved by film scribes than the idea that they’re embittered failures who couldn’t do a better job than the people they’re scrutinising, so have no right to criticise. Oh, yeah? So that English teacher of yours, you know the one that hadn’t written a novel of their own, wasn’t qualified, huh? What makes this such an odd argument is that its advocates seem oblivious to the fact that critical writing and filmmaking are two completely different skills. Steven Spielberg would make a lousy film critic. It’s not even clear that Paul W.S Anderson can write.

Filmmakers, the good ones that is, have long since recognised that a considered take on what constitutes good work and bad is important and acts as both a mirror to and a check on, filmmaking practice. Heed these words from Francis Ford Coppola – no slouch when it comes to movie making (Jack aside): “For me, the role of the critic is to teach me how I can make the next one better.” Coppola gets it. Isn’t it about time you did?

3.    Film critics pull apart movies to make themselves look clever.

Fundamentally this is the idea that if you read a critique of a movie you liked and the critic told you something about it that you didn’t recognise, or hadn’t considered, or which you brain had dismissed because you were distracted by the tits or explosions, then they’ve over intellectualised the material. Wrong. You’ve under intellectualised it, and many filmmakers rely on you doing just that, and the film not being exposed to any form of intellectual scrutiny, to get away with blue murder.

When you accept egregious sentimentality, misogyny, intrusive didacticism, turgid identity politics, product placement, and any of a million and one other common blights on the film viewing experience as natural, you give the bastions of bad practice a free ride. Often the argument is disguised as another cliché, “you should see the film for what it is” or variations. The only problem with that idea is that “what it is”, meaning the filmmakers’ alleged intentions, or the studio’s official representation of the film via its marketing, is only one side of the story. What they did, is something else entirely. Not only that, like all artists – good and bad, filmmakers are human beings, so bring their own worldview to proceedings, sometimes consciously, sometimes not. Discussing say, filmmakers’ prejudices, which may be manifest in the way they portray female characters, or black characters, or poor characters, is a fundamental part of “what it is”. Don’t confuse it not being important to you with it not being important.

4.    If a film critic hates a popular movie it’s because they’ve made their mind up about it before they saw it.

One of the most baffling myths about film critics is the idea that they go to a movie hoping it will be bad, so they can gleefully pick it apart. Do you trot off to the multiplex, nervously fondling your rosary, praying that what you’re about to pay for is a spiritual violation? No? Well you’re not alone.

Many of us read the scribes that seem closely aligned with our own point of view; it makes us feel good to know that a published article chimes with our own instinct. It’s a form of vindication. So when a critic tears strips off something we quite enjoyed, particularly if it’s a summer blockbuster or other big-budget movie aimed at teenage boys, it’s tempting to see it as a proxy attack on anyone who was happy to let it all wash over them without a second thought; an attack on you! How to rationalise this aggression? Well, why not assume the critic was minded to hate the film whatever the finished product? I’ll tell you why not, because that’s bullshit.

Film Critics are generally, though not exclusively, film lovers, and by film lovers I mean people with a passionate interest in the medium, its mechanics and its history. They want every film they see to be good, trust me. There’s no predisposition toward hating a flick – not when you have to watch so many.

As the film critic’s sole responsibility is to honestly assess what they’ve just seen, it would be a dereliction of duty if they told you they hated something when they didn’t. In the same vein, there’s no currency in hating a film without due cause – not if you’re reviewing it properly.

The best film critics know that each review is informed by two things; the culture of production and the culture of reception. The former refers to the type of film it is, how it relates to other movies, the filmmakers, their previous work, those prejudices we talked about and how they might have been brought to bear on the material. The latter is about you, the audience, and your assumptions about movies (or perhaps more accurately the assumptions made about you by filmmakers); in other words the stuff you bring to the film that may have informed the way it was made.

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