Sometimes, you have to wonder if people know how to read. How to watch. How to interact with art. Obviously, I don’t mean you. You’re better than that, I know. Recently, though, a series of online conversations surrounding the practice of film criticism (though pertinent to pretty much any kind of art-adjacent writing/thinking) makes me think that people’s media expectations have been warped beyond recognition. In the last week, a doofus wrote a piece astroturfing the lukewarm critical reception of Adam McKay’s heavy-handed climate change satire Don’t Look Up into a battle between “sneering critics” and “climate scientists.” McKay and co-writer David Sirota have fanned these flames, as The Daily Beast puts it, “categorizing anyone—but mainly journalists—who criticized the movie as indifferent to the threat of climate change or, more extremely, as climate change deniers.” Later that same week, a Disney animator called for film critics to add disclaimers that sit readers down and remind them that, often, words are written by people who think them. Boiled down to their core, these are both snipes at the literacy of people who watch and read about movies, just directed at those dirty bastards, the film critics.
There are a lot of reasons for these oddities: The binary-driven percentage of Rotten Tomatoes serving as a pseudoscientific extension of Roger Ebert’s thumbs; the blurring line between independent film writing and PR (both from shills and actual Netflix employees); the ancient yet persistent belief that people who write about movies are tuxedoed elites rather than obsessives working multiple jobs and struggling to pay their bills; an overall reduction in media literacy encouraged by consolidating corporations that would love it if people just shut the hell up and consumed. The results are myriad and troubling, with those applying to my profession being the most benign. It’s not particularly important that people condemn or clamor for the myth of Objective Film Criticism, as if we just run those suckers through the scantron, or conflate a piece of media’s message with its merits. Not compared to people being able to understand news reports and COVID guidelines. But by emphasizing that criticism can and should be so much more than these myopic extremes which assume that it will judge something based on right answers (either artistic or ethical), maybe we can encourage thinking about the underlying problems in how we largely interact with entertainment.
As the very smart Katie Rife pointed out years ago, both of these issues partially stem from shifting trends in how we popularly talk about movies—with a certain white newspaperman-turned-critic contingent fading out in favor of more socially conscious criticism. While the loudest critics of critics have mostly seemed to want the “is it worth your dollars” service journalism approach, the “my personality is my Funko shelf” company line or their own opinions printed out for their satisfaction—preferably all three, if possible—the new hotness is wondering why, if a movie pushes a politically agreeable viewpoint or is about something capital-I Important, it doesn’t automatically get rave reviews. Why aren’t we indiscriminately applauding someone finally making movies that:
Represents the underrepresented in cast, crew and/or subject matter
Really sticks it to The Man about climate change, capitalism, etc.
Documents terrible abuses or heartwarming success stories
For some, those qualities can really be all it takes to enjoy (or, often, make) something. But movies are more than their message. A message, an ideological bent, is inherent and fun: Art is the product of culture, and contextualizing where its ideas come from can be rewarding critical work. But if that’s where readers stop, they might end up caring more about what a movie is saying than how it’s saying it—and expect reviews to react in turn. It’s here you find those conditioned towards hyper-literal thinking, those preaching that representation equals endorsement and those neo-Puritans who want to reinstate the Hays Code where institutions are sacred and any immoral behavior requires on-screen punishment.
My grandmother has this. She gets mad when she sees an actor she’s seen play a villain before pop up in another movie. “Oh, I don’t like him. He’s a really bad one,” she’ll say. And if he gets away with it? Forget about it. Willem Dafoe doesn’t deserve this. On the other side of it, neither do entire works of art. It’s an extreme example, but it’s representative of a desire not for good movies, but movies full of goodness. When movies are their message, there’s no difference.
For nonfiction films, we’re already mostly there, with plenty of documentaries judged based on the significance of their subject rather than the quality of their filmmaking. Among the tragedies of extending that flawed mindset to fiction are praising Green Book for being a racial reconciliation fantasy or taking Dwain Esper’s ridiculous exploitation of morality plays like Reefer Madness at face value. When you look beyond the literal text, you can see how professional ineptitude or technical trends or ingrained prejudice or financial crassness transform art in hilarious, horny, stupid, or revealing ways. It’s great! I love plenty of movies with which I don’t agree politically, and hate plenty made by people whose opinions I share. If we all stopped at “Yes, overindulging in the Devil’s lettuce is bad and thus I enjoyed this,” we cut ourselves off from everything that separates film from parable.
And one of the reasons that this is more and more prevalent is that doing so is great for marketing. Naturally, having the critical narrative surrounding a movie’s release fit into the Mad Lib of “the best/first/perfect movie for the #MeToo/Trump/COVID era” is encouraged. It’s snappy. It’s a selling point. Formal analysis, not so much.
How movies are shot, how their actors approach performance, how special effects are deployed, what the moving pictures actually look like and what they inspire in your senses—these just aren’t sexy. It doesn’t tell you if your enjoyment of art is correct. But it allows for lush appreciation and meticulous consideration. When criticism approaches a film as a complete piece of art—rather than checking for a theme and writing it down, or merely going through a checklist of merit—it thrives. It lives on its own, with words that leap and express themselves as palpably as swooping cameras or gesticulating actors. It encourages discovery and enthusiasm, the taking of risks and the understanding that both Cats and Citizen Kane are important. It can be academic; it can be memoir. It can be art.
Reading this kind of criticism, or that which prioritizes genre expertise or historical/technical knowledge, might spark ideas, but it won’t give you that easy spurt of serotonin that comes from someone telling you something you already agree with. Hence, because of how people read things now and how traffic is driven (both of which increasingly depend on playing nice with Google’s search algorithm) that kind of writing is harder and harder to find—and nearly (if not completely) impossible to make a living doing. What thrives, and what is expected from artists and readers in turn, is writing that falls into one of those earlier buckets: Criticism that gives investment counsel (“Worth it?”) or criticism that gives ethical counsel (“An important satire”). That encourages these kinds of aforementioned chuckleheads, who want backpats for their politics or simply want/discourage (they can never decide when it comes to objectivity) critics to robotically assess for…I really don’t know, mics in the shot? Actors flubbing their lines?
The Disney animator and the Don’t Look Up dorks have a point. Some readers and filmmakers are so pushed towards movies being Rotten or Fresh things that are either wholly Good or Evil that they’ve slowly stopped wanting to think about a movie beyond its message, and by extension, see film criticism as a simple monolith existing solely to dole out “an empirical measurement of the universal correct reaction to it.” It could happen to anyone, really, and far more powerful institutions than movie nerds making less than minimum wage exist to encourage it. But that doesn’t mean it’s always gotta be that way. It just takes initiative to work against those systems. If you love movies, or any kind of art, read about it widely and find those whose ideas—not their Metacritic scores—resonate with you. Find people whose writing makes you want to see/read/experience the art again, with a fresh perspective or a blown mind. It’s a shame to only think of a movie as its message, but it’s also a place of potential from which you can reignite a love of film all over again.
Disclaimer: Taste, temperament and expectation make a viewing experience singular, not universal. This piece was written by a human who holds these opinions and it is not Truth set in stone, delivered from on high by an omniscient, infallible and totally detached deity.
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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