The Essential Critic (and why we need them)


Some months ago I attended a student documentary film event. The students were all undergraduates (edit on 7/23/10 – the filmmakers were mostly graduate students and staff… see some additional info below) and had taken a year-long course on filmmaking from a Public Health perspective, a new advent that has recently been spearheaded in the fields of Public Health, Journalism, Mass Media and Communications. Since a Q&A session was included, I was piqued enough to attend and watch what the students had come up with in their filmmaking. 

Needless to say, I only found two out of the approximate fifteen or so short films exceptional; the rest were lacking in narrative, framing, ideas, expositions, and daresay originality. A great many footage was recycled – some of the footage was repeated in at least half of the documentaries – and the subjects were repetitive, boiling down to two ideas: 1) health care reform and 2) arts and health. 

I don’t blame the students for their lacking, especially given how they were taking an introductory course in documentary filmmaking and had less than a year to compile footage from limited resources; my main critique, however, was the unoriginality of the driving ideas and argument behind their presented subjects, and by extension their frequent recycling of primary and secondary footage. Regardless, I held back in these critiques, and instead asked a couple of questions during two sessions of Q&A: 

  1. (in respect to short films about the health care reform) Do you think it would have made your short film stronger if you had interviewed non-extremists (i.e. people not associated with the Tea Party) who were against health care reform instead of only interviewing those who were for such? 
  2. (in respect to short films about arts and health) In a lot of the short films I saw that you only interviewed cultural leaders of African and Latino descent. I was just wondering if these were the only cultural leaders in the area, or if you had trouble getting interviewees from other cultural centers around, such as people of Asian or Middle Eastern descent? 

In both instances, my questions were followed by crickets chirping in a room filled with approximately 50+ people. In due time (let’s say about 20 seconds of uncomfortable silence), both questions were answered, but not in particularly professional or adequate manners: 

  1. (a student stands up and responds) Well, as a filmmaker, it’s my film, and since film is subjective I get to make it the way I want. 
  2. (class adviser stands up and responds) Well, the students only had limited resources, so we had to make due with the footage we were able to film. 

Needless to say, I’ve brought up this annotated anecdote because it highlights a growing concern of mine that good, legitimate criticism is becoming less and less appreciated in this growing day and age. 

When I think of criticism I’m not looking for validation – I’m looking for something that makes me think differently. To see something in a new light, to look at a topic from the perspective of a different subject area, to emphasize a metaphor or analogy or symbolism or anything – anything to get me to see in the new. Whether or not I agree with the critique is irrelevant; what matters most is that I can take something away from it, that perhaps I can even learn something from it. 

When the student responded to my first question (I’ll dub him student A), he was telling me something I already knew, arguably something everyone knew: film is subjective, he is the filmmaker, he’ll film and frame it the way he wants. This is nothing new, this is conventional knowledge. What I had asked was whether or not approaching the topic of health care reform from a different angle would have strengthened their overall argument, that would perhaps recede away from a “all pro-reform” stance to a much more holistic presentation; this was something that was not approached by any of the students, and I felt that it was a legitimate critique because it was not a attack or appraisal of their work – it was an idea through a different lens. 

More troubling was that student A was rather indignant at my question, his answer almost resonating a “well who are you to say what’s right or wrong? Who are you to say why my film wasn’t good?” sentiment. I’d hurt his ego, his parade of “good jobs!” and “what a moving short film!” and “wow, you’re a great filmmaker!” comments; I’d been the thundering storm cloud on his sunshine, and I’d ruin his big event. And after the equally awkward hush following my second question, I began wondering if Q&A session actually meant “tell all the students what an awesome job they did so they feel great about themselves!” and not “ask them some questions that could stem discussion, debate and some reflection on their work.” I was an unwelcome guest, the unwanted critic who ruined everyone’s good fun. 

The sad part was that I actually held back – big time. I could have asked the specific logistics of health care reform, where they fell on the whole money distribution, on the efficiency of current social programs, and so on; how they felt arts actually played into community health and if there were actual statistics that proved otherwise; I could have hammered them badly, but I didn’t because I knew it wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair because the event was about filmmaking, and in turn I only inferred about basic principles of documentary filmmaking that I believed they should have learned during their course, yet as seen in their final presentations these principles were lacking. This, I believed, was fair game. Unfortunately it seemed the students were unprepared for this sort of query, that in their spotlight they didn’t expect anyone to ask questions that were the least bit dissenting or thought-provoking – in short, constructive criticism. 

Obviously the student filmmakers didn’t agree with my assessment – their answers reflected that clearly – but what was more distressing is that they clearly didn’t appreciate a different perspective on their work, a perspective that didn’t necessarily eulogize what they’d worked hard at for little less than a year. For the most part, they mostly seemed unreceptive to anything short of praise, even irked by potential variance from their own vision (I say this because besides the two people who answered my questions, no one seemed willing to stand up and establish their viewpoint in a much more holistic light). Clearly they wanted to be validated, and criticism did not meet their needs. 

I will only validate something when I believe it has done something right, and even then there’s a likelihood that I believe could be improved upon or approached differently (in execution or discussion). Common attitude is that critics are like vultures, ready to pounce upon and tear up the hard work of any aspiring artist. I believe otherwise: to criticize is to think, and it is an art that is becoming less and less appreciated in a world that emphasizes an immediate “feel-good” mentality over anything intellectual substantial. The prolific Todd McCarthy, a film critic of amazing knowledge in cinema and its history, was recently let go by the once prestigious Variety, a decision that clearly reflect society’s turning tides – film critics are less and less valuable than the Tomatometer, Metacritic, Yahoo polls or quips and blurps about “how awesome this movie was!” or “how crappy this movie was!” Everyone wants feel-good validation for their opinion – and real critics don’t offer that. 

Critics defend their arguments and their decisions for such. Oftentimes a critic will bring attention to a newcomer whose work they feel praiseworthy and deserving of notice. Roger Ebert saw the potential of Martin Scorsese very early in the filmmaker’s career, and has continued to this day in consistently commending Scorsese’s work with film’s like GoodFellas and more recently with The Departed; Ebert has also consistently lauded Werner Herzog for his auteur vision in films like Encounters at the End of the World, Roger Altman for his naturalism in films like A Prairie Home Companion, and Hayao Miyazaki for his attention to creative detail in films like Spirited Away. This is not necessarily what a critic is required to do, but it is the sort of appraisement that oftentimes critics feel is deserving of artists they greatly admire. Equally so is the driving force to lambast works they find distasteful and dismaying, in which they feel the audience may deserve better (or at least, that they did and felt unfortunate enough to endure the ordeal). No opinion is outwardly right or wrong – what matters more is the thought that goes behind such an opinion, and why a critic chooses so to support or decry such a body of work. As summarized best by Anton Ego in Brad Bird’s 2007 Pixar film “Ratatouille” : 

In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations, the new needs friends. Last night, I experienced something new, an extraordinary meal from a singularly unexpected source. To say that both the meal and its maker have challenged my preconceptions about fine cooking is a gross understatement. They have rocked me to my core. In the past, I have made no secret of my disdain for Chef Gusteau’s famous motto: Anyone can cook. But I realize, only now do I truly understand what he meant. Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere. It is difficult to imagine more humble origins than those of the genius now cooking at Gusteau’s, who is, in this critic’s opinion, nothing less than the finest chef in France. I will be returning to Gusteau’s soon, hungry for more. 

Real critics are not like Ben Lyons, who infamously said that that I Am Legend (2007) was one of the “greatest movies ever made" and gave Charlie Kaufman’s Synechdoche, New York (2008) a thumbs down because it was “difficult to understand.” Lyons works for E! Entertainment Network, a network that is not particularly notorious for in-depth analysis of anything meaningful (presumably its own name is a dead giveaway); usually, I do my best to ignore associations-by-institutions and to look at the work itself, but Lyons did nothing of the sort to redeem himself in this light. He is not a film critic, he is a quote generator for television ads. He’s one of those few strangling comments you see attached to universally-panned films that say “this movie is GREAT!” without any substance to back it up. He’s the type who’ll do anything to get a picture with a celebrity, to get some sort of acknowledgement that he is, indeed, on the telly and getting air-time with a in-the-spotlight actor. This is not a film critic – this is a publicity turbine devoid of anything worthwhile. 

What real critics offer is an area of mental dissonance, of thoughtful discussion. David Edelstein was in the negative when he detracted against The Dark Knight in 2008, and angry fans (many who hadn’t seen the movie at the time of his article’s publishing) lambasted him as “a pretentious prick” and someone trying to get “hits for his site.” Very rarely did anyone discuss what he actually said in his review, which was thoughtful and well laid-out. I don’t agree with Edelstein on all his points and issues, but there is a validity to his opinion and he is entitled to it; obviously Nolan’s take on the Batman lore is not his cup of tea, and I’ll respect him for that. For one, he notes that the tone is significantly darker, sadistic even, and was probably disturbed by such; frankly, this same reason is why I extolled Nolan’s work so vicariously with my first and subsequent viewings, so arguably this is a difference in taste (and perhaps a generation difference).

I have yet to see Nolan’s recent work, Inception, which has been in the critical debate for quite a bit since its release, lauded by equally rabid fans and pummeled by equally rabid detractors. Even some my favorite critics have been in the mix: A.O. Scott, a man who’s style, prose and analysis I admire greatly, was not particularly moved by Nolan’s dreamscape vision, citing Nolan’s unwillingness to dive into the subversiveness and inanity of a Freudian symbols and insanity was his greatest downfall; in contrast, an early review by Anne Thompson of Indiewire praised Nolan of delivering a Kubrickian phantasm with an enduring emotive pull. Editor of Roger Ebert’s site and famed film blogger Jim Emerson commented afterwards about similarities between Nolan’s and Shyamalan’s filmmaking, and even quoted Matt Zoller Seitz: “A filmmaker as prosaic and left-brained and non-visual as Nolan should not be making a film about dreams and dreaming.” 

Do I agree with Emerson’s assessment? Not entirely, but I think there’s a truth to his observations. Nolan approaches his work from a strictly rationalist’s precision, and that to expect otherwise from him is to expect Alfred Hitchcock to make a Cinderella movie without a dead Cinderella. And while I have yet to see Inception there’s an inkling that in admiring all of Nolan’s previous works (the exception being Following and Insomnia, both which I’ve yet to see) I may very well enjoy is latest cinematic installment, though this time around I may be more inclined to consider the film from both the left- and right-brained spectrums, and even perhaps the intermediate if manageable. After all, criticism is also about tastes: what floats my boat may just as well sink yours, and vice versa. Regardless, I’d rather read a articulate disapproval than a blurb-fest appraisal of any work despite where my sentiments lie. 

Then you have the special brew of Armond White. Clearly he’s a very intelligent man: a Master’s of Fine Arts degree from Columbia University’s School of the Arts; a member of the New York Film Critics Circle, the National Society of Film Critics, and the New York Film Critics Online; and currently a film and music critic for the New York Press. Yet he is dubbed as the infamous spoil sport on RottenTomatoes, the “contrarian for the sake of being contrary.” There’s even an online petition trying to get him banned from RottenTomatoes, citing that he is a bane to film criticism and simply trying to get hits on his site. Even more annoying is his lack of respect for films and subjects he doesn’t agree with, as dissected beautifully by Paul Brunick on White’s critique of the beloved “Toy Story 3.” Ultimately, my greatest problem is that he essentially lacks any logical consistency in his reviews, and openly sneers at the very audience he writes to: 

  • The Dark Knight, 2008The generation of consumers who swallow this pessimistic sentiment can’t see past the product to its debased morality. Instead, their excitement about The Dark Knight’s dread (that teenage thrall with subversion) inspires their fealty to product.
  • Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen, 2009Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is more proof [Bay] has a great eye for scale and a gift for visceral amazement.

Let’s break this down: White disliked “The Dark Knight” for its debased morality, yet failed to see the same issues with “Transformers 2” and its flaunting of gratuitous explosions, overlooked death count and blatant sexism? On the latter fold, he admired “Transformers 2” for its visceral amazement, yet failed to see what Nolan and his team achieved in the revamped and film noir-esque Gotham city of the Batman universe? The man makes no sense. 

A flowchart of Armond White’s likes and dislikes in recent films, first brought to my attention by Wes Lawson of the RottenTomatoes community. 

If I had the patience I would actually take the time and read other articles; after all, he’s an intelligent individual, and amidst his angry waves of bullying misdirection and rhetorical lapses he offers up interesting ideas that are easily overlooked in regards to the films he reviews. However, I am not a patient person when it comes to such individuals, and find that my time is often better spent reading those who have the dignity to stay consistent to what they themselves had said, or are at least wiling to admit their own hypocrisy. What Armond White is, in Roger Ebert’s words, “a troll; a smart and knowing one, but a troll.” And I, for one, am not the type to indulge in trolls. 

Criticism is essential: without it, we are destined to perpetuate in an endless cycle of softhearted sentimentalism, doomed to be infantile without hope or chance of maturing into critical and honest thought. Argument is not about right or wrong, winning or losing – it’s about ideas, presentation, and prose. It is never absolute, and it never will be; instead, it is bound to be continuously repeated and revised, bounced back and forth until the end of human consciousness. We need it for our own sake, and we need it more than ever in this increasingly feel-good mentality that society seems more and more inclined to retract into these days. And for God’s sake, let me keep my hopes up and assume producers are more intelligent than to cast nincompoops like Ben Lyons as “film critics” – how about Kim Morgan or Grace Wang, to name a few. 

Additional reading: Roger’s Little Rule Book by Roger Ebert. And yes, he clarifies that the subject of his commentary is, indeed, Ben Lyons. 

Edit: To clarify in lieu of a comment – Yes, I have read some of White’s reviews (The Dark Knight, District 9, Transformers 2, and some of Toy Story 3) and have generally found them, as I said, to be logically inconsistent in thought, and overtly condescending to his readers. Perhaps that is style; I respect that. But not enough to garner up enough patience to plow through more of his reviews for such tone and inconsistency. I’ll stick to my cup of tea of Roger Ebert, A. O. Scott, Michael Phillips, Todd McCarthy, James Berardinelli, and whomever strikes my interest in the future. 

Edit on 7/23/10: I was alerted by a friend of mine who took the course in filmmaking; he informed me that the class mostly consisted of graduate students and staff (only two undergraduate students total), and that this was the first time the course was offered. I have already sent him my suggestions for improving the course for future students, and my apologies for not remembering this information correctly (as I’d also lost the flier). 

Edit on 7/26/10: Seems there’s a glitch in Disqus where the original comments aren’t showing up for some reason (though I suspect it has something to do with tumblr performing maintenance not too long ago). This is just to clarify that I have not deleted original comments – they are still sitting in my moderator inbox, and theoretically should be showing up (but such is the fate of faulty programming, I suppose). Apologies to the disgruntled, for you have not been omitted.