Columns / Discourse / May 2, 2012

Check the Reel: What makes a good movie critic

Whether you agree with them or not, film critics have an important function outside quality judgments. They give readers, as accurately and vividly as possible, an impression of the film they intend to view, from the information you might read in a playbill (actors, characters, spoiler-free plot summary) to subjective but still considerate suggestions on how the film might be appreciated, if at all. A horror film isn’t meant to be appreciated as “family fun” — if you think it is, that’s a decision to make outside professional criticism, at home, with your own family and kids — just as a children’s film does not usually provide “edge of your seat thrills.”

The role and integrity of the audience stands equal with a critic’s own impressions. “The Raven” did not fail because I was grouchy that day or feeling spiteful; it failed because it gave nothing of value to either Poe fans, who know the details of his life and understand the man better than “The Raven” did, or thrill seekers, who have seen blood-and-guts in better films. Of course, one can only speak for a large group of people through his or her own subjective experience, but a smart critic, like the smart artist, knows how to make personal feelings universal.

A selfish critic also considers the audience, but only with disdain. He criticizes the film on account of its perceived audience, which is inevitably characterized in negative, demeaning terms. When the filmgoer becomes evidence for a film’s failure, we have left professional criticism and entered the fickle realm of bitter, personal vendetta.

You’ll see the selfish critic rearing his head when any hot-button social issue comes up, from homosexuality (“Brokeback Mountain”) to politics (anything by Michael Moore). He especially loves spitting on films intended for any subculture he deems “young” or “foreign.” Video game, anime, “nerd” culture — these are the selfish critic’s favorite punching bags.

He may disparage the audience subtly through blanket terms, like Kirk Honeycutt in his “Speed Racer” review for Hollywood Reporter: “‘Speed Racer’ proudly denies entry into its ultra-bright world to all but gamers, fanboys and anime enthusiasts. Story and character are tossed aside to focus obsessively on PG-rated action and milk-guzzling heroes.” Sure, he equates video games, anime and fandoms with naïvete and anti-intellectualism, but it’s a slight remark and “Speed Racer” is a controversial example. “It’s just poor wording,” Honeycutt could argue.

But then there are times the selfish critic grows aggressive, even hateful. You can almost see the disdain mixed with the saliva as Kyle Smith says, reviewing “Cabin in the Woods” for the New York Post, “Movies that mean to deconstruct movies seem to be made solely by and for cinema vampires, those ghost-faced geeks whose pallor is rarely challenged by exposure to the sun.” Eesh. Even this pales (a-ha) against the spite-storm “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World”’s audience endured. NPR’s Linda Holmes has a great article, “‘Scott Pilgrim’ Versus the Unfortunate Tendency to Review the Audience,” which compiles these reactions (the highlight: a reviewer who criticizes the movie, a comedy, because it made people laugh) and sums up my opinion on the selfish critic: that he helps nobody and panders to his own self-importance.

Yes, I have disliked movies that are popular: “Transformers,” “Twilight,” “High School Musical,” the whole pantheon of Nicholas Sparks adaptations. Does it bug me that people can enjoy these works? Sometimes. But these are prejudices that have no place in critical discourse, and if you ever spot them at work, remind yourself: “Critics are people too. They can make the choice to be selfish, just like I can make the choice to ignore their review and go on with my life.”

Ivan Keta
Ivan Keta is a weekly film columnist for The Knox Student. In 2013, he won first place in Critical Film Review from the Illinois College Press Association, competing in the open division against dozens of other Illinois college newspapers.

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