On Criticism: The Death of a Review and Who Is a Critic These Days Anyway?

I’ll be honest here: I have been gearing up to write on the subject of film criticism for a long while now. Sadly, finding motivation to sit down and write is a challenge for me these days. In fact, I wanted to write an article on this subject (my problems with motivation) as well, but – ironically enough – I can’t motivate myself to write it. But that’s a topic for a different day.

Nevertheless, we are here now, partly thanks to my good buddy Carson Timar whose editorial in CLAPPER touched at least partially on what I wanted to talk about. However, I don’t think I’d be able to contain myself within the confines of one massive rant, so I decided to turn this into a series where I’d handle my observations one by one in a slightly shorter format.

I never considered myself a film critic. Maybe this is a by-product of my age, as I did have an ‘analog’ childhood, because when I was going through my formative years, The Internet was still in its infancy and if you wanted to find out if any given film was worth paying to see (either in cinema or through VHS rentals), you had to resort to buying a magazine or a newspaper to check the reviews. Of course, you could always rely on the good ol’ word of mouth marketing picked up at your local VHS rental place, which now I see that it was a localized protoplast of Film Twitter, but film analysis was always behind a paywall or – at a push – in a public library.

This built an idealized image of a film critic in my mind – an image of an expert in the field of cinema. Someone I could trust with recommending a film to me, or discouraging me from seeing one that would likely be a waste of my time and money. However, at the time I wasn’t too preoccupied with reading more in-depth texts about film analysis and the role of a film critic in my eyes was more or less confined to an expert opinion on whether I should see a movie or not. The key operating word in this context is the word ‘expert’, because you couldn’t just get hired as a critic at a reputable publication and dispense opinion on movies for the general public to consume; some credentials were likely required. Credentials I do not possess. I did not graduate in film. I am not a professionally trained journalist. Hell, English isn’t even my native tongue and yet here I am typity-type-type-typing up an article about what I think about the state of film criticism in the current cultural landscape.

No, I have never seen myself as a critic, but rather a dude with opinions and a penchant for writing, but thanks to the wonderful maturation of The Internet, this is what it takes to become a film critic these days. A phone. Two thumbs. And a bunch of brain cells to rub together. That’s all it takes to partake in the film discourse at least at the fundamental level of dispensing opinion to people on whether a given film is worth watching. The nascent of social media and online communities such as Film Twitter has successfully facilitated the process of democratization of film criticism. The old guard – the reputable professional critics – are still there and their opinions remain useful, invigorating and intellectually compelling, but their voices are now being drowned out by the collective white noise of regular folks voicing their support or disdain for given movies in 280 characters or less. In addition, the democratization of film criticism has led to a myriad of independent publications sprouting in all corners of The Internet, some of which have grown in stature enough to be seen on par with old school outlets.

The primary responsibility of the film critic – the notion of recommending a film – has been successfully reduced to a star rating, which is additionally aggregated into an RT percentage score. I think it is reasonable to argue that the contemporary viewer (who still seeks recommendations online) is more likely to settle for glancing at an RT score, a Letterboxd rating, or a seven-word review posted on Twitter by one of their mutuals. The word of mouth went global and became easily codified under various guises, such as ratings and scores. One could also argue that a good majority of people who click on a link leading to a written review do not intend to read it anyway, so long as they can find a score or a grade that could guide their decision-making process.

This leads me to ask: what is the purpose of a written review? What am I supposed to do if I want to write about a film? Is it still relevant if I sound off about the quality of direction, performances, writing or cinematography? After all, this is more or less condensed into the star-rating you will find at the top of my text, so why should I even bother? I honestly believe that a review which only goes so far as to assess the quality of a film using a curated string of adjectives is completely irrelevant to a reader wishing to find out if they should commit some of their time to watching it. Granted, there are other uses for such reviews (which I will touch on in a separate article), but the point stands – the dominance of star-ratings, grades and RT scores have all but eliminated the need for anyone to spend more than seven sentences opining on the quality of a film. But does it mean that the art of reviewing movies is dead?

I think not. However, because everyone with access to The Internet is effectively a critic in its fundamental sense, the role of a film critic must shift somewhere else. I don’t quite mean that film criticism has to reinvent itself, but rather reconnect with its secondary role and cater more strongly to audiences seeking something more than a recommendation. At least from my perspective, the best reviews I have read would always teach me something useful. They would introduce me to an interesting perspective on a given film, tell me something I didn’t quite know about the filmmaking process or – better yet – help me position the film within my own worldview. Some of the best critics have consistently done so all throughout their careers and I have always aspired to follow their example. I strongly believe that as things are now, the idea of reviewing anything should always strive to go well beyond opining on quality because everyone is doing it already and the consensus is reached on the basis of popularity, not merit. Therefore, to avoid descending into obsolescence, film criticism must adapt and reconnect with the idea of not only telling people that they should watch something, but rather tell them why.

I consider this a personal challenge as well, especially because I don’t like reading reviews composed of mostly adjectives, so I try not to write ones like that either. I like to think that a modern critic wishing to remain relevant and useful to the society at large must think a bit deeper about films they are writing about. I like to imagine the modern critic having more in common with a crime scene investigator rather than a glorified dispenser of opinions and adjectives. I find it inherently more interesting to read interpretations of themes, suppositions on what drove the filmmakers to make the film in the way that they did, and how their work relates to my life on this planet. I don’t want to read that Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is amazing or that Chadwick Boseman’s performance is top quality. I want to read why. I want to find out why and how the characters in the film relate to the world they inhabit and the world I inhabit. I want to find out what the author thinks drove the filmmakers to make the film in the first place. I want to know what the author thinks inspired them. I want to be recommended a film or a book that relates to the subject matter of the film. I want the review to help me contextualize the experience of watching the film and maybe even to challenge my own opinion on it. I want to read a passionate defence of M. Night Shyamalan’s Glass that goes beyond telling me the film is amazing (when I believe it might not be) and convince me to look at it from a different angle.

I guess what I am trying to say is that I want anyone who aspires to call themselves a film critic these days to try harder. In a world where everyone with access to The Internet is a critic, nobody is. I am not necessarily advocating for the film discourse to retreat to academic ivory towers. What I call for is challenging the form of a film review and going beyond the idea of recommending a film or using the word ‘scintillating’ in a sentence. Because the canonical review has evolved into a star-rating, I believe we should embrace the idea of a feature review – a text that contextualizes a film as opposed to critiquing its quality. I guess I want the world of Film Twitter to reconnect with Pauline Kael and her ilk, embrace the idea of thinking critically about movies and appreciate those who already do.

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