I Hate Film Criticism

by Michael Bird on October 26, 2011

in Columns,The Contrarian

In the comments from my previous column, fellow Scene-Stealers writer Trey Hock made the point that there is a distinct difference between being a film critic and being a film fan. The implication was that my column was not critical, but rather written from the perspective of a film fan. He is right, and I was glad he brought it up.

He also suggested that perhaps I should have titled my column The Apologist and not The Contrarian. Interestingly enough, that was the original, ironically-chosen title for this column. It became The Contrarian for several reasons, not least of all for the simple fact that I don’t feel a discordant defense of something is inherently an apology. It is just discordant. To assume it apologetic is to assume that there is something for which a film should apologize, and that is decidedly contrary to the primary philosophy behind the column.

I meant to write something of a manifesto or mission statement for this column that would appear with the site’s redesign, formally launching this column. However, when Star Wars dropped on blu-ray, I decided to jump in feet-first, as writing about the release was topical and obviously quite near and dear to my heart. So given all that, indulge my backing up a little…

Figure 1.1By way of clarification, I should state it simply: I hate film criticism. That’s right – you read correctly.

Actually, I don’t really like any contemporary media criticism. I feel it is built on the faulty premise that any opinion could be at all definitive. I’ve been guilty of writing criticism in the past on several occasions — and I may not have committed my last sin in that regard — but I’m really trying to break the habit.

I have a considerable quantity of personal distaste for criticism, but also a dispassionate, reasoned concern: There is no such thing as a normative critical opinion. That era is dead, if it ever truly existed.

In the age of home theaters, as broadcast television struggles to maintain viewership numbers and movie studios package their films in cheap 3D gimmicks to boost box office, the old media machines are slowly learning that the age of communal entertainment is dying. The record industry cannot even seem to package an entire album of songs without iTunes making a case for selling off the component parts for a dollar each.

As an audience, we like what we like, we consume it when we please and we don’t much care how mainstream our opinions are anymore. When niche is king, who even cares about normative positions? Critics and… marketing executives? Aren’t the former really a more discriminating version of the latter?

Figure 1.2On a personal level, I find definitive statements offensive. Such statements tend to connote that the writer assumes his or her opinion supreme and all other opinions in error – which is a fairly arrogant presumption. It may make for compelling and controversial copy, but it just turns me off. Of all the things to have strong feelings about, how creatively successful a film is should rank just above whether or not McDonald’s should make the McRib available year-round.

I get that people feel passionately about film and I think that’s fine. I also recognize that some people enjoy arguing about film and feel like that’s a good way to spend their time. Power to them — I hope they enjoy themselves. For my view, if no opinion is definitive and arguing taste is an unending task, why commit any amount of means toward something that has no achievable end?

Of course there are formal considerations for any craft that mark whether or not it has been carefully practiced, but as for personal appreciation for such work, it is a wide-open question. The contemporary art experience is built on the personalization of the media we consume. If an actor’s character is a totem for the human experience, we tend to find our appreciation for the totem defined by comparing our experience or judgement with that of the character. The appreciation for that totem is as fundamentally unique as any individual among an audience. Accordingly, the individual’s mileage will vary.

Figure 1.3The intent of this column is not to suggest the reader reconsider a film from a critical perspective — at least not primarily. Rather, it makes the point that films generally find their audience and you needn’t be an outright idiot to appreciate those films that critics (even a majority of them) commonly loathe. If you’re the kind of asshole who takes delight in telling your aunt that she’s an idiot for liking Tyler Perry films, you probably needn’t bother reading this column. Those films make her happy — what do you care and why would you want to take that away from her?

That raises another point I wish to be clear about … Regarding comments on my column: I may or may not read them – don’t be offended if I don’t respond. I appreciate that people want to engage with what I write, when they do. Maybe you vehemently disagree, or rather wish to validate what I’ve written. I would hope that whatever your response is, you know that I, by default, totally respect that you feel that way. It’s a blank check. If you think me a genius or an abject idiot, you’re probably right. Well-spotted.

Either way, arguing taste is a waste of time. So I’m probably not going to play along. I come from a school of journalism that feels the responsive reader should get the final say. I’ll not be engaging in back-and-forth anymore, but please, write whatever you like within this site’s guidelines.

As my next column will be a fan’s defense for the pair of Matrix sequels, I suspect there might be hot and cold-running responses on tap.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Megan Stuke October 26, 2011 at 9:36 am

Dude, I don’t care who you are or how postmodern your theory is, ain’t nobody gonna tell me that Paranormal 2 wasn’t empirically BAD. ;)

(But yes, I agree that criticism is mostly pointless and taste is inherently subjective, and truth is made not found and all that.)

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2 dbmurray October 26, 2011 at 9:54 am

This is probably the most well reasoned argument I’ve read for fan-based analysis of film.

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