Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Movie Critics

I meant to get to this earlier...

I was very interested in this post from Jim Emerson about movie critics which deals with some of the same issues that I've brought up on this blog.

I basically agree with Jim, although I think he raises some tricky questions which he then ignores (at least in this post, I'm pretty sure this is stuff that he's aware of and thinks about).

He writes:

[M]ost movies are also crap! Even if they're relatively enjoyable at the time, they're forgettable and disposable, like yesterday's lunch. Imagine if you had to spend more time writing about movies than you actually do seeing them. Because most reviews take longer than 90 minutes to write, which is probably why many critics prefer writing about films that give them something to write about. Something that may be worth thinking about after you pay for your parking.

Now, I know a job is a job, and if I was trying to eke out a career as a movie reviewer, I know that I'd write about whatever movies my editor wanted me to. And it can be fun to write take-downs of stuff like Wild Hogs, but I'm sure, more often, it's just kind of a chore.

But if you're a critic like Jim who knows that a lot of movies that get released are going be stuff like Wild Hogs, then I think it might be a good idea to at least try to approach them in the manner they're intended. I mean, it's not like it should be surprising that Wild Hogs is no Sideways.

Actually, I shouldn't even be talking about Wild Hogs, which I haven't seen and I'm sure is probably pretty awful, but check out the Metacritic scores for Dumb and Dumber and Kingpin, two of the greatest examples of gross-out comedy (here's a terrific essay on Kingpin by Alan Dale, my favorite film critic when it comes to writing about comedy). Most movie critics don't like even the best examples of this kind of movie, so, of course, they're not going to like mediocre ones.

Sean Collins brought up a similar issue in his exchange with Jim Treacher about the critical response to 300: he questioned why Slate had Dana Stevens review the film when she's on record as not liking war movies. Now, I think it can be good to get a kind of dissenting opinion-style piece: to read a review of a movie by someone who just doesn't like that kind of thing in general. Sometimes an outside perspective can provide insight that "insiders" are too close to see. (For instance, I'd note the genre of review where "that kind of thing in general" is experimental/art films and the outside perspective is along the lines of "what obscure, pretentious nonsense".)

In general, though, I get more out of a review or piece of criticism written by someone who is sympathetic to the kind of movie being reviewed, even if not to the actual movie itself. That is, I generally get more out of a negative review of something like 300 written by someone who appreciates Peckinpah movies and wuxia flicks and war movies than one written by someone who just doesn't respond to these kind of things, across the board.

Likewise, I doubt that Alan Dale will write about Wild Hogs (although he might write about Norbit), but I'd be more interested in his take on the movie, simply because I know that he can appreciate and enjoy a good gross-out comedy when he sees it. (On the experimental/art side, even though these movies generally don't float my boat, I tend to get more out of criticism written by folks who do dig this stuff - like Michael Sicinski - then I do from that written by people who's views/tastes are closer to my own).

I don't really have a big summing up point or even a major gripe. I'll just note that this phenomenon - critics writing lots and lots about kinds of movies that they, essentially, aren't that interested in/jazzed by - plays a big part in why professional film criticism is such a wonky, wobbly thing. For instance, as Jim points out, a critic is going to be thankful for a movie that gives him or her something to write about, i.e, a movie that makes their job easier and/or more interesting. This just might mean that certain kinds of movies - those which lend themselves to being written about - are going to tend to have a better reputation among critics than an "equally good" movie that speaks for itself.

Not a big problem, by any means, but one people who write about film and read about film should be aware of.

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