How to handle the critics

February 11, 2011

It’s become common, with a canon of criticism so popular and abundant, that film goers start to develop loyalties — not so much to the films themselves, but to the critics who make a living reviewing them.

You’re out there — the person who aligns himself or herself to a single critic’s picks and passes as if the critic’s preference is their own. There are also those who put much in the critics as a whole — the ones who only watch the Certified Fresh films on Rotten Tomatoes and would rather read a film to death than — god forbid — watch something less than great.

Sarcasm is bitter, but in all seriousness, I get quickly sick of the critics. As art goes, no, there is no rubric for a “good” film, but critics nonetheless wield the general stamp of approval. And as far as my push for independence from their influence goes, I realize their hold on me is no weaker than their hold on much of the film-going world. After all, most of my articles are reviews. In some ways, I’ve become part of the monster.

But I resist. I review movies, but I love some movies that most, if not all, critics wouldn’t exactly call top-caliber, and while I can identify the blocks that build a “good” movie and judge those for the world, I can at the same time avoid such a utilitarian view when watching a film for myself. And as far as understanding the way an artform functions, it seems that we reviewers overemphasize to death.

Don’t forget standards — but then again, we lose something in blindly following them. Those who treasure the film experience — and not simply each film as a narrative commodity — know that almost every movie offers something new. I can’t go back in time and make every film “great,” but while I’m sitting in the theater, I’m not afraid to appreciate even the most basic of innovations — a witty few lines of dialogue or an impressive camera shot I haven’t seen before.

There’s a way to see beyond the critics. And the way I watch films isn’t — or shouldn’t be — unique. (But I see the irony too — don’t always listen to the film writers you read, including me.)

Popular film criticism, while presented as artistic analysis, in many ways feeds the economic hierarchy of the film industry. In conjunction with studios, critics box in the market structure of Hollywood, judging each film against preconceived notions of what that film should be in relation to its place in the market. Audiences use the critics to find the films they think best fit their idea of preference, and then financially reward critical suggestion. If you’re looking for a screwball comedy, the critics will tell you which one you’ll like. If you’re looking for a character-driven period piece, the critics will steer you that way. It sounds somewhat extreme, but we watch what critics tell us to watch.

The function of critics in our viewing choices isn’t unexpected or surprising. Hollywood is a machine, and much like movie marketing, critics direct viewers. To push against that is, to some extent, to lose touch with society’s view of the medium.

So, while I like to put the critics away, there needs to be a more complex way to manage their influence. While it’s tempting to ignore them, and also tempting to abuse them, I often find it helpful to have them in the back pocket, but carry an awareness of an artistic achievement beyond them that only I can define. And I would recommend the same to anyone. Like any art, film is significantly a social medium of exchange, but is meaningless without the individual’s interaction with the work.

And that’s the most important takeaway we can gain from examining the critics’ effect on film-going: We have our own critical eyes that supersede those of the critics — all we lack is the training and the specialization to make us think and write for others to understand our standards.

We should each have our own standards of what makes something “good,” or what makes something fit within our expectations.

The critics know what they like, and they’ll tell you; in the end, avoiding panned films like “The Roommate” will probably save you money and sanity. But don’t use critics as your own critical mind. When it comes to your entertainment, you know more than them.

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