March 25th, 2017

On criticism, blogging and entitlement

Film critics are an insecure lot. In the two weeks since I’ve been putting my own thoughts to (digital) paper here at Cinema Quest I’ve seen two local writers complain on Twitter about people not in the film criticism establishment attempting to critique film.

The first was Anthony Morris, DVD editor of The Big Issue and a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Geelong Times, Empire Online (where he gave the season one DVD of It’s Garry Shandling’s Show a 5-star review, instantly putting him in my good books), and – despite his Twitter profile listing it as “TheVine.com” – thevine.com.au. He said:

Now I don’t know what prompted him to say that, but as someone who would love to make money from writing about media in some future life I most certainly include myself in the group of people he sees as wanting to “walk into” his line of work, so should I take offense to this? Do I take it as a warning to “back off, bitch”?

I don’t know Mr. Morris and I’m sure he’s a genuine guy with a passion for what he does (although he would later complain about it), but he seems to have a sense of entitlement towards his position that, in my opinion, is unwarranted. No one is more “worthy” to be a film critic than anyone else, regardless of how many film theory degrees they hold. By its very nature film criticism is a subjective field, therefore anyone can do it as long as they find an audience with which they connect. That might sound like I’m trying to cheapen the field, but finding and connecting with an audience is harder to achieve than it sounds, and that’s what sets good critics apart from ordinary ones.

Mr. Morris, as a successful critic, has achieved that. But what’s wrong with someone else trying to find their own audience? 17 years ago, was Mr. Morris not in the same position as those he now decries?

It’s never a good look when established names within an industry are seen to be protecting their own position at the expense of others at the bottom trying to work their way up. I imagine, but can’t know, that Mr. Morris is concerned that if publishers can get high-quality reviews from Joe Blogger they’ll stop paying him for the privilege, much like how ten years ago every 13-year-old with a pirated copy of Photoshop was suddenly a web designer willing to offer their services for free, and “real” web designers with education and experience suffered.

But if Mr. Morris is a good enough writer – and, obviously, he is – he need not worry about pretenders like me and whoever prompted his tweets horning in on his racket. The 13-year-old Photoshop hacks didn’t take any of the good business away from the good designers because they operated in different worlds. Clients who wanted quality work and were willing to pay for it went to the real designers; clients who didn’t care went to the kids (and weren’t missed by the professionals). Some of those 13-year-olds eventually turned into good designers and might have taken some business away from the established players, but that’s life in a free market society.

I wonder what Mr. Morris thinks of Clem Bastow, who for many years was (and still is) Melbourne’s best local music writer before she turned her talents to film criticism at The Vine. Did she just “walk into” the job, or is she allowed to write about film because she was already in the inner circle? If you read this, Anthony, I’d genuinely like to know.

The second writer I wanted to talk about is Brad Nguyen, who is part of MIFF’s official Blogathon clique and co-edits the film website Screen Machine, where I have enjoyed reading his MIFF diaries over the last two weeks.

The target of his ire is not bloggers or amateur film writers, but rather the general public who choose to rate films on websites like MUBI. In the introduction to his diary for day 13 of MIFF, he took issue with a competition that MIFF is running where they encourage the film-going public to rate each movie they see at MIFF and enter the draw to win a PlayStation with a subscription to MUBI.

I’m going to quote most of it here because, though I disagree with what Mr. Nguyen says, he puts his point forward with eloquence and conviction:

For a film critic, nothing could be more abominable!

It’s abominable because the star-rating system is the antithesis of the work that critics do. The star system represents the commodification of films, the reduction of the cacophony of signs that is a movie to an arbitrary numerical value. Criticism is on the side of meaning, working out how sounds and images produce meaning. Criticism enters into a dialogue with a film and it is only through this conversation that the film lives as art. A star-rating designates the moment we pronounce a film as dead.

It is true that a critic ultimately makes an evaluative statement. This film is good. That film is bad. But evaluation is a very small part of criticism. The first duty of the critic is to be open to the film, to be humble, to be ready to experience something new. One is then captured by something—a single moment perhaps, or the totality of the film, a sense of the film’s strategies—and this sets us off. We talk about the film’s language, what it is saying. But we don’t just talk about the film. Because a film is never just a film. It is an extension on other films, other ideas, places, histories.

When the evaluation is made (and sometimes it is not), it is made not because of some universally applicable standard but because we have our own convictions about other films, other ideas, places, histories. The evaluation is made not to assert one’s personal taste but as part of a process of working out how we feel about the world. Love it. Hate it. Sure, why not? But why? For criticism, this question of why is the most important.

I actually don’t disagree with what he says about film critics and what they do. It is a noble and difficult endeavour to draw meaning out of a work of art and communicate that to others, and can be unfairly misunderstood as simply opining on whether a film is “good” or not.

But why should mere mortals like my older brother be discouraged from summing up a film on a five-point scale?

He couldn’t care less about entering into a “dialogue with a film”, but if he says a movie is worth five stars on his personal scale, I take notice. Why? Because I respect his opinion in these simple terms. Sure, he can’t dissect why the film is great like Roger Ebert can, but I can sometimes get more useful information from the number of stars my brother gives a film than I can from reading hundreds of words written by a professional critic.

As much as film reviewers might not like it, a lot of people don’t actually care about why films work (or don’t work). Personally I love nothing more than reading A.O. Scott’s work, but I’m also aware that there are people out there who just want to say “this movie is great!”, or “it was OK”, without having to have a serious discussion about the nature of film, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It takes all kinds, and there’s room for us all whether we’re in the film criticism inner circle or not.

About Bradley J. Dixon

Bradley J. Dixon is a freelance writer and blogger from Melbourne.

Comments

  1. Latauro says:

    Bradley, this is a well-argued piece, so I can say with some certainty that you are not automatically lumped into the people that Tony was referring to.

    However, there is a large contingent of people who think that having an opinion on a film and having access to a keyboard is enough to qualify you as a professional writer. The internet is awash with blogs of people saying largely the same thing, and saying it without a whole lot of articulation.

    There are many talented writers (Anthony Morris included) who have been doing it for years. Longevity isn’t automatically a free pass, but in many cases, a writer will develop a style that is both unique and useful to the reader. (I wrote for a website called Ain’t It Cool News for eight years. The reviews I wrote for the first seven are basically rubbish. But that’s just me.)

    The freelance world is incredibly tough, and although I like to imagine that writers of Anthony’s calibre are secure in their profession, their (our) world is awash with those who think they are more qualified, mostly because they hold different opinions on specific films!

    Although nothing can replace the well-written critique, the most valuable film critic is one you’ve built up a relationship with over a long period of time. Even if you disagree with them 100% of the time, their opinions can still be a useful guide as to what you may or may not enjoy. Your brother is a great example: you know him very well, and when he tells you what he thinks of a film, you know enough about him to gauge whether it’s a film you’d like or not. If your brother introduced you to a friend of his of similar age, background, and disinterest about “entering a dialogue with a film”, this friend’s three star rating for Cowboys and Aliens would tell you nothing about the film. A three star rating from your brother would tell you a lot.

    Someone reminded me the other night of an Aaron Sorkin quote: “Everyone deserves a voice. Not everyone deserves a microphone.” The growing cacophony of indistinguishable monologues across the internet seems to support this, and I join Anthony in despairing at this horde. But as you seem to be someone with something to say, and you possess the ability to say it, you’re someone I’d like to read more of. There definitely is an inner circle of crits, and I can attest that it’s a whole lot of fun, but it’s only fun because it’s so damned inclusive, not exclusive.

    • Thanks Lee, I completely agree with you about building a level of trust with certain reviewers, that’s why I think it’s a great thing that any man and their dog can start writing about film (or music, or restaurants, or wine) and attempt to find people who trust them.

      The down-side to this is that if criticism and review is a job that “just anybody” can do, people think that’s it’s a job that just anybody can do WELL. But as Anthony mentioned, if you’re no good you’ll get found out pretty quickly. (I’m waiting for that tap on the shoulder myself.)

      But to your point about there being a huge number of people with nothing more than an opinion and a keyboard… well, that’s all I have too. I’m glad to hear you say that you think I have something to say, because that’s exactly why I believe my critical opinions are worth expressing, but really at the end of the day we’re each just a regular person with an opinion, a set of experiences/biases, and a voice.

      That is a fantastic quote from Sorkin, which makes a lot of sense, but I just hope that the microphones of the world aren’t off-limits to people like me.

      Thanks again for the comment.

  2. Good post! Thanks for the many (unwarranted) kind words about my reviewing abilities. Not sure I’d go so far as to claim I connect with an audience, but it’s nice of you to say so.

    I do agree that film reviewing – and all forms of reviewing really – is an area where the quality of your work alone should speak for you, rather than the places where that work appears. It’s only recently that I’ve listed where I write for in my Facebook and twitter profiles, and that only as a response to people asking me where I write.

    (put another way, there are some critics in high profile venues I don’t rate, and plenty toiling for free who I think do great work)

    Having zero qualifications in film theory (I do have a BA in journalism), I’m not exactly one to claim people need qualifications (beyond passion) to write or talk about film either. I know some reviewers whose film studies have added much to their work; others seem to have just seen it as a dictionary full of buzzwords to disguise their lack of insight.

    In short: if you can write intelligently / appropriately about film, then you’re “worthy” in my book. End of story.

    As for the tweets you quoted, they weren’t in response to a wave of bloggers threatening my job or anything like that – I’d had a conversation with someone who’d suggested fairly heavily that film reviewing wasn’t a “real” job because it was just telling people what I thought about film. They were of the opinion that hey, anyone can do that! Which is true, but understating the case a little.

    Realistically, there’s a lot that goes into successfully reviewing film, and it’s not really possible to “walk in” to the job for any length of time without readers picking up on your flaws. It’s like any moderately skilled profession: part of the job is making it look easy, and I guess having someone say as much to me was a compliment.

    • Hey Anthony, thanks for reading this (and, more importantly, not mistaking it for a personal insult).

      I think you definitely connect with an audience. The only reason I saw your tweets at all was because I follow you, and I follow you because I recognise and enjoy your writing in some of the places it appears. I know I’m not the only one.

      I guess I misunderstood the intention of what you said, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about the last couple of weeks because I’ve been reading a lot more film criticism than I usually would. And I know that most of the writers I respect, especially in Melbourne, worked extremely hard to get into their current positions, so it rubbed me the wrong way to see someone discourage others from doing the same. (Or so I thought, anyway.)

      After all, we’re here because we love film and love writing about film even if we’re not published anywhere.

      • Bradley Nguyen says:

        Hi there, interesting article. I’m glad you wrote at length about my initial diary entry and didn’t just give it a star rating!

        So to respond — While I’m no doubt insecure about a whole lot of things, my diary entry was not motivated by feeling threatened by the general public. I’m arguing for, and encouraging other people to engage in, a film discourse based on ideas and meanings, rather than numbers.

        This is especially important with a film festival where one encounters an inordinate number of “difficult” films that we’re not really sure what to make of. We can talk about our difficulty with the film, our confusion, moments that made us uncomfortable. But I don’t like the way MIFF induces us to not give films the time of day, to immediately reduce films to a number that only reflects our individual taste.

        The debate I’m trying to define is between films as art versus films as commodity. Star ratings are able to tell you something useful based on your knowledge of the reviewer, and plenty of people I respect use stars. But my problem with stars is that they ultimately treat films as if they were no different from wallpaper or a pair of sneakers.

  3. Sorry, forgot to add that, as I think Clem Bastow is an excellent writer, I have no trouble whatsoever with her reviewing films anywhere she can. In fact, I’ve offered her DVD reviewing work at The Big Issue on a number of occasions.

    (conflict of interest alert: I know her personally and count her as a friend)

  4. Rob Dixon says:

    Hi Brad, an excellent site… and I knew a 13 year old once that did just as you described, I knew then that he’d end up making his mark in a public forum.

    I see the argument you make, and even though Anthony Morris has graciously responded to the points you made about him, it still holds water where many critics are concerned. I read a lot of art critics and I think they suffer equally from what you describe here.

    Mr Nguyen’s comment on the ‘commodification’ of film struck a chord with me. Film is art… but more often than not, sadly, it’s ‘commercial art’.

    Return on investment can often be the main reason why many films even exist in the first place. For me, for that kind of film, any artistic consideration is a complete anathema because of the artistic compromises that must be made in the process of getting such a film to public release.

    Keep up the good work.

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  1. […] whole debate reminds me of a previous post of mine (On criticism, blogging and entitlement), written in response to local blogger Brad Nguyen slamming the idea of star ratings for many of […]

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