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.