In defense of film critics

The Monitor's movie critic weighs in on why viewers and reviewers don't always see eye-to-eye.

Why do we need film critics? It's a question that movie executives, publicists, and even readers often ask around this time of year, as we edge into summer, and the studios haul out their extravaganzas – the types of films often panned by reviewers.

The Wall Street Journal recently featured a shoot-out between its critic Joe Morgenstern and Variety editor Peter Bart on this very question. USA Today recently compared the boffo box office of critic-denigrated films such as "300" and "Wild Hogs" to the lackluster performance of lauded films such as "Zodiac" and concluded, "It's been a tough year for movie critics." The temperature may be rising on this debate, but it's not exactly news that movie critics and the mass audience don't always agree. Why should they? If all I did was rubber-stamp the verdict of the box office, I would indeed be unneeded.

Movie critics are held to a different standard than other critics. If a book critic were to pan a Jackie Collins novel, or a food critic were to point out that the Whopper isn't Kobe beef, they wouldn't be called "out of touch." Film critics, however, are expected to be cheerleaders.

But criticism – reasoned, informed, independent-minded criticism – is truly the only thing protecting the consumer from the seller in the movie marketplace prior to a film's release. That's why studios try to marginalize serious critics – the ones who can't be counted on to gush over every piece of product that skitters off the assembly line. The marginalization usually takes the form of withholding preview screenings until it's too late for the film to be reviewed on its opening weekend. Newspaper and magazine feature editors may discover that their access to movie stars has dried up if the house critic is too tough. Movie ads may be pulled.

The rise of the blurbmeisters, who can be relied on to provide snappy quote lines for ad copy, is in direct proportion to the marginalization of serious critics. Even critics who should know better have been getting blurby – it's how they please their bosses, elevate their own profile, and brand their outlet.

I love seeing myself quoted – accurately – in the ads for a movie I admire. But if I'm ever quoted saying something like, "Look out for 'The Lookout' at Oscar time," I'll know it's time to fade away.

My larger point here is that movie criticism, as a profession, cannot be looked at apart from the megabillion dollar industry to which it is tethered. One reason the public feels comfortable lashing out at a critic for having the temerity to pan "Ghost Rider" or "Norbit" is because we live in a winner culture. If a movie is cleaning up at the box office it is considered heretical to point out that the movie is still lousy.

Part of the reason for the increasing vehemence toward movie critics is the rise of the Internet. Blogginess has overtaken critical discourse on the Web. But this opinion-making – I'm being polite in calling it that – is not the same thing as real criticism. Because movies are such an accessible and relatively cheap form of entertainment, as opposed to, say, the opera or ballet, everybody can feel like a movie critic.

I'm not saying that film critics should only come in one size – that only through years of cogitating on the classics can one be properly certified. Sometimes the most interesting pieces on a movie are written by the nonprofessionals: by sociologists and political writers or critics from the other arts. Or by just plain folks. The problem with much so-called serious movie criticism today is that it is too self-referential and insular. Too much of it reads like it was written by people who only know movies and haven't lived a life.

The same is true, of course, of the moviemakers themselves. One reason, for example, why I am repelled by some of the violence I see in movies is that it looks to have been perpetrated by directors who haven't lived much of a life, either. They know how to film violence but not its consequences.

My approach to criticism – and I've been at it since the 1970s – is simple. I write to please myself and hope that it will please you too, too. And I don't mean by this that you must always, or even often, agree with me. Movies, even trashy ones, often affect us deeply, which is why disagreements over their quality can become highly charged and personal.

This is as it should be. I can only practice my profession honestly if I am true to my own feelings. I want to convey why a movie matters to me, or why it disgusts me, or leaves me cold. And everybody's experience is unique. That's why there is no such thing as "objective" criticism. Criticism is an art, not a science.

And if I happen to love a movie that's a box-office hit, so much the better. From "The Godfather" movies to "Jaws" to "Dumb and Dumber" to "The Lord of the Rings," I've often been on the right side of the cash register. But this is tangential to what I do. If it wasn't, I'd be in the advertising business instead of the movie critic business. I'd like to think there is still a difference between the two.

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