A Brief Thesis on Movie Critics
Dear movie critics,
Why? Why are so many of you the way you are?
It is ironic that I am saying this considering that I have written so many reviews for The Tartan. Growing up, I also loved reading reviews from critics like Roger Ebert. Even if I didn’t agree with everything he said (and he had some baffling takes), he genuinely loved movies and the magic they brought. He would lovingly describe the aspects of movies he appreciated and his own language would bring the movies to life. He would articulate the aspects I like better than I could, and that inspired me to get more into movies and start taking a closer look at them. Eventually, I tried my hand at being a movie critic.
Unfortunately, in doing so, I discovered that being a critic is the worst thing ever. I have now written so many reviews of movies in this newspaper, and I don’t like three-fourths of them. I tried figuring out why being a critic is bad or why those reviews are bad, and after a lot of thinking, this is the long explanation I have come up with.
We have the following four groups of people that need to be considered: artists, critics, financiers, and audience. The first three groups are fairly obvious, but it’s the word “audience” that is extremely broad. Audience always needs to be considered by artists, critics, and financiers within the context they are in. Unfortunately for us all, none of those three groups are aligned in how they choose to handle the audience.
The split between artists and financiers in terms of how they view the audience is obvious, but it’s not as far apart as people think it would be. Artists do have to find ways to properly market themselves and their art so people will want to engage with it. Financiers need to make sure they make money so the studio can stay afloat. The goal is the same for both, but since financiers are so much more concerned with running a business in a cut-throat industry than making good art that they often suffocate the artist in the process. The resulting art that comes out ends up not being well received by the audience in many of those cases anyway, or it’s not promoted properly and immediately forgotten. The opposite direction can be true where the studio is trying to do their best to give the artists all the resources they need and the artists still mess up, such as the showrunners of Game of Thrones. But more often than not, it is the financiers causing these kinds of issues. This has especially gotten worse with the monopolization of intellectual property by corporations like Disney and AT&T.
But the split between the artist and the critic is not as obvious. Artists and critics may both share the goal of wanting something good that they’re happy with, but they have separate roles. If pop culture could be defined as a melting pot, the artists are the ones tossing everything in the pot while the critics are the people who just kind of happen to be in the kitchen and want to be part of the fun without actually putting ingredients in the pot. The artists need to keep adding to the pot trying to guess what on earth both the audience and critics will like, while critics are trying to critically analyze the pot while attempting to capture an audience who will actually bother to read what they have to say. The natural problem with this is that everyone’s definition of fun is different, and monetization and commodification of art favors certain kinds of fun over others.
This leads us to the link between critics and financiers. Prior to social media and the Internet, the word of critics in newspapers and other print media publications was effective at generating good buzz for movies. Conversely, bad press would kill audience interest. Press screenings were and still are important, and readers would stick with reviewers they found reliable, but once social media and the internet took off, the critics were no longer the primary method of generating buzz. You don't need to be in film journalism anymore to have a relevant movie opinion. Now anyone with a blog or a YouTube account can make reviews. The definition of critic expanded because the line between audience and critic blurred.
Ultimately, critics also need to make money, and in the age of the Internet, journalism is not making as much money as it once did since online advertising doesn’t pay as much as print advertising. On top of that, press screenings are much more limited now that so many more critics are around who can get access to these screenings. Now I’m not claiming that these reviewers are being paid off nowadays, but it is revealing that the reactions at every press screening for every studio release is the same, vague set of phrases and sentences each time, such as, “WOW! Some people will love it, and some people will hate it!”
The result is that many reviews are generic now. It’s like critics have a list of boxes they need to check for a review to maximize readership rather than give their actual thoughts on a movie. Review aggregate sites like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic exacerbate this, and they’re a major reason for the decline in critics’ credibility. The YouTube film sphere (which I’ll get to later) likes to make a lot of fun of film journalism now, and they’re absolutely right to do so. At least 60% of the Marvel movies are not good yet they have overwhelmingly positive critical consensus, even if many of the “positive” reviews weren’t all that positive. If I have to read the line “there’s something for everyone” or “this will please die-hard Marvel fans” one more time, I will personally DM Anonymous on Twitter to get Rotten Tomatoes taken down permanently.
Additionally, cultural analysis ends up pandering to audiences in eerily similar ways film financiers pander to audiences. I remember reading reviews for “Crazy Rich Asians” and practically every review spent half the time talking about the diverse cast rather than the movie. In fact, any movie with diverse casting is always the biggest deal ever for critics, but in the process they’ll cheapen the importance of diversity by espousing generalized rhetoric focusing on its importance and not about how it fits the story. Opinions are also sensationalized and exaggerated for clicks and views, which is incredibly frustrating because then the article itself will be a worthless addition to the overall discourse for a movie. Everyone lost their mind over “Joker” over its violence and the decision to portray a mentally unstable, white mass murderer, even though that movie had no bite and barely barked.
But the biggest problem of being a critic is that, fundamentally, none of our opinions matter. This is a hard pill to swallow, but I think all 7.8 billion people on this planet need to do it. Your opinion isn’t gospel, and your film taste isn’t "good." You just like what you like and if others happen to like it, that’s great. If others hate it, that’s also great. That’s part of the fun. The best film criticism is now in the form of video essays on YouTube, mainly the ones that focus a lot on breaking down the filmmaking craft and artistry. But those who function more as standard reviewers are still mostly insufferable, and it’s because many of those reviewers try so hard to distinguish between a “good” movie and a “bad” movie like there are objective ways to do that consistently.
The cynicism in the film community is getting worse, and the cynicism is translating into reviews that don’t feel like they talk about movies lovingly anymore. Instead, cynicism is part of the review’s brand, with critics trying to really prove that they’re not like the other critics who just blindly give bland studio releases good reviews. I was in this phase for a while, and unfortunately there are many of my movie reviews that do this and I simply don’t like them anymore. One of my favorite reviewers on YouTube is Chris Stuckmann, and he got so tired of getting angry and cynical about movies that he now only reviews movies on his channel that he likes. He also doesn’t assign grades or ratings to anything anymore. He’s right though. Why bother trying to do that? It’s exhausting. Just enjoy what you want, and at the same time, be wary of the commodification and monetization angles that insidiously permeate the industry like they always have.
Ultimately, that doesn’t mean critics are useless. Analyzing media is always going to be relevant, and it’s good to have people talk about what elements of a movie resonated and what elements didn’t. Those healthy discussions should be encouraged. But, as Anton Ego said at the end of “Ratatouille,” bad art will always be more meaningful than good criticism. Critics just need to always keep that in their head as they write. I certainly will be, and I hope other critics try their best to do that too.
That’s the end of my rant, critics. You can go back to being sad about the infantilization of the movie audience (which will be an article for another day).