We started this internet website in 1978 because we were sick of terrible movie critics. Things have gotten much better, mostly because of the internet. Instead of being captive to local journalists who got switched from covering the Miss Corn On The Cob Pageant to pecking out 700 words about whatever the studios told him to see, we can read opinions from whoever we want: Frustrated film students who are confident they would do better than Tarantino if they ever tried. Honest to godlessness communists. Religious nuts. Sassy housewives. People who watch hundreds of cult and DTV movies, seemingly oblivious to blockbusters, arthouse films and classics. I think you can get something out of reading them all. But there are still some critics, or reviewers if you prefer, who are terrible. And *assumes Seagal voice* I’m gonna give them a thumbs up… a thumbs up their asses.
6) The Book Report Writer:
In the beginning, this is pretty much all we had, with a few exceptions like Ebert and Kael. Little apple polishers who had gotten through life by crossing their t’s and dotting their i’s to teacher’s satisfaction. Read the book. Recount what was in the book, working from mantras such as “the topic sentence is the main idea.” Get an “A.” Then Book Report goes to college, where he is put off by majors that require him to think about, investigate or understand things. “Isn’t there a field where I can just write more book reports?”
So he discovers journalism: the art of writing without thinking. So we get the book report film review. Tom Cruise is an actor in this movie and he seems to do pretty well. There is some action and some romance. Some of the story is told in flashbacks. The end. At this point, Book Report usually adds some arbitrary rating. Six point five ice cream cones out of a possible eleven. Some people like ratings and some don’t, but I think a good review should render them moot. In the past, when we might know very little about a movie without seeing it, there was a place for book report, but Wikipedia has made him obsolete.
5) The Figure Skating Judge:
The Figure Skating Judge goes into a movie with a list of expectations and then grades the film on how well it conforms to the list just like… a, um, figure skating judge. He doesn’t try to drink in and react to what the filmmakers are expressing, generally because he lacks the capacity to do so. Plus, doing that is hard and you might make mistakes and look stupid. So the figure skating judge takes a safer route, one that allows him to maintain a position of superiority. He already knows what the movie is supposed to do, now it is up to the filmmakers to jump high enough, twirl the proper number of times and stick the landing.
So, he might look at something like the acting or dialogue and determine how well it meets his criteria: was it too formalistic, too naturalistic or just right? He’s only interested in certain types of projects and certain types of movies and, because of these prejudices, will often dismiss entire genres. For example, he might rate a horror film poorly for being too dark. (Yes, I have seen reviewers who write for major papers do this. There is such a review of Frailty for a Detroit paper which is irretrievable now, but seared into my brain forever.) The Figure Skating Judge also has more subjective criteria. For example, he often believes that characters should be likable, regardless of whether the filmmaker’s intention was to make them likable. As you’d expect, the figure skating judge also has pretty rigid criteria for what kinds of people are likable. Imagine a character in a film as Jennifer Aniston’s character in Office Space and imagine this reviewer as the manager at Chotchkie’s and you have a pretty good idea of how the likability dynamic works in his head.
4) The Boxing Judge:
Was this guy watching the same movie you were? The overwhelming majority of observers score the film one way and he scores it the other. Didn’t he hear the clunky dialogue? How could he have missed the gaping plot holes? Is he fucking blind? Was this the first movie he’d ever seen? Sometimes, people really do see things differently. Sometimes they just have a bad day at the office and make mistakes. In other cases, they perceive the flaws but enjoy the movie anyway. All of this is inevitable and understandable.
However, many critics get to go to press junkets. They get free food and free movies. They have the chance to meet some celebrities here and there. They get piles of promotional crap in the mail. Their periodicals and websites depend on ad revenue from the products they review. And on top of all that, they might get some free advertising if they do a bit of quote whoring. Did you know that many critics, like Peter Travers, provide favorable blurbs directly to studios before they even write their reviews? The Boxing Judge figures that if that if he wants to keep getting his back scratched, he had better get to scratching himself. He doesn’t have to do it every time. But just like real boxing judges know when the promoter who hooks them up with free world travel and cushy jobs has a bright young star expected to generate millions, this critic knows when a studio really thinks they have a best picture candidate or a massive blockbuster. That’s when it’s time to play ball. And it feels good to play ball. It makes you an insider. Part of the machine, rather than a bug crushed in its gears. Why not go hog wild and put Iron Man in your annual top ten list? You’re all on the same page here: Robert Downey Jr, Jon Favreau, the studio big shots and George, of GeorgesAwesomeMovieSite.com.
The most notorious Boxing Judge is Harry Knowles of Ain’t It Cool News. I think there’s another dynamic at work. There’s kind of a big play acting/groupthink thing where certain people enjoy the idea of Great Movies that everyone is on the same page about. They so enjoy the role that Jaws or The Godfather plays in their lives, beyond just the experience of watching the films, that they are trying to recreate that narrative at every opportunity and wind up forcing it. Just like we all want to believe that a Great President will come along, or fight fans want to believe in an invincible champion who will be remembered 100 years from now. The Boxing Judge might be caught up in this thinking, but some liberal greasing certainly helps things along.
3) The List Maker:
This one overlaps a lot with the others, because she is also the most common. The List Maker honestly believes that there is an objectively determined and provable hierarchy of films. She spends a lot of time going through these lists and carefully refining her own selections. Because she is a lunatic.
Lists are fine and dandy like erotic candy. I make em. We make em. You make em, probably. The point of the list is that other people will read it and be turned on to something they might have otherwise missed. Also, we all have the attention span of golden retrievers now and lists are easily digestible. Shit, I’d already forgotten that this is a list until right now.
Lists aren’t the problem, it’s belief that lists are real and that they must conform to the real truth and therefore everyone’s list should be very similar. The List Maker sees her list as a vote on what The Great List should look like. So, what we’re really talking about here is critical consensus of the kind you see when reading the votes for, say, the Sight And Sound poll or a compilation of year-end best film lists.
I think about critical consensus a lot because I am a lunatic too. It serves some useful purposes. It is good for us to all be on the some page to some extent. If nothing else, we got all those great Citizen Kane bits on The Simpsons. At the same time, I think critical consensus is largely a kind of willful mass delusion, wherein we impose the hierarchical narrative we want to see on an indifferent reality. There has to be a greatest film of all time, so we just keep yammering and yammering until we can convince ourselves that one exists. Citizen Kane is definitely better than The Bicycle Thief. Oh wait, we just figured out that Vertigo is better than both of them! People used to think Brahms was as good as Beethoven and Bach, but it turns out that they were all idiots and only now do we realize the proper ranking of composers from past centuries. Is it really difficult to see what bullshit all of this is?
While there’s something to be said for building a cannon, when you’re talking about the films released in a certain year, conformity does far more harm than good. This is the point where critics should be treasure hunting and sharing their takes on films that were overlooked or underappreciated or which might be newly appreciated from a particular perspective. A thousand films just came out in a short period of time, and they were all just dumped on the floor like a thousand shiny rocks. At this stage in the game, the critic’s job is to crawl around on her hands and knees and try to find the gems, which isn’t easy. So when a commercial says, “Crash was on over 85 critics’ top 10 lists,” I wonder why we need 85 clones performing the same function. I guess because most of them would be lost if they couldn’t copy off each other’s papers.
2) The Code Cracker:
Once again, there’s a fine line to be tread. I’m all for interpreting films, finding themes, looking for allusions, parallels, parodies and subtext. Lord knows, I often see stuff in movies that exists primarily in my head. I think we can forgive critics for being overly subjective in these ways because, at worst, it’s a window into one person’s perception of the film
The Code Cracker goes a distinctly different route. He believes that some films, or many films, have illusive but objective and true meanings that only he and his fellow illuminati have access to. The Code Cracker is out to discover what the movie is really about. The best known example of this is the way some people interpret The Shining, as covered in Room 237. It’s one thing to say that man’s bloody drive for conquest is a theme in the film, articulated by allusions to the genocide against Native Americans. It is another thing to say that the film is really about the genocide against Native Americans and that the story of Jack trying to kill his family is just window dressing for all the suckers. There are some instances where a work of art is meant as an allegory: The Crucible, Animal Farm or They Live. But these double meanings are generally meant to be perceived. It’s always seemed unlikely to me that someone would create a work of art and take the real meaning of that work to the grave, hoping that one day, 150 years later, a college junior would crack the code in his lit elective.
And I think that is the origin of the code cracker. We all get to be about college age and read some stuff we don’t really understand and figure there must be a key. For example, there must be people who “really” get classical music because they understand all sorts of secrets that are unknown to us. Eventually, most of us realize that this is a lot of hot air, largely the product of smart people trying to be exclusionary to prop up their fragile egos. Yes, there are shallower and deeper understandings of films. There is an almost incomprehensible complexity to even bad movies, how viewers interact with them and their place in the world. But there is no
Philosopher’s Sorcerer’s Stone that separates the enlightened from the benighted, and those who pretend that there is such a thing just look like fools. The Code Cracker never realized that the secret is that there is no secret. At first he tried to fake it, but eventually he came to believe his own bullshit.
1) The Ideologue:
Put away your hypocrisy whistles. Of course, RR is mostly left of center and one of our main activities is picking apart the intentional and unintentional political content and social relevance of films. Films are cultural expressions, so their place in a culture is part of what makes them interesting. The Ideologue isn’t just a Marxist or a Libertarian or a Christian. She believes that all people should share her specific agenda, that all movies should have messages supporting her specific agenda (the more heavy handed, the better) and evaluates movies almost entirely on how well they support her agenda and tell her what she wants to hear. For example, some action films have a mostly male casts. Other action films cast some women in traditionally male roles. Others take the extra step and pretend that women can do things like fighting just as well as men can and have predominantly female casts. None of these approaches are really “problematic” for a worthwhile critic interested in social issues. Each offers a new window into the world we live in. Each can be entertaining. But if your Ideologue is a feminist, her main concern will be that the movie tells her that Han Solo and Darth Vader could just as easily be women as men. Meanwhile, your Christian ideologue will expect films to pretend that homosexuality doesn’t exist because he wishes it didn’t exist. Then you have Family Nazis who think the purpose of movies is to raise their children for them, and so meltdown over things like smoking, drug use or sex (but never violence) in movies made for a broad audience, but which they wish to watch with their children for whatever reason. Once a film has offended The Ideologue, she will often then loop back around and invent or exaggerate practical or artistic flaws in a transparent effort to prove that the negative review isn’t all driven by a personal agenda. She just happens to be a stickler for costume design in movies that deal with global warming.
I’ll never forget Amy Taubin declaring that one of my favorite films, You Can Count On Me, stunk because it was conservative (gasp!) and criticizing its gender politics, then spending the rest of the review talking about how the small town setting was too much like a small town and how the film was poorly edited. If The Ideologue is offended, she’ll find something wrong with the popcorn. What’s the point of reviewing films from this perspective? The only effect is that The Ideologue constantly notifies you of which ideology she subscribes to. Just take it to tumblr.