Q&A on film criticism

An old acquaintance of mine e-mailed me some questions last week, seeking responses to aid him in writing a paper of some kind. Now, I shudder to think what sort of academic exercise can be improved by input from me, but I’m always glad to help out a friend. I thought readers here might be interested in the discussion, so here it is.

1. Why do you think film criticism is important? (Or better yet: it seems as if so many people have disdain for critics. How do you justify your job?)

I think criticism is important in any artistic field. As much as artists would like to work in a vacuum, the fact is they don’t. They work in the real world, where not everyone is going to appreciate their art just because they went to the trouble of making it. Ideally, good film critics help to elevate the art by encouraging good productions and scorning bad ones. Ideally, critics help inform audiences, who in turn reward worthy films with their box offices dollars and punish the bad ones by staying away.

Ideally. Realistically, of course, lots of people go watch terrible movies even when every critic says they shouldn’t. And most of the time, those people come out of the movie saying, “You know, that really wasn’t very good” or “That was only OK.”

I also justify my job with the fact that ain’t nobody forcing anyone to read my reviews, much less heed them. You want to be a film critic, too, and offer a voice contrary to mine? I ain’t stoppin’ you.

2. How do you judge the value of a film? Are all films subjected to the same criteria? Were there any films you wish you ahd given a better/worse rating to?

That’s actually three questions, you know.

My basic philosophy in reviewing films is this: What is the film trying to accomplish? Does it succeed? Why or why not?

Figuring out what a film is trying to do is sometimes tricky, often because the film’s advertising campaign has falsely represented it. The trailers make it look like a comedy and it turns out to be a drama — in which case it’s not fair to criticize it for not being funny, because that’s not what it was TRYING to do.

You have to look at the film on its own merits, not comparing it to the ads, not comparing it to other movies you’ve seen, not comparing it to anything other than itself. What’s it trying to do? Is it succeeding?

All films are subjected to the same criteria: They have to be good. I don’t care if a movie is trying to do something that I’m not particularly interested in seeing done. The only question is, did it do a good job of doing it? If it did, it’s a good movie.

Sometimes I’ll see a movie a second time and decide it’s not as good or as bad as I initially thought, but meh, what can you do? The reviews are honest descriptions of how I felt about the movie after one viewing — which is how many viewings the average movie-goer will give it, too. So that’s probably fair.

3. Have you ever given a positive review to a film that your contemporaries (namely the other Utah critics) despised? Do you ever discuss or compare notes with other critics?

Oh yeah, we disagree often enough. (I’m in Portland now, not SLC anymore, but we Portlanders disagree, too.) Usually it’s by degrees: One person thinks it’s pretty good while another things it’s mediocre. Someone LOVING it while someone else HATES it not very common, at least not among the critics I know personally. I see some online, though, who will give something an F that I gave a B, and I wonder what the DEAL is with those people.

I try not to discuss a movie too thoroughly before I’ve actually written my review. (I definitely don’t read any other reviews before I’m done with mine.) That’s mostly because I don’t want my opinion to be swayed too much with second-guessing and with observations that didn’t come from my own experience.

There’s usually some general conversation on the way out of the theater — a snarky one-liner about it or an expression of surprise at its quality, or something — and maybe a little more talking in the idle moments before the next day’s screening. (“What about that thing last night?” “Yeah, that was bad,” etc.) But it’s not usually very in-depth. Let’s face it, the average movie doesn’t really warrant a lot of in-depth discussion.

4. What was the absolute worst movie you have ever seen?

I have to go back to Tom Green’s “Freddy Got Fingered,” which was bad on so many levels.

5. What is the best movie you have ever seen?

That’s cheating! That’s the same question as, “What’s your favorite movie?,” and everyone knows better than to ask a film critic that. You’ll get 10 answers, and they change daily.

6. Clearly, there are “critics” (a la Larry King and Jeanne Wolf) who shill for virtually every movie but seem to have some credibility to the general public, and then there are Critics, who are trying to give an honest review, whether it is favorable or not. How do you feel about “critics”? Do they weaken or strengthen your credibility with your readership?

We call them quote whores. They’ll claim to like anything, as long as it gets them quoted. We hate them. I don’t think they do have any credibility with audiences. People see “It’s great!” in the commercials and don’t bother to notice who said it. If they did notice, they’d notice the same names popping up again and again and start doubting the opinions of those “critics.”

The quote whores make it hard for real critics to get taken seriously, for sure. Look at it this way. Movie reviews have one of two purposes: They’re either to offer interpretive claims about a film’s merits from a strictly academic standpoint, thus elevating the art form; or they help movie-goers decide what to do on a Friday night. (Most newspaper reviews are of the second variety; publications like The New Yorker get into the other kind a little bit more.) Well, quote whores make a mockery of both goals. They add nothing insightful to the world of film commentary, and they offer no reliable guidance in choosing what movie to watch this weekend, either. Their ONLY purpose is to help studios promote their movies. They don’t help you, the film-goer, at all.