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The Five Keys to Understanding (Film) Criticism

With the release of DC’s Suicide Squad, the gulf between audiences and critics has widened, at least momentarily. Audiences, the filmmakers and actors who worked on the film and the DC fanbase have reacted to the film’s critical paddling mostly by pushing back against the critics who took umbrage with things like the film’s pacing, characterizations, and….well everything, really. This isn’t the first time a film has sparked the audiences vs critics debate, or even the first DC movie, and whenever this happens, the same arguments seem to be brought up by the anti-critic contingent.

“Who are YOU to say what movies are good or bad? If you enjoy it, isn’t that what counts?”
“What do you want, it’s entertainment. Do you want all movies to be Citizen Kane?”
“Critics are just snobs who hate genre movies. They want to ruin everyone’s fun”

For film critics, it’s tiresome to see these same arguments trotted out year after year, especially since many of them are ridiculously off-base. These arguments all too often completely fail to understand the critical mindset, the value of criticism as a cultural practice, and even the nature of art itself. Or at the very least, mainstream narrative art. Bear in mind here that a great deal of what we’ll be talking about gets a little hazy when discussing a non-narrative and experimental film. The divide between audiences and critics seems most pronounced when it comes to North American narrative films, particularly summer blockbusters, so that’s primarily what we’ll be talking about here today.

And we’re here today because of these arguments, these misconceptions about critics, need to be put to rest. Film critics and audiences are on the same side. Both want to come out of every movie they see enriched and satisfied, either because they saw something intelligent and entertaining, or challenging and affecting. Perhaps even both at the same time.

So what do you need to know to understand and appreciate the critical mindset? Mostly it can be boiled down to five key points.

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Movies can be objectively bad

We’ve all seen bad movies. Movies that don’t make sense, movies with flat, unlikeable characters, movies where you can’t tell what’s going on in a given scene due to poor editing and camera work. It’s happened to everyone.

And yet, you’ll often come up against the argument, usually when someone else is defending a film, that there’s no such thing as a bad movie. Films are an art form, and therefore their quality is in the eye of the beholder. If you see a film and enjoy yourself, that’s all that matters.

This idea is, and this may be hard to hear, a fallacy. It’s simply untrue.

Very, very few art forms are truly and entirely subjective. Everything from film to music to games all has an element of craftsmanship to them, and this is especially true of a field as technical as film. A movie is composed of over a dozen elements working in harmony, and there’s room for objective failure in all of them, even if you may not be precisely aware of it. Just because you don’t see the failure doesn’t mean it isn’t there, although you may be noticing it on an almost subconscious level.

To show an example, let’s take a look at a system of editing known by many names, but for our purposes, we’ll call it the 180-degree rule. Let’s say a scene is depicting a conversation between two characters. Nothing fancy, just two folks talking. Now draw an imaginary line between them. The 180-degree rule states that the camera should always remain on one side of this line. Why? Because that way each character is consistently occupying one side of the screen, and facing in the same direction. It helps our brains keep a consistent mental image of where everyone is in the room and where they’re facing. If you break the rule “cutting across the axis”, then suddenly a character who was consistently on the left side of the screen facing right is now on the right side facing right, and for a moment your brain goes “wait, did they move? It looks like they’re talking to themselves”.

Film is full of little things like this, little mistakes that can make your brain skip for a second. Of course, this can also be done intentionally, but it has to be for a good reason, like keeping the viewer subtly off-kilter to make a horror film that much more tense and disorienting.

There are bad ways to tell a story, too. Your characters could contradict themselves, could be poorly defined, could lack a clear motivation. Your narrative could have logical gaps, or not have a consistent theme. You might not notice it at first glance, but it’s there, and I’m willing to bet that somewhere in the back of your brain, you’re going “wait, what?” and your enjoyment is being impacted in ways you may not realize.

There’s a right way and a wrong way to go about pretty much everything in entertainment. There’s a right way and a wrong way to try and excite someone, scare someone, make someone laugh. There’s a wrong way to present certain ideas, a wrong way to represent people. These right and wrong ways aren’t something that people decided upon, a set of rules written years ago by some secret cabal. They were defined over the course of literal centuries of trial and error. They are, in a very real way, objective.

This, however, opens up an uncomfortable possibility for a lot of people: it means you can be wrong about a film. You could think a film or similar piece of art is good, but be straight-up, flat-out incorrect. It’s not a fun position to be in, which is why many people deny that the possibility even exists.

But I have good news.

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You’re allowed to like bad movies

As I write this, I’m sitting just out of arm’s length from a carefully curated collection of DVDs and Blu-Rays. It contains many fine, high-quality pieces of cinema, like most of Kubrick’s filmography, some Herzog, genre classics like Back to the Future and Die Hard.….and also a fair number of straight-up bad movies. Have you ever seen Neon Maniacs? Absolutely atrocious film, but it’s also a total hoot to watch with some friends. How about a little number called Yor: The Hunter From the Future? Now therein lies some fun. My friend, have I ever introduced you to the films of David DeCoteau?

The point is, everyone likes some bad movies. Because while films do have objective quality, the SUBjective element, how we receive them, is also very important to consider. Art impacts us, it interacts with our memories and emotional makeup and a million other pieces of us and creates reactions that you can almost never predict. It doesn’t matter whether those reactions are even intentional or not, they’re there, and they’re valid.

Did you enjoy Suicide Squad? Did something about it tickle you just the right way? That’s cool. You’re allowed to be tickled by it, and no one else is allowed to give you crap for it. You’re not wrong for your feelings, and feelings are absolutely what we’re talking about here.

But what’s important is that you don’t confuse that positive subjective reaction with objective quality on the film’s part. Put plainly, “I liked it” is not a substitute for “It’s good”.

By the same coin, you can see a film of quality and high craftsmanship and have it leave you totally cold. It happens to film critics all the time. I feel a certain satisfaction from seeing a beautifully crafted film, but a film has to appeal to me on a personal level as well if it’s going to leave me bouncing off the walls with joy afterward.

The key is to keep both in mind because both are vital components of appreciating a film. For a long while, film critics were taught to ignore their subjective reaction to a film, favoring a totally objective view. Critics are only now getting out of this mindset, mixing their subjective reaction to a film along with their take on its objective quality. But many audience members and critic-bashers still seem to be caught at the opposite end of the spectrum, valuing subjective personal reaction above all else. This is how we got to the state of things where our last point became a necessary point to make. Many people still hold that objective quality doesn’t exist in film and that personal reaction is all that matters. But this kind of absolutist approach is just as harmful as saying that the objective quality of a film is all that should be considered in your personal appraisal of it.

Film is both a craft and an art form, and as such both the objective quality and its impact on the viewer are both valid talking points. To say that art is entirely in the eye of the beholder is false, but to deny the importance of how a particular film speaks to the viewer is also false. Both sides of the equation need to be kept in mind when appraising a film, separate but still side-by-side.

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Criticism is not an attack

This is important. This is SO important, you have no idea. Accepting this truth, if you haven’t already, may be one of the most important truths you can accept.

Let’s say you like a thing. A movie, a game, whatever. And someone comes along and says “I think this thing isn’t actually good, or needs improvement, or has some harmful qualities”. Is this person attacking the thing you like? And by extension, are they attacking YOU?

No. A thousand million times, NO.

The human being is a tribal animal. We collect ourselves into groups, tribes, clans. They can be focused on a strong leader figure, a place, a lifestyle, an object, and yes, a cultural artifact like a film. We organize ourselves into groups, like almost tribalistic fandoms, turning differences into disputes, and interpreting any word against the unifying element as an attack both on ourselves and the thing we’ve united around.

This is such a dangerous mindset and really one of the most consistently dangerous of human tendencies. For one thing, as we’ll discuss in the final point, criticism is most often a call for improvement, rather than destruction. A critic doesn’t want to destroy the thing they’re criticizing, they want it to be better than it currently is. Perhaps the way in which they want it to be better is different from the way you want it to be better. Perhaps you feel it doesn’t need improvement at all and is perfect the way it is.

If this is the case, take a breath and remind yourself that this isn’t a battle. It’s a discussion, and a calmly reasoned argument will serve you better than anger. The person criticizing the thing you love isn’t a “hater” or a “troll”. Odds are they love it just as much as you do, that’s why they want to make it better. More on that later.

It’s this tribal mentality that also leads to people interpreting criticisms of their passions, hobbies, interests, etc, as attacks on themselves. We identify our love for things as a part of ourselves, which is totally natural. Our passions make us who we are, in part at least. But your passion for something and the thing itself are entirely separate, and when someone criticizes one, they aren’t criticizing the other. Like video games? That’s great. But if someone says that videogames have some problems that should be addressed, that isn’t a commentary on you. Getting defensive about it as though you’ve been subjected to a personal attack is how debates and disagreements escalate into harassment or worse.

Remember point number two: you’re allowed to like whatever you want and no one is allowed to throw grief on you for it, that’s not what criticism is about. You’re more than welcome to (calmly, rationally) defend the thing you love.

But you’re not fighting a war when you do so, you’re having a discussion, and bear in mind that part of a discussion is listening. Because….

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Some opinions are worth more than others

Critics often get asked “Who are YOU to decide what’s good and what’s bad? What gives YOU the right?”. There are a lot of answers, but ultimately the one to bear in mind is this: movie critics, especially the successful ones, are people who know a LOT about movies.

Critics are, usually by trade, lifelong cinephiles. They’re the kind of people who watch more movies in a month than many people watch in a year. They watch the good movies and the bad movies, and the plentiful, plentiful mediocre movies, and in doing so develop a very good sense of what ingredients go into each kind. They learn how to notice those little things, like those rules of editing and other marks of craftsmanship we discussed before. The things that most people may only notice as a subtle feeling that something doesn’t jive, a seasoned critic will see highlighted with giant neon letters.

Critics, through years of experience, develop an eye for what works and what doesn’t, because as we’ve already discussed, there’s a right way and wrong way to do a lot of things in movies. Critics, by and large, are good at spotting these things, as well as spotting a movie with unique and interesting elements to them, because they’ve been made (painfully) aware of what the norm is. Innovation, bear in mind, is something that’s hard to spot when you don’t have a sense of what constitutes the average or unremarkable.

To look at it from another angle: I know nothing about music, popular or otherwise. I don’t listen to the radio, or know much about who’s popular today or why. I don’t know what constitutes a good song beyond what I personally find catchy. My reception of most music is rooted entirely in subjective reaction. If you tell me that a given song is subverting a genre, doing something interesting with harmonies or melodies, or that the baseline is notably complex and multilayered, I’ll more or less have to take your word for it.

But if you ask me what’s interesting about the camera work in Mad Max: Fury Road, the depictions of gender relations in Ex Machina or what makes a given film subvert or conform to a given set of tropes or genre expectations, I’m your man. Why? Because I have a vast pool of reference from which to draw. I know what devices are overused because I’ve seen them a million times, and I know when something’s fresh and original, because if anyone’s seen it before it’ll be me. I can spot tired, cliched character types because I’ve met them before, and often. I can look at a given fight scene and tell you if it’s especially well-crafted because I’ve seen plentiful examples of what works and what doesn’t.

Which means that yes, the judgment of a seasoned film critic does hold more weight than that of an average or casual moviegoer. Critics, through their experience, are in a better position to identify a film as noteworthy or interesting, and critics will often spot problems that will go over the head of the average viewer. Every field has its experts, the people with the background and knowledge to view something from as informed a perspective as possible. When it comes to film, those people are film scholars and critics.

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Critics want the same things you want

Why do we criticize? Why do people, both professionally and in an amateur capacity, take to the internet and numerous other sources to offer our insight on various forms of media, in this case, film? Is it because we’re joyless, fun-hating grumps? Is it because we’re misanthropic trolls whose only source of pleasure is verbally tearing down the work of others?

No.

Or at least, not in the vast majority of the time. Every profession or calling has its bad apples, the people who are doing it for the wrong reasons or from a completely wrong-headed mindset. But when it comes to people who identify and are identified as critics, people who are known for it, people who consider criticism to be their bag, the overwhelming majority of crits do what we do for one simple reason:

We love movies. Deeply. Passionately. We want to see movies be the best they can be. We want every trip to the cinema to be a satisfying one, either because we see something that challenges us and moves us or because we just want to have a fun time.

Yes, fun. Critics like fun. They don’t want every movie to be Citizen Kane or 2001: A Space Oddysey. Who in their right mind would? Can you imagine a world more boring, where every single film is a completely straight-faced, serious-minded piece of capital-a Art? Where nothing explodes, where no one tells a joke, where you have to watch a movie at least five times to even get it on a basic level? Nobody wants that.

Most critics, especially these days when the critical field is dominated by website-jockeys who grew up watching Star Wars, Jaws, Die Hard, and similar genre classics, are the biggest supporters you could find of big, loud popcorn crunchers. And what we want out of our entertainment is really the same thing everyone else wants.

We want the action to be exciting and interesting.
We want the characters to be complex and multifaceted.
We want to see something we’ve never seen before.
We want it to be technically proficient.
We want to connect with it on an emotional level, if only to the most fleeting degree.
We want films that feel like they were made with love and enthusiasm by the people who made them.

None of these things, not a single blistering one, precludes a film from being fun. And no one, not critics or audiences, will have their enjoyment ruined by these qualities being present. No one’s ever come out of a movie saying “I hated it, the characters were too interesting” or “It bored me to tears, I could tell what was going on during the fight scenes”. The things that cause critics enjoyment, when it comes to Hollywood at least, are the same things that cause audiences enjoyment. We just have a better knack for telling when those qualities are absent.

You might think these qualities are wholly subjective, but they aren’t. You might think that by pointing out the flaws or shortcomings of a film or cultural object we’re attacking it, and you for loving it, but we aren’t. You might think that we don’t want you to have fun, but we do.

Let me leave you with one last thought. Film criticism is less about the film at hand and more about whatever comes next. Because of the goal of film criticism, and really any criticism, is not to change the present, but the future. When someone says “this could be better”, it’s not an attempt at censoring or changing the thing in front of us, but encouraging improvement. The hope of every critic is that creators read what they wrote, or hear what they said, and take it to heart when they create something next time. And that by doing so, that creator creates something better than what they did before. Because yes, sometimes through the benefit of their unique perspective and experience, a critic is in the best position to recognize how something can be improved.

Sometimes, for all our occasional hyperbole or pomposity, we know what we’re talking about.

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3 comments

Booski September 12, 2016 at 11:13 pm

Yeah, well, you know, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.

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