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Apr 7, 2008

WHERE HAS ALL THE GOOD FILM CRITICISM GONE?

I was listening to my weekly podcast of Larry Mantle’s Film Week from KPCC, Pasadena’s NPR affiliate which to me is one of the most insightful film programs being broadcast in any medium (the show can be heard on Friday mornings at 10am Pacific Time at 89.3 in Southern California or online at www.kpcc.org by way of live streaming or podcasts). This week Larry and his panel had a discussion on the state of current movie criticism, and it brought up something that I have been thinking about for quite some time, in that what exactly is the purpose of a movie review, and how or why has the art of film criticism gotten to the pathetic state that it is currently in?

I believe that there are 3 different types of movie reviews. First is the “is it good enough to view” type, trying to keep the masses informed of what films they should plop down their $11.95 for. These reviews usually employ a ratings system such as 4 stars or thumbs up. Then there is the capsule review, a quick paragraph giving one the idea of what a movie is all about. But the type I prefer is the all encompassing review. This review not only tries to relay whether or not the film is good or not, but it also goes all out to dissect why and how it’s good, whether it’s culturally relevant, an intellectual experience, or common dreck. I’ll often hear someone at the office explain to me that a movie that I know is probably not good received a favorable rating by a publication such as the Toronto Star. But I find that a paper like the Star tends to go easy on many of the films out there, and that their reasoning for liking or disliking a film is generally fairly weak. Gone are the days of Pauline Kael or Andrew Sarris, critics who could anger even the calmest reader by trashing movies that the masses love (I believe both Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark both received poor reviews from Miss Kael who could be unrelenting in her dislike of a given title). I once read a review by Pauline Kael where she raved over a film only to through in a line about how the movie wasn’t good. That’s the kind of thing that made reading her reviews such an adventure.

What makes critics like Miss Kael or Mr. Sarris so exciting to read is that even though you may not agree with their assessment (and generally, you’ll probably find that you don’t) you have fun watching as they reveal their reasons and step-by-step go through the process by which they came to them, and may even find yourself engaged in a mental debate because let’s face it, watching a movie isn’t just about whether it’s good or not, it’s about what it inspires in us. A truly great cinematic viewing should sweep us up in emotion – whether it is love of a film or extreme hatred. Reading a good review should be the same, and the question then becomes do you read the review after or before viewing the film? Me, I like reading it after, having come to my own conclusions, looking to see what a favored reviewer might think and then even inspiring me to think deeper about what I have just seen (or cause me to start yelling at the book I’m holding in my hand as if it were the critic that wrote it standing in front of me).

One of the biggest problems with film criticism today is the influx of the internet and blogs like the one I am writing now (of course, mine is good ;-)). There are so many people out there that love film, and want to discuss it, but it’s difficult to wade through the mess of poorly written or uninspired reviews and find those gems that spark a truly great debate. On Facebook, I am a member of an application called Flixster which allows members to rate with a star system and write a review about the movies they have seen (and I’m proud to say, my grand total right now is 3435 reviews/ratings). When you click on a film title, a quick run down of what other people think who have seen that film comes up on screen, and after a while you find that most people over-rate things. Sure there is the odd title like BASIC INSTINCT 2 which gets panned across the board, but I find that most titles usually garner a 4 or 5 star (out of 5) rating, and that the reasoning behind it is fairly superficial. There’s something to be said for this as well as it proves that the movies at their core, are purely entertainment, and here these people have got their money’s worth as they are clearly walking away “entertained”. But I’m sure if most of those people were to re-watch or re-think about most of those titles they give such a high rating to, they might discover that they might not be so generous a second or third time round. Have they really thought about how or why they were entertained?

That brings me to the question of can a rating of or feeling about a film change as time wears on? One may see a film and think it’s the greatest thing ever, but after some time has passed and the film has become dated, and is near forgotten, a once considered 4 star movie can suddenly feel like 1 star torture. I have often found myself adjusting ratings over time, as I tend to go through my database and re-think my opinions. I once had an argument in high school with someone as he felt that when you say you like a movie, you can’t turn around years later and suddenly dislike it. I agree with him to an extent. You have to actually RE-watch the film to determine that sort of thing, as many people just decide randomly without having truly revisiting a title that now suddenly that a movie is bad. But ratings do and can change. Looking at a work of art is not just a one time experience. You can savor it, revisit it, and re-evaluate it. Any respectable or praised work of art should have that happen to it every so often.

When a critic writes a review, it has to be remembered that they’re being hired to do one thing and one thing only, give their opinion. The thing with opinions of course is that everyone has one, and especially in the case of the arts, everyone feels that their opinion is right and that their taste is better than anyone else (I fall prey to this a lot). As I mentioned before, I try to see everything so I don’t read reviews until after I’ve formed an opinion of my own and will often find that after viewing debate sometimes much more stimulating than viewing the film itself. Even then, I only make sure to read certain people’s reviews, and only from particular publications (the New York Times is by far one of the best if not the best). I’m not one to run to a site like Ain’t It Cool News to read how a movie “sucked ass.” But for most people, this just isn’t the case. They’re looking for advice as to what to see, and if they agree with a critic, fine, but if not, then suddenly individuals will shrug it off with statements about how critics don’t like what normal people like and so on.

Needless to say, film criticism is nowhere near as exciting as it was in say the 60s, 70s and through the 80s when the likes of Sarris, Kael and Richard Schickel reigned, and it’s indeed a great loss to the way the medium is looked at. We have to remember that films are a reflection of our culture, not just easy sources of entertainment.

As a reminder, if you are looking for a spirited, insightful yet entertaining film discussion, I highly recommend catching Larry Mantle’s Film Week program, Friday mornings at 10am on 89.3 KPCC in Los Angeles, and on the Internet at www.kpcc.org. Or pick up an issue of FILM COMMENT. Published bi-monthly, it's the most in-depth, intellectual film magazine in America.