Mar 8 2010

Film Criticism: Is It In Critical Condition?

Film criticism, they say, is dying.  Not great news for professional critics far from retirement, nor for those of us eying the profession for the future.  Yet with the advent of the Internet and entertainment journalism turning into gaudy gossip columns, film criticism’s relevancy is being questioned.

What is film criticism?  Seems an easy question with an equally simple answer: it is the act of assessing and critiquing a film based on the acting, its script, its directing, and all the other elements that go into a film.

The biggest issue concerning criticism is its subjectivity, as in, all opinions of a film are just that, opinions.  Everyone, regardless of taste, sensibility or educational background, can form an opinion, therefore anyone should be able offer criticism for a film.  Thus, the idea of a professional critic, that is, someone paid to dictate their opinion, seems…. well… unnecessary.  Anyone with an Internet connection and a blog can discuss whether or not they liked a film; from bloggers to scholars, fanboys to snobs, film criticism looks as though it can be done by nearly anyone.

The problem is, criticism is more than opinion; saying whether you liked a film or not doesn’t really say anything at all.  If you liked Aliens, that’s all fine and good, but why?  Furthermore, if you liked it, what guarantee is there that I will like it as well?  It may sound elitist or snobbish, but critics are trained to express why they feel a certain way about something.  Critics have also taken enough film classes to notice all the little things about a film that we see but take for granted, such as mise en scene, use of color, cinematography or editing choices.  A bit cerebral, yes, but love ‘em or hate ‘em, critics tend to know what they’re doing, even if you don’t agree with their final judgment.

Agreeing with a critic has never been the point of criticism.  Criticism gets people talking; not just whether or not they liked   it, but why they liked it, and why they think Mr. So-and-So from the Times is wrong.  I have never heard a discussion about a film where a critic’s review has not come up in the conversation.  Whether we like it or not, established criticism makes us think, and makes us defend our opinion of a film; Wolfman has been panned by the critics, yet those who enjoy the film have their own reasons for liking it, and have arguments for why they enjoyed it that go beyond “just ‘cause.”

With the Internet, the everyman, or everynerd I should say, got to broadcast their own opinions on a multitude of topics, including film, and why shouldn’t they?  The Internet is a great way for people to connect with others and have a voice that goes beyond one’s own bedroom.  As far as film criticism is concerned, there are those who make in-depth, well-educated arguments for or against a film, and there are those who’s opinions are little more that trollish white noise.  This in and of itself doesn’t pose any threat to criticism as a profession, mostly because reasonable people can spot a troll a click away and tend to pay little real attention to it.

However, without any kind of establishment to challenge the public, future generations of web surfers run the risk of losing their abilities to form clear, concise arguments and rely solely on expletive ridden nonsense.  The Internet also removes accountability, which could give mouth-breathing basement dwellers the motivation to mindlessly blog away about the entertainment world.  Needless to say, the ranting and ravings of some Internet snot tend to be ignorant and unintelligent at best.

That’s not to say there are not intelligent people out there in the blogosphere making solid, apt analysis about film, or any other topic for that matter, who may object to this negative view of the Internet, let alone the obvious bit of hypocrisy of this website making this claim.  Yet any reasonable person knows that ignorance and spectacle tend to overshadow and outnumber reason, which is as true online as it is in life.  Anyone would also agree that accountability leads to responsibility, which in turn leads to striving for quality, which leads to challenging one’s self as well as one’s audience.

The Internet is not solely responsible for dumbing down the expectations or function of the entertainment business.  Various magazines and news networks have taken the focus off of films themselves, and report on the lives, outbursts, and waistlines of actors and actresses.  Thus, film journalism isn’t so much about the film as it is its stars and their exploits.  The same can be said about the music industry, which cares more about the look of a band than it does the music that band makes.  Look at the last Grammy ceremony and its subsequent coverage: all about the trapeze acts, the outlandish costumes and a teenage girl’s pole dancing, but very little mention of the music.

Unfortunately, the film industry isn’t too far behind the music business.  Most publications concerning Hollywood aren’t about the films being made, but feature pictures of Jennifer Aniston walking out of the gym.  Online publications aren’t much different; they’ve taken to provide misplaced naked photos of celebrities like Vanessa Hudgens, who needs to have her camera phone taken away from her.

Step Aside John Edward, Ben Lyon is "The Biggest Douche in the Universe."

Television news programs like “E! Entertainment” or “TMZ” aren’t any better, if not a bit worse.  “TMZ” is the gutter press, focusing on getting panty shots of actresses getting out of cars, and “E! News” covers the hottest stars and ignores the terrible movies they’re in.  All in all, its an utter disgrace to journalism and the arts on the most basic of levels.

With all this coverage on celebrities’ naughty bits, it’s a wonder these programs get around to any kind of criticism- at least, it would be a wonder if they ever did.  “E!” however, commits the greatest sin in cinema by employing young film critic Ben Lyons, who spends most of his time kissing company ass and less time actually reviewing a film.  His descriptions and analysis are more a collection of sensationalized quotations that are easily slapped onto newspaper ads: no content, no argument, no anything of substance to speak of.

Most of the public may not even notice the shift between film and gossip, cinema and celebrity, and maybe that’s why criticism is important.  Criticism keeps us focused on films, makes us really watch them and share in the experience of watching a good story unfold on the silver screen.  The opinions of critics, subjective as they may be, give the people a precedent on which to disagree and forces them to make their own arguments, which in turn makes filmgoers everywhere take film a bit more seriously and truly appreciate it for what it is: an art form.

For those of you who read Chris Jones' story on him in last month's "Esquire," Roger Ebert is dying. I hope this wonderful profession doesn't go along with him.

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