Saturday, September 24, 2016

The State of Criticism

How do you know what movies to see? Where do you go to find these opinions? These are two questions that movie buffs are often asked. You could answer by saying "There's this blog such and such or video blogger such and such that writes or creates reviews. I usually go there if I want to find out what to watch." Personally, I browse a number of sites. There's letterboxd, a few movie blogs that I check from time to time, and a select few people who are interested in film who I talk to online.

Yet, there is one thing that is very important when reading a review or considering an opinion: that reviewer's singular voice and whether or not it translates to a genuine, honest opinion. This is something I always admired Pauline Kael and especially Roger Ebert for. Before Rotten Tomatoes, metacritic and imdb, Ebert was always showing how his view on a film could not be swayed by whether or not a movie was gaining critical praise or if it was not. He liked what he liked. He loved Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia but he hated A Clockwork Orange. He would champion smaller films like Chop Shop and along with Gene Siskel, championed films like Hoop Dreams.

Then the internet came along. With the internet, a free reign of blogs, youtube channels, movie news sites like Ain't It Cool and slash film, and so forth. Journalism has increasingly moved further and further away from print and onto digital. Much like film itself is making the transition. But if a person like me wanted to get their opinion out to the masses, shouldn't I be in praise of the online film community? Well, kinda not. The standards have just gotten lower. You see, like digital film, the sudden availability of the resources creates such a mass market for people who don't necessarily have an individual voice. Everyone and their dog could be a movie critic now. Now if I were to be against this very fact, it would be extremely contradictory. Since this IS a movie blog and I have reviewed several movies on it. What I will say is that, like any genre of film or music, when you get a massive influx of product, or in this case, movie reviewers, you tend to see a pattern: aggregates of reviewers that bleed into one another with their reviews on the newest movie that hit theaters. One site that sprouted in the wake of this was Rotten Tomatoes.

Consensus sites like Rotten Tomatoes have become a standard bearer to indicate what movie Joey and his date want to go see. What people sometimes don't realize is that 90% on the Tomato-meter means a lot less than you think. What it states is: 90% of the critics who gave reviews for the movie gave it a favorable review. Let's say half of the critics who gave favorable reviews thought it was above average. It averages out the consensus to give an idea of the quality. But why do people feel good about using these sites to judge the value of a work of art? It prevents any serious critical interaction between the viewer of the film and the film itself.

This is not even taking into account older films like Vertigo, whose initial reception was polarizing among critics and is now considered to be one of the best films of all time by Sight and Sound's 2012 poll. The 1958 reviews and it's now "reassessed reviews sit side by side on Rotten Tomatoes, causing a miscalculation of context. It pains me to see an entire shelf at Barnes and Noble dedicated to "Movie Certified Fresh By Rotten Tomatoes". A site that groups films into a binary of "Fresh" or "Rotten" and asks its audience to choose is doing more to hurt rather than help the craft of criticism. Don't even bother to read the full reviews.

In a video on film criticism, Siskel  and Ebert talk about wanting to be liked and how political correctness is the death knell to criticism. Wanting to go along with the group. This was in the 90's. Ebert went on to say the purpose of journalism is to break that type of thinking. In an era where "Social Justice Warriors" run amok and wanting to have an intelligent discussion has become nearly absent, summoning up the courage to say what you feel has become increasingly hard.

There's many youtube channels out there like Chris Stuckmann and Jeremy Jahns that are enormously popular. But when you watch a review, it doesn't feel like they are genuine. Take Stuckmann's review on The Blair Witch Project. In it he praises its realism but then says that the slew of imitators gave us more thematically and dramatically than Blair Witch did. Directly after that he says that that is it's strength. That it is grounded in reality. So here we have a review that is extremely contradictory and is weighed between not wanting to piss of its admirers and not wanting to piss off its detractors. Gene Siskel mentioned that wanting to be liked and go along with the group can be death to a critic. Following this type of thinking is tantamount to, as Ebert said, ventriloquism.

It's the same thing when you say you have guilty pleasures. You're just lying to yourself and anyone who will listen about that embarrassing phase you once went through in high school.
All art is subjective. So embrace it. Defend it. There's films like Tusk and Point Break that I will defend to no end.

Structuring your review or just throwing formalism out the window altogether and trying something new can be another thing that pulls the viewer in. There are blogs I have read however, who pull in hundreds of subscribers who structure every single review the same way: Plot Synopsis, Cast, Cinematography/Editing (the style of the film), Summation. It's a fucking chore to slog through these. There is no life in these reviews. Just imitating the film blurb key words of "dazzling, phenomenal, and spellbinding" that you find on the back of blu rays. It's on auto pilot.

Change things up. Think outside the box. Inject life into it. I'm happy you can churn out a review a week but put out something that doesn't continue to put me to sleep.

In this wasteland of appealing to the largest denominator through criticism, there are those that carry the flag as a bastion of hope. One such man is Mark Kermode. This is a man whose top ten films include The Exorcist and The Devils. Someone who doesn't just lambast a movie, he refines the art of doing so. Hatchet jobs, as he calls them. He's not an apologist for the movies he loves. The same way Kael didn't apologize for adoring Altman and DePalma.

Online blogging is not the death of criticism. Digital media hasn't inherently devalued the craft, it just made it harder to find the really good blogs that are writing with passion, honesty, and efficiency. When you love movies for so long, your tastes evolve. They are refined, sharpened. I'm not going to join blog number 156, 472 that only reviews the latest film that comes out or talks about what film they think should win an Oscar. But if a blog pops up about French crime films in the 50's and 60's or why Sterling Hayden is such a stellar character actor or Jodorowsky's films, then I just might join that blog. Because it's shit that I like.



In lieu of this rant, I thought I'd present a handful of sites that are good examples of the criticism I crave and the inventiveness I admire:

And So It Begins
Besides being a blogger Alex Withrow is a filmmaker to boot. He has come up with several ideas for lists that I wish I had thought of. His In Character segments are always a treat to read.

Bennett Media
The first film blog that I truly fell in love with. Stopped producing content in February but the That Moment series and article on 'better sequels' and 'adequate sequels' are worth the read. They are also really good editors to boot.

Every Frame A Painting
Tony Zhou has created several helpful videos for those interested in the mechanics of filmmaking and storytelling.

A Fistful of Films
Want an alternative to The Oscars? This blog has its own awards: The Fistis.

House of Self Indulgence
Erotica, exploitation, and the art of Jess Franco.

Not Coming To A Theater Near You
Your resource for exploring the fringes of cinema. Want essays on Russ Meyer, Andy Sidaris, Lucio Fulci and Samuel Fuller? Look no further.


Observations On Film Art
David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson's blog. Authors of books, writers of countless essays that are as educational as they are fascinating

Paul Schrader
His film criticism on the works of Ozu and Bresson are something to behold.