History of the World Critic

“Asking a writer what he thinks of critics is like asking what a fire hydrant feels about dogs.” No one has portrayed that Ann Landers quote better (or more directly) than Mel Brooks in History of the World: Part 1 in the sketch where a caveman critic pisses all over a newly envisioned cave drawing. Not only is the relationship between creator and critic as old as man, it’s also always involved urination.

On the most recent edition of the Scriptnotes podcast, screenwriters John August and Craig Mazin discuss the looming spectre that is The Critic – a terrifying boogeyman for some, a knock-kneed weakling to others, and a complete non-entity to more.

“Well this isn’t going to endear me with many critics,” begins Mazin (who recently explained the depressing state of screenwriting as a career to Reject Radio listeners). “I don’t care. I do not care. I don’t write movies for critics; I write movies for audiences. My entire focus is on what the audience thinks of the film.”

The thing is, that outlook does endear him to me. That may sound counter-intuitive coming from a critic, but it’s an excellent mindset to have as a creator. Here’s why.

There’s a handful of discussion circling criticism lately. From Kevin Smith becoming a critic himself while denouncing the profession to Rotten Tomatoes culling together all reviewing opinions into a convenient number to the general feeling that “criticism is dead” based on the proliferation of 1) bad critics and 2) an internet community that has made gate-keepers obsolete; it seems like the writing is on the wall for those who would piss on the writing on the wall.

That’s not really true though. Film criticism is exactly as important as it’s always been. It may feel like the floor is collapsing, but that’s because it’s a creaky foundation, but it’s always been that way. Viewing Siskel & Ebert and Pauline Kael as demi-gods is romanticism at work, building a fictional past where critics said jump and audiences said “Popcorn too, please.” Audiences have always made up their own minds, individually and collectively. Some critics become monoliths – the most visible citizens of our profession – and that can be great for those critics, but it says very little about the process at large.

Judging the entire profession because of its worst members is equally meaningless. As with most jobs, the successful will rise to the top and grow an audience while others will continue to flounder – the issue is when both are assumed to be peers when they aren’t.

Mazin goes through the litany of usual suspects, and there’s no reason to answer them individually, but there’s one element of the podcast that should be answered: a comment from August on the job of the critic.

“Reviews in general aren’t trying to further the art of movie-making,” explains August. “They’re really about ‘should I see this movie that comes out on Friday?’ so the reviewer’s first audience is the person who might go to see the movie. And what the person who’s looking at the reviews really wants to know is, “Is this going to be worth my time and dollars to go see this movie?’”

This just isn’t at all what criticism is about. It’s about celebrating the magic and craftsmanship of art when it’s done well and decrying the attempt when it’s not. It’s about bathing in the ideas on the screen, wrestling with the themes, or…just enjoying the entertainment of it all. At its barest, the first questions I always ask/answer when writing a review are: What did the movie do well or not? How or why did it do those things well or not? Despite the confusing wording of the questions, I tend to answer them decently.

The problem with reducing criticism down to the cash register is that no critic knows whether you should buy a movie ticket or not. I certainly don’t. Not only do I not know what you like personally, I know that there are a lot of varied tastes out there making their way to this site. All 1.5 million of you can’t agree.

Except maybe on Jaws, because, come on.

All I can do is explain why I like or didn’t like a movie. I can’t tell you whether to watch it (although sometimes I’ll try with smaller films that deserve it), and I can’t tell you whether to like a movie or not. Everyone has an opinion and the subjective nature of art means that all opinions are valid.

So if everyone’s opinion is worthy, then why care about critics at all? Because there’s a difference between having an opinion and being able to express it clearly and interestingly. Just as I cannot sculpt a marble statue or engineer a bridge, some people are not meant to share their opinions about art in succinct and entertaining ways. Writing isn’t easy – something August and Mazin both know intimately.

It’s important to note that they both give credence to the critic’s function as a cheerleader for material that might not naturally rise to the top against the loud echo of major marketing dollars. That’s, for most, the main reason to go to festivals in the first place or to shout until we’re blue in the keyboard about movies like Cabin in the Woods, Ink, Dear Zachary or any number of little films that could.

However, there’s another important function that critics serve which has specifically arisen because of the internet. In its ideal form, a piece of criticism can act as a lightning rod for discussion. Is that discussion always robust? Of course not, but there are few things as fulfilling as writing a review and having it begin a conversation where people who agree and disagree can come together and share their feelings. A review is not meant to be the final word on a film; it’s meant to be the first.

Regardless of this foolish entreaty, I’m glad that Mazin and I disagree because we’re not meant to feel the same on this. Not in that whole lion vs. gazelle way, though. Maybe more in that penguin vs. giraffe way. Filmmakers should not at all concern themselves with what critics say. Weighing critical opinions is injurious (and in some cases fatal) to the artistic process. For those out there trying to make art, know this: there will be people that do not like what you create, and some of them will own blogs.

It’s just the nature of the beast (which is most likely a penguin).  Whether you create for yourself or, like Mazin, create with consideration for the audience, please do not give a moment’s thought to what we critics think. There are several functions that we aspire to, but impeding the creative process is not one of them.

If you’re a filmmaker, please, please consider us critics irrelevant.


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