Movie Critics: Who Needs ‘Em?

Have you ever had a conversation with a crusty, old farmer? Some of those guys have one hell of a way with words. They cut right through the veneer of polite society and tell it like it is. And, they have a wonderful phrase for something that’s utterly superfluous.

They’ll tell you the item in question is “useless as teats on a boar,” which pretty well sums up the way I feel about most film critics.

Don’t worry, I appreciate the irony in saying critics suck. After all, if critics are useless, what does that say for critics of critics? Are we doubly useless? Maybe so. But, unlike many film critics, I have the common sense to admit that …

… opinions are like assholes.
Everybody’s got one. Particularly in today’s hyper-blogged times, opinions on cinema are not hard to come by. You can’t swing a dead Ewok without hitting a million unsolicited reviews on movies present and past.

What’s the difference between most of these reviews and reviews crafted by the so-called professionals? Not much. What makes for great art? What makes for great entertainment? The answers to both questions are entirely subjective.

A professional film critic’s opinion is not, by nature, any more valid than that of some anonymous schmuck posting an customer review. The only difference is the professional critic is fortunate enough to be paid for that which countless bloggers and fans will give away for free. And unlike many fans …

… critics often get it wrong.
What do the following films have in common? Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.
Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom.

These are all movies that received — at best — mixed initial critical reactions, and are now regarded by critics to be among the most significant films of our time.

Bad press buried some of these films, which is truly a shame. But they survived to be reappraised and appreciated by later audiences as the forward-thinking works they were. This calls to mind a great quote I heard on a National Public Radio story about the state of modern art in France. Gilles Fuchs (a wealthy art collector) was quoted as saying, “Curators and critics know everything and love nothing … Private collectors know nothing and love everything.”

I’d go one better and say critics may think they know everything, but fans are often hip to the truth long before them. Which is probably one reason why …

… nobody cares what critics say anyway.
Despite bad reviews, movies like Pirates of the Caribbean 3 and Spider-Man 3 made piles of cash. The trash talkin’ about such films as Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and Hancock didn’t keep them from bringing in beaucoup box-office bucks. And all the strong reviews in the world didn’t rescue Grindhouse from the merciless whims of the marketplace. Critics don’t command the authority they used to. In a post-literate society, they’re no longer the powerful opinion leaders they once were, especially because…

… technology has made them obsolete.
Thanks to the power of collaborative filtering, people no longer need to read movie reviews to predict whether they’ll enjoy a film or not. Netflix and other sites now have sophisticated algorithms that can guess — with a fairly decent degree of accuracy — how well you’ll like a movie, based on how well you liked other movies. My personal favorite of these sites is MovieLens, an experimental test bed at the University of Minnesota, which has rarely steered me wrong.

The beauty of recommendation sites such as these is you don’t have to worry about some asshole reviewer dropping an unwanted spoiler on you. If I had a nickel for every time I read a review that diminished my enjoyment of a film because it gave too much away … well …

… I’d have a fuckload of nickels.
But, for all my bitching and kvetching about film critics, I think the world would be worse off without them. Sure, most of them are full of shit. But a good movie critic goes beyond merely telling you whether or not they enjoyed a movie.

A good critic delves beyond a facile reading of the material and helps us place a film within its greater context. A good critic, even one who despises the movie in question, will deliver a review that’s intelligent enough (often confused with “clever enough”) that readers can decide for themselves if they will dig the movie in question or not.

Such critics are few and far between. Roger Ebert comes to mind. (He had the good sense to revise his initial bashing of Blade Runner and now considers it “a seminal film.” Way to go, Rog.) Camille Paglia is also one of the smartest, most incisive people today writing about movies. (I just wish she would do it more often!)

I’m sure you can think of more good critics to add to the list. Writers whose reviews you read because they entertain you and enrich your appreciation of cinema. Ah, if only we had more of them – because I think they’re the sow’s teats.

More to Read: