There is a lot of casual dismissal of film criticism, usually by viewers who disagree with a number they see on Rotten Tomatoes. But like I mentioned in my previous 101, that’s not really how Rotten Tomatoes works. Finding a voice that speaks to a user’s individual sensibilities is just a couple of clicks away, but using a critic to accurately predict which films you’ll naturally like (saving you $15 bucks and a disappointing couple hours) is only half of the usefulness of their profession.
A lot of people see critics as haters – folks who expect to be paid money for shitting all over the stuff that “stupid, average people” like. I can’t speak for all critics, but that hasn’t been my experience. I dig into movies because I love them. I’ve found that I get more out of an exceptional film experience that way. Listening to some of my favorite critics talk about Star Wars made me love it all the more, cementing it in the spot of my #1 favorite. But critics have also opened my mind to some experiences I didn’t originally appreciate. When I originally saw The Searchers, for instance, I thought it was depressing and dull. I’ve never been a huge fan of John Wayne’s brand of macho, so seeing him play a racist asshat didn’t really appeal to me. But then I listened to an episode of The Canon, where populist adventure film lover Devin Faraci and champion of the small-to-mid-budget film Amy Nicholson both argued the merits of the film.
They pointed to what The Searchers was really about – the death of the Old West. It shows how the usefulness of “tough-guy” attitudes diminished as American civilization came into being, and how less macho, but more emotionally accepting voices slowly overcame them. Ethan Edwards (Wayne) is meant to be unlikable, and his companion Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) is meant to seem ill-equipped. Individually, neither of them are admirable protagonists, but together they form a powerful example of the shifting of a zeitgeist and the end of an era. I didn’t get that AT ALL on my first viewing, but thanks to film critics, I now find the film deeply fascinating.
At its most useful, this is what film criticism can do for people– help an audience frame their understanding of what a piece of art is meant to accomplish. I wrongly went into The Searchers with the assumption that I was going to get a rip-roaring Cowboys vs Indians adventure, so I didn’t even recognize the thoughtful film about the deep-seeded nature of racism and its ties to a lack of civilization. I believe that a movie (or any work of art) should be judged based on how well it accomplishes what it sets out to do (and, less objectively, the value of that goal). But genre, trailers, and audience expectations often get in the way of meeting a piece of art where it’s at, instead rewarding familiarity… or in other words, lack of ingenuity.
Film critics typically watch a lot more more movies than the average viewer, so they’re less impressed when Transformers 7: The Return of More Explosions rolls out. Yes… some critics are biased against populist movies, and don’t see the benefit of big fun explosions. But even those who love that kind of content (like yours truly), expect MORE than just that out of a new experience. So when something like Mad Max: Fury Road rolls in with a unique and masterfully realized world, a tightly focused and kinetic story, characterization that works on both genre and human levels, a progressive take on strong female characters, AND some of the most incredible action ever put on screen, we stand and applaud.
And really… that just makes film critics kind of angry when movies that cost hundreds of millions dollars come out and the filmmakers don’t even seem like they’re trying. And everybody falls over themselves to go see this samey shit because they know what they’re getting out of it. It’s even more frustrating when we call the films out for delivering a McDonald’s hamburger for the price of prime rib, and audiences respond “But we LIKE McDonald’s hamburgers.”
It’s not that we don’t get the appeal of junk food, it’s just that we know there’s so much better out there. You just need to demand it, and then really sit and savor it when it comes. When folks argue that Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is basically just as good as Captain America: Civil War, they’re saying that it’s unnecessary for filmmakers to give us heroes with moral fiber, characters with reasonable motivations, plots that make sense internally, fight scenes that show an inkling of creativity, and the hopeful world that these superheroes were designed to inspire. Argue all you want about the subjective pros/cons of each film’s tone or visual style. I get that Zack Snyder knows how to push the gritty-badass button like a champ, and that can be fun when done well. But that, by itself, in no way compares to the many more objectively superior films that the superhero action franchise has to offer.
101 will continue, and with it I hope to discuss the whole gamut of factors that audiences should expect expect filmmakers to consider when creating an experience for them. To name a few:
- Mise-en-scene: Cinematography That Tells a Story
- Message: What Film Says About the World and Why That Matters
- Tone: It’s Not What You Said, It’s How You Said It
- Pacing: Are We There Yet?
- Special Effects: Why Servicing the Story is the Greatest Effect of All
- Soundtrack: Sneakily Manipulating Your Emotions Since the Dawn of Audio
- Acting: More Than Just a Pretty Face
- Cliché vs Classical: What Makes a Plot Worth a Damn
Not every film needs be be great in every department to be a success, but filmmakers that prioritize one element at the expense of all others (I’m looking at you, Snyder) are essentially robbing their audience a complete experience. Even moviegoers who could care less deserve the most bang for their buck from filmmakers who are masters at their craft. If the only reason we discuss films is to pat them on the back for being barely competent, we’re missing out on story’s greatest gift: the communal nature of exploring the human condition in another’s shoes.
101 is a series of editorials whose purpose is to discuss the fundamentals of how we relate to art, and movies in particular. Is there some element of film that has you’d like The Powerwolf to explore more deeply? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org!