The nature of criticism.
I figure the actual videos inspiring this post might be more useful than any epigraphs I may have picked from them. Indeed, when it comes to the role of the critic in society, there are no better people to quote than critics themselves, even if they are fictional. You can find them attached at the bottom of this article. I’ve been thinking a bit more than usual lately about what it would mean to be an actual, paid-to-do-this-and-make-a-profit-from-it critic. It would mean a modest income made entirely from my own talents. It would be a point of pride for my mother–finally. It would mean that some people would read my opinion of or feelings on a movie and use it to decide whether or not to see it.
But I haven’t been thinking of any of those things that come from being a critic. Instead, I look at men like Roger Ebert, Gene Siskel and Anton Ego and can only wonder: does being a critic mean you’re no longer allowed to talk about whatever you criticize at parties? What society do we live in: the one where people who are more knowledgeable than you or I are celebrated? Or the one where knowledgeable folks are excluded for making everything “no fun” for the rest of us? Is it really time for “this post” already? I dunno, it’s been that sort of day.
I want to do what Roger Ebert does for a living. This should be plainly obvious. I already hold his reviewing style as my gold standard. As he says in that video down there and as I’ve said to at least one detractor (who has since become a fan), when Roger Ebert reviews a movie, you can tell if you want to see it. It doesn’t matter what star rating he gave it, you can tell if it would be your cup of tea or not. Indeed, even in his blastingly negative review of Kick-Ass, I got enough information to know that I wanted to see that movie. I don’t know how he put it all in there, or got it all across in a neutral manner, but I still got the basic plot, characters, tone and style from a one star review.
My reviews aren’t always that good. Shutter Island is probably my most popular negative review. For some reason, that review still draws readers months after it was written. I feel bad for the guy who googled “Shutter Island twist ending” and not only got to a negative review, but a spoiler-free one as well. I read that review and I wonder: could someone like Gill (who enjoyed it) read my review and know that it suits their tastes? Likely not. Roger Ebert has occasionally indulged in moments like this (see his review of North) but I’m just starting my career. Professionalism is a big thing. And I honestly wasn’t very professional in reviewing Shutter Island. Sure, I knew where the plot was going. From the trailer. From the first trailer. From the first viewing of the first trailer–but that doesn’t mean everyone did.
But the main thrust of this is: if I become a critic, am I allowed to talk to people about movies? Am I allowed to talk to anyone at all about this, or will any contribution I have to the conversation be shut down with a “but you’re paid to do this, you don’t get to talk about it at dinner”? Will my word suddenly and paradoxically be worth less at parties for being the informed (or at least paid) one? I know it doesn’t seem like that’s likely–or at least, it doesn’t if the world is sane–but it feels likely. I can imagine people like Gene Siskel at a cocktail party in the late 80s, trying desperately to just register an opinion on Back to the Future Part II and being told that him saying it means no one else can argue which makes it no fun. Perhaps, if I have to wonder about this, I’m talking to the wrong people about this stuff.
When I talk to my ONLINE GAMING FRIENDS about video games, they always get the last word because I respect their experience with games. They know a lot more than I do, and I treat them with the respect they deserve for that. Yes, Dan, that includes you. But it seems like movies are always seen as the thing everyone and their grandma has an equally valid opinion of. Am I saying my opinion is more informed than yours? Not at the moment, hell no. Definitely not in any way, shape or form. At the moment, my opinion is that of one guy on the internet, writing for other guys on the internet, none of which is suitably real. I have a long way to go before my opinion is worth any more than that of the man on the street who talks to himself.
But it seems like the moment someone’s opinion is recognized as more informed or more researched or more detailed than someone else’s, he who holds the opinion is suspect. It’s as though everyone else has to prove that they’re just as informed or researched or detailed as Opinionated Jerk. Which doesn’t seem to make sense. If a man were taller than I am, I wouldn’t wear thick-heeled boots and stand on boxes whenever I’m around him. If I were at a dinner party with Usain Bolt, I wouldn’t run to the kitchen and back every time he asked for a nacho, just to show him how fast I was. It’s the moral of both of Brad Bird’s films at Pixar (The Incredibles and Ratatouille) that some people, by luck of the draw, are just more talented than others. I don’t see myself as one of those people, but I also don’t see that moral as inaccurate or misleading.
As Anton Ego says below, the role of the critic is to discover and defend the new in their art. The critic’s job is to help the people who are more talented than others be recognized and celebrated, not cut everyone down to the same level. … Boy is THIS post gonna get some HATE MAIL or WHAT