What is a Film Critic?

A few days ago, Andy Horbal discussed Scott Kirsner’s Boston Globe column, “Everyone’s Always Been a Critic — But the Net Makes Their Voices Count,” which explores the role of film and media criticism on the net. As the article’s title suggests, Kirsner is arguing that bloggish cultural critics are challenging the centrality of the professional critic, in part because web-based, often amateur, critics have more room to speacialize in a given area of interest (he mentions the example of Nigerian juju, but it could just as well be political documentaries or whatever) while professional critics are forced to generalize. There are a number of assumptions at play in Kirsner’s argument, but I think he gestures towards the transformation of film and media criticism associated with the rise of amateur blog-based criticism.

My major concern is that Kirsner places unnecessary limits on what good amateur criticism can do by framing criticism in terms of consumer choice rather than genuine enthusiasm for a genre, medium, or what have you. As Andy points out, Kirsner frames the role of criticism in terms of consumer choice, assuming that the primary role of “the critic is first and foremost a consumer guide to ‘cultural choices.'” I’m certainly aware that film reviews are linked to film promotion, but as Andy points out, we don’t really know much about the “criticism-reading habits” of moviegoers, how many reviews people read, much less how people read those reviews. And framing this discussion in terms of consumer choice ignores the pedagogical role of reviews, with Pauline Kael’s reviews teaching a certain appreciation for free-wheeling, often subjective criticism, to name one example.

With that in mind, I think Andy is asking some interesting questions, many of which I can’t answer, except in a subjective, anecdotal way. He asks, “What is film criticism? How is it used? What are its goals?” Some of my tentative answers would be that film criticism for me is an opportunity to engage in a conversation about an incredibly powerful medium, to think about the ways in which movies matter (the same could apply to TV, music, and games, of course). In some cases, I have the goal of encouraging others to see a film I admire, in part because I think it deserves a much wider audience, especially in the case of films that don’t receive wide distribution, like Chain. I think Andy’s first question (“What is film criticism?”) is probably the most difficult. Many of the review entries that I write avoid plot summary and engage with my own subjective interest in the film. In that regard, I often violate the first rule of Mark Schannon’s “So You Want To Be A Critic,” which warns against the use of the first-person, especially in the opening sentence or “opening hook” of a film review. Perhaps it’s the blog format, which no dobt encourages first-person navel-gazing, but I often feel compelled to emphasize my personal investment in a given film, often from the very beginning.

Andy has already revisited these claims, pointing to a Wall Street Journal article by Joe Morgenstern, arguing as the title suggests that “Rumors of Critic’s Demise Are Greatly Exaggerated.” I assume that Morgenstern means “critics’,” but grammar snark is a little too easy. To give Morgenstern some credit, he does acknowledge the valuable role that web critics can play in sustaining and promoting independent (and international) cinema. I should really be grading right now, but I’m intrigued by this conversation because it speaks to my interest not simply in the movies themselves but how, where, and why people watch them.

14 Comments »

  1. HumanityCritic Said,

    May 4, 2006 @ 1:03 pm

    That article does pose some interesting points. As someone who critiques a plethora of topics, I wonder if I could be as free-wheeling if I had a newspaper gig. This is a great blog by the way.

  2. Chuck Said,

    May 4, 2006 @ 1:15 pm

    I think it probably depends on the newspaper to some extent, especially when newspapers are dependent on the advertising revenue that comes from major studios (note the giant ads in the New York Times for example).

    It would be hard for me to speak broadly about newspaper critics because I only read about a dozen or so (at most) with any consistency, and many of them are associated with alt-weeklies. Thanks for the compliment on the blog.

  3. Matt Said,

    May 4, 2006 @ 2:16 pm

    I once heard it said that there are REVIEWERS and their are CRITICS.
    Reviewers write primarily as consumer guides in daily newspapers [or web sites] and give us information about a movie before we have seen it. While critics write primarily for journals and magazines and emphasize their write-ups from a cultural, historical position and give us information about a movie that we have already seen.
    I think Kirsner is writing about reviewers.

  4. Chuck Said,

    May 4, 2006 @ 2:30 pm

    That’s an important distinction, one that I had in the back of my mind as I was reading the Kirsner article. The distinction gets slippery even when you introduce major newspaper critics or reviewers such as A.O. Scott or even Roger Ebert, but I probably should have been a little more rigorous in defining these terms.

    Even here I find myself inhabiting both functions (“reviewer” and “critic”) or writing for both audiences who have seen the film and those who haven’t (although I’m not sure that I see myself as a “consumer guide”), which often leads to those awkward “spoiler warnings” that I don’t really like.

    Because I’ll be moving in the near future, my moviegoing habits are bound to chaneg and with that, I’ll be interested to see how my reviewing/critical practices change on this blog as well.

  5. A. Horbal Said,

    May 4, 2006 @ 3:30 pm

    Schannon’s article is useful because he because he breaks down the elements of the journalistic film review. Many of the writers at Blogcritics seem to aspire to a mastery of this authoritative reporter’s voice, and Schannon is essentially explaining why their reviews (I like his use of specific examples) don’t sound like Roger Ebert’s or A.O. Scott’s.

    Read in conjunction with Eric Olsen’s comments in the Kirsner piece, though, Schannon’s article worries me a bit. This voice, this style that he’s describing is ideal for a certain type of film critic: the daily reviewer. This critic writes almost nearly every day, and watches a correspondingly large number of films. He or she is almost always under deadline and has only so much time for in-depth analysis, only so much time for “film studies.”

    Blogcritics reviewers are not under this kind of pressure. Instead of striving for “credibility” by trying to imitate a style that evolved in response to demands that their writers don’t face, I’d much rather see them try to develop a unique style appropriate to their unique place in the critical community.

    Filmblogs, for instance, are an ideal place for “first-person navel-gazing.” In a personal (and public, which complicates things I guess) space why shouldn’t we privilege the personal experience?

    I’m a little uncomfortable (really, a “little” uncomfortable) when the blogosphere is cast as trying to “replace” the traditional, print-based media. This word implies to me that the bloggers are going to appropriate the style, the voice of the print-based critics.

    I’m excited by this “internet revolution” of ours because it promises to broaden, to diversify the larger film discourse. I think that it has done precisely that, and we should celebrate this. I’m apprehensive about internet-based writers who get wrapped up in a quest for credibility, for legitimacy because I worry that they’re turning their backs on the unique possibilities of their unique station.

  6. Chuck Said,

    May 4, 2006 @ 4:24 pm

    Good points all around. In particular, I find it frustrating when people cast print and newspaper reviewers against net or blog-based critics. And, yes, I’d like to see blog reviews aspire less to the professionalism of the journalistic review and move towards something different, something more personal and driven by personal and “political” investments. I have enjoyed using my blog to promote unseen films, but I’m not sure if (or to what extent) I’ll continue to have that opportunity.

    I like your read of Schannon’s piece. I once gave a lecture on how to write movie reviews and his article would have been helpful. In fact, I’m not sure I would have needed to even give the lecture. If I ever teach that kind of writing again, I might use his article.

  7. Chuck Said,

    May 4, 2006 @ 4:29 pm

    Actually looking back, it’s a little flawed. In fact the article falls prey to some of the tendencies Schannon criticizes (he can’t remember the exact phrase of the Maslin review, to name one example, but he’s right that she writes/wrote one hell of a review). But it might fit into a discussion of what good reviews ought to do.

  8. Chuck Said,

    May 4, 2006 @ 4:31 pm

    Is it obvious that I don’t want to be grading right now?

  9. mschannon Said,

    May 20, 2006 @ 12:13 am

    As the author of the article in question, I’m intrigued by the discussion that’s been going on. Based on the comments I received on BlogCritics, I’ve rewritten the article. I hadn’t thought of republishing it on BC, but rather in the Yahoo files for BC critics, but maybe I’ll rethink that. What I may do is put the revised article on my lit blog, http://parodieslost.typepad.com/noblankpages/ but that won’t be for a week or so.

    One of the things I changed was emphasizing that there is, indeed a role for personal opinion; I said it in the article, but it didn’t come across well enough. Second, some people took my recommendations as advocating stale, academic reviews, which couldn’t be futher from what I intended.

    I don’t quite understand the “reviewer”/”critic” distinction–and I’m not sure I buy it, but I also don’t think it’s relevant. Remember, though, I was also talking about book and music reviews–reviews in general.

    Chuck makes an important point about the difference between blog criticism and mainstream media criticism–bloggers shouldn’t seek to emulate the MSM. A blog gives you the opportunity to engage in conversation with your readers, which allows for a certain freedom that MSM reviewers don’t have.

    However, first, I wanted to make the clear distinction between “like” and “good,” and reviewers have a responsibility–whatever the format–to understand what constitutes good–the aesthetic criteria by which a genre is judged.

    Another point is that if you’re only talking about “me,” then unless you’re one hell of a writer, why would anyone bother to read your review. I couldn’t care less that you liked “Lust Maidens from Mars.” I’d be very interested in why you thought it was good or not.

    First person “navel gazing” may satisfy the blogger’s desire to “share,” but it rarely satisfies the reader.

    Blogging, like any writing, first has to grab and hold the reader. In the rewrite, I try to address that more clearly and acknowleding that people should always look for ways to break the rules–once you’ve learned them.

    What I find most interesting about the comments is the nature that blogging allows for the evolution of a different kind of reviewing technique. I hadn’t thought of that before, and I have no idea what it would look like, but I still maintain that, whatever it’s form, the reviewer first and foremost has a reponsibility to his or her readers.

    (As for the Janet Maslin review, I confess to being too lazy to look it up. That article has taken up way too much of my time.)

  10. Chuck Said,

    May 20, 2006 @ 12:23 pm

    Mark, thanks for dropping by. I think your article came across the radar of a few of us at a moment when we were trying to think through the future of film criticism, especially as it has been shaped by new media such as blogs.

    A short-hand distinction between “reviewer” and “critic” might be that the reviewer evaluates and a critic “interprets.” The terms are often used interchageably, but there probably is a distinction worth emphasizing. When I write about films here, I find myself operating in between the two categories, but my academic interest in thinking about meaning usually takes precedent over analyzing the “quality” of a film.

    On my “navel-gazing” comment: I think that most film evaluation and criticism has an element of autobiography, and I don’t see why we shouldn’t foreground that. There’s probably a risk of falling into narcissism there, but my review of Date Number One, for example, is shaped by my love of DC’s relatively hidden arts culture and my love of city life, so I foregrounded that.

    No big deal on Maslin. There are obviously other things to worry about, and congrats on writing something that has inspired so much attention and discussion.

  11. mschannon Said,

    May 23, 2006 @ 2:01 pm

    The article’s been rewritten & reposted, and I’d be interested in people’s take on it now.

    Part one is at So You Want to Be A Critic and part two, which are a set of bulleted guidlines at Guidelines for Writing Reviews.

    But I’ve also been thinking about the question of how blogging and the internet affects reviewing/criticism. A. Horbal wrote, “I’m excited by this “internet revolution” of ours because it promises to broaden, to diversify the larger film discourse. I think that it has done precisely that, and we should celebrate this. I’m apprehensive about internet-based writers who get wrapped up in a quest for credibility, for legitimacy because I worry that they’re turning their backs on the unique possibilities of their unique station.”

    I know “the medium is the message” and all that, but has the medium changed all that much? What’s so different? This month’s Discovery Magazine has a funny but insightful article about how little has really changed given all the technogical wizardry. Slow Forward. (You have to register for article. If you can’t get it, let me know and I’ll e-mail it to you.)

    Anyway, look at blogcritics. Someone writes a review. People comment. The only difference between that and a newspaper is there are more comments than letters to the editor, but the format is the same.

    I think the problem is that blogging is in its infancy; the majority of blogs are mindless drivel about what I had for breakfast and my boyfriend’s broken up with. Serious bloggers are still writing articles and getting comments.

    What’s missing is the sense of community. For example, on Readerville, a site for writers, there are lots of ongoing discussions and debates about a variety of issues, and the site is constructed to facilitate that. Most “community” sites are too difficult to manage.

    Good writing is good writing, regardless of the medium. In reviewing, when personal opinion overbalances critical reviewing, you lose the entire point of why people read reviews.

    It seems to me the issue isn’t so much are internet writers going to emulate print writers when it comes to reviews, but how are you/we going to create a true community where, perhaps everyone has seen the movie or read the book, a discussion leader with particular expertise leads an ongoing discussion where all elements, personal and critical can be discussed.

    Anyway, long winded drivel, I’m afraid.

    By the way, if you need a speaker to talk about criticism and revies, I’m available. I’ve done tons of public speaking and never let a good opinion get spoiled by reality or facts.

    Good luck with the debate.

  12. bman Said,

    August 23, 2006 @ 8:10 am

    the problem with amateur critiques is that they are spread all over the net in places people access randomly (it could in the middle of a forum or in a blog that hardly gets any exposure) and they get read only by chance… this is why I created a community website were amateur & professional critics can create a profile and post reviews … if some of you are interested email me for the URL. but i do not wish to spam on a first post

  13. Chuck Said,

    August 23, 2006 @ 5:29 pm

    bman, feel free to link to you site in another comment.

  14. A. Horbal Said,

    August 26, 2006 @ 7:46 pm

    bman, I’m certainly interested in checking out your site, in seeing what you’ve come up with.

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