Hot Topic: In Defense of the Professional Critic.

I was watching the Chicago Bears play against the Houston Texans last night when the team came upon a 4th and 1 situation; the ball was on the opponents’ 47-yard line and the crowd was screaming for Bears coach Lovie Smith to go for it on 4th down. Of course coach punted the football, but commentator Al Michaels made an interesting quote from legendary Chicago Bulls commentator Johnny Kerr:

"If a coach starts listening to fans, he winds up sitting next to them."

The Bears went on to lose but that quote kept on ringing in my head. Professional sports, like film, is a public entertainment. They both feature highly trained individuals executing a craft that is watched for enjoyment by large crowds who not only watch, but also critique the work of these individuals play-by-play. I remember once going to a Denver Bronco game and hearing fans heckle a wide receiver who dropped a pass.”You should’ve caught that,” one fan screamed, “my grandma could’ve caught that pass, and she’s dead!” Never mind that the wide receiver was backpedaling at full speed and had a 6’2” cornerback draped all over him, and it was 20 degrees outside and snowing. Having played football myself, I empathized with the player, although I was disappointed that he didn’t make the catch, because hey - I want my team to make all of their catches.

We live in a world that is saturated with access, where the public can critically review any given subject via message boards, forums, and review sites. Restaurants can be made or destroyed by customer reviews on Yelp, books can be vaulted into the stratosphere by Amazon reviews, and movies can be made or trashed on iMDB boards. The common thread to all these sites is that they contain reviews by the public, and not from professional critics. And in this, I’m beginning to see a quandary, because just like how I want my favorite football players to catch all the passes thrown at them, so too does the public place their immediate expectations upon the places they eat, the books and film they consume, and the places they frequent. It is these expectations which affects the quality of their reviews, and it is these immediate expectations that the professional critic tempers, because they’re experts in their medium and their barometer of quality is their own experience, education and informed taste.

It seems more and more commonplace that a lot of the things that the public adores - Fifty Shades of Grey, Twilight, McDonalds, Caribbean Cruises - are consistently trashed by professional critics. I’ve known for awhile now that just because something is popular, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s good. I do try to read and watch what’s popular to get a feel of the zeitgeist, and I’m often shocked how appallingly bad most bestsellers and blockbuster films are. Take Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code as an example. It has to date done over $250 million in sales, spawned a major movie franchise, and was outsold only by J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. It is, by all estimations, a major, major success. So I decided to read it, and after an hour I wanted to gouge my eyeballs out of my head after reading some of the worst writing I’d ever come across. I’m not a professional literary critic, but you don’t need to be when you come across writing like this:

"A voice spoke, chillingly close. "Do not move." On his hands and knees, the curator froze, turning his head slowly. Only fifteen feet away, outside the sealed gate, the mountainous silhouette of his attacker stared through the iron bars."

Voices don’t speak, people do. And frozen people cannot turn their head slowly because, well, they’re frozen. Silhouettes can’t stare. That’s just from the first lines of the book, which progressively went from crap to pure shit as I read it.


Leonardo deserves better.

But the public defenders of dreck like The DaVinci Code or Michael Bay’s Transformers movie franchise will espouse that these exist to purely entertain, and that’s what they see what most professional critics are forgetting when they trash films and books that are staggeringly popular. The “I want to shut my brain off and just enjoy something” mantra is what has driven many a mediocre book or film to stratospheric success, and I’ll be the first to say I too would love to escape in a book or film, and I’d say a majority of professional critics would love to as well. Not all critics want to sit through a two-hour incomprehensible tone poem about the Holocaust by Jean-Luc Godard, and I’d be willing to bet that they’d much rather spend those two hours watching a well-crafted comedy like Bridesmaids or Mean Girls. But the key here is well-crafted. The critic appreciates quality and knows just how hard it is to achieve, much like my empathy for the wide receiver who dropped a pass in a snowstorm. He makes that catch and I know it’s quality work, he drops it and I know it was a hard thing to do. (It’s a different story if he made no effort at all, which is a failure of expectation from a professional athlete and is worthy of criticism).

The public wants immediate expectations met, and the critic wants quality that lives up to expectations. There’s a huge difference. At a restaurant a diner wants something that tastes good and served efficiently without fuss. The critic also wants the same thing, but she also knows the pedigree of the chef, the history of the cuisine and what makes it special, and the proper way a restaurant should be run. Her judgement of the quality of the meal will be placed up against those parameters, and she’ll make a much more insightful and critical choice than someone who just wants a good meal.

But shouldn’t it be enough to just have a good meal? In the short term, yes. But in the long term, absolutely not. Art and dialogue persists through a constant pushing of the medium, and if the public embraces what is simply “good” as opposed to what is exceptional, or what is flawed but a bold new attempt - they will be spinning their wheels. And since the endgame for so much content, food and experience is to make money, producers of such will continue to feed the lowered expectations of the bigger public opinion.

It’s hard to write this and not sound like a pretentious blowhole. I hate a bad review from a critic as much as the next guy, but I also want criticism from people who know that field intimately, are madly passionate about film, and who want to see the medium reach the levels of their taste. Are they a reflection of the greater public opinion? Likely not. But they are there to give the public an opinion - an informed, reasoned opinion - about what they feel is the best or worst representation of that craft. And it’s ultimately up to us to use our judgement whether or not to pursue it.

Critics - and by critics I mean people who are good writers, who have studied their mediums and are passionate about them - are necessary for every field because they act as the filter to separate the bad from the good, and to support what is brave, unconventional and contributing to the medium. And of course critics can get it wrong - many a film has been critically panned and yet later been recognized as a maverick work. But I’d rather a trained critic get it wrong than my neighbor who hasn’t studied cinema for a single minute of his life get it wrong. That’s not to slam by neighbor - I’ll take a recommendation from him any time, but I won’t have him decide what is good or bad for the medium. And that’s what’s happening on the Internet right now. People are overriding the critics, and if writers, chefs, filmmakers and studios keep listening to the people, they’ll proverbially end up in the seats next to them. The barometer of quality should be driven by a balance of both - a critical gaffe can be saved through a supportive public, and a public misconception can be righted by a critical review.


Don’t trust the boxoffice and go see DREDD.

I think of the golden age of cinema - the 50s through the 70s - where films were put through the critical gauntlets of Cahiers Du Cinema and the likes of Pauline Kael, Serge Daney, Manny Farber, Gene Siskel, Andrew Sarris and Andre Bazin, and I can’t help but think that those critics made our medium better. They were critics that wanted to see cinema that not only entertained them, but that also challenged the medium with the intent of making it better, more expansive, and as a greater, deeply textured expression of the human condition. These critics were harsh, but only because they want quality and craft from the people who are the very best in their field. There isn’t a filmmaker, author or chef in the world who doesn’t want to please a tough critic, and when they do, they know that they’ve done something special, and that critic has pushed them to that limit. It’s a symbiotic relationship, and it only works when the public trusts its critics, and the critics are believed in by its craftspeople. And it’s more than okay to disagree with a critic - that’s what they’re there for - and that’s the healthiest thing that can happen for any art form, which is debate and discourse of what is working and what isn’t. It’s absolutely vital to progress, and it is the role of the critic to eloquently and rationally be the firestarter of that debate.

I want to leave you with one of the most beautifully written passages about criticism I’ve ever experienced. It is from Pixar’s Ratatouille, where food critic Anton Ego - voiced by Peter O’Toole - speaks of the responsibility and burden of the critic. It’s staggeringly gorgeous and relevant, and is arguably one of the greatest sequences in all of cinema. Of course that’s my critical opinion, and I’m sticking to it.