Friday, May 31, 2013


Don't even ask what this cat thinks about film critics
It'd be tempting to respond to the remarkably stupid piece “10 things movie critics won't tell you” on MarketWatch with a list of “10 things finance guys won't tell you” that are lists of things like “1) hey heterocisfinancebro, you've never slept with a woman who wasn't faking an orgasm,” but that's not really a response in kind, because it's actually true. Revenge, though, is as ephemeral a pleasure as wealth, and even more short-lived. Criticism of any kind is principally concerned with truth, and so, my dear friends, it is truth with which we concern ourselves today.

The best (both most apt, and most infuriating to finance doofs) analogy for what the immaculately vacant author of the MarketWatch piece, and finance dickheads in general, is to Marxist criticism. Marxist critics aren't the only ones who do this, by any means, and their results are not always wrong, but they suffer from a peculiar and intense need to view absolutely everything on Earth through the prism of Marxist theory: “A Marxist Reading of Fraggle Rock,” etc. Much as they hate commies, finance guys (thanks to gender fluidity, they're all guys) have the same tendency to process the entirety of humankind through the filter of whether or not a thing or activity generates a profit. They refuse to accept worth of any kind than that which can be assigned monetary value. And, as a result, there are entire fields of human endeavor that they will never understand (without abandoning the fatally limiting filter of money), one being the arts.

The author's main concern in this piece seems to be, “I only have time with work/family to see one movie this week, and I want a perfectly reliable bellwether of my own taste so that I don't waste money going to see a movie I don't like.” And on its surface, that concern is perfectly valid. Movies cost a lot of money, and paying to see shitty ones sucks. But where he goes from there is silly and offensive (and trust me, I'm the Western Hemisphere's leading expert on both): that movie critics are obliged to read his mind, determine exactly what he wants to see at the particular moment, take into account that he doesn't know a lot about movies or particularly care about them on any real level, and recite to him exactly what he's going to think about a given movie. This is both solipsistic (which is another thing: if big words scare you, buy a dictionary, motherfucker) and shockingly lazy. If you're so concerned about your time at the movies being wasted, learn enough about movies so you can make up your own goddamn mind. And if you can't rouse yourself from your fucking Brooks Brothers spreadsheet-ass economy-crashing fucking torpor to do that, leave film critics alone.

But I digress. (Also, the author of that piece isn't a real finance guy, he just carries water for them, which is worse, in a way.) The point here is to address the gentleman's arguments, even if the sincerity with which they're made is questionable (see water-carrying for finance types). Here, then, are his “10 things movie critics won't tell you”:

1—“We're not as powerful as we once were . . .”

Completely irrelevant, and also untrue. Movie critics constantly talk about individual critics not having the cultural reach they once did. Every single eulogy of Roger Ebert longer than about two paragraphs mentioned that. We all know the monoculture is dead. Most of us actually like it better that way.

Also, his generalities about amateur critics are outdated by about ten years and misunderstand the actual meaning of the word “amateur” (his difficulties with the English language present themselves at other points as well). An “amateur,” going back to the root of the word, is one who does it for the love. One who loves something cares about it and wants to know as much about it as one can, undercutting the whole amateurs-don't-know-anything thing. Also, the attribution of the assessment that all “amateurs” have “little schooling in the art of cinema or appreciation for film history” to “old-school professionals” is a little wobbly. Specific examples or GTFO.

2—“And we're not exactly in tune with the public's taste.”

Here a massive fallacy presents itself: the notion that box-office grosses can be used to judge the public taste. For this to be true, every movie released would need to have an equivalent level of public awareness, and every movie would need to play in every theater in the country. If Transformers 12 comes out on 6000 screens and grosses $100 million, and a really good movie opens only in New York and Los Angeles and grosses $100 thousand, does that mean the public prefers Transformers 12: The Ballad of Shockwave? Of course not. Most of them don't know about the other one, because there isn't equal access.

I gotta say, though, citing Tyler Perry as example of critical snobbery is funny. Tyler Perry's last movie is about a woman who gets AIDS from the devil because she dares to not be happy being some pious asshole's wife. And her getting AIDS is treated as a happy ending. Not liking Tyler Perry movies doesn't make you a snob. And his movies making pots of money doesn't lead to any kind of inevitable conclusion about their popularity either. Tyler Perry is entirely too sui generis a cultural figure and commercial entity for anyone to make any kind of extrapolations about public taste. And do note the one movie he ever made (not counting his cameo, which kind of ruled in a bizarre way, in J.J. Abrams' first Star Trek) where he did anything other than preach to his pre-existing choir, Alex Cross, bombed spectacularly.

3—“We're in the blurb business.”

A fairly cogent if gloopily worded rebuke to “critics” who are basically marketing copywriters. Would benefit from a clearer delineation between the Peter Traverses of the world and actual film critics, though.

(Also, I swear I remember when Peter Travers didn't suck, but death comes for us all, I suppose.)

4—“We could say the main character is 'a lovable misfit' but we'd rather say he 'limns alterity.'”

First off, congratulations for getting 60 points in Scrabble, guy. Second, if the critic you're reading to decide between Furious 6, Hangover III, or Star Trek 2 because you were busy last weekend uses words like “alterity,” you're doing it wrong.

Third, and most importantly, if your complaint against someone is that you're too dumb to understand what they're saying because “DERRRR BAD MAN MAKE WORDS BIG” you have already successfully composed their counterargument against you. Buy a fucking dictionary.

5—“When we go to the movies, sometimes we take a free vacation.”

A bunch of bullshit about junkets. Junketeers constitute a tiny minority of the film press, and everyone knows to take their coverage with a grain of salt as a result (which is not the same as saying they're wrong or can't do good work; some of them do, obviously). Notting Hill was 16 fucking years ago, dude.

6—“Spoiler alert: Don't read the review before you see the movie.”

This is the point at which I became convinced that this dude's editor gave him this piece on a tight-ish deadline and he was like, “Ah, shit, I have to fill out a whole top 10.” Not because spoilers are something no one cares about—if anything, people need to calm the fuck down about spoilers; not everything is Vertigo—but because one of the examples the author cites as something with a spoiler was Star Trek Into Derpness. There was no spoiler in that movie. Cumberbatch being Khan had no bearing on the story. The good guys win in the end. It's fucking Star Trek. Furthermore, the fact that the bad guy was Khan in STID was public knowledge for a year beforehand.

On the other side of the coin, with The Cabin in the Woods (a movie where a complete tabula rasa approach actually was both possible and advisable) last year, the entire critical community bent over backwards to not reveal the slightest hint of anything. I had to file a ridiculously short review with no proper nouns in it for release date, and then on Monday had to do another post basically opening up discussion of Cabin spoilers . . . but where I still didn't spoil anything because not everyone saw it opening weekend. And this is coming from someone who would kick kneejerk spoilerphobes in the balls. Spoilers are not a problem in modern film criticism.

7—“Sure, we're a bellwether of taste: our own.”

Another fundamental misunderstanding of the point of criticism. A review is not, at least on the professional level, just some asshole giving their opinion. It's important, as well, to note that people “changing their minds” about Adam Sandler after seeing Punch-Drunk Love had just seen the first movie he made with an actual director in his entire career.

There's another thing going on with this with regards to bullshit populism, but hold that thought for a couple entries from now (boy, this guy can't structure for shit and he really is padding the list).

8—“It's gotten so bad, we actually prefer television to most movies.”

Nope. No movie critic is telling you this because no movie critic actually believes this. The division between television and movies is false. And the author can shove his irrelevant stats about Game of Thrones and its budget up his ass.

Seriously, I haven't seen padding like this since the last time I did drag.

9—“When all else fails, we turn to Tarantino.”

I have no idea what this means, other than that the author doesn't like Tarantino movies. The line “Film experts say it’s the way he subverts traditional narrative that gets reviewers excited” is very funny, though, mainly for being the equivalent of “Webster's defines,” but also because you get the sense that if you asked the author what “subverts traditional narrative” means, he'd be utterly lost. It's one inscrutable shibboleth among many picked from a forest of things people smarter than him have said.

This is the dark horse entry for dumbest item on the list, for its sheer pointlessness and degree of disconnect from reality. And for reeking of “oh, crap, I'm at number 9 and I need 10 things, gahhhh!”

10—“My top-10 list is full of movies nobody's seen.”

This one's particularly special because he completely undoes his entire argument in the first paragraph. Holy Motors only playing on 29 screens means almost no one had a chance to. Critics saw it at festivals or, in my case, press screenings. And what the fuck were we supposed to do, not like it because no one else saw it? It's a great movie.

Then, not content to have no fucking point anymore, he goes and makes the obvious actual point that critical acclaim helps small movies reach larger audiences! What the fuck, man. I mean, congratulations for realizing that critics don't bang the drums for obscure pictures to seem cool, they do it out of a love and advocacy for cinema. But do you have to do so with a contradictory bullshit eye-roll accusing critics of being elitist?

One more time for the cheap seats: the reason critics give good reviews to stuff you haven't seen is because they want you to see it. This bullshit notion that critics “think they're better'n we are” is not fucking based on anything. The best critics are really smart and know more about movies than other people do, but they're not lording it over anyone any more than water lords its wetness over us. It's just the way things are.

Anyway. This is more thought than this asshat deserves, and most of the tired anti-critic bullshit that wafts through the Internet I just let go because life's too short. But this could not pass. It's just too aggressively fucking stupid, and with an undertone that needs addressing.

Critical thinking is an essential skill. It enables people to resist the exhortations of the powerful to be meek and compliant. People who choose to apply their critical skills to cinema do so because they care more about movies, and over time learn more about movies, than people who are like “Ah, I haven't been to the movies in a couple months, let me see what's playing.” When you care and know a lot about movies and see some cynical, slapped together piece of shit, you get angry. When you don't know or care enough about movies to see the flaws, it's not the fault of the person who knows and cares more than you do that they didn't like it.

Does your experience have inferior value as the person who knows and cares less? Actually, no. Life is better enjoyed than not. I wanted to like Star Trek. I would have far preferred to like it than for it to irritate me. But that, as above, is how things are sometimes.

On a slightly less warm and fuzzy note, it's important to remember that a publication called “MarketWatch” lazily bashing movie critics with a click-bait article isn't just “how things are sometimes.” Remember that movie studios are corporate-owned, and that it's in their best interest to have unimpeded profits and compliant consumers. Thinking too much gets in the way. The point of this little rant isn't to make out film critics to be some kind of crusading force against corporate fascism or anything like that—we're way too fuckin neurotic, the pressure would make us schvitz our tits off—but that we all need to think, and know, and care. Attempts to devalue film criticism might look like nothing, I mean, who doesn't want to shut Rex Reed the fuck up at this point, but stop for a second. Consider the source (come on, “MarketWatch”?) and consider their motive. And, if you need to, scroll back up and look at how dumb their argument is again.

Remember, y'all: the Evil White Guys In Suits theory is good for a laugh, but it's also the truth.