A few summers ago, I took intersession biblical Greek III—the only sane way to take biblical Greek III. If you’re familiar with two-week summer courses, then you know you spend a lot of time each day in class with the same people, and then a lot of time after class with the same people. When you spend that amount of time with someone, you quickly drain all the viable conversation topics and naturally end up arguing the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man versus Andrew Garfield Spider-Man movies. Because there is a right answer, and anything else is heresy, the discussions can get pretty intense. I remember near the end of intersession we were taking a short break; people could go use the restroom or grow grab a snack from the vending machine. Most of us stayed in our chairs and picked up the debate where we left off. Emotions were high and superhero-themed insults were aplenty. One of the guys got up to go get some Flamin Hot Cheetos before class resumed, still debating as he walked to the door, “I can’t believe this is even a discussion. I thought it was common sense that Maguire sucks.”
After warning him to watch his language in a bible classroom, I smugly retorted, “Maybe you should check Rotten Tomatoes.”
Though he opened the door, he stood where he was, baffled by the nonsense that had come out of my mouth. “Rotten Tomatoes? Are you serious? You can’t trust that site. I mean, have you been on there?” He shut the door. “Every black and white movie on there they give like a hundred percent. Goodness, they’ll give a hundred to a French film you have to watch in subtitles!”
He didn’t have a point.
While the Rotten Tomatoes site is not the concern of this post, the sort of attitude that seeks to shutdown the page is. In addition to gross misunderstanding of what the website does, efforts like this betray a deep misconception of what movie criticism is.
Movie criticism is not the discipline of criticizing movies nor is it the practice of discussing films in the most pretentious method possible, as I hope you already know. Criticism is, however, a crucial societal service—one that is meant to benefit culture, and it does this through the three roles of the critic:
Guardian of the Wallet: This is the most straightforward and perhaps well-known aspect of the movie critic. Growing up I remember wanting to see a movie and having to wait on my mother to check the newspaper or internet first lest we drive out to the theater, pay an outrageous $11.50 for tickets, and walk out two hours later with the new knowledge that I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry was actually a bad movie. This is the consumer value of the movie critic: to tell us what movies are worth our time and money. But if this were all the film expert were good for, I’m not sure it would merit their existence, as anyone knows that a friend’s suggestion is usually much more accurate in predicting if you will like a movie and most of us go to them first.
Cinematic Scholar: This is undoubtedly the most controversial role of the movie commentator. A lot of us are instantly turned-off by the technical jargon in reviews and pretentious condemnations of movies we like, but I warn you: in not giving the critic our ears, we are losing out on one of their greatest assets. Because, when the movie critic tells us a movie is bad and we see it anyway and like it, it’s not that the critic was wrong, it’s that we don’t know what we like.
Though, I talked about this last week, the claim “we don’t know what we like” is a hard pill to swallow. But believe me when I tell you that movies are not as much of an opinion as you may think but an objective thing that can be measured. Sure, there are subjective factors that influence our taste in movies: I don’t like Tom Hardy’s face; superhero movies fill me with nostalgia; I watched too many Westerns as a kid. But beyond all that, film has an objective aspect—technical qualities that can steer our appreciation for any given movie.
If film was completely a matter of preference, the range of opinions would be a scattershot. However, there is a reason for the success of men like Steven Spielberg who come from the “movie brat” generation of directors (meaning he knows a lot about the craft of filmmaking). There is a reason everyone loves The Shawshank Redemption. There is a reason everyone (male and female) loves Pride and Prejudice. You may point to an actor as the reason you like a movie, but I bet I can name a movie in their filmography you’d hate. You may point to the genre, but there’s undoubtedly an example of a flop in that category. You may point to premise, plot, setting, or originality—but there is always an example of a movie with an unoriginal plot in a place you’ve seen before, that you absolutely love (see The Dark Knight). A movie is built on causal-plots, effective music, balanced frames, and—most of all—empathetic characters.
While this is a little more minor, when the critic rejects a movie, it is not only doing us a direct service in telling us not to see it, it is telling the wider film industry, “Don’t make any more movies like that one!” And in this way, the critic is maintaining a standard. He or she is saying, “We are not tasteless sheep that you can serve anything to; we demand excellence and media worth our attention.”
Cultural Watchman: This last role of the film critic is both the most important and the most forgotten. Beyond dissecting the technical merit of a film, it is the duty of the movie commentator to uncover the movie’s message. The critic must decide what the movie is saying (either overtly or subtly), and then tell us—the audience, society—if that is a message they endorse and think we should hear. The critic must ask the questions: is a movie inadvertently advocating selfishness (The Amazing Spider-Man) or selflessness (The Iron Giant)? Is it condemning a country’s warmongering (The Deer Hunter) or praising violence (Pulp Fiction)? Is it critiquing religion (There Will Be Blood) or lambasting faith (Religulous)?
Of course as we ask these questions and seek to consume art in a responsible fashion, I need to give an unabashed plug for Harding’s Alumni Book Club (open to more than previous Harding students) headed up by my brother, Michael. They’ll be discussing Eric Metaxas’s Amazing Grace and be doing exactly what we’re talking about here.
I want to end, though, by suggesting two ideas:
First, in order to fully appreciate the movie critic’s role of Cinematic Scholar, we must train ourselves in the language and grammar of cinema. Clearly this will allow us to better dialogue with the rest of the cinema community, but broadening our knowledge of the mechanics of film will assist us in interpreting it ourselves.
The other idea I want to suggest is that while the former is important, it is imperative that our primary concern be the morality of the movie. We must listen to the cultural watchmen, and become watchmen ourselves. We cannot afford—whether or not it is a conscious decision of the director—to blindly consume an entire scene of a movie dedicated to a male character encountering a creature obviously made to resemble female anatomy that promptly obliterates it out of spite.
In preparing for my upcoming series on popular movies, I was reminded of two key points on movie criticism that I left out of this post. The first is creatively presented through Film Crit Hulk’s car analogy (or, The Tangible Details Theory):
WE KNOW IN OUR GUT IF WE LIKE OR DISLIKE SOMETHING WHEN WE WATCH IT, BUT WHEN IT COMES TIME TO ACTUALLY EXPLAIN WHY WE LIKE OR DISLIKE SOMETHING, WE JUST END UP GIVING OUR REASONS BASED ON OUR RELATIVE LEVEL UNDERSTANDING OF THE THING ITSELF.
FOR INSTANCE, HULK DOESN’T KNOW **** ABOUT CARS.
STILL, HULK DRIVES A CAR EVERY DAY (JUMPING AROUND IS TIRING). HULK KNOWS WHAT CARS HULK THINKS LOOK COOL (1963 CHEVY STINGRAYS). HULK CAN GET IN A CAR AND TELL YOU IF IT FEELS GOOD TO DRIVE OR NOT. WHICH ALL MEANS THAT HULK BUYS AND CONSUMES CARS IN A TOTALLY FUNCTIONAL STATE. BUT HULK DOESN’T UNDERSTAND THEM. HULK COULDN’T TELL YOU HOW THEY WORK OR WHAT IS WHAT IN AN ENGINE. AND SO HULK’S OPINION ON WHETHER OR NOT A CAR IS “GOOD OR NOT” SHOULDN’T REALLY BE CONSIDERED WITH THE SAME VALIDITY AS SOMEONE WHO CAN ACTUALLY ENGINEER OR PROPERLY FIX A CAR. THEY SIMPLY KNOW WHAT MAKES FOR A GOOD CAR. BUT THE THING IS THAT WE ALL HAVE OUR RELATIVE AREAS OF EXPERTISE. MEANING THAT SAME MECHANIC CAN WATCH A MOVIE AND GO “that ****ing sucked cause I hated his stupid face!” AND YET THEY CAN SIMPLY HEAR HULK’S ENGINE AND IDENTIFY THE PROBLEM FROM THE SOUND IT MAKES ALONE. IT IS ABOUT EXPERTISE IN A FIELD.
BUT THE PROBLEM IS THAT WHEN IT COMES TO MOVIES WE HAVE THIS ODD HABIT OF THINKING THAT:
1) WE ALL HAVE A LEVEL OF EXPERTISE JUST BECAUSE WE ARE AVID CONSUMERS.
2) ACTUAL EXPERTS DON’T EXIST.
AND NEITHER OF WHICH IS ALL THAT TRUE.
The other point is related—and I hint at it above—but I’m not sure I fully conveyed it. The truth is that there are lots of good movies, movies that are crafted well, are entertaining, and may speak to some truth. But being inoffensive and apt is not the standard for greatness. Some popcorn movies go in one ear and out the other, and that’s fine. But great movies are remembered.