We don’t need rooftops to shout from anymore. The magic of the Internet has provided us with an ever-growing variety of ways to cast our rulings on the current state of pop culture, and I’m surprised we’re not all perpetually dizzy from the sudden power’s invigorating rush.
Everyone’s a critic, and movies are undeniably a favorite subject. When FelliniNut85 and ODoyleRules can go at it on an IMDb.com message board with the same self-righteous fervor, lofty cultural opinion (ahem – “criticism”) perhaps seems to be slowly stagnating into irrelevance. Wrong. Amid this new, unfettered wealth of opinion, it’s only more needed than ever.
After all, it is an under-mentioned fact that to be supportive of self-expression is far easier than to be receptive to it. Any three minute perusal through YouTube’s gallery of fuzzy-pixeled rantings will send you sprinting for the comfortable gravity of the most ponderous of sweater-vested academics. Consider the ponytailed YouTuber who files her official grievance in video clip form under the promising title of “Movie critics anger me.” In what I hope is just a spot-on impression of soul-sanding teen angst, she carps on and on about how some stupid critic was so unbelievably wrong that in “Tristan and Isolde” the war (boring) was more important than the romance (sigh).
Some decades on from now this chick will realize to her inevitable chagrin that she forgot to take down her bedroom’s many posters of Orlando Bloom’s simpering goatee before committing herself to the annals of movie criticism. “Critics these days just don’t know what they’re talking about,” she petulantly grumbles, and like most naysayers hasn’t the sense to realize that her complaints join rather than refute the critical chorus.
Everyone’s a critic; even an afternoon movie with friends will devolve into table talk over the fine points of its action sequence long after those hard-rock accompanied credits. But soon those post-movie ruminations simply aren’t sufficient, and you have to call in some back-up for additional insight.
This, of course, is the real answer to that insistent critics-don’t-get-it public sentiment – you have to comb through critic-dom for the right aficionado to serve as guide. Don’t ever buy into the plastered-smile, two-thumbs enthusiasm. Any pre-June review declaring “best film of the year!” is a bald-faced lie and should be avoided like a Kate Hudson comedy. Likewise “No. 1 Movie in America!” – when a distinction has quite recently gone to a cinematic delight as unparalleled as “Wild Hogs,” it’s no longer an exclamation-point-worthy distinction.
Rather, wander through criticism-pooling sites like rottentomatoes.com and metacritic.com and skim for the bread-and-butter of commoner-friendly criticism: the observational gem. Take a film like “Titanic,” one of the most famous movies of our generation, worldwide fan favorite and source of considerable critical divide. Whether or not you happen to get misty-eyed at the thought of Rose never letting go, “Titanic” is textbook Hollywood blockbuster to the nth degree: shiny, grand and squeaky clean. But how many moviegoers filed out of the theater with Celine Dion swelling behind them and thought to commend director James Cameron on his camerawork’s “lack of logistical confusion”?
I can tell you how many – none, and not just because they were numbed into momentary psychosis by the glossy banality of that stupid heart going on. It’s simply the sort of observation which you need a trained eye (in this case, that of New York Times critic Janet Maslin) to pick out, articulate and make you appreciate. Ah, yes, you think – true. When the Chicago Reader’s Jonathan Rosenbaum gamely recognizes that “there’s something faintly ridiculous about a $200-million movie that argues on behalf of true love over wealth,” you can only enjoy – ah, yes, true.
Then there are critics who seem so soured on cinema that their choice of occupation could only be evidence of masochism. Stephanie Zacharek’s salon.com review of “Titanic’s” big, sloppy kiss of Hollywood overload is grotesquely cynical, sucking the movie dry of even the slightest bombastic thrill. Zacharek’s opening paragraph sniffs that Cameron’s underwater photography lacks the lyrical beauty of a 1994 A&E documentary. Puh-lease. The stench of that snobbery is so palpable you can only turn up your own nose.
Everyone’s a critic; everyone can find something to nitpick and disparage. But an evaluation is just cold, hard analytics without a little loving to substantiate it. A good critic brings history to table, appreciating the movies as a business and a process as much as a pastime. So for every Zacharek decrying unapologetically commercial entertainment like “Titanic” as “ham-fisted,” there’s someone like New Yorker critic Anthony Lane enjoying it precisely because it “heads straight for the guts.”
Lane wields a turn of phrase as light and sharp as any rapier, and his darting, dry-wit criticism takes quick stabs rather than expressive scythe-style swipes. Like Zacharek, he doesn’t let the ridiculous uber-nobility of “Titanic’s” steerage-rank poor people run unchecked. But when Lane refers to the film’s nefarious bad guy as a villain straight out of a melodramatic stage play, he considers the characterization to be a device and not a stumbling block. Yes, “Titanic” draws a very discernable line between the Good characters and the Bad, but that’s all part of the film’s thoroughly respectable, “old-fashioned” feeling.
It’s critical breakdown on a bigger-picture level. Agree or disagree, criticism is an opportunity to reformulate the rules of artistic engagement and consider a piece of work from an alternate plane, encouraging overlooked connections and maybe even some that are only possibly there. “Titanic’s” lovers, as Lane observes, are doomed, so it seems poetic to him that “the ship, in a touching display of erotic sympathy, rears up on end and goes down.” A stretch, yes, but ah – true. Now there’s an image even Celine in her most unbridled of crescendos couldn’t hope to numb.