In a recent YouTube promotional video for his new cable TV reality show “Comic Book Men,” Kevin Smith railed against film critics: “You guys have been telling me for years that I suck at my job and I’m irrelevant. Guess what, you are. Nobody gives a fuck about critics anymore. Nobody cares about what you have to say.”
He may be right.
Film criticism, and any criticism for that matter, is necessarily secondary to the work of art in question — be it movie, TV episode, album or a three-minute video of Will Ferrell deliberating over his apartment’s rent with Pearl, the baby-landlord.
That’s an old argument for criticism’s lack of cultural relevance: Why waste time reading reviews when I can go see the movie for myself?
But there’s another reason why it’s becoming increasingly difficult for critics to hold sway over audiences the way they once did. In the words of Andy Samberg, “everyone’s a critic.”
Like many viewers, I use RottenTomatoes.com. Of course, I examine the Tomatometer before making the trek down to Quality 16, Rave, the Michigan or the State theaters. But I also check the audience tab: Hmm, the critics gave the Navy SEAL film “Act of Valor” a measly 29 percent. But then it’s kind of like hold on, wait a minute, the audience gave the very same movie an 84 percent.
So from whom do I take my advice? Do I listen to Peter Travers when he calls “Act of Valor” “an awkward something else” and “impure Hollywood fiction?” Apparently, Richard Roeper feels that “the SEALS as dramatic characters are under-developed.” Yet, directly below Roeper’s review, I can check out the comments. Carlos and George and Nate all disagree with Richard, which is what he becomes — a first name, just like everyone else. His status as legendary film critic falls by the wayside as the word count of his review is dwarfed by the print amassed by the mere 11 comments, some of which even agree with Richard.
While part of me wants to wave the white flag and throw in the towel for all critics everywhere (I mean, can’t they see they’ve lost?), I’m quickly reminded of that quote from our very own Michigan alum, Arthur Miller, when he said, “A good newspaper is a nation talking to itself.” How prophetic his words turned out to be. Take one look at The Huffington Post and the evidence is right there, staring you in the face: the comments, the links to Twitter, Facebook, Android and iPhone. It’s “social news.” Though Miller was likely talking about straight news, he could just as easily have been talking about reviews as well.
Instead of critics of the past loudly voicing their beliefs in print, knowing full well that readers could only fume as they disagreed, incapable of responding, critics of today must engage in a partial dialogue of sorts. Hats off to Richard Roeper on this account. He responds to readers’ comments on his site, Richard Roeper & The Movies, taking the time to carefully consider what they have to say. It’s a step in the right direction — a sense of balanced conversation between critic and reader.
The immature part of me wants to say we’re done. Finished. Film critics and film theory serve no purpose when we the viewers can take reviews into our own hands, informing each other of how the movie “really was” and giving word of mouth a whole new level of importance. Except if I did stop here, then that’s exactly what it would be — immature. I cannot finish this column without owning up to the fact that quality criticism can be beautiful and prosaic, and necessarily separate from the work of art from which it stems. The film critic can cut through the noise and confusion that is the crowd exiting a movie late at night.
As opposed to a thousand talking heads screaming about what they thought the flaws were with “J. Edgar” (whew, way too many to count), a critic can take the lead. The critic publishes their thoughts and we respond. It’s not that they’re better than anyone else (though admittedly, some critics will have a sharper eye for detail than others), but it’s because they do it on something of a regular basis. And the repetition is comforting. Mr. Roeper may be your critic of choice, or it may be that guy in your Anthro 101 discussion who happens to know a frightening amount about Japanese Anime and maintains a weekly blog on the matter.
Whoever it is, critics begin the dialogue because they get there first. But the fun part is what comes next — discussion between viewers and fans, like the chatter after a movie on the way to finding the car: It’s this chatter that’s sustained on the web.