Thursday, July 22, 2010

Are Fan Reviews Diluting Film Criticism?

**Updated quotes to include section specific to Roger Ebert** I don't pay a lot of attention to high profile cyber wars. Generally they're kind of like the on-air feud between Donald Trump and Rosie O'Donnell that raged a few years ago-- full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. But the sniping that has gone on between film critics Roger Ebert and Armond White is particularly compelling to blogger reviewers like myself. I don't know much about Armond White other than the fact that he is a film critic for the New York Press who tends to have contrarian views when it comes to film criticism (praising movies like "Transformers 2" while panning "Toy Story 3") and infuriating followers of the aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes when he ruins the "fresh" score of movies like "District 9." I also know that he holds reviewers like Roger Ebert in low esteem, blaming him for the proliferation of blogs just like this one. ~From an interview with Slash Film We got film critics who are employed professionally by legitimate publications, and we have the world of the internet film writers. The internet has become so pervasive and overwhelming that the internet has stolen the impact and prestige and effect that traditional professional film criticism used to have. As a result of that I think that people who are now employed by the mainstream media are so intimidated by the internet that it seems, when you read mainstream published film critics, that they’ve simply given up being film critics, because they’re afraid of losing readership, because they’re afraid of losing their jobs, probably because publishers and editors simply want to get readers and appease readers, rather than inform and instruct readers. And I think that leads to a kind of anarchy where there are very few people writing about film who know what they’re talking about and who are rigorous about having standards in film. The anarchy, I think, comes from the the fact that in mainstream media and the internet, most people who are writing about films are simply writing from a fan’s perspective instead of a truly critical perspective. So what used to be termed “film critics” now is almost meaningless, because you just got a free-for-all of enthusiasms rather than criticism. I do think it is fair to say that Roger Ebert destroyed film criticism. Because of the wide and far reach of television, he became an example of what a film critic does for too many people. And what he did simply was not criticism. It was simply blather. And it was a kind of purposefully dishonest enthusiasm for product, not real criticism at all…I think he does NOT have the training. I think he simply had the position. I think he does NOT have the training. I’VE got the training. And frankly, I don’t care how that sounds, but the fact is, I’ve got the training. I’m a pedigreed film critic. I’ve studied it. I know it. And I know many other people who’ve studied it as well, studied it seriously. Ebert just simply happened to have the job. And he’s had the job for a long time. He does not have the foundation. He simply got the job. And if you’ve ever seen any of his shows, and ever watched his shows on at least a two-week basis, then you surely saw how he would review, let’s say, eight movies a week and every week liked probably six of them. And that is just simply inherently dishonest. That’s what’s called being a shill. And it’s a tragic thing that that became the example of what a film critic does for too many people. Often he wasn’t practicing criticism at all. Often he would point out gaffes or mistakes in continuity. That’s not criticism. That’s really a pea-brained kind of fan gibberish. Huh. He might actually have a point here regardless of a tone that could easily be described as elitist. Ebert, for his part, gave his opinion of Armond White awhile ago saying- "It is baffling to me that a critic could praise "Transformers 2" but not "Synecdoche, NY." Or "Death Race" but not "There Will be Blood." I am forced to conclude that White is, as charged, a troll. A smart and knowing one, but a troll" (you can see the rest of that article HERE). Ebert also notes that White agrees with him exactly 50% of the time according to Rotten Tomatoes, which does lend validity to the "troll" label. Nonetheless, I'm compelled to admit that White has one valid point when it comes to his comments-- we, the fans, do tend to review what we like and we may not be looking at everything with a critical eye. I am not a trained reviewer-- I'm not even sure what it means when White says he has the appropriate background for film criticism. Can one get a degree as a film critic? (I'm scared to know). Does a journalistic background count for anything or must one be able to deconstruct a movie's style, influences and overall pedigree before the review can be considered valid? For my part I've always tried to be honest in my reviews. I do watch and review movies in my preferred genre, though I try to offer what I think are valid criticisms when warranted (as I did for "Inception.") I don't like to disagree with those who read and comment on my reviews, but I don't try to pander to what I hope people will want to read-- which is what White was also saying Ebert is guilty of. If I had to guess, I'd say that what White really objects to is the prevalence and popularity of blogger-reviewers. We're the voice of the fans and we speak to other fans. Who is going to be more influential in the long run, an ivory tower critic or someone who is well grounded in the genre they represent? I may not have a platform as large as White or the ability to generate controversy, but if I am taken as a whole with all the other reviewers out there who do what I do, we actually have a fairly strong voice. White clearly doesn't like that. I'm not sure what White is looking for, though I'd guess a much older system in which the fans don't get to voice their opinions. But the genie is out of the bottle. It isn't just Rotten Tomatoes, but Amazon as well. Reviews are now quite democratic and have a lot to do with word-of-mouth recommendations for or against certain movies. I hear Twitter can kill a movie these days. Obviously my bias is going to trend toward blogger reviewers, even if they fall into the fan-boy category. I think they're a wonderful tool for knowing what is worth my time and what is straight-to-video quality work. White may have the ability to throw out some erudite musings about the newest action films, but given his tendency to recommend crap like "Transformers 2," why would anyone trust his reviews anyway? Seems to me a thumbs up from White means a movie is something to be put on the "do not watch" list. But White knows how to drum up controversy and he picked the right Goliath if he was looking for attention.

14 comments:

Budd said...

I really don't think the few people that read the reviews on my site are any threat to the MSM reviewers. Hopefully the people that read my reviews understand why I did or did not like the book/movie and can extrapolate whether or not they will from it.

Charles Gramlich said...

I've never in my life paid any attention to professional film reviewers. I have paid attention to bloggers. Of course, ultimately when it comes to film I'm generally uninterested other than for occassional entertainment purposes. I pay more attention to professionl reviews in literature.

BStearns said...

White just sounds like someone who just wants more attention. He's tired of people not putting him up on a pedestal. I think that film critics have had their hay-day. Today people want reviews and opinions of other movie goers, people like them. If a movie got a dreadful review from some critic, but you said it was a great film, I'd be more likely to see it. I want to read a review of someone I can relate to, not some guy who wants to analyze every small part of the film. I want to discover the deeper meaning of the work myself, and if I haven't found it after my viewing, then I may read a critic review and see if I missed something. All in all, I'd trust the review more if it was from someone I knew and trusted, rather than from some, as you put it, ivory tower film critic.

-Bryan
www.sff-hub.com

SQT said...

Budd, I don't think it's so much that we get tons of attention individually, it's that as a group we're influencing how well movies do. People no longer solely rely on the opinion of a guy like Roger Ebert to get their movie criticism anymore. I forget which movie it was, but I remember reading that negative Twitter buzz from everyday viewers killed movie traffic the first weekend.

Charles, What constitutes professional reviews in literature nowadays? I worked for a local review publication (just saw one of my reviews in a book yesterday). A lot of blog reviews are on the books now in the blurbs section with Publishers Weekly and the L.A. and New York Times reviews. The publishers are giving us influence there too.

SQT said...

BStears, White seems to be regarded as someone who loudly takes the contrary position and then tries to claim he's the expert who knows what he's talking about and all the other reviewers are just amateurs. It seems like shtick to me and it's gotten him a lot of attention. Negative mostly, but some people don't care what kind of attention they get.

BStearns said...

Too true, too true. All people seem to care about is that they get their fifteen minutes of fame. It drives them through their day, and sometimes their life. Imagine if they all put that kind of energy into something useful the difference it would make. But that kind of thinking is what makes you an idealist I guess. But one can still dream!

-Bryan
www.sff-hub.com

Rabid Fox said...

I'm unfamiliar with Armand White, and he gave a positive review to Michael Bay's onscreen excrement, I see no reason to change that.

SQT said...

Rabid Fox-- I know! How does this guy warrant a high profile?

Tracy Falbe said...

In general, I find the most reliable and genuine reviews and comments to be by us mere plebians who are not "professional critics" who need to "inform and instruct" viewers/readers. I often disagree with reviewers, who will like a movie that I think is weak and disparage a movie that I thought was brilliant. Sure, tastes vary, but many media consumers are able to provide valid criticism. The media is produced for us after all, not an elite few who desperately want to sound smarter than everyone else.

To conclude, anyone who could find merit within Transformers 2 has no business being employed to review anything. My kids even asked to leave that movie because it was so boring.

Audrey M. Brown said...

I have an undergraduate degree in film and television studies, which technically makes me a "trained critic". But honestly, if I didn't have my degree, I'd be pursuing the same things and feel just as legitimate. It seems like everyone has different criteria for what should allow someone to be able to be a critic of any kind. And it's mysteriously whatever the criteria of the person complaining is...hmmm... I say everyone has the right to critique, no matter what their "training". If you watched it, your opinion counts.

The Rush Blog said...

I gave up on movie critics a long time ago, after I saw "IN AND OUT", based upon Roger Ebert's review. After that, I decided to go see whatever movie captures my attention, regardless of how a critic might feel about it. And I've managed to see a good number of movies that appeal to me, by ignoring the critics.

So, Ebert and Armand White can fight with each other, until the cows come home. I'm not going to read their reviews anyway.

Maurice Mitchell said...

It's funny that I hate "Rotten Tomatoes" for the very reason he's describing. I prefer Metacritic when I want to know what the professionals think. I think the line between professional and fan review is a wide chasm that few can cross and maybe shouldn't. I think fans provide a different perspective and tends to be more down-to-earth and less scholarly. There's room for both I say.

SQT said...

Tracy-- I pretty much feel the same way. I can't tell you how many movies I wasted my time on after hearing critics sing its praises only to end up thinking why is this supposed to be good?

Audrey-- I have a degree in journalism and some experience in broadcasting, but I'm not sure that's the same. Either way, my opinion is just that. I might, with effort, be able to phrase my opinions in a journalistic fashion, but they're no more profound than anyone else's. I suppose being able to look at the influences of the filmmaker could be relevant, but does it have anything to do with whether the film is good or not?

Rush-- I don't think White seems to have half the talent he thinks he does, but he is right that Ebert is a fan-reviewer rather than someone who views things with a critical eye. I've thought that for years. I actually preferred Siskel back in the day. He seemed more inclined to let you know if a movie sucked.

Maurice-- I just kind of find it funny that so much "scholarly" attention is paid to movies. I understand wanting to learn the craft, if I had to do it again, I'd like to learn how to be an editor. I used to sit in the editing booth and watch those guys in awe. Editors are so undervalued (publicly) in the art of movie making, but I digress as usual.

Reviews are such a subjective thing. I couldn't really understand the hype over "Avatar." I tried to watch it but couldn't get into it. Does that make my opinion a bad one? I don't know. I certainly don't thinks so.

The Rush Blog said...

Rush-- I don't think White seems to have half the talent he thinks he does, but he is right that Ebert is a fan-reviewer rather than someone who views things with a critical eye. I've thought that for years. I actually preferred Siskel back in the day. He seemed more inclined to let you know if a movie sucked.



I simply ignore ALL film critics and form my own opinions.