Why us critics aren't just a bunch of bastards (or at least, don't have to be)

Theatre of BloodBy Ben Bussey

The jumping-off point for the diatribe to follow is also perhaps one of the most commonly-voiced sentiments of our time: I read something yesterday on Facebook which upset me a bit. Chris Alexander of Fangoria – the publication without which I think it’s fair to say the vast majority of us in the horror critic game wouldn’t be here – voiced his opinion on the art (if we want to call it that) of film criticism, and he didn’t have anything very favourable to say:

“Cinema is a complex art, an amalgam of ALL the arts in fact, a hybrid of many moving parts. And each film lives. It breathes. It is born. It is in utero while in production. It is birthed upon release. Filmmakers are like nervous parents sending their babies out into the world. And film critics tend to be bullies. Bullies who kick kids around. Like a child, each film has to grow…it needs time, distance, space to become what it will become. It needs to be studied. It needs to be forgiven. It needs to be seen at its best, at its worst. It needs to be loved. It needs to be dumped. It needs to find new love. It needs to be forgotten. It needs to be rediscovered. It needs to weather storms, survive trends. Film critics see a picture once. Only once. Often after seeing many other pictures in succession. Film critics are like bad teachers who judge your child after a preliminary meeting and label them for life. I find most film criticism empty and irresponsible and the enemy of art.” Read it in full here.

Having written for this site for more than six years now, I feel reasonably secure in describing myself as a film critic – and as such, these words hit home. My gut reaction was anger, and the thought certainly crossed my mind to vent that by throwing together some cleverly worded response which essentially amounted to calling the writer an idiot; much the same reaction many filmmakers have on reading unkind appraisals of their own work, I should expect. But I didn’t do this. I took a step back, cooled down, turned my mind to other things. Then I read it again, and realised that in fact there was a great deal there I agreed with, and deep down this was the real reason I was upset; because much of what Alexander said rang true, and I didn’t want it to.

On first reading, I felt Alexander was making like Kevin Smith, Uwe Boll and countless others before, bitterly dismissing the entire practice of film criticism as 100% worthless in one fell swoop. On reading it again, I realised the underlying sentiment actually seems to be a plea for reform on the part of most – not necessarily all – contemporary film critics. And I’d have to agree that this is indeed needed.

The notion of critic as bully has long been a popular one, dating back to well before Vincent Price subjected everyone who’d ever given him a bad review to a torturous Shakespearean death in Theatre of Blood. More recent representations of the profession and its practitioners on film don’t fare much better, from Peter O’Toole’s painfully aloof though ultimately re-humanised restaurant critic in Brad Bird’s Ratatouille (quick review: masterpiece), to Bob Balaban’s painfully snotty film critic in M Night Shyamalan’s Lady in the Water (quick review: bag of wank), to the book critic that Tom Hanks throws off a balcony in Tom Twyker and the Wachowskis’ Cloud Atlas (honestly, I didn’t know what to make of that one). We may even recall that Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla featured Michael Lerner and Lorry Goldman as the somewhat incompetent New York Mayor Ebert and his aide Gene, the director’s way of getting revenge on the most renowned duo in the business for giving Independence Day two thumbs down (because obviously that really hurt Independence Day’s take at the box office…)

What a bleak picture all this paints of some grey, miserly bunch of misanthropes lurking in the shadows waiting to expunge the first glimmer of light. Well, hang on a tic. I, as we’ve established, am kind of a film critic myself, and you know what? All things considered I don’t think I’m that bad a person, nor are any of my colleagues here at Brutal As Hell; and, granted I don’t get out all that much, but plenty of the other critics I’ve encountered face to face have also been perfectly pleasant people, full of enthusiasm for their work and for film in general. So where does this idea that we’re nothing but a rabble of killjoys come from?

Perhaps the most frequently cited argument is that all critics are just frustrated artists themselves; that they have been left embittered by their own failures, and as such want to vent that frustration by tearing down the dreams of anyone else who dares to try and build something of their own. In some cases, no doubt, there is at least a grain of truth in this. I won’t deny that I myself have in the past had other artistic goals beyond reviewing horror movies. I pursued acting for a decade, eventually losing interest when I failed to get anywhere; I tried my hand at short film-making once, and was not pleased with the results, which put me off trying again; and back when Brutal As Hell started in 2009 I was concurrently writing short fiction for a while (the best of which I compiled in an e-book, From The Gut… ahem). So why did I ditch all that in favour of writing movie news and reviews? Well, I’m not going to lie to you – I found reviews easier. Plotting a short story, drafting it, redrafting it, polishing it up: it would generally take me anywhere from a couple of days to several weeks to get it in a shape I was happy with, after which there’d be the arduous task of trying to find someone to publish it, assuming anyone ever did. On the other hand, in those early days I could watch a movie, sit down later that day and hammer out a review in maybe a couple of hours, and have it online for anyone to see potentially that very evening. (Let me just emphasise – this was my approach starting out, not the way I still do things today.) In terms of itching that scratch, that need to get myself out there and actually reach readers, there was simply no contest.

This, no doubt, makes me seem an unprincipled opportunist in some eyes. But there was more to it than that. Somehow, being a critic just suits my personality more. I think I’m better at it than I am at fiction. And above all, I’ve always felt reviews play a vital role in the relationship between films and the wider audience; and, in the best cases, they can help films reach a far larger number of people than they might have done otherwise. And while there are filmmakers that bemoan the existence of critics, there are plenty more who recognise the importance of getting reviewed, regardless of whether the reviews wind up positive or negative.

The big thing that most critic-critics (I’m trademarking that) fail to take into account when painting us as big bad bullies the way Alexander does, is that it works both ways. Okay, so there are absolutely instances when reviews are unduly cruel and dismissive, but what about the reviews that are gushing with inordinate praise? Strangely, you never hear so many complaints about that – except from other critics, who know very well that the latest direct-to-DVD found footage flick with a five star cover quote reading “scariest film of the decade!” is anything but. Harsh write-ups might dent a filmmaker’s spirit, but isn’t there an equal danger in making them believe they’re the new genre master? Might this not have gone flooding straight to Shyamalan’s head after The Sixth Sense, paving the way to him disappearing ever further up his own back passage, pushing out little clag nuts like The Lady in the Water along the way?

(Sorry about that, Bob Balaban. Just know you’re cool in our book. You directed Parents.)

But then Alexander lays the charge that critics “see a picture once. Only once. Often after seeing many other pictures in succession,” and as such don’t give the film the proper attention. I can’t dispute this one so much. As I admitted earlier, time was I would tend to write a film up more or less as soon as I’d finished watching it with a view to getting a review online later that day. I’ve since become acutely aware that this really isn’t a sensible approach; you need to give a film time to sink in, at least 24 hours if possible, to really mull it over before putting all down – and when necessary, a second viewing may indeed be called for. Alas, I get the impression not everyone out there publishing reviews online these days feels similarly. As Mark Kermode discusses at length in his book Hatchet Job, the internet age and the rise of online fan critics has resulted in an obsession with getting the ‘first’ review online. This without doubt is something we’ve been guilty of in the past – and, in all honesty, will probably be guilty of again. There’s a particular rush for it in festival season; at my first FrightFest back in 2010, I hurried back every night on the last tube from Leicester Square to the west London flat where I lived at the time to get the big premieres written up as soon as humanly possible. Subsequently, I was guilty of a bit of that excessive praise thing I mentioned earlier, particularly in my write-ups of Hatchet 2 and the I Spit On Your Grave remake, neither of which I look back on with anything like the same fondness now. That said, I stand by my hugely enthusiastic write-up of Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship and Videotape… which I believe was indeed the film’s first review to go online. And got me a rather larger quote on the DVD sleeve than Kermode’s. Yes, five years on that’s still a point of rather childish pride for me – but I’m grown up enough to realise that sleeve quotes aren’t the raison d’etre for going into criticism. Sadly, this is another sentiment clearly not shared by many others in my field, and again this is a real problem.

But we don’t always rush reviews out of some juvenile urge to beat everyone else to the finish line, like it’s some sort of performance sport. For a great many of us, it’s simply a matter of limited time. While old school professional critics may indeed attend press screenings day in day out, for those of us of the new breed the reality is often very different. Many of us don’t make a penny, let alone a living doing this, and instead of press screenings (very few of which take place outside of the major cities anyway) we have complimentary DVD or Blu-ray screeners, or ever more frequently nowadays a password protected link to watch online. The idea of getting to watch these films ‘at your leisure’ at first seems ideal; but for people with long working hours, household responsibilities and hopefully some semblance of a social life, invariably these screeners end up getting squeezed in at the end of the workday and on weekends. And it’s not just personal time that tends to be limited, as more often than not a filmmaker or PR agent will send out a screener requesting reviews come online to meet the film’s release date – and they don’t always provide as large a window as you’d like. So when finally flopping down on the couch (or worse, in front of the computer) at the end of the day, faced with a new movie of which you very often have little to no prior knowledge, there’s a good chance that unless it’s something earth-shatteringly brilliant you’re going to end up zoning out. This has happened to me more times than I can count, and it’s something I do my utmost to avoid nowadays; if I know I’m tired and just not in the right frame of mind, I’ll postpone the screener if at all possible. But again, there isn’t always the luxury of time.

None of this is to excuse lazy reviewing, but at least to explain why many modern critics don’t put in the time and effort the job really warrants. It might also go some way as to explaining why negative reviews often get spectacularly negative. Again, for many this is to all intents and purposes a hobby, and people generally want to get some fun out of their hobbies – and I’m not about to deny it, negative reviews can be an enormous amount of fun to write. But it isn’t, or at least shouldn’t be about being mean just for cheap laughs. Another key factor that critic-critics seemingly refuse to acknowledge is that – well – there are lots of movies out there that fucking well have it coming. I don’t want to sound like one of those red-faced conservatives huffing and puffing about how in my day kids didn’t get a medal at sports day just for showing up, but I do think there’s a potential danger in assuming that any and all films are of inherent value. If a filmmaker has really stepped up and given it their all, then fair play to them; but if you think that is the case for every filmmaker around, you’re delusional. Particularly in the realms of low-budget horror where we ply our trade, there are innumerable unimaginative rip-off merchants on both the creative and distribution ends, to whom quality control is almost non-existent. On such times when it’s abundantly clear that no real care or attention has been put in by anyone, I have no qualms whatsoever about letting rip on the film, nor do I discourage any of my BAH colleagues from doing likewise.

Even so, there’s also a potential danger in assuming straight off the bat that this not-so promising looking screener that just fell through your letterbox is going to be a piece of crap before you’ve even hit play – or by extension, assuming it’ll be great because you liked the director’s last one. First impressions must not be final judgements; we absolutely have to scratch the surface and look deeper. We must put aside our own preconceptions, even our own tastes, and do our utmost to engage with a film on its own terms; to recognise what target the film sets itself, and acknowledge whether or not it hits it. Case in point: earlier this week I reviewed The Hospital 2, a film I found much to be critical of, but ultimately had to admit achieved just what it set out to do. As a happy footnote to this, the film’s co-director Jim O’Rear thanked me for my review, negative sentiments and all: as he told me on Facebook, Any filmmaker that thinks every review is only going to be full of positive comments is living in a dream world, as art hits different people on different levels and everyone takes away something different from their viewing experience. All we can hope for is a fair, well-thought-out review like the one you have written.” (That slightly-less common modern sentiment: I saw something on Facebook today that made me smile.)

As O’Rear’s comments reflect, a good filmmaker takes the rough with the smooth from their reviews – and a good critic must do likewise with the movies. A general rule of thumb for me is that if I read a review which is either 100% positive or 100% negative, I don’t trust it. In my reviews I feel honour-bound to emphasise whatever strengths can be found in even the crappiest of movies – and equally, to point out the faults, however minor, in any apparent masterpiece. Because they’re always there. Always. Nothing is flawless, and nothing is utterly irredeemable (though, by God, I’ve seen plenty that’s come close),  and it doesn’t do anyone any favours to pay lip service to only the good or bad. Filmmakers may not automatically warrant a free pass just for having made a film, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be treated with respect. Much as I would like all filmmakers to be as gracious as Jim O’Rear, there will always be those who can’t handle a single bad word being said against their movies. That’s their problem. If a critic has given their work a chance, acknowledged the strengths and weaknesses, considered what the filmmaker has set out to do and how close they have come to that, and put all this down in clear, honest and hopefully entertaining words, then the critic has done precisely what they’re supposed to do, and certainly nothing worthy of contempt.

Finally, what all parties – critic, filmmaker, and reader – must never forget is the simple fact that it’s only ever one person’s point of view. Far too many people in this world seem to adhere to a position of “this my opinion and therefore it’s true,” and that line of thinking very rarely leads to anything but conflict. Then again, conflict can be healthy in its own way. It’s all just a form of broader debate. No single account you will read, or write, will ever be definitive. No one will agree (or disagree for that matter) with any critic all of the time. Nor should we. These are all just voices in a dialogue entered into by people with a common interest: the appreciation of cinema. It isn’t about whether the review is right or wrong, it’s about exchanging ideas, contrasting interpretations, all of which might ultimately lead to a new, potentially more interesting outlook. These are the times when film criticism is at its best; when it prompts the reader to reconsider a film from another angle. For a filmmaker, this might well help them recognise both their own failings and strengths, driving them to better themselves within their craft; for viewers, it may mean they come to see films in a whole new light. But to achieve this, critics themselves must first make a point of looking at things from different angles as well.

And when all’s said and done, don’t forget they’re only movies.