Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Why I Despise Critics

I was going to write about Stanley Kubrick, but then I saw a quote which struck a nerve. The quote comes from A.O. Scott of the New York Times. Scott is their film critic. And to me, this quote highlights just how sick the critic profession is. Observe.

I've written about this idea before. Our society is packed with cynicism. And nothing is more cynical than film critics. These are people who make their living by finding fault with other people's work. What's more though, an ethos has arisen around their work which suggests that a film critic must be jaded and cynical if they are doing their jobs correctly. This is because they need to project themselves as smarter than everyone else, as attuned to the nuances that normal people miss, and you can't do that if your tastes are seen as common. The problem is that most of them just aren't that deep. They don't get nuance. They have no greater understanding than anyone else. Even experience hasn't enlightened their path like you would expect. So they fake it: they favor films the public will hate and then claim to find deep meaning within them. This is the modern version of "The Emperor's New Clothes."

As a result of this, almost the entire profession worships the negative. They have no praise for comedy, the most difficult type of entertainment requiring the most skill and craft. They have no praise for joy. To the contrary, they dismiss joy as hokey or "sentimental"... as if that were a bad thing. They don't care for love either. What they praise is angst... pain... desperation... the twisted and the depressed. That, to them, is the only true measure of an actor: "Can they make me feel their suffering." It never occurs to them that suffering is easy, and what they mistake for drama is melodrama.

In any event, what a sick soul these people must have to worship at that alter. It reminds me of the people who think religion is about learning who to hate and then spend their timing looking for people to victimize.

Anyway, what triggered this was the following quote from Scott about the passing of Philip Seymour Hoffman:
“He had a rare ability to illuminate the varieties of human ugliness. No one ever did it so beautifully.”
Up yours. First, of all, the ugly side of humanity is not beautiful, and if you think it is, then you're an idiot who doesn't understand either good or bad. There is simply no beauty to be found in a bully beating an over-matched victim to a pulp, in a skinhead terrorizing a Jewish or black family, in a child molester destroying a young life, in a thug killing a random victim, or a Soviet work camp for those the state fears. If there is beauty in these moments, it is in those who stand up to the bad and the ugly, it is never in the ugly itself. A-hole.

Secondly, I find it amazing that of Hoffman's entire career, this is how Scott sees him. I first noticed Hoffman in Twister where he played a good guy with a cool hobby, and he always struck me after that as a rather good-natured fellow on screen, even when he was the villain. Sure, he had some creepy roles, but nothing that ever left me thinking, "Wow, I understand evil like I never have before." I don't think he specialized in ugly either. Some of his characters were good, some bad, but his bad was just as often done in action films (Mission Impossible III) where the villain is always a caricature or in comedies (The Big Lebowski) where his "ugly" was hilarious.

I think Scott's quote tells us nothing about Hoffman except that Scott wanted to give him his highest praise, and the fact that this is Scott's highest praise tells us volumes about Scott.



shawn said...

Yeah, I miss the days when a critic would say the movie was entertaining or not. I quite paying attention to them somewhere in the mid 90s.

On Phillip Seymour Hoffman- I enjoyed his acting, but I didn't go out of my way to see movies because he was in them. He played a nice variety of roles, and was believable in them.

But beautiful ugliness? Mr. Scott- get back on your meds sir.

AndrewPrice said...

Shawn, I didn't seek out his movies either, but I liked him when I saw him.

Yeah, the idea of beautiful ugliness is just pathetic to me. I think it takes a twisted mindset to see such a thing.

What I miss about critics are people like Siskel, who never tried to pretend that he was better than anyone and who seemed to enjoy movies if they were entertaining rather than using some ego-stroking criteria.

shawn said...

Yeah, Siskel was one who enjoyed movies for entertainment's sake and not just if it had an important message or insight into the human condition.

Another who who enjoyed movies was Gary Franklin. He used to rate movies on a scale of 1-10.

AndrewPrice said...

I'm not sure I ever saw Franklin's reviews, but I have seen others I thought were doing it right.

shawn said...

Franklin was on t.v. in Los Angeles back in the 80's.

On taking the wind out of the sails of critics, Dennis Miller had a bit he used to do about Roger Ebert's foray into the world of film and how badly it turned out. Ebert wrote the script for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and it's generous to say the film wasn't well received.

AndrewPrice said...

Shawn, I suspect that's part of it. A lot of critics are people who wanted to be on the creative end, but never had the talent, so there seems to be an ego-saving undertone to their work. Obviously, not all, but some.

In fact, I can tell you that something similar happens with reviews at places like Amazon... never trust the reviews there. There are a lot of reasons people leave reviews -- economic interest (author, agent), friends and family, competitors trying to hurt the book, agents trying to hurt self-published, political attacks, trolls, etc. Some are even paid for. I would say that less than half of what you see is genuine for most books. Anyways, one of the things you'll see a lot is people who make themselves feel superior by running around and slamming book after book. They speak like critics in very condescending terms, but what they say is made up. All they really want is to feel superior. And often, they will let slip that they have some secret book that is better than anything else in the world except that no one else seems to understand it.

I get the sense this is an instinct some humans are prone to, to attack others to validate themselves.

And yeah, his script sucked.

tryanmax said...

I actually did seek out movies for Hoffman, and while I think he is probably the greatest character actor of his time, I certainly wouldn't say he brought beauty to ugliness. He was simply willing and able to take on difficult roles and give them amazing credulity. Hoffman was the type of actor who could make you forget you were watching him and instead watch the character. To me, that's the highest praise for an actor, especially one as distinct as him.

As for the critic, perhaps it reveals something more disturbing than a mere penchant for the ease of suffering. Is he perhaps so far removed from sympathy that he requires the great performance of an accomplished actor to experience the pathos that comes naturally for the rest of us? I somehow doubt that the critic who applauds the noble suffering of the character on screen would appreciate the same nobility of the homeless man he passes on the street. Rather, I would expect him to grumble in disgust at the man or society or some other imagined villain.

By applauding the portrayals of ugly, unfortunate, or otherwise miserable characters, the critic can assure himself of his own nobility in feeling the appropriate emotions regarding fictitious events. (Again, I mean no disdain for the actors, just as a sweet perfume carries a pungent note, so a great drama must have its villains and outcasts.) No need now to engage in noble, uplifting deeds toward his fellow man.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, That's a fascinating point, and something that I admit has crossed my mind in two ways.

First, I find it disturbing how often I run into people who are capable of feeling compassion for people they see in films or on the news, yet are utterly devoid of compassion for the people they encounter in real life. I suspect that means they are true narcissists, i.e. they are incapable of feeling compassion/empathy for others. And what is happening in this instance is that they are deluding themselves into thinking that they are better than they are because they are basically putting on a show for themselves in a consequence free way. In other words, rather than actually caring about someone in a way that would force them to act, they show themselves that they can care about a fictional character or "children in Africa." That makes them feel like they aren't 100% self-centered and it does so in a way that will never require them to actually act upon the things they purport to feel.

Alternatively, number two, I wonder if people like this aren't so emotionally dead/repressed that the only thing they are capable of feeling emotionally is strong anger and revulsion... the easy ones to feel. And rather than seeing their own flaw, they elevate their flaw into "elite status" by claiming to feel emotion in a more subtle way than the rest of us mouth-breathers are capable of?

In any event, agreed on Hoffman. I thought he vanished into roles perfectly and I enjoyed his acting a lot.

LL said...

"It's not the critic that counts..." Pres. T. Roosevelt

AndrewPrice said...

LL, Very true.

djskit said...

This is why I seek out "aleternative" media opinions - like here.

The mainstream critics opinion have no bearing on my enjoyment of a film. Take "Monuments Men" for example. I really don't know how good this film is - the critics are panning it, but I've read that the reason is that its an "old fashioned WWII movie where the Americans are the good guys" (GASP!).

Same for "Lone Survivor". Critics didn't like it because the bad guys were "unrealisticlly bad and not nuanced" while USA (USA!) was the good guys.

AndrewPrice said...

djskit, Agreed, and great examples! I'm interested in both movies and panning them on the basis that they aren't nihilistic and anti-American is a load of crap. Films should be judged on their merits, not your own views of their politics. Heck, a good critic wouldn't even judge things on their own tastes. Indeed, just because YOU may not like musicals/war films/liberals/conservatives/etc. is no basis to tell the public that a film is no good. The real question is, for what it is, does the film deliver?

My goal with this site has never been to provide critical opinion. My goal has always been to simply talk about films -- what works, what doesn't, what could they have done better, where did they make mistakes or where did they do something brilliant. I am much more interested in how something could have been stronger or why it couldn't have been any better than I am in a cynical yes/no opinion based on an elitist personality flaw.

Koshcat said...

Touched a nerve there, Andrew?

If you haven't seen it, you should check out the documentary, Heckler. It was made by Jamie Kennedy who is a stand up comic and actor. He isn't upset that some critics found one of his movies to be bad or dumb, but some critics basically accused him of being a stain on humanity and wished him a horrible death. So, he decided to confront them face to face. An occasional critical would have the balls to face him and tell him his movie sucked but most wimped out. His movie started out with hecklers at comedy shows. I like that he basically is calling these so called "critics" cowardly hecklers.

Kit said...

Interesting the picture you used for this post because he had this great line:
"In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that, in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so."

Anonymous said...

The only filmmakers I wish a horrible death are Friedberg and Seltzer who do all those ____ Movie spoofs. :-)

Andrew, will we be getting the Kubrick article at some point in the future? ;-)

I totally agree with you...

...but... hmm. I'm not sure I agree with your choice of quote. It takes a talented actor to: a.) play ugliness well, and b.) play it well enough that people will want to watch. To put it another way, any actor can play an asshole, but only the most talented actors can play assholes we want to like!

I first noticed him in Twister as well. Somehow I doubt the Oscar montage will feature him telling Jami Gertz about "the suck zone." :-)

Anonymous said...

And yes, I hate how genres like comedy and action rarely get respect. So f--- 'em!

(To be fair, some critics do a great job of bringing attention to films that most people wouldn't otherwise see... so they do have some purpose.)

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Read the quote again. He's not saying Hoffman played it well, he says "beautifully." This quote is just one of a nearly infinite number from critics where they worship the ugly side of life. They dismiss the good as trite.

From Twister, I actually think of him asking for "Fooood." :)

I've called for a few brutal murders of film crews, but I don't really harbor any ill will toward any of them.

Yep, the Kubrick article will still come -- probably next week.

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, That is a fantastic quote that really sums up this whole thing.

AndrewPrice said...

Koshcat, Believe it or not, no, not really. I just saw the quote (in a sports article of all things) and it annoyed me. It's such a common thing among critics to think this way and it bothers me that all these soft-headed wannabe-elitists (like the sportswriter) drink this Kool-Aid in.

Criticism should be about enlightening, not destroying.

Anonymous said...

Oh, Andrew, I e-mailed you this yesterday, in case you didn't get it.

It definitely speaks to some of the issues we've raised on this site. :-)

Kit said...


Good link.

IT STINKS! said...

Sorry, someone was going to say it and I wanted to be first.

Yeah, Andrew, I've long ago had it with critics and the reasons why you have put very succinctly. When I want a movie review I scrum among a few bloggers that I've come to trust and never bother with the mainstream critics or Amazon reviewers. The Siskel Ethic, if you will, has gone the way of the Shalit moustache.

I like T-Max's observation about critics being "so far removed from sympathy." I think that is a common illness of the modern society that, in my humble opinion, was brought on us by the armies of "tolerance." No one has any patience for anyone else anymore. I've seen the effect over and over again at work, in media and even in schools. My own children have brought it home from school and I have to remind them that such harsh sentiments are inconsistent with their faith. The reminder seems to work, temporarily, or perhaps they just pretend in order to shut Dad up.

I still remember the days when both conservative and liberal acted as though the other had noble intentions and wasn't just a waste of skin. Guess how old I am.



djskit said...

While we are on the subject of Teddy Roosevelt:

"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.

The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat."

Kit said...

"Evil will always triumph because good is dumb." —Dark Helmet, Spaceballs

Anthony said...

I've got no problem with critics. While some critics no doubt go overboard, so do some directors/writers/whatevers and their admirers.

Every time a movie gets bad reviews certain people will blame certain bias. Sometimes its true (though its hard to nail down the difference between bias and preference in movies), but sometimes people are honestly stating their opinion. I sat through a few minutes of Diary of an Mad Black Woman and thought it was pretty bad. If I came from space and watched a clip of that movie and was then asked how much money the director had, I would guess a lot of numbers before I guessed a billion dollars :). Clearly Tyler Perry has found a formula that works and he would be an utter fool to abandon it, but some of the criticism of his movies is reasonable.

Another example that springs to mind is Transformers 2. Transformers 2 made ungodly amounts of money, but all involved admit it was crap.

I think it serves no one when critics try to be impartial and/or try to take the line that they feel that their audiences will ('I think people will like it, so I'm going to say nice things I don't believe about it'!). I've seen that in some reviews and those reviews are utterly useless.

I did a lot of creative writing in college and have participated in a lot of writers' workshops and my experience is that criticism is the key to getting better.

That doesn't mean that all criticism should be taken as valid or listened to even if it is valid (one can't please everyone) but critics are somewhat useful for the many, many artists who are trying to find a path to success as well as for audiences trying to find an interesting way to kill a few hours.

AndrewPrice said...

KRS, Someone had to say it! LOL! I think you're right that too many people in our society are divorced from sympathy, especially in our culture. We've reached a point where open cynicism and disdain are considered virtues and that's a bad thing.

AndrewPrice said...

djskit, T. Roosevelt was a very smart man and that's a great quote. The create should always belong to the creators, not the hecklers.

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, Sadly true all too often.

AndrewPrice said...

Anthony, I never said that all critics are bad. I mentioned one critic and my point is that any critics who think like he does are using a perverse way of judging films. Its a rather twisted world when people consider the rotten to be noble and disdain things that are good. Unfortunately, this is far too common a view among cultural "elites."

Criticism is only valid when the points made enlighten the debate by pointing out how something could have been improved so that others can improve it in the future. Critics who merely tell you what they like are mostly worthless as opinions are personal. And critics who offer opinions based on a desire to be seen as smarter than everyone else, or some other corrupt basis, rather than an attempt to enlighten are destructive.

Critch said...

Well, I can't sing, dance, play baseball, write or act,,,,consequently my personal views of movies are based on whether or not I was entertained...was it worth my money? Sometimes I see movies that aren't all that good, but they weren't a waste of money,,some are..but I tend to be more vocal about the ones I liked..

Kit said...

I think the problem is that just about anyone can love or hate a movie but it takes a certain level of intelligence and self-discipline and restraint to understand why you loved or hated it. To figure out why that movie worked or didn't work takes a certain amount of effort, effort that nearly always in the case of bad movies means acknowledging where the movie did work.

I think that is one difference between a good critic and a bad critic/heckler.

Kit said...

Oh, and you know those dumb Ben Stiller/Vince Vaughn/Owen Wilson romantic comedies that everyone loves to trash on, I love them.

AndrewPrice said...

Critch, That's pretty much how most people see it. Was it entertaining or not.

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, Bingo. It takes some thought to figure out why you liked or disliked something. That's where critics should be plying their trade, in telling people what worked and what didn't.

Anonymous said...

I don't agree or see things the same way as most critics, too often they like Oscar bait, boring ass movies when I just want to be entertained. But even the ones I disagree with can be helpful, I remember one that I used to read in the paper, if she hated a film I would go see it and if she loved it I ignored it and I was rarely disappointed. She just disliked the types of movies I did, I never got a political thing from her, just a snobby thing.

But I do hate those critics who dislike a movie because of politics, just tell me if you think it is good or bad, not if you agree with it. I refuse to read them.

My favourite ever critic was for a local street press he might say the movie was very well made but boring, or that the script was unfinished, the acting average but that it was still a lot of fun. I listened that that guy.


Critch said...

I remember when Rex Reed said he would quit being a movie critic if they made one more Police Academy movie,,they made one more just to see if he would stay true to his word.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, There is that. Some critics become a good way to judge a film simply because you disagree completely with their tastes.

It sounds like your local critic knew what he was doing.

AndrewPrice said...

Critch, Clearly, Rex was not a man of his word. Imagine that.

Anonymous said...

I lurk here often, enjoy both the articles, comments and the back and forth. This is one of the best, most true posts I have read anywhere. Nice insight.

AndrewPrice said...

Thank you.

Anonymous said...

No real disagreements, but gotta play Devil's advocate here. :)

Does Michael Medved fall under your ire?

Personally, I enjoyed Jon Lovitz's Critic. Yeah, the show picked on conservatives/Republicans, but liberals/Democrats seemed fair game at times, too. (Plus, Lovitz has seen the folly of Democrat policies in recent years--and publicly stated so, which is refreshing.) And some real critics even manned up to poke fun at themselves by appearing on the show, including Rex Reed, Gene Shalit, and Siskel & Ebert!

And how can anyone not get a kick out of Leonard Maltin's cameo in Gremlins 2?

But yeah, I kind of always assumed that my opinion of a movie would be the opposite of Roger Ebert's. Ever since he gave a thumbs down to The Dark Crystal.

AndrewPrice said...

Anon, Medved is a different kind of critic, and one that I respect a good deal. His concern has always been that audiences (particularly families) know what they will get if they see a film. In effect, he provides a service which keeps people from stumbling upon something they are going to hate or which they will regret having taken their kids to. That's a pretty valuable service. And I never once got the sense that he was using his position as a platform to aggrandize himself. So I've never had an issue with him.

I also can't imagine him saying something like what Scott said.

Ebert always annoyed me, but only recently have I seen how political he really was even as he claimed not to be.

Tohokari-Steel said...

Yeah, I see your point. I critique movies on DeviantArt, but I still understand when a movie's supposed to be fun or lighthearted. Heck, my movie library has The Godfather right next to a Korean film that's just a fun shoot-'em up, John Carpeter's The Thing sandwiched between two Disney movies, and Hunger Games and Inception being followed up by Indiana Jones. Yeah, I like sophisticated movies now and then, but I prefer films having rewatch value, which I tend to associate with movies that are fun, funny, or just some mindless action that I can just sit back and enjoy. Heck, it's why I consider The Matrix to be my all-time favorite movie: it's got some intelligence in it, but it's also fun.

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