Two weeks ago I decided to offer my answers to questions and criticism commonly asked of movie critics. Let’s finish that up…
“Movie critics have a left-wing bias!”
This one … is a little tricky. And it’s also the one where I’ll have to throw a big only speaking for myself disclaimer upfront, as I wouldn’t want to presume to make declarations of any perspective but my own on such potentially sensitive ground.
Frankly, I think the accepted wisdom that entertainment journalists – journalists in general, really – have some kind of “liberal bias” to be based more on a misreading (and, honestly, more than a little intentional misrepresentation) of vocabulary than anything tangibly political.
See, we have this problem in America: We’ve only got two political parties, for the most part representing the two “sides” of liberal versus conservative. And everything is assumed to line up on one “side” or the other – even if something doesn’t actually have anything to do with the size and/or reach of federal power, i.e. the only qualifiers for whether or not something is politically liberal or conservative.
To use just one example: The ongoing evolution debate (and yes, for those of you outside the U.S., we really somehow are sadly still having a debate about that) is typically framed in political terms: Creationism generally framed as being on the “right” and Evolution being nominally of the “left.” Now, obviously, there’s nothing innately related to the size and/or reach of government in this discussion – but since Creationism is grounded in religious-traditionalism and in the U.S. religious-traditionalism tends to make its home on the “right,” it gets framed as a Liberal vs. Conservative discussion rather than the clash of Scientific Fact vs. Something Else.
Speaking only for myself, I don’t consider myself to have a particularly “liberal” or “leftist” viewpoint to my film criticism. I’m sure one can track back and find examples of me coming down on the side of so-called “Big Government,” but the same excavation would turn up just as many (if not more) examples of me sounding like the groundskeeper of Galt’s Gulch. The explanation for this is simple: I don’t have an “ideology” – I have an unabashedly self-serving series of personal/political goals and wants, and I’m supportive of whatever policies or policymakers get me there in the most efficient way. My “side” is my own.
Thusly, while I won’t cop to any kind of bias against one “side” or the other, I’ll freely admit to being quite proudly biased against stupidity, injustice and lies – if and when I come up against a “creationist” film (stupidity) I’m probably going to be inclined to kick the crap out of it. When I’ve encountered openly homophobic/anti-gay films (re: injustice), I’ve typically taken them to task for it. Those pseudo-science “Global Warming doesn’t exist” documentaries? They are lies, and I treat them as lies deserve.
In none of these cases have I or would I have acted out of bias against “conservatives” – my bias is against ignorance. That ignorance these days occasionally seems to build its nests more prominently on one “side” than the other is unfortunate, but no concern of mine 😉
“What’s wrong with just turning off your brain and enjoying the ‘splosions?”
You’ll die. Your brain controls the central nervous system and regulates the circulatory and vascular systems that sustain life.
“That’s not what I meant…”
I know what you meant. I was giving your question the condescending, smartass response it deserves.
Of everything on both of these lists, this sticks in my craw like no other. Yes, I understand that most people who say it are really saying “I just want 90 minutes off from whatever stress is taking up my braintime in the real world.” And I tend to agree – but the proliferation of the “turn off your brain” meme has been devastating to the business of filmmaking because it gives “cover” to films and filmmakers who lack the ambition (or the talent) to deliver anything outside of the bare-minimum effort.
No, there’s nothing wrong with just wanting to “see the fireworks,” but if that’s all your in it for why not simply type “fireworks” into a YouTube search for free instead of paying twenty bucks to watch fireworks happen around poorly-designed robots? Why is it wrong for critics or audiences to demand that the parts of the film that aren’t just eye-candy be better when things like “smarter story” or “better dialogue” are so much less expensive than setting off more fireworks?
Also, not to get overly technical here, but 90% of what gets termed “turn off your brain” movies are really quite the opposite: A film like Armageddon – with its constant-cutting and rapid-fire barrage of images and information – engages and stimulates the brain more than something more deliberately paced… it just doesn’t engage it to any meaningful ends.
“Not EVERY movie needs to be smart, meaningful or original.”
This is actually quite true.
Also quite true: Food doesn’t need to taste good; it merely needs to provide nutrient energy. Clothing doesn’t need to look good; it merely needs to shield the epidermis from the elements. Sex does not require romance, meaningful connection or even attraction – merely the joining of interlocking parts and the exchange of fluids. You get the idea.
Y’know, like most of the other entries in these two articles, I think this one comes down to a certain amount of insecurity: People like what they like, often without much discernable understanding as to why they like it. For most people – yes, even “off duty” critics – the enjoyment of stimuli like art, music, film, literature etc. is often tied to reactions that occur at a deep, visceral, primal level. No living human with any real sense of their own life and humanity can take a purely analytical view of such things. To offer a personal anecdote: I’ve had two dogs in my life, both of them “rescues” and both of them quintessential “mutts” in that their myriad breeds’ “parts” didn’t entirely complement one another. As such, I’m quite sure that were I to enter either of them into one of those prestigious Dog Shows they’d be quite unkindly scrutinized by the … well, “Dog Critics” in charge. And I’m equally sure that I’d be profoundly indignant at that, since I know they’re great dogs in spite of all those Dog Critic concerns about coat and posture and whatever. That’s how it is with some people and some movies. I get that … to a point.
The fact is, while I can point to dozens of reasons – objective and otherwise – as to why Transformers or the most recent Pirates movie aren’t very good … some people are still going to like them. Maybe it’s a musical cue, maybe it’s a “one great scene” deal, whatever – every movie, even a terrible one, is loved by somebody; and much like my hypothetical Dog Show scenario, no one likes seeing something they love get knocked around for its technical failings by some critic. If the Twilight movies speak to you on some potent level, me pointing out how wretched its narrative structure and use of character development is probably feels kind of rotten. I understand that – I’m not going to stop doing it, but I understand.
This is why one of the best scenes in anything – ever – about a critic was the climax of Ratatouille. Anton Ego, an infamously picky food critic so clinically detached from whatever it was that made him a gourmet connoisseur in the first place that he appears as a kind of inhuman ghoul, has arrived to pass judgment on Remy the Rat’s now-legendary cooking. Surprising his team, Remy’s gambit is to prepare a simple dish of ratatouille – a “peasant dish,” one of them comments. But Remy, aside from his extraordinary cooking ability, has a keen sense of perception – a single bite of the meal triggers a deep sense-memory in Ego, transporting him back to his rural childhood and a moment (one of many, we sense) that his mother soothed a difficult day with a similar meal. Reawakened, Ego’s review is a rave that disavows his earlier approach (and also costs him his job, since … you know, rats) – not so much as an admission of “guilt” but rather an acknowledgement that he isn’t (and oughtn’t be) the “final word” he’d considered himself to be.
In the end, all I’d ask of people is to keep in mind that, when feeling personally affronted by a disagreeing review from a movie critic, it’s perhaps not a great use of time and resources being truly “put out” over it. Our function, in the broadest sense, is to give you something to think about – if “thinking” manifests as “disagreement,” we’ve both still done our jobs.
… except people who still defend Transformers – those guys are just wrong 🙂
Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you’ve heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet.