Grand Theft Objectivity

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The new Grand Theft Auto came out this week, expected to sell millions of copies and earn millions more dollars. The releases of hotly anticipated AAA video games have become bugbears for Hollywood movie studios in recent years, capable of swallowing up both the entire weekends and ticket-budgets of teen to thirty-something males the industry has come to rely on for the bulk of their earnings – hence why the only things hitting theaters today (unless you’re in New York or Los Angeles, in which case you can see the new Formula 1 melodrama Rush a week early) are the disposable teen dance programmer Battle of The Year and the decidedly older-skewing thriller Prisoners.

For movie critics, on the other hand, these can be morbidly enjoyable occasions. A time for us to look upon the sheer volume of hatred and bile slung at our cousins-in-arms who dared to give The Greatest And Most Important Game Ever Made Since The Last One a score lower than 10 and smile quietly to ourselves with the same collective thought:

“Whew! Well, at least we don’t have to deal with those monsters!”

Not that the notion of a bitter divide between film audiences and film critics doesn’t exist, it most assuredly does. And yes, sometimes the blowback gets a bit heated when we’re talking about audiences for certain specific movies or movie properties: Any critic who dared to pan Titanic in 1997 will tell you tales of the white-hot rage they incurred from the film’s teenaged fanbase, while more recently hellfire rained down courtesy of fanatically-devout fans of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy on any dissenting voices who wouldn’t acknowledge The Dark Knight Rises as the very reason motion-picture photography was first conjured into being. Heaven help you if you also gave a pass to The Avengers a month or so earlier.

So yeah, we get our blowback, but it just doesn’t come nearly as strong or as forceful. Part of that is simple longevity: film criticism has existed long enough that the subspecies of filmgoers prone to being that reactionary long ago stopped paying us any mind to begin with. Also helpful, to be brutally honest, is a broader diversity of culture: Sure, there’s the “I hate critics” audience and “I seldom agree with critics” audience; but there’s also a sizable cinephile intelligentsia that at least appreciates criticism as a form unto itself (and critics themselves as fellow-traveler movie lovers) whose pleasantries can soften the blow of rage spewed elsewhere.

Basically, game critics? It’ll get better. Eventually the audience grows up. Right now gamer culture is still feeling out its surroundings in newly-acquired “screw you, Mom and Dad!” teenaged rebellion stature, and will mature with time and understanding. Besides, some aspects of the otherwise banally predictable GTA V review score backlash are actually somewhat encouraging, in a roundabout sort of way.

One of the new threads that has quickly emerged in the alarmingly well-organized campaign by (some) GTA V fans to take down detractors of the game was the notion that some of those lower-than-perfect review scores had been awarded unfairly; that the accusation was not of critics having the incorrect opinion but that said opinion was based on shoddy work – or worse, intentionally misapplied standards. Basically, that points had been taken away “unjustly.”

Now, to be certain, a lot of that was simply the same old rage-against-disagreement dressed up in a fresh coat of righteous defense. The nature of organized gamer-rage tends to be large groups of ill-informed marauders wielding whatever rhetorical weaponry is gifted them by a few sharper wordsmiths within the ranks in the manner of cudgels – “unprofessional!” or “agenda!” simply being a more sophisticated (sounding) evolution of “BIAS!”

To understand why this was a new development one has to look at it directly. One of the most visible (and unpleasant) flashpoints this time was the video review by GameSpot’s Carolyn Petit, which managed to draw furious ire even though the piece was frequently glowing and ultimately awarded it a 9/10 score. The rationale of the attackers? That missing 10th had apparently been lost because the critic found the game’s frequent misogyny and consistently unflattering depictions of women to be off-putting and detracted from her enjoyment of it… a method of critique that they found to be an improper intrusion by personal subjective taste – or worse, politics (or worse than that: feminist politics!) into what should be a review solely about game mechanics and aesthetic presentation.

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The argument, essentially, is that artistic criticism and cultural criticism ought to be kept separate from one another at all times. It’s an old argument, one that’s been debated with great intellectual fervor on both sides in the fields of literature, art, film, music and now even video-games. Its roots are in the clash over Critical Theory as applied to the arts; the question of whether or not one should seek a “clear” objective view of a work as though in a vacuum or as a part of the culture that surrounds it. Do you merely observe how well or in what manner a work of art puts forth its messages and themes regardless of what they are; or do you take the validity of those messages and themes (and their place within the broader world experience) into account as well? In film, for example, the classic litmus-test cases are always Birth of A Nation (a pro-KKK screed that basically invented the action epic) and the Nazi-glorifying documentary Triumph of The Will, both being unquestioned artistic and technical marvels but serving toward the advancement of truly repellent ideologies.

For the longest time (or maybe not – despite my world-weary affect I’m only in my 30s, after all) I was comfortably in the first camp. Back then, it made logical sense: It’s not fair to hold a viewpoint or a theme against a work of art, after all, and a critic is supposed to be above manipulation by message or emotional appeals. But as time has worn on, my worldview has both expanded and matured, and with that broadened vision has come a realization: That my sense of a clear view was informed less by genuine objectivity (if such a thing is possible) than by my own position of privilege.

In the U.S. (hell, in The West, really) long-lived power dynamics and social structures continue to reinforce the ideal of white/heterosexual/male as the “default” setting for everything. Being a white/heterosexual/male, then, it never occurred to me to question the “normality” of my perspective versus the “other-ness” of, well… others. Today, to try and view anything in a social/cultural/political vacuum feels not only pointless but also fundamentally flawed as an endeavor: If all creative works are comprised of their author’s imagination and the influence of the world around them, it seems only sensible that the critic also take the bigger world picture into account as well.

That’s not to say you can’t carry it to extremes: I’m no fan, for example, of critics who write off entire genres or even filmmakers because they find fault with their personal politics. But there’s a difference, in my mind, between “This movie is full of Democrats, so it sucks” and “the pervasive racism in this movie makes it difficult to watch.” And I simply no longer believe in the strict segregation of “straightforward” criticism and “social theory” criticism (re: feminist-theory, race-theory, economic-theory, etc) because, well… I’m not sure that a straightforward or clean critical perspective can truly exist – only differing variations of subjectivity, at least where things like tolerance-for-offense are concerned.

On the other hand, I’ve heard a convincing case made for the opposite perspective many times, and expect to hear many more; because that’s the sign of an intellectually-healthy film criticism scene. So while the current ugliness being thrown around at this particular moment regarding Grand Theft Auto may be hard to watch and harder to stomach (seriously, some of the stuff getting thrown at Petit is genuinely horrifying), that we’re seeing the emergence of arguments over the validity of critical approach rather than just critical opinion (or numerical score) has the faint (very, very, very faint) glimmer of a positive development. A more complex field of argument is indicative of a medium growing richer, deeper and more meaningful.

Now, if only we could do it without all the hate and ostracism. That would really be something…

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. Recently, he wrote a book.

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Image of Bob Chipman
Bob Chipman
Bob Chipman is a critic and author.