MovieBob - Intermission

How to Read Movie Criticism


I’m often surprised by the volume of emails, messages and general feedback I continue to get from Escape to The Movies fans. After I’ve finished deleting all of the variations on “Where do you get off?,” “What’s wrong with you?,” “What’s it like to be insane?” and so forth, I’m then surprised by how much actually still remains.

For whatever reason, a lot of what’s come through lately has been questions about the critic profession itself, mostly in the vein of “Who should I listen to?” or “What should I look for?” – the dubious logic of which (i.e. the dual assumptions that I’m some kind of professional and/or that I can speak with some kind of authority on a profession) amuses and troubles me – but doesn’t quite surprise. The notion of art/literary criticism as a form of literature or journalism in its own right – as opposed to a glorified variety of consumer reporting – has largely vanished from the cultural mindset. And that’s kind of a shame, not just for my own egotistical reasons, but for people who’re potentially missing out on how much reading criticism can offer them outside of just “What should I go see?”

So let’s call this a primer on how you can get the most out of not only Escape to The Movies, but the wide variety of critics and criticism available to you – both because that’s what it is, and because that sounds better than “Bob’s Rambling Whinefest About How People Keep Missing the Bloody Point.”

“Real” Criticism Is Not Consumer Advice

Don’t get me wrong: While I’m sincerely flattered by the sentiment when people tell me “I’m seeing this (or not) because you said so,” I also end up feeling a little bit guilty. There’s really no sure way of knowing that our opinions would’ve actually lined up, and thus I feel partially responsible for potentially talking someone out of an experience they might’ve enjoyed – or into one they wouldn’t. Except, of course, in those rare instances where I’ve actually stepped aside from mere analysis and have openly advocated for attendance (aka: “Go see this.”)

The thing is, reactions to art are wholly subjective, and since that subjectivity is the sum total of what a film critic’s opinion can offer you … well, do the math. Since there’s no “right,” “wrong” or any other definitive concepts to speak of, film/art/book/etc. critiques are a different animal from, say, the consumer critique of a household appliance; practical things either work or they don’t. Incidentally, this is why videogame critics have a harder job than film critics; they have to work simultaneously in both realms at once, finding the balance between frequently contradictory questions like “How does the story make me feel?” and “How’s the response time on the ammo-switching mechanic?”


To indulge in a cliché: The foremost expert on your opinion is you, and while my ego appreciates the boost I really can’t recommend letting me or any other movie critic tell you what to see – at least not in those direct terms. From where I sit, the best uses anyone can make of a film critic is for information – like fleshing out your knowledge of what a movie is actually about beyond what the trailers have offered, or better yet, the existence of films you might otherwise not have heard of.

Speaking only for myself, even before I did this professionally, I found I got much more out of reading criticisms of movies I’d already seen. Matching your own opinions against those of others who may have a deeper/alternate insight can both strengthen or even cause you to reconsider an original reaction.

Finally, there’s the brass tacks stuff: Critics mostly see movies for free, and then we get paid to tell people what we thought afterwards. So we’re really not the best people to ask about what’s “worth your money,” as our frame of reference in that regard is profoundly skewed. For example, I thought Water for Elephants was a god-awful snoozefest, but the big “money shot” moment of its preposterously goofy climax was so utterly are-you-kidding-me nuts that I’m inclined to say the whole thing is worth seeing just for that – but, then, my fifteen seconds of explosive “WTF?” hysterical laughter didn’t cost me $20.00 plus parking.

Objectivity Is Impossible

I’ll have you know that it’s practically professional blasphemy for me to say that. Critics, like most journalists, cherish our public image as intellectuals far beyond the hang-ups and subjectivity of everyone else. It’s the common folk who like or dislike something based on petty opinions like favorite genre or celebrity gossip. We, on the other hand, are above all that – a critic would never pan a movie because we heard that actor is a jerk, or because it’s based on a book by an author we hate, or anything plebian like that.

And yeah, anyone who takes the job seriously makes a consistent effort to do that, but we’re only human. We have bad days, individual hang-ups and biases, and one good reason to read/watch a lot of material by the critic(s) of your choice is so that you can more readily pick them out. For example, Roger Ebert loves dogs. I don’t know that I can name many movies about dogs he wasn’t kind toward, and while that may not prove or mean anything, it’s certainly a factor to consider.

To take a more immediate upcoming example, there’s basically going to be two kinds of people going to see Thor – people who aren’t particularly invested in (or maybe even aware of) Marvel Films’ grand Avengers experiment for whom it’s just going to be another individual movie, and people who are invested and thus may be judging it not only on its own merits but also as part of the bigger picture. How many people, for example, were perhaps too kind to Iron Man 2 because they were so thrilled by the brief glimpses of Thor, Hulk and Captain America connectivity – or were too hard on it because the connectivity wasn’t pronounced enough?


Aggregates Tell You Nothing

I’m not going to badmouth Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic – they’re a useful resource in some respects, particularly in the uniquely nerdy desire to have everything expressed as a mathematical equation. But when it comes to it, the idea that “It got above 60% on Rotten Tomatoes!” has largely replaced “A critic I trust made it sound very interesting!” in the popular lexicon flat-out drives me up the wall.

The fact is, subjective opinions about art cannot be properly expressed in binary – if they could, I’d still be serving mixed coffee drinks and a robot would be doing this job. (In fact, isn’t “Make it try to comprehend an abstract concept” one of the ways they used to make evil robots brains blow up on Star Trek?)

No matter how precisely it measures percentage points, the Tomatometer can still only perpetuate the idea that every reaction to every movie can be summed up as either positive or negative, with no room for nuance, and that’s the worst possible way to approach a potential viewing choice. Knowing what percentage of critics mostly-liked a movie is nice, but it’s not the same thing as reading a critical essay that (for example) ultimately pans the movie but makes the circumstances of its failings sound so fascinating you suddenly want to see it anyway.

It works in reverse, too – this week’s Escape to the Movies review, Atlas Shrugged, is almost universally loathed by the critical press to such an extent that you might be given to think that it’s a fun “so bad it’s good” movie night waiting to happen. But it’s nothing like the Showgirls-level disasterpiece you might imagine. It’s simply boring.

What it comes down to is this: At the end of the day, reading/watching/listening to criticism – of film or otherwise – is less a purely informational act and more an educational one, and much like other forms of education thinking strictly in terms of short-term practicality can end up robbing you of long-term insight. A thoughtful analysis you disagree with can be infinitely more rewarding than a mere review with which you mostly agree, and treating a critic as little more than a product tester or advice columnist doesn’t do either of you any favors in the grand scheme of things.

That being said – go see Hanna, if you haven’t already. 😉

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.

About the author

Bob Chipman
Bob Chipman is a critic and author.