MovieBob - Intermission

How To Talk To A Critic (Assuming You Want To)


People treat critics differently than they tend to treat other journalists. Columnists, for example – even the humorous ones – are generally granted a veneer of sage-like respectability, while reporters – despite the days of the pavement-pounding investigator fading faster every day – still get their romantic “seeker of truth” aura.

Critics, on the other hand, specifically entertainment critics, tend to be seen as an alien presence – often a hostile one. Part of this is the strange space between the consumer public and the entertainment industry that the critic often occupies. We see movies (or play games, for that matter) before you do, we interact with the famous names who make them and we purport to speak with some kind of authority on the subject, yet we’re not technically part of the industry. A year ago I sat at a press table next to a famous actress – one who is probably wealthy and powerful enough to hunt me for sport if she so desired – as she gamely put up with my (and others’) likely tedious questions about her new movie. An hour later I was trying to reason which fast food dollar menu would offer the heartiest portion for lunch. Yeah, I get it – that’s weird.

It also has a lot to do with the perception that this job is some kind of elaborate credibility shell-game – why, after all, should I be getting paid to give an opinion on something? Anyone can do that! (And, yet, “Anyone” doesn’t.)

What this all comes down to is that critics probably get more attempted interaction from their audience than other strata of journalism, but that it’s balanced out by general negativity that pervades that interaction. Generally, people who go to the trouble of seeking out a reporter or columnist want to offer information or – at worst – a different take. If someone seeks out a critic, on the other hand, often that means they’re looking for an argument. Or maybe a fight.

On the whole, I’m not opposed to that. I understand wanting to engage someone over an opinion piece. But there are a few things that I’d (perhaps selfishly) want folks to keep in mind before doing so that would make the whole process much more pleasant. Not, I’ll stress, for my sake – I generally like getting angry, frothing-at-the-mouth hate mail because it’s funny and helps me continue feeling superior – but for the sake of those who don’t enjoy such things. And, as often happens when I have a series of thoughts that can be expressed in list form, I’ve decided to present them in column form (hence the title).

1.) “Hypocrisy” and “Less Than 100% Consistency of Opinion” are not the same thing.

The word “hypocrite” is applied more broadly to critics than in almost any other facet of modern conversation. With said broadness, it still manages to get completely abused by people who for some reason feel “I disagree!” is not a sufficiently analytical-sounding response to … well, disagreeing. (This is the root of 99% of this list, BTW – people digging around for reasons that the critic is not only in disagreement with them but objectively wrong.)

Reactions to entertainment – yes, even among professionals – have a tremendous amount to do with context. As such, giving (for example) one film or game low marks for being too violent while praising the violence of another, unrelated film or game is not in and of itself hypocrisy. So, maybe think about not tossing that particular word around? Especially because, “Hey, could you maybe explain the logical behind this apparent inconsistency?” would probably get the point across much more effectively.

2.) Recognize that the internet offers a skewed perception of time.

Piggybacking off of #1, the bane of my own existence as a critic/commentator is the fact that the internet saves things forever, and I can’t possibly be alone on this.

While I try my best to remain above blatant trolling, there really is no more irritating thing than to click into a disagreement post and find A.) “In this you said X but over here you said Y” as the content and B.) that the “Y” example is citing a statement made so long ago even I don’t precisely recall making it.

The fact is, all human beings change their minds (and tastes, and turn-ons) over time about any number of things. We tend to accept that, up to a point, with friends and acquaintances because the passage of time is real to us in those situations. But when your relationship with another party is wholly in the form of digital pieces that can be called up from any era with a keystroke, it’s easy to lose track of the fact that the sliver of white space between Google’d-up hyperlinks can sometimes represent years of opinion-reshaping experiences.

Now, to be fair, the argument can certainly be made that people whose job it is to make public pronouncements of quality have it incumbent upon them to keep said public appraised when they no longer agree with their past selves, but the plain fact of the matter is that most changes of outlook aren’t all at once epiphanies – they occur gradually, over time. And almost no one has the time or inclination to go back over everything they’ve ever written to check for ideological consistency.

3.) Consider that space is finite.

Oh, boy! A critic has just covered a game/movie/property you’ve got a really great working knowledge of, and you’ve noticed that they did not mention a piece of background information that you’d consider pretty key! Time to become a mini-superstar by hopping down into the forums and offering this information to your fellow readers/viewers: “Hey, gang! Y’know, it didn’t come up in this review but _______ actually fills in some details about that one part!”

But for some reason, this often takes the form of the fan in question concluding that the critic in question didn’t mention this or that detail because they didn’t know about it, and winds up phrased as, “I can’t believe he/she didn’t…” or “How could you have ignored …”, which doesn’t really help anyone.

I can offer from experience that most obvious oversights of tangential material are usually a simple matter of not having the time/room/wordcount/whatever to hit every single point. Call this a pet peeve of mine, but it’s really a matter of etiquette – “ass of u and me” and all that.

4.) You are probably not a mind reader …

… in which case, assuming ulterior motives on the part of someone offering an opinion without evidence is incredibly tacky.

I don’t deal with this one quite so much, but you see it crop up all the time elsewhere, especially in cases where the critic in question is known/perceived to be part of a minority group or culture. Because, as we all know, white heterosexual men are the only people who can be objective about anything because everyone else is blinded by their victim mentality. Or whatever the talking-point is these days.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read through the comments of reviews to see casual dismissals on the lines of “Bah! She can’t be trusted on this, she thinks everything is about sexism!” or “Of course he gave it a good review, he gives a pass to all Black Movies.” I honestly don’t know how some people stay in the business, when their work is going to be subjected this kind of make-believe scrutiny devaluing them at every turn.

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.