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Saturday, 1 November 2014

Everyone's A Critic! What Is The Value Of Real Film Criticism? (Part 1)

Hello Again,

Today, we examine the issue of "film criticism", and ask "What is the point"? I hope you enjoy this article.

I'm sure you've all seen a movie poster, like the one above. And I don't mean that literally. I mean, a poster for any major, forthcoming film, whereby the title, the cast/crew, and even the main image all takes a distinct second place to the star-ratings from every rent-a-quote journo working for any one of a hundred magazines, newspapers, TV and radio shows, and even online blogs! The kind of poster, that says, nigh screams at 100,000 decibels "See me, or die"!

Have you ever studied those quotes? I don't mean simply reading them, and casually ignoring them, like most cinemagoers would, I mean well-and-truly taken time out of your day, to read what the ratings scream, who screamed them, and for what media outlet that quote has been screamed from?

Take the example above, from the UK release of LOCKE - a film I've not actually seen, so I am by no means critiquing it, merely the concept of the star-ratings and quotes. There are the big-hitters, such as BBC Radio 5 Live (a national UK radio station), Time Out (a London-based listings guide, that also happens to be published in many other countries also, such as New York, Mexico and many others), and The Hollywood Reporter, (a well-known film trade journal).

Then you get, the lesser-known, lesser-read publications, such as Loaded magazine (a UK "lads" magazine, that recently went into Administration, just a matter of months after a costly relaunch, and which has changed hands three times, in as many years). And then, you get the real rent-a-quotes, from companies or publications most of us haven't heard of, let alone know who or what they are, such as the stellar Grolsch Film Works, who say:

Since 1615, The Dutch beer brand Grolsch has been driven by creativity, innovation and great ideas. [snip] It is these same qualities, fundamental to independent film, that have inspired Grolsch Film Works.
Or perhaps Heyuguys, a site that makes the lofty claim of:
Based in London, UK, HeyUGuys want to bring you the most interesting film news and reviews, keep an active eye on the latest developments behind the scenes and celebrate the freshest new voices in cinema.
They have just over 20,000 Facebook fans, and even 38,000 Twitter followers. With that many people, their ratings on posters must count for something, surely?

Well, actually, no! And that's kind of my point. It's one thing getting a rating from the likes of Mark Kermode (who reviews films for the BBC and The Guardian newspaper) or Geoff Andrew (who works at the British Film Institute) in the UK, or Leonard Maltin (film reviewer who publishes an annual Movie Guide book), or Janet Maslin (film reviewer for The New York Times) in the USA. These are people of kudos and standing! These are people who have been in the film-reviewing business, for 25 years or more! They have lived and  breathed cinema, for longer than some of you may have even been alive! These people are what I would call proper film critics. They know the difference between a rotten film, a bad film, one that's passable, a good film, and a great one. They have talent that makes what they say, worth listening too.

Something that cannot be said, in my view, of some company like Grolsch Film Works! I mean, can a beer brewing company really claim to have any knowledge, standing or value in the realm of film reviewing, let alone film criticism, by giving a film any rating whatsoever, be that one star or five? What worth does knowing that they think Tom Hardy in LOCKE (2013, Steven Knight) is "fantastic"? What next? Having McDonalds tell me whether or not to choose a particular mortgage from my bank, or perhaps we can pick a random child who attends the local kindergarten, and get them to give us all their pearls of wisdom on  the world of Stocks and Shares?

Of course we wouldn't. That would be ludicrous, as well as utterly irrelevant. Their viewpoint would be of no help whatsoever, except as the most cursory of guidance.

So why do film distributors, think that plastering a film poster with similar names of worthlessness and irrelevance mean we should take anything said in that quote as being anything more useful than what your Great Uncle Jimmy thinks, or that semi-related, distant cousin of yours, you only see on big, family occasions, once in every blue-moon? Do they take us all for idiots?

We can argue that these quotes are merely an extension of advertisements. The quotes, on the posters - which are also advertising tools - are simply trying to get us to buy tickets, and separate us from all of our hard-earned cash. And, like advertising, we are free to listen too, or completely ignore such attention-seeking actions. The more savvy we as film-fans become, the more discriminating we become. We start to be far choosier, about what films to see in cinemas, on that Opening Weekend, which we will rent, and which we will wait until it turns-up one night, on Cable TV, when we're channel-hopping, half-pissed out of our heads.

Advertisers don't like us being clued-up. That's why so many adverts treat us all like simpletons, with IQ's barely bigger than the number of digits we have on one hand. They think, that if we go for the lowest, common denominator, that we will fall for their "spell". We will become seduced! The merest hint of a "tease", and suddenly, we're all slobbering morons, happy to give over all of our cash, at the earliest opportunity.

Unfortunately, a lot of the world's population are simpletons! You only need to look at some of the junk that fills our world up! How many moronic reality TV shows fill-up our TV schedules each night? Want to see yet another remake of a horror film, that wasn't particularly good in the first place? Need to know how to boil an egg, and make toast? There's an app for that too! We really are a dumb species! But, and there is a big but here, amongst the cretins, the numpties, the gobshites, the idiots and the losers, there is an ever-growing band of smart, sensible, mature intelligent people. They are of all ages, they come from all corners of the globe, and they are media-savvy! They know the way the world really works! They know that watching Fox News, is akin to reading a tabloid newspaper. They know that Michael Bay's TRANSFORMERS 4 is yet another three-hour, snooze-fest with no redeeming qualities whatsoever, and is the cinematic equivalent of slitting your wrists, albeit marginally less fun! They know that most politicians are lying, scheming bastards, out to scam as much as they can, in any way fathomable, and that there is no such thing as luck, or God, or karma!

These people, are the ones that can bring a country to its knees, during political upheaval. They are the people who start revolutions in tech, in countries, in the world as we know it! They are the chosen few; the bookworm; the shy, reclusive guy no one ever talked too; the brainiac! They know that knowledge is power, but not just learning facts and figures by rote. No, any fool can learn something in parrot-fashion. No, I'm talking about the thinkers, the outside-of-the-box'ers! I'm talking about You!

I can safely say that, because you follow a blog, that is predominantly made-up of text. Lots and lots and lots of text! You don't care too much that there's no video clips to see all the latest trailers. You aren't fussed that my site isn't full of the latest Flash and HTML code, so you do lots of wonderful, spiffy things, and be awed by a flash-looking website, with lots of bells and whistles. You aren't even fussed by the fact that this blog is only updated a few times a year - not necessarily even once a month in some cases!

None of that matters, because what you care about is discerning commentary. You want to be involved in hearing about someone who is happy to communicate his message, through the most basic of mediums - the written word. I may be using a blog to pass my message out to all of you, but my blog is predominantly made of letters, and words, and text, and practically nothing else, because for you folks, it's the message that matters. What I say, is more important than how I say it.

Any halfwit can "review" a film, or TV show, or a pop concert! Just look at Amazon, or eBay, or Gumtree, or any number of other sites, that let people "review" things on, and just read what some of these people write! It's utter crap, written by uneducated imbeciles, who could barely tie their shoe-laces, let alone string a whole sentence of value together. How often have you seen on Amazon, someone write something like "I love this film. 5-Stars". How often on eBay, has someone left you feedback, along the lines of "AAAAA++++ eBayer"?! I mean, for fuck's sake, that's not reviewing anything. That's kindergarten stuff. Even a dungbeetle could "rate" something better than that!

And here we go back to what is at the heart of what I call "proper film criticism": the ability to intelligently and maturely turn your thoughts into wonderful, meaningful sequences of prose that give the reader a fragmentary moment of orgasmic joy. It doesn't matter whether you love or hate a film, it's how you arrive at that conclusion that matters. Most great film critics, don't use (or at least don't like to use) star-ratings or grades to classify films. From reading their work, you will know how they felt about it. A grading system, is only really useful to help you grade one things comparably against another. But films can't be graded in that manner, because a film's merits are subjective, not quantifiable.

You can grade or value, a bottle of wine for example, in terms of how much wine you physically get in the bottle, versus the actual tangible monetary cost. Thus, if Wine A is a 1.5 litre bottle, at £10, and Wine B is a 1 litre bottle at £12, you might choose - initially at least - Wine A, because you get more liquid, for less cash. The hard part comes - and this is where subjectivity comes in - when you have to rate Wine A over Wine B, and pinpoint why one is better than the other. And this is the point where you judge it, based on whether you've drunk similar wines before. Or whether you like a certain type of wine, over another. You'll then compare the vintage, the brand, and many other things, before you make your final decision.

Films are the same. You can't rate Film A, that runs to 2 hours, against another film, Film B, that also runs to 2 hours, for the simple reason that if you compare like with like, as in this example, it gives you no usable answer that you can assign any worth too, based purely on the duration. You can't rate one Jodie Foster film, against a Martin Scorsese film, because, they aren't the same, and any answer you arrive it, will depend on a whole host of other factors, such as whether Jodie Foster is your favourite actress, or whether Martin Scorsese gets you aroused at the simple announcement of him directing a new film!

So, ultimately, judging a film on ratings alone, e.g. a 3-Star film against another 3-Star film, doesn't really offer up a valid solution. What DOES make the difference, is everything else - the subjective part of the decision. And this, for me, is why I loathe it when advertisers plaster films with Star-Ratings. Not only are a lot of the ratings nowadays from people or organisations I've neither heard of, nor care about, but they are just opinions. Who cares if Harry Knowles loves a film? If you love him, you'll be more akin to watching something he likes? If you don't, you'll ignore him.

If a film catches you on a good day, you may rate it higher, than if it catches you on a lousy one. But many people won't watch a film more than once. So their subjective reasoning becomes horribly flawed, and thus, they fall back on the safety-net of the Star-Rating system to gauge whether X film will be worth seeing over Y or Z films.

I know why ratings are used, because people are lazy. With the rise of social media, and the likes of Twitter, where everything is reduced to 140 characters or less, or the use of Txt Spk is encouraged, it's no wonder people need to have everything reduced to the simplest, most banal factor possible. Why bother to sit through a 2-hour film that might interest, when you can watch a film that almost certainly will interest you, because you've given yourself no willingness to try something out, that hasn't been tried-out beforehand for you?!

It's this inclination to have all the hard work done for you, rather than making a semblance of an effort yourself, that results in film posters, like that for LOCKE, being riddled with rent-a-quote ratings from everyone-and-their-cat! Film studios think, if you can be so easily convinced to go see there film, purely on the basis of a load of 5-Star ratings, then you, Mr and Mrs Gullible Schmuck, can happily pay your £8 / $12 or 10 Euros for a seat at the local multiplex, and the cinema will happily remove that cash from your pocket, thank you very much! Now that they've got your cash, they don't give a monkey's whether you like the film or not. They don't care if you even liked one single second of it! No! All they care about, is your hard-earned!

Don't let them do this to you! People, please start thinking for yourselves. Empower your own inner film-critic! By all means, read around and do research, but don't stick to what you know you will love, or what you think you will love. As ABBA once sort-of said, take a chance (on me)! Give yourself some credibility, and risk seeing stuff you may not usually try. Have an occasional gamble, and see if you can enjoy something you wouldn't normally pay to see! Risk is a two-way streak: it requires you to risk your money and time, whilst the studio gambles on trying something different, something niche, something off-the-beaten-path, that they wouldn't necessarily promote or releases.

There's nothing more rewarding, than an occasional gamble, and experiencing something new. Some of my favourite films, are titles I took a risk with, either in cinemas or on DVD and/or Blu-Ray. Ninety-Five per-cent of the time, the gamble has gone my way. Yes, I've seen a few stinkers - some you've read reviews on on this very blog - but that's a small price to pay, for the chance to widen your cinematic repertoire!

Try it this week! Dip your toes into something strange, weird, new, and see what happens! Not only will you extend your own range of films, but you'll also be giving yourself a chance to experience life on the edge! It's a fantastic feeling! And on top of that, you can then sell that film to others, and get them to try it too! Sharing is half the fun! The other half, is having that gamble pay-off, and leaving a warm, tingly glow in the pit of your stomach, because you dared to risk a little bit of you. Without risk, there's little reward!

Go on! You know you want too!

I'll be back soon, with Part 2 of this article, where I examine in more detail professional film criticism.

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