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Saturday, 4 July 2015

Everyone's A Critic! What Is The Value Of Real Film Criticism? (Part 2)


And welcome back, once more. It's been a while since I last posted something, so I hope you enjoy Part 2 of this article I first published back in November 2014, as shown  here  , and have now finally completed for your enjoyment! Apologies for the delay. (Life gets in the way, once more!)

Professional film criticism, by which I mean people who are usually salaried or paid by another media outlet, to comment on films, are becoming a rare breed. Since 2008, the Arts/Entertainment sections of many newspapers and magazines, have been decimated, due to financial costs. They were also decimated because of the Financial Crisis, that saw many media conglomerates see hundreds of thousands of dollars wiped-off their shares.

It started in the USA with many film critics being dropped or replaced, or simply being told their position is no longer needed. Thirty-one people found themselves out of work. Some of them, were household names around the globe, e.g. Roger Ebert. Why? Mostly because "people can get everything online for free". Sadly, this excuse - and it is an excuse - whilst holding some truth within it, was merely a clause to dump hard-working professionals that publications once respected. Now, with everyone-and-their-dog being an online critic - myself included - publications like Time Out magazine, The New York Times, and most UK and US newspapers have determined that film criticism is something not worth the money to be paying someone to do.

Film criticism started a long, long time ago. Farther back than many people realise, in the late 17th and early- 18th Centuries. It stemmed from the creation and discussion of literary circles by aristocrats and the bourgeois. The rich hoi-poloi talking about things they'd seen and heard - glorified gossip groups. Modern film criticism as we all know it, generally goes back to the 1950's and the French magazine Cahiers Du Cinema, with the notorious Andre Bazin. And Cahiers stemmed from an earlier magazine known as Revue Du Cinéma, that included Robert Bresson, and Jean Cocteau, as well as Ciné-Club Du Quartier Latin with Eric Rohmer, Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, Jacques Rivette and Claude Chabrol amongst its staff. These were the directors who have created some of the most remarkable works of European cinema, in Cinema's entire existence. So the discussion was often technically complex, and detailed, often focusing on film theory and cultural theory, rather than merely a review of the films themselves.

But film criticism soon established itself, and become seen as an important part of modern culture, just as critics reviewed art, opera, literature, music and/or theatre shows. The public had a desire to know what it was they were going to be entertained by, before they had seen it themselves. Even then, reviews were often reduced to star-ratings and grades out of five or ten - much like they are today, and those ratings helped and hindered what people paid to see.

So what is "proper" film criticism, and what is the value of it?

In Mark Kermode's excellent book HATCHET JOB (Picador Books, 2013), he talks about film criticism in great detail; about the pro's and con's of being a critic, and whether any review of a film is actually a help or hindrance to us. Now Dr Kermode, is very much like Marmite: you either get him, or you hate him. I get him, and like his work a lot. I don't always agree with his reviews, and in some cases, have vehemently disagreed with him on certain horror films, like the woefully inept YOU'RE NEXT - as reviewed by me  here  - a film Dr Kermode loved, and which I saw based on the strength of his recommendation. However, he is someone I respect more than most other film reviewers. He looks at films from both the view of a film fan, and that of a critic. Most film critics only look at the work, from the view of a critic. So they will say whether they loved or hated the work, or why it does or doesn't stand-up to scrutiny, but the reviews are often cold, clinical and detached. (Film critic Leslie Halliwell was notorious for this. He pretty much loved any film made before 1970, and any hated anything made after that. Whilst he was lauded by the film critics themselves, he alienated many filmgoers, because he refused to see a film for what it was!) An excellent example of this, is the British Film Institute magazine SIGHT & SOUND, which is published each month, here in the UK Unlike every other film magazine I know, they review the films from a detached aspect. That is, they will tell you what parts work and which ones don't, but they rarely ever say whether you should see a film or not. The choice is left entirely up to the reader.

Now, the great thing about this, is that the reader is left to determine for themselves whether they should go see a film. The bad news is, that the reader is left to determine for themselves whether they should go see a film. And therein lies the main problem. Most people like (and want) to be told if something - a film, a book, a stage play - is worth their time and money, or not. People like to be guided; to have their hands held, and to be told "Go see this film" or "Don't go see this film"!

Unfortunately, this means that a lot of excretia makes money (Michael Bay's TRANSFORMERS franchise, being a great example), and more deserving works (like the superb KONTROLL - see  here   for more info) don't. In my view, and I know this is going to annoy many people because it will sound snobbish and elitist, any idiot can write "This film is the best film ever - 5 Stars!" (to use Amazon, as an example) or "This film's garbage. 1-Star!". That takes no modicum of talent whatsoever. Hell, even a 5-year-old could write that! So, Amazon reviewers who write this stuff, even if I may agree with them, tend to be people I mark down as "Unhelpful" because such reviews don't help anyone. The reviewer may simply as well have said "I love this film. Go and see it", because it tells you absolute bugger-all!

Another thing I hate, is people who waste 90% of their review, telling me the entire plot line, and then at the end, they crudely round it all off, with "Overall, this is a great film, that's worth seeking out" without giving me any justification to do so, or worse-still, vice-versa. Again, anyone with an IQ slightly higher than their shoe size can say that, but it's meaningless drivel. What I want, is for people to tell me why the film is good (or bad) in their opinion. I want to hear/read what works or what doesn't. I need to know why you love or hate the film so much, and whether it is better or worse than similar works in the genre or subject theme. This is one of the reasons I started this blog: to put online long, detailed reviews. In a world in which everyone seems to want to reduce every comment and viewpoint to 140 characters, I actually find it refreshing to see or read someone who gives me an entire paragraph or two about something. It matters little to me that you did (or didn't) like something. I really only want to know the why you liked it (or not)! SIGHT & SOUND tends to have densely-worded reviews. Their work is aimed at academics, theorists and people working within or on behalf of the film industry. As such, it is often verbose, and heavy-going. It is deliberately obtuse, because the reviewer - and by extension the magazine - wants you to really get to grips with what is being written, why it is being written, and not just the end-result - namely whether the reviewer likes or dislikes the film under discussion.

The great thing about "proper" film criticism, as undertaken by the likes of Mark Kermode, or Roger Ebert, Alexander Walker, Pauline Kael, Anne Billson, and/or bell hooks (the lower case is her own stylistic choice, though her real name is Gloria Jean Watkin), is that their work is detailed, and extensive and thought-provoking. They critique a film, and all aspects of it - good, bad and otherwise. There's meat on the bones of their reviews: stuff to get your teeth into, tear-off and chew over.

The vast majority of film magazines, don't do this. Most newspapers certainly don't, though there are of course occasional exceptions. Their reviews are often simplistic, tabloidy, and pare everything down to the most basic and simple of explanations. A follows B follows C follows D. The very kind of review that requires little talent. This is why I stopped buying  EMPIRE  film magazine, because it just focused on a basic, cursory outline of a film, and also tended to focus predominantly on major Hollywood output. Much of Hollywood's output, isn't actually that great anyway, and there are still some magazines who continue to publish reviews, and allow their quotes to be adorned on film posters, by blowing smoke up the films studio's backside. In other words, they publish a positive review, either to gain kudos from the studio/director, or on the proviso that if they get access to certain stars or crew members, or get unhindered behind-the-scenes access, then they will scratch the metaphorical back of the studio. This self-congratulatory, industry-backslapping does no one any favours. Least of all, the public!

Although no one admits too it - for obvious reasons, it's a career-killer - it does still go on! Which is why I tend to stick to SIGHT & SOUND. Although owned by the British Film Institute, they are completely editorially independent. The journalists and critics are free to write whatever they want - good, bad or otherwise. And with some of the greatest critics under their banner, you can be assured you'll get an honest review, if nothing more.

So where is the line between reviewing a work, and critiquing it? Is there a line at all? Are they not one-and-the-same? Whilst many would argue that they are the same, they definitely are not!

A review, is just that: a paragraph or block of text that says "This is a good film" or "This is a bad film". A critique of a film, will not necessarily say "This is a good film", but it will say "This is why this film is a good film"! Most people can review films. It's not rocket science. We all have tastes. We all know what we like and what we dislike. A decent critic, will try and put aside their own personal view of a film, and rate the film based solely on what it is, and explain themselves. I hate most Westerns. I've never been a fan of the genre. As such, I tend to stay away from most of them, because I have a loathing for them. Thus, I would be the wrong person to critique such a work. However, part of my role is to put aside my own like/hate towards a film, or a director, or cast, and see whether the film stands on its own two feet. Whether that film is a good film, irrespective of whether I like the field in which it stemmed from.

It's about putting-aside personal views. I like to think I do that, in most of my reviews. I try and cast my own cinematic net, as far and wide as I can. Whilst I have a penchant for horror films and extreme cinema - the very topic that this blog mostly talks about - I know my tastes may differ wildly from others. I have to critique a film based on nothing more than itself. If I approach the film with a closed mind, then my work holds no purpose or point, nor merit for that matter.

Reducing a review down to a few, basic words, and a star-rating does no one any favours! Take a look through any film magazine or newspaper, and scan their film reviews. More often than not, you'll find the vast majority are nothing more than star-ratings and a few lines of commentary from the writer/journalist. There's no substance there. Without substance, a review holds little weight: it is genial filler!

I know that magazines and newspapers tend to like short, sharp, pithy reviews, because of the limited space they have to house such material. But in 2015, in a day-and-age when we seem ever keener to celebrate vacuity, mediocrity, stupidity, and illustriousness, over intelligence, personality, dynamism, value and worth, it's hardly surprising that the films that get released and reviewed, tend to be of the same kind. For every KONTROLL, or A PIGEON SAT ON A BRANCH REFLECTING ON EXISTANCE (2015, Roy Andersson) that struggles to gain recognition, there's a MAGIC MIKE (2013, Steven Soderbergh), a SPY (2015, Paul Feig) or another TRANSFORMERS (2007 onwards, Michael Bay) filling-up every single screen at your local multiplex. If culture is dumbed down, then the criticism of it will be equally stupid.

With this all said, we have to ask one final question: are "reviews" actually helpful, or do they simply make it easy for us to have a decision made for us, whilst we simultaneously kid ourselves that we made the decision ourselves on our own terms?

As humans, we like the easy option. We prefer the easy method. We've been trying for centuries to make our life on this planet quicker, easier, simpler, faster, better. Why bother to read a review of something, if you can just skip to the bottom where it says "5-Stars - Go see this film now"? We love to have everything condensed and summarised for us. We love to be told "Do this, go there, eat that, watch this"! That's why Twitter is so popular! One-hundred-and-forty-characters max! Let someone else do all the hard-work, the thinking, the cognitive processing for us, so we can save our time and energy to focus on that next phone vote on CELEBRITY BIG BROTHER! Let's continue to be told who to like, what to support, and where to go to have fun, rather than finding that out for ourselves. Social Media platforms like Foursquare have been created, so that you don't need to think where you can go to do something. You'll be told where to go: where to be to have fun, like all the other people who are supposedly having fun! It's patronising, and insulting! It's a platform, that is anti-social, because it implies that if you aren't one of the crowd, then you aren't worthy of being part of the crowd in the first place.

Despite our best efforts, we're still a long, long way from having a truly easy life, like that which was pitched to us in the 1950's and 60's, with robots in every household, tending to our every need. A time in which we wouldn't need to work at all, but where we could play all day long, doing whatever we wanted, because robots would be doing all the hard-work for us. Something's clearly gone majorly wrong, because we're working more hours than ever before; being paid less than ever, and having even less free time than we had ten years previously! Hardly what we'd call progress! So, of course, we need to maximise what little leisure time we have, and thus, that is why so many people like to be told where to go, who to see, and what to do.

That, of course, has its place, but if we don't discover things on our own, we lose the ability to dispassionately weigh-up one cultural item over another, and say which is the better. Sometimes, the best way to review a film, is simply to sit down in a cinema or at home, and watch it for ourselves. If we all experience the same things, then more of the same simply gets made (or rather, remade)! If my reviews help you try out new works, and entice you to explore your local DVD/Blu-Ray store in a little more detail or more often, or even convinces you to try a film you've never heard of before, then my work as a critic has been done!

Criticism has its place, but that place is under a very real threat of extinction. Let's not let that happen.

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