Thursday, March 24, 2011

Is Everyone a Critic?

Short Answer: No. Long Answer: Not really. Allow me to explain.

There's a fine line between having an opinion and voicing it - that line being the opening you'll find situated under your nose but above your chin - but there isn't such a fine line between voicing your opinion and being a critic. What difference is that? You may be asking. Simple: The amount of effort you put into your analysis.

"I liked this movie." Good for you. Why? When did you see it? With whom did you see it? What about it lead you to like it? What about it kept you from loving it? These are the basic building blocks of any review that intends to critique. Being a critic is more than having an opinion, it's about voicing that opinion in a manner that not only analyzes the film in question, it also tackles the difficult task of self-evaluation - the various factors in ones life that lead them to their conclusion.

Without those, I'm sorry to say, but your voice lends little to the topic. That's not to say your opinion isn't important, it is. Rather, without these various qualifiers, you offer nothing to others that they can take away from the conversation other than the knowledge that you liked it. A lot of good that will do them unless they happen to keep detailed records of what movies you like and dislike, why you did so, and can easily cross reference those with their own opinion to see how that works out. Sorry, no dice. You've basically just voiced your opinion because you wanted people to know it, so they can turn around and quickly forget it.

Now, voicing your opinion is a great way to start a review, or engage in a critical discussion. That's fine. In fact, if anything that's a good thing. But lots of people don't. They only go so far as the base level "I LOVED THIS MOVIE" with a quick "ME TOO!" response, and a brief 'how awesome was it when X happened.' Those conversations are all well and good, but please don't confuse them for critical thought. I'd hate to see you in a philosophy class trying to explain why you think deontologicalism fails to capture weighted outcomes even if the immediacy, with respect to morality of the decision at hand, seems apparent. If you're saying to yourself right now 'well, I don't care about philosophy so this obviously doesn't apply to me' then you're missing the point.

Honestly, many people don't accept the notion that opinions are anything other than gut reactions. The possibility of false perception/interpretation or populous influence is brushed aside in favor of the speed with which they can type their opinion in all caps. A critic should accept that there are any number of factors which play a part in the formation of their opinion and evaluate them with how they relate to the various components of the film. For example: a scene in the film displays a man hitting a woman to prevent her from acting 'wimpy' - something one might find offensive - a critic will take that feeling and formulate a reasoning around it. Lots of people will acknowledge that feeling, allow it to affect their opinion, and then not look at any further, settling on the weakened opinion as just being 'their opinion.'

So, why is it important to be a critic? Simple: Social Acceptance. Whether you think it or not, your ability to analyze and dissect something, presenting what you like and don't like about it, has a strong impact on what we as a society will tolerate. If you settle for merely 'liking' something, but don't voice your distaste for what you don't like about it, than there is no measurement by which anyone can say those generally disliked aspects need to stop. The same applies for increasing the likelihood for those pieces of a film that you demonstrably enjoy. Hollywood is in the business of making money, and if people are capable of telling them what aspects of a movie they saw will increase their chances of seeing another movie, Hollywood will acknowledge and adjust accordingly. If you don't, which is far too often the case now, Hollywood goes with a best guess and just rips whatever it can from the movie without paying attention to what it is about it that makes it special.

Your ability to express your opinion in a useful way is paramount to how the world operates. When you settle, you're not only weakening the discourse on the whole. You're allowing for those with more radical ideals to be louder. The less of you who try, the louder they get, until even the most resolute can't be heard. And then everyone loses.

11 better thoughts:

Custard said...

wowzers, that almost got me to shut down my blog and apologise for being in adequate.

I think I may have learned some important facts about being a critic that I will try and put into practise next time I do a review.

I have never pretended to be the worlds best critic or writer. There are so many (this is one of them) blogs I read that almost shame me into the corner whenever I read a new article. I am trying my best and learning as I go.

Thanks for posting this matey,


Castor said...


Hopefully, I'm moving toward the "critic" spectrum. I can definitely go back and read some of my early reviews and see what you mean. Well-written article sir.

Jack L said...

Interesting thoughts Univarn, I agree with you on all points.
I often find it hard to discuss a film from a critical standpoint with my friends, for if they liked it, they liked it and that it is any attempts to discuss the weaker elements or the particularly great aspects are failures...

But what about those that have no opinions?

You're way too self conscious, your blog is great and you should be more proud of it! I certainly enjoy reading it!

Univarn said...

@Custard I'm with you Jack on you being self concious. I don't believe a critic must be someone who rips a movie into a series of base components and picks apart each one. A critic is something who seriously looks a film and tries to evaluate it, and their opinion on it.

@Castor I think you're good within the critic spectrum. Saying what you like and dislike about a film fully qualifies - as long as you take the time to think it through and analyze it.

@JackL I would argue nobody has 'no opinion' and that they either A) Just feel indifferent and are unsure how to express it, or B) Are repressing their actual opinion in favor of avoiding conflict with someone who feels opposite of them.

Custard said...

@Univarn & Jack

Thanks for the kind words. I have learned a hell of a lot in the short time I have been expressing my views in the world of the interweb.

I thought I knew it all before I started and only when I started networking with other blogs I realised that I was just a baby in opinion expression.

Thanks so much for letting me learn from you guys!!


TJMAC510 said...

Brilliant article as always Univarn. One of my pet peeves I've gained since becoming more into film (I'd say 12 ish) has been the "What did you think of the film?" "Good." "And?" "That's it." conversations I've had to have. Now I mostly just brushed that off because, despite the saying, not everyone is a critic. I mean he/she may have had their reasons for liking/disliking it but can't put it into words. Part of me also thought it was the age thing as well.

But as I've gotten older I've noticed that short spurt conversation has stayed and doesn't seem to go away. I'm in college now and I know there are people much smarter than I who could talk circles around me on other subjects in yet can't tell me why they love a certain film.

It was like that infamous film class I had where everyones favorite film was Avatar and anyone who disagreed was a loser. I often asked my classmates why they thought this and they just said the dreaded phrase "Cuz." or "Cuz it is." I mean work with me here a little though.

That said I have often found myself wondering whether I'm good enough at expressing my feelings in words rather than voiced. If you got me talking I could talk for hours about why such and such movie is good or bad. Often times though when I'm writing a review however I get immediate writer's block and get blogger stage fright if there is such a thing. Part of it is my age and inexperience, which will only grow as I get older, part of it is the intimidation I feel from other writers and part of it is that feeling of whether or not what I'm writing matters and if my opinion is really, at its core, moot.

But I digress. I just hope somewhere down the line we will reach a point where we can all have intelligent film conversations. It may not be soon but hopefully someday everyone can be a critic as the saying goes.

The Mad Hatter said...

Great post good sir.

I did a lot of art, design, and photography growing critique was something I was around a lot. Think it's bad trying to listen to someone who can't articulate their criticism? Try being the person trying to parlay that criticism into better results.

Amusingly, it continues - although these days I seek it out for what I write and what I podcast :)

Nathan Donarum said...

Fantastic post. Honestly. These are some of the feelings I've tried expressing on more than one occasion, and it gets down to the idea that not everything is opinion. I think it would be best to refer to Immanuel Kant, who had words to say on the idea that, essentially, everything is opinion. Kant tackles this question through the idea that "beauty is in the idea of the beholder," and questions the idea of such truisms of absolute relativism. Brian Moriarty uses Kant to tackle a very separate question (concerning the idea of whether video games can be art, a debate for another day), but sums up a nice point by saying that, "if you announce that something is beautiful, you have made a public value judgment. You've identified that thing as source of pleasure that can be enjoyed by anyone." Claiming that everything is just personal taste means that one denies the idea that there is something known as "common taste", or "common pleasure". In essence, not everything is simple opinion, or only personal judgments as to what is "good" or "not good".

A critic takes up the mantle, or the burden if one prefers, of looking at films from a perspective that is not simply "personal opinion" - it has an evidentiary backing to it. Rather than simply stating "this is my personal opinion," which, as Kant would argue, precludes anyone from disagreeing with you, a critic by contrast opens the door to disagreement by making claims that can have a universal application. Rather than "this movie is bad," it becomes "this movie is bad BECAUSE", the "because" placing a value judgment on the work that can be universally applied.

I hope this all makes sense. It's a more philosophical approach to the question than I usually take, but I think it suffices.

Fletch said...

I run into this with someone I know. I desperately want to tell this person that they need to go deeper, tell us why they did or didn't like something and not merely state opinions. But being able to do such a thing is harder than you'd think.

Basically, if you aren't actually critiquing, actually analyzing the aspects of a work, then you might as well not be writing about movies.

Colin said...

I think that there's a difference between a reviewer and a critic. I'm not adept enough to be the latter, but can hopefully put enough into my scribbles to qualify as the former. It's elitist, I think, to suggest that only those who 'analyse aspects of a work' should, basically, STFU. I tend to tune in to bloggers' tastes, regardless of their ability to write, and then follow their suggestions.

Univarn said...

@TJMAC Try rewording the question. Put it to them in a way that forces them to think about it. For example, instead of "what did you like about it?" go with "did you like how did they X?" then they have the opportunity to counter with a 'yes, because' or 'no, but I did like Y'

@Mad I took too many philosophy classes in college, I think. It's made me more critical of what I and others say as opposed to what they're talking about.

@Nathan One thing I might argue is that in some cases, critics are their own worst enemies. It's one thing to be a critic, it's another thing entirely to think you're better because of it. People don't like to feel as if they're being looked down on, so as a counterbalance they look down on any group generally associated with that principle.

@Fletch I think these days we're getting more and more pleased with the 'soft' review. The one liner, quick quote, sound bite, that's it review. "Quick, action packed, fun." Thumbs up or down - the end. Anything more than that and they just can't be bothered. Not because they have anything more important to do, they just require effort.

@Colin Elitism is prevalent in all aspects of criticism. Everyone likes to think they're better than everyone else because they do things their way, which is obviously better because they're the ones doing it. Follow me? I preach balance in criticism, knowing where to draw the line, but that's not easy. You can be critical to the point of forgetting context and having micromanaged yourself out of the big picture. By the same token you can stand so far back from the film that you fail to notice the flaws, and perhaps sadistic undertones, hidden throughout.

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