On our last episode of The B-Movies Podcast (which was episode #27, for those keeping score), William Bibbiani and I reviewed the latest indie darling Bellflower, a low-budget, harrowing, apocalyptic love story, featuring a young man going on a violent rampage (of sorts) after his girlfriend callously dumps him, and he suffers brain damage in a motorcycle accident. I was kind of enamored of Bellflower, and I responded strongly to its bleak look at the maturity and fantasies of the average arrested adolescent (I compared the characters to a resourceful Beavis and Butt-Head). Bibbs, conversely, was definitely put off by the film’s lack of focus, and was a little soured by some of Bellflower’s more toxic elements (for one, the movie contains, admittedly, a stripe of misogyny). Reading around online, you’ll find that many critics have responded very positively to Evan Glodell’s debut feature, and that, even if they weren’t falling in love with it, found it to be a strong representation of talent, and a film worth seeking out.
But I don’t mention this last detail to point out how incorrect Bibbs was. Indeed, if you read his review (here on Crave Online), he is perfectly eloquent about his feelings on Bellflower. Just because my own opinion seems more in step with the popular opinion doesn’t, by any means, make it more correct. And just because Bibbs disliked it doesn’t mean he is less correct. And it’s here, in the chasm of disagreement, that we find one of the most dangerous (and frighteningly common) assumptions about film critics (and criticism in general): that their opinions should reflect the status quo.
Of course this is incorrect. A film critic’s opinion should reflect nothing but their own opinion. And if the critic is worth their weight in salt, they should be eloquent enough – in person or in print – to back up whatever opinions they have. If a critic dislikes something that you love, it is merely another perspective on that thing, and the critic is by no means impugning your opinion, your taste, or the efforts of the artists who created it. Well, provided they’re professional; there are plenty of young, cranky critics in the world who live by the sucks-or-awesome adage. But they are, perhaps, working their way toward professionalism.
Are film critics smarter than you? Well, perhaps not (although Bibbs and I are sure to give our appropriate benediction at the end of each episode of our podcast). Are film critics’ opinions more valid than yours? No, although they do make their living being articulate about them. The only thing you can really say about critics – for sure – is that they’ve seen more movies than you. Way more. They see movies for a living. Anyone working professionally has likely spent their entire youth watching a wide variety of movies, and has found some of the great films that they love, and are now trying desperately to share their passions with the world. From that experience, you can, at the very least, glean that professional film critics at least kind of know about the ins and outs of films and filmmaking. More valid? No. More experienced? Yes.
So when a film critic slams a well-beloved film, and they’re being honest about it, they have their reasons. Which they’re open to sharing, and happy to discuss. They are not trying to insult you, seem “above” the crowd at all, or are attempting to be “hip,” by claiming to be the lone voice of dissent in an ocean of yes-men. It’s possible that you have the occasional film critic who enjoys being a rebellious contrarian, but you, as a reader, have to discern their intent: whether they’re tearing down something popular as a form of adolescent rage, or if they’re intelligently willing to take the film at face value, and judge it on its own merits, and popular opinion be damned.
We live in an age where everyone with computer access and two opinions to rub together can publish their own film reviews online (heck, I have maintained my own ‘blog for years), and while many amateur film critics are quietly brilliant authors, and while the activity of film writing has only increased over the last decade, for the reader, it has become a dangerous and arduous game to separate the good authors from the bad. The true critics from the screaming meemies.
I mentioned in the last episode that I am not part of the cult surrounding Star Wars (I was a Star Trek kid through-and-though). This doesn’t mean I’m less qualified to write about the film, though, as I can still watch it and appreciate what I see on the screen. The instant I bring an outside bias into a film is the instant I sacrifice a small part of my professional credibility. If I do bring a bias to a film (and I do it often), I mention it. If I’m familiar with a filmmaker’s work, I’ll have to mention that I’m judging their new film based on that familiarity. But I have to let the film speak on its own terms. That’s my job. I like to think I do it well.
I didn’t utterly loathe The Last Airbender. I merely thought it was bad. I slam Michael Bay’s Transformers movies, but not as part of the wolfpack. I’m not turned on by certain classic films that are well-beloved by most people. I’ve seen Blade Runner twice, and am still not too impressed. I can’t stand Animal House. I think Fellini’s 8 ½ is overrated. Ask me why, and I’ll tell you. My unpopular opinions are mine, I can defend them. If a friend can rebut them, I will listen. My mind can be changed.
The secret here is to find a critic you know and respect (even if you don’t agree with them), and see their review less as an affront or a solid definition of a movie, but as an open dialogue or a discussion about it. If you disagree, you’ll find yourself becoming more eloquent about your own position. If you agree, perhaps the critic will help in defining how you feel. But no critic should ever express what people expect them to express, how the rest of the world thinks, how you think, or even how other film critics think.
They should express how they feel.
From the Desk of William 'Bibbs' Bibbiani:
I’d like to pause for a minute to start a slow clap for Witney, who is very, very smart…
Clap… Clap… Clap…
…when he says how right I am.
In all seriousness though, what people sometimes forget is that criticism is based on subjective – albeit highly informed (at least that’s the idea) – opinions. I’ve lost track of how many comments, e-mails or what have you from individuals who disagreed with my review of a film (or videogame, although I don’t seem to write many of those any more) only to back up their claims with “objective” data comprised of impressive box office numbers or Rotten Tomatoes ratings, as if popular consensus makes any one opinion more “right” than another. This is a democracy, I’ll grant you, but that only really matters when we put something up to a vote. Until film critics develop their own branch of government (which I’ll never be a part of thanks to the terabyte of porn of my computer) everyone’s opinion on the quality of movies falls under the “Free Speech” banner, under which the minority opinion is of equal legal and cultural value to any other.
I could spend my entire half of this article reasserting all the points that Witney made in his intro, but I’d rather actually earn my keep so if you’ve forgotten any of the valid, well-reasoned arguments that my esteemed B-Movies Podcast co-host made then hit the “Back” button on your internet browser and read them over again. What I will admit, something that Witney didn’t quite mention, is that in the long term, the cult of popular opinion does win out. What truly matters is whether any film (or any other work of art being scrutinized) remains in the public consciousness, or in the case of cult films, at least lingers in the corner a bit. Kneejerk reactions rarely have any correlation to this, however, and a large number of films that audiences and even many critics immediately respond to – even in droves – are destined to be forgotten, or at least be remembered more negatively than they were originally received. In fact, so many have already been forgotten that you may not be aware of all of them.
But for the sake of accessibility let’s go back just nine years to My Big Fat Greek Wedding, one of the most financially successful movies ever made. The Nia Vardalos-scripted romantic comedy cost only $5 million to produce and wound up earning over $240 million at the domestic box office, picking up a Best Original Screenplay Oscar nomination in the process. Many critics, including myself (although I wasn’t technically working as one at the time), dared to call attention to the film’s extreme lack of dramatic tension – the only conflict whatsoever is that the protagonist’s family is embarrassing – and its hopelessly blank male love interest, who had no personality whatsoever apart from loving the heroine. “Nonsense,” audiences across America said. “We love this film!” And yet I don’t see anyone quoting My Big Fat Greek Wedding on a daily basis, or telling new young audiences that it’s a film they absolutely have to see. While it still has its fans (and admittedly has a certain naïve charm), time has given credence to the criticisms and the film is probably destined to become little more than a mildly entertaining footnote in film history.
There are several films that I either loathed or had many reasonable issues with in recent years that achieved success, awards-recognition or even acclaim from other, often respected film critics that I feel confident will probably fall by the wayside after the initial din of praise dies down. Crash is a perfect example, or at least Paul Haggis’s Crash (David Cronenberg’s fetishistic automobile accident movie from 1996 didn’t make too many year-end “Top Ten” lists, did it?). This film is a simplistic reduction of genuine racial issues into an over-the-top mosaic of melodramatic “big” moments that reasserts every single racist cliché even as it calls attention to those unfair labels. It’s easy to get swept up in the emotional zeitgeist of this kind of Oscar bait – The King’s Speech comes to mind here, as does Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu’s absurd (and absurdly well-reviewed) Babel, which like Crash mines social tensions to give a deeply flawed narrative implied significance (as opposed to the real thing) – but it’s important to remember that zeitgeists end, as do audience’s love affairs with certain issues. As social tensions continue to die down over “the arc of history,” as President Obama calls it, films like Crash, which represent at best a snapshot of an era or, at worst, whitewashed exploitations of current racial issues, tend to whither and die in the public consciousness. It happened to Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner and Driving Miss Daisy, if you’ll recall. All that really lasts is the actual quality of the narrative, and I maintain that that’s not Crash’s strong suit. In contrast, richer cinematic ruminations on the same subject – like Do The Right Thing, To Kill A Mockingbird and, to a wildly different extent, Blazing Saddles – remain both popular and meaningful to audiences as time rolls on.
There’s another aspect to this that I glossed over in the previous paragraph, and that’s the fact that many films actually trick you into thinking they’re well made. Sometimes they follow conventionally pleasing story structures so closely that many of us allow ourselves to get swept up in the emotional drama and ignore, at least until repeated viewings, the actual flaws in the film’s technique, logic or even attitude towards its subject material. I maintain that James Cameron’s Avatar is one such movie, which blinds the audience with dazzling visual landscapes and conventional hero arc so we don’t see the fact that the plot doesn’t a lot of sense. Sam Worthington is given several weeks to find a peaceful resolution to the primary conflict – that humans are taking the Na’Vi’s land whether they like it or not – and instead spends that entire time swept up in a “But We’re From Two Different Worlds!” love story, and never once actually undertakes his diplomatic mission. Even the cartoonishly bureaucratic Giovanni Ribisi tells Worthington that they’d like to find a way to end the conflict that pleases both parties, but instead our “hero” does nothing whatsoever to prevent or even warn the indigenous people about the coming disaster, making him, essentially, a selfish monster. All the worst things that happen in the film are entirely his fault, but the film is so well crafted – albeit only on the surface – that the otherwise obvious flaws in the narrative (and there are quite a few others; I seem to be the only person disconcerted by the constant bestiality allusions, however) are initially dismissed. I’m pretty sure they become more obvious on repeat viewings. I’ve noticed public interest and appreciation for James Cameron’s 2009 film have waned a little bit already.
I could list a cacophony of movies that I took exception to despite public appreciation or critical acclaim, so I think I will: The Hurt Locker, The English Patient, Slumdog Millionaire, The Blind Side, The Reader, Million Dollar Baby, Mystic River, Something’s Gotta Give, Monster’s Ball, A Beautiful Mind, The Cider House Rules, Forrest Gump, Schindler’s List and Pretty Woman. A few of these movies I find to be genuinely “bad,” but most of them I believe to be merely overrated for one reason or another. Like my esteemed colleague, my opinions are my own and I am willing to defend them – and have – when asked. If your opinions conflict with mine, good for you. If your argument is more complicated than “I liked it” or “Everyone else liked it” then I will gladly make the time for good-natured debate, and like Mr. Seibold I am not above changing my opinion. My negative outlook on Forrest Gump, for example, only developed after hearing a convincing argument that the film rewards passively doing everything society says you should be doing (Forrest plays college football, goes to war, pursues the conventional capitalist ideal and so on, and becomes a beloved multi-millionaire as a resut) and cruelly punishes the only character who doesn’t rigidly conform (Jenny spurns conservative convention and so she becomes a drug addict who eventually dies of AIDS). It’s a well-executed movie, but when taken on its own merits I can’t help but find the overall message disturbingly judgmental. And it took a good film critic to lead me to this conclusion. If you disagree that’s fine, but I ask you to seriously consider the above interpretation before responding to it with any vitriol.
So I didn’t like Bellflower. I stand by that conclusion, at least until anyone successfully convinces me otherwise. I also sometimes like movies that everyone else hates, and I’d really rather have spent my time sharing that joy instead. I’m sure we’ll find time for that in another edition of B-Movies Extended. We’ll see you next week.