Movie Critics Still Matter … Unless Michele Willens Gets Her Wish

I try not to be a jerk when criticizing the work of other people, but sometimes I read things that are so silly, so obviously wrong-headed, they cry out for a dressing down.  Now that we are in this wonderful world of the World Wide Web, where any schmuck like me has a voice, I can vent against the pseudo-intellectual silliness that came from a post over at the Huffington Post several days ago.  Playwright Michele Willens has taken aim at movie critics daring to express opinions with which “normal” people (as she terms it) might not agree.

I’m not sure who anointed Ms. Willens the spokesperson of normal people, nor does she bother to explain who she means when using it.  Can a normal person have a college degree?  Postgrad?  Is there a salary cap?

In her piece “Face It: Critics Have Lost Their Movie Memory,” Willens attacks critics for not reflecting what she perceives as the average movie goers thoughts and expectations.

Those pernicious Top Ten lists are sprouting up and one can’t help feeling these faux intellectuals are trying to prove not only that they know what is really good, but that millions of people who felt otherwise must be wrong.

I’m sorry, but aren’t critics supposed to tell us what is really good.  I think that’s part of their job description.  But where does she get the idea that critics – any critics – aren’t aware that their judgments are purely subjective?  Even the most pretentious movie critics are expressing opinions.  No one is issuing ironclad legal edicts; they aren’t delivering their reviews, set in stone tablets, from Mount Sinai.

No one is wrong in liking or disliking a movie.  Why is it that so many ostensibly educated people have, since the dawn of cultural criticism, interpreted a critics disdain for something they love as an attack on their intellectual capacity?  When did educated people lose their intellectual courage and self-esteem?  Critics are here to open conversation, to suggest ways of interpreting, and opening up opportunities for lesser known movies (or books or theater or opera or any other art form).  Though there are probably plenty of film snobs, who takes them seriously except other snobs?  They aren’t writing for you or me anyway.

One strategy of her attack is to accuse critics of being inconsistent.  (Well who isn’t?)  She wonders why some movies she thinks should be on top ten lists aren’t:

Furthermore, don’t they read their own reviews? Remember when The Social Network opened long ago? As in six weeks ago? [It actually opened more than ten weeks ago, but what’s a month between friends.] Well, that is apparently a long time in Movie Critic memory and so far, I am seeing that 100%- positively reviewed film on few if any lists. This means what? That the critics themselves were wrong in their rapturous critiques, that it was before films could be be [sic] taken seriously, or that it was just too damn enjoyable to be deigned award-worthy?

First off, just because a critic writes a glowing review doesn’t mean it will automatically appear on a top ten list.  They see many more movies than Ms. Willens or myself.  If a critic liked or even loved The Social Network and it doesn’t appear on their year-end top ten list, why not chalk that up to the fact they saw at least ten better movies?  Why assume a plot against entertainment?

Willens, however, loses a boatload of credibility here because The Social Network is on tons of lists.  One look at Metacritic and we see they found it on at least 43 lists, including 12 who placed it in the top spot.  She complains about her perception that The Kids Are All Right and The King’s Speech, both, she says, received enthusiastic reviews on their release but are absent on top ten lists.  A little checking (and in this day of Google it seems strange that she wouldn’t bother to do so before writing something for the public to read) would have revealed The Kids Are All Right is on at least 17 lists and The King’s Speech shows up on seven.

The idea that smarter-than-thou-critics fiendishly shape their lists to make the rest of us feel inferior is tiresome.  Willens dusts off this old chestnut:

…reviewers also tend to show off their international leanings at this time, throwing out titles no one has heard of.

It almost makes you want to throw in the towel on the article, right?  Especially since just a few paragraphs later she completely contradicts herself by saying:

I subscribe to the idea that a critic can and should point us to original, less noticeable works.

Wait…what?  Critics are being show-offs if they add foreign titles few people have heard of, but they should highlight them at the same time?  How?  Isn’t a year end top ten list, a list that rightly or wrongly, gets more attention than a regular review, be the perfect place to point us to these original and less noticeable works?  But it gets worse:

Critics are often guilty of falling under the spell of a particular filmmaker,say Woody Allen in his heyday and now, Danny Boyle, who can seemingly do no wrong in their eyes. Hey, I love James Franco [don’t we all?], but you find someone who thought 127 Hours was either entertaining, (even omitting the cutting-off-his-arm segment) suspenseful, or anything but simultaneously jumpy and lazy.

Here we go.  Yes, there is a huge conspiracy of film critics to make people watch and like – and they have to like at all costs! – Woody Allen movies.  I wish Ms. Willens would do the community of critics she is maligning by pointing out particular cases.  “Often” means about as little as “sources say.”  (Judith Miller anyone?)  I can qualify any broad, unsubstantiated claim with “often.”  Tell me specifically who thinks Danny Boyle can do no wrong.

And I can point to several people, including myself, who thought 127 Hours was supremely entertaining.  I’ve seen it twice now and was riveted from beginning to end both times.  That doesn’t mean I’m a Danny Boyle sycophant.  I hated Slumdog Millionaire with a passion.   Not that I am one of the pernicious, anti-normal people critics she’s chiding for their audacity to put movies she never heard of on their lists.

Sure critics can fall into a groupthink mentality, but we all can.  Good ones avoid it.  That is why we can’t treat critics like interchangeable clogs whose opinions all carry the same value ready to be tallied up on Rotten Tomatoes.  Critics are people just like the rest of us and the challenge is to find critics whose opinions we value.  Maybe if Ms. Willens spent time actually reading the critics she is attacking (which I would venture to guess she doesn’t), instead of broad-brushing critics based on a limited number of top ten lists, she would recognize the value of a marketplace of ideas about movies.  Instead she wants critics to follow the example of the Academy, which opened up ten best picture nomination slots.

The motive is not so admirable: Academy folks — often influenced by these last minute year-end lists — are simply trying to get tuned out viewers to tune back in. Critics should get the same message.

If we want to talk about the dumbing down of America, here is a prime example of it.  I’m not afraid of the effects of Jersey Shore or Bridalplasty.  There always have been and always will be dumb people in the world and they need something to watch too.  I don’t think these shows make smart people any dumber (assuming they even bother to watch them).  I am afraid, however, of well-meaning, educated people like Ms. Willens who want smart people to tone it down so we don’t make all those “normal” people feel left out.  She’s ultimately advocating that a critic put aside his or her reaction to a movie because it might not gel with public opinion.  I can’t think of anything more pernicious, anti-intellectual, unfair to movies and those who love them, more deadly to the future of film criticism, or (not to be histrionic) fascistic than this cynical strategy.  We’ve settled for morally inoffensive politicians; I don’t want that in my critics too.

I wish I could say the “don’t trust the experts” movement was confined to the fringes, but it is here with us as strong as ever, seeping into movie criticism.  Ms. Willens’ unfortunate view is cousin to the wacky anti-Darwinists, corporate-bought climate change deniers, Texas textbook commissions who want to write multiculturalism out of history, and anti-vaccination loons.  I expect these things from uneducated and insecure wack jobs who feel experts, people who have studied a subject their entire lives, are so educated that they are out of touch.  They are simply elitist eggheads who have nothing of value to offer the rest of us.  That’s a dangerous path to go down.

Movies are here to entertain and enlighten, but we don’t all agree on which ones do them the best.  Nothing is more enjoyable to me than debating a movie with someone just as passionate as I am.  Reading reviews of people who are smarter and better writers than me, doesn’t make me feel inadequate.  It enlivens me.  Reading top-notch critics like Joe Morgenstern, Manohla Dargis, Bob Mondello, A.O. Scott, Roger Ebert, Stephanie Zacharek, David Denby, Molly Haskell, Anthony Lane, and Andrew O’Heheir reminds me that thought isn’t dead; that there are people out there buffering against the dumbing down of our already pretty dumb country.  Why is that a bad thing?  Only by celebrating divergent viewpoints from the smartest among us, even those sharper and more perceptive than us, will film criticism have a relevant future.

But in Ms. Willens’ perfect world critics would have finger-in-the-wind opinions, subject to the fickle fluctuations of box-office receipts.  She probably didn’t think the implications of this through before she hit the send button, but if critics followed her advice Jackass 3D would top many best of 2010 lists.

What’s worse is she is perpetuating (or trying to anyway) the same cultural blackmail she’s accusing critics of.  In her eyes they are a group of elitist snobs showing off their smarty-pants cred with top ten lists stocked with movies to shame regular folk for not being smart enough to understand Wild Grass.  But she’s doing exactly the opposite, showing off her populist anti-intellectual cred.  She’s practically crying, “I’m no snob!  I’m just like y’all!” though she undercuts this by showing love for the indie-comedy Tiny Furniture, a movie – gasp! – no normal person has heard of!  Nothing elitist there, Ms. Willens.

I suggest that Ms. Willens and anyone else who might agree with her stop feeling insecure and actually start reading the work of film critics.  They don’t have to agree with them or change their opinions, but at the end of the year, when their top ten lists come out, they will at least have heard of most of the movies and may even understand why a particular critic included an obscure foreign film.  This isn’t about elitist vs. populism.  This is about a country open to new ideas and perspectives.  I would expect the writers on Huffington Post to celebrate diversity of opinion, not to quash it.

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14 responses to “Movie Critics Still Matter … Unless Michele Willens Gets Her Wish

  1. Really enjoyed your piece and must agree her article makes no sense. I enjoy reading critics’ end-of-the-year picks partly in order to be alerted to films I might not hear about otherwise, so it would be a shame if they only contained movies which everyone has heard all about already. Also, as you say, she keeps contradicting herself – and this whole notion of “normal” people is ridiculous. I want to know what Roger Ebert liked, not what he thinks a normal person would like – and his list, where ten films grew to 22 because he couldn’t bear to leave any out, is the perfect antidote to this piece! I also note that he has The Social Network at number one!

    • Thanks Judy. I’m glad you enjoyed the piece. (I know it was long, but I had a lot to say!) I hesitated writing this because, as you say, she does contradict herself left and right. But most of the comments on her post seem to support her so I couldn’t let it go without an answer.

      Though I disagree with Roger Ebert a lot, I still think he’s a fine critic. He and Gene Siskel (I don’t know if you ever got to see their show) popularized film criticism in this country in a way good critics like Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael never did. They opened up new movies for people — I think they credited themselves with the success of MY DINNER WITH ANDRE. That’s one thing critics are for: to highlight worthy obscure movies.

      And yes, THE SOCIAL NETWORK is on all kinds of lists, including Ebert’s. I don’t know what she is talking about.

  2. It’s a great piece! What a show of ignorance.

    I have spent a good deal of life reading film criticism, and my personal favorite in now 96 year-old Stanley Kauffmann, who STILL writes some reviews for The New Republic. Interesting you mention Mondello, who isn’t much of a writer, but someone with an appealing and earthy taste.

    My favorites:

    Kauffmann
    Pauline Kael
    Dwight McDonald
    Andre Bazin
    Andrew Sarris
    Stephanie Zacharek
    Manola Dargis
    John Simon (but as nasty as they come)
    Anthony Lane
    Barry Norman

    I must depart on Scott and Denby, the former for his taste confirmation to the taste of his young kids (plus as a writer he’s behind Dargis by some distance) and the latter for usually being just a jerk.

    No discussion here of the critic that many of us love to hate? Ha!

    Armond White

    Rex Reed is a character, but his tste often mirrors my own, I must say.

    • It’s funny you should mention Armond White because I did mention him in an early draft of this piece, but I ended up leaving him out. My problem with White is not that he hates great movies and loves bad ones, but that he is wildly inconsistent and intellectually muddled. Paul Brunick wrote a great smack-down piece on White’s now famous TOY STORY 3 review. Brunick makes it clear that the man is even more confused than I thought. Here’s the link if you missed it:

      http://www.slantmagazine.com/house/2010/07/hating-the-player-losing-the-game-the-armond-white-meta-review/

      White seems to be of a generation inspired by Pauline Kael who believes if an idea pops in his head it must be relevant, no matter how inappropriately irrelevant it actually is. Kael was a great critic, though she could be vague and inconsistent. But she was more self-aware and was able to self-edit better than White, who is not just vague and inconsistent, but frustratingly vague and wildly inconsistent. (And how does his editor allow him to get away with some of his incomprehensible grammatically confused sentences?)

      As for the list of critics I included, I didn’t mean that they are necessarily my favorites, though some are. They are opinions that I respect though and I tried to keep limit it to people who are still writing (though I don’t think Molly Haskell is). Even if I disagree with them I know it will be an interesting read. The really great writers on the list like Morgenstern, Zacharek, and Dargis may be more fun to read than a Mondello or Ebert. I used to feel the same way about A.O. Scott, but I’m almost ashamed to say he charmed me on “At the Movies” and won me over. As for Denby, I think he’s a very good writer with interesting perspectives. The jerk part just sweetens the pot for me.

      • “The comments-section calls for White to be fired are occasionally hilarious in their venom and vulgarity, all the more so for being so spectacularly self-defeating—could the Press have mounted a more successful campaign to increase their web traffic and user registrations? And there’s the rub. White’s detractors accuse of him being a “contrarian,” someone who bucks the critical establishment and defies popular taste out of little more than cynical self-promotion and antisocial perversity. (This highly circulated chart of Armond’s pans and praises has been offered as definitive “proof” that his opinions are reflexively reactionary.) But if this is true, any principled stand against White paradoxically rewards and enables him. “Don’t feed the trolls,” as the saying goes.”

        Wow Jason, I LOVED this piece! This is the first I’ve seen of it. I love the above framing paragraph but the paragraph by paragraph trashing of White’s muffed commentary. I agree with Brunick near the end when he defends White’s freedom to express himself, but likewise decry the critic’s apparent hidden agenda. And it looks like he isn’t in a league with his idol Kael on another front: Englsih grammar! Ha!

        Discounting the aging Kauffmann, who writes only sparingly, I’d say our two best critics today are women: Stephanie Zacharek and Manohla Dargis.

        Merry Christmas Jason to you and yours!

        • Oh you are more than correct. Pauline Kael could be inconsistent and contradictory, but that unpredictability was part of what made her writing so entertaining. She was, however, always careful about her writing. White is embarrassingly sloppy, though he seems to think he is in Kael’s league.

          I’d definitely agree with Zacharek and Dargis as two of the best, though I might add Joe Morgenstern as well.

          Hope you had a Merry Christmas!

  3. Ebert is a softie to the point of buffoonery! About 80% of what he sees gets four-stars (masterpiece rating) but he’s a fine writer and an inspiring human being, so please add him to the list.

    I neglected to mention one of the greatest critics of them all, a man who passed in 1943 before the advent of Bergman, Fellini, Antonioni and the like. Very sad.

    James Agee

    • Yes, Ebert is a softie. I’m always surprised when he didn’t like something. His pairing with Gene Siskel was so dynamic because Siskel was no softie and often called Ebert out for it. (COP AND A HALF!) But I still check his reviews and read his blog postings. He can be insightful, warm, funny, and, as you said, inspirational. Of all the critics out there, despite my feelings about his reviews, he’s still the one I would be impressed to meet.

      Well, I guess I would be impressed by Pauline Kael too, but mostly because I don’t believe in life after death so that would be impressive and shocking for me.

      James Agee is a great name to add to the list though I have read very little of his work. I need to remedy that.

  4. Actually I think he died in the late 40’s.

  5. There’s a lot to take issue with in the MW piece and your criticisms are well stated.

    Anyone who actually reads film criticism regularly knows that many (perhaps most?) critics dislike making top 10 lists for a host of reasons: the arbitrary cut-off at 10; the arbitrary ranking of excellent films; the way lists feed the media’s tendency to turn criticism into a numbers game.

    One way many critics find meaning in list-making is precisely by using it to promote good films that people haven’t seen, and probably won’t have the opportunity to see unless they search them out on DVD. Count me among the people who appreciate the effort and the recommendations. I’m better off than many since my city is big enough to support a quasi-arthouse theater (one that splits its screens between multiplex fare and the more marketable foreign and indie releases), but that still leaves a lot of good movies that I wouldn’t know to look for if not for the advocacy of critics.

    • Thanks for stopping by Helen and seconding my opinion. You state the exact reason why critics still matter. I think as culture gets more and more fractured it will be increasingly important to have a group of people highlighting that which is indispensable viewing, that which is avoidable, and that which falls somewhere in between but may still be interesting enough. I am especially lucky to live in Los Angeles where just about everything comes. (I think Academy rules state to be eligible a movie has to run here for a week.) But for movie fans in other, non-urban places, critics, and their top ten lists, are invaluable.

      There are all kinds of problems with top ten lists and I can understand why critics chafe under their limitations. (As Judy noted below, Roger Ebert is ignoring traditional rules and gave us more than 20.) I like the limitations. It forces critics to highlight the very best, instead of a run-on list that means less and less the more titles we see. I like the focus of 10, a manageable number.

  6. Well said, and thank you for saying it. It’s taken me a long time to understand that people who don’t share my taste in movies (or books, or whatever) aren’t attacking me personally when they express their opinions! And you’ve had a lot to do with that, since we so often disagree. 😉 I think as a culture we get a lot of conditioning against disagreement; as you say, we have “morally inoffensive politicians,” and I think a lot of ordinary citizens aim for that as well. Women in particular… but that’s a totally different post!

    Also, should anyone question you on this point, I vouch for your dislike of Slumdog. How well I remember you railing about it in the car on the way back from the Arclight… 🙂

    • Thank you Lisa! I’m sorry that you were subjected to my initial “Slumdog Millionaire” reaction. I don’t remember the extent of my vitriol, but I guess it couldn’t have been pretty.

      I think you hit the nail on the head. We are so afraid of disagreement. I wish I remember where I read this, but someone wrote that we, as a culture, are terrified of taking definitive stands. This is leading to a fear of simple declarative statements which, in this writer’s opinion, is part of the reason why the word “like” has replaced “said.” It removes the threat of finality and, ultimately, contradiction.

      We need to not be afraid to have opinions, stand by them when appropriate, and change them when persuaded by a good argument. And, like you said, we shouldn’t interpret someone disagreeing with our opinions as a personal attack. Even if it is meant as one, don’t we have the courage and confidence to it?

  7. Pingback: Snow Blizzard, “The Illusionist,” “Wasteland”(not quite) and “The Conformist” on Monday Morning Diary (December 27) « Wonders in the Dark

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