“But did the critic like the film?”

  • Datum 14-04-2011
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There seems to be a growing gap between the critic and his of her reader. Or has it always been there and has it just come out in the open by online journalism and it’s reader’s comments?

"Nobody really gives a shit if you liked the film", I was gently told by a fellow critic about twelve years ago. Liking never was a reliable compass when it came to film criticism. That was just a matter of taste. End of story. But the issue came up again after spending some time at online newspapers and their film sections. Reading the reader’s comments at the bottom of an inspiring piece of criticism turned out to be quite revealing. It turns out that the ‘user’ or rather the ‘audience’ doesn’t seem to be interested at all in a qualified interpretation of a film. Let alone a competent analysis of a director’s work. So what do we critic’s learn from that?
Obviously readers want to be informed about the facts: Who is starring? What is the story about? What is the exact running time? And perhaps: Who is the director? But that’s about it. And even worse: getting this information seems to have become the sole reason to read a film critic, even in a so called quality newspaper. Woe to the film critic who writes about technical stuff such as the camera work, the editing, or even worse, the acting skills!
It is hard enough for me to admit that by now there are not many critics left who bother (or dare!) to write about these subjects. Of course, I’m no stranger to the daily reality of the newspaper business. The editors assume their readers are not interested in these matters and there we go: downplaying even further. But the real reason is even more simple and shocking: most film critics that are now employed as such by the big media outlets just don’t know anything about the practice of making a movie. How will they ever be able to inform their readers when their own knowledge of the trade is basically inadequate?

One of the reader’s comments that I have often run into states something like: "I read the whole article, but now I still don’t know what the story is about, and I don’t even know if the critic liked the film!" But, as said, it shouldn’t matter whether or not the critic liked the film. A writer on cinema should be able to watch a film with an unbalanced story, but recognize a great piece of craftsmanship, which makes the story completely irrelevant. He should be able to distinguish between the two and communicate that to the reader.
For in the end, that is precisely what cinema is about, and what cannot do without the big screen and the big sound: the entire composition of light, photography, colour, editing, rhythm, music and sound, and of course acting, costumes, make-up and art direction. But how can one expect a critic to recognize all that when he is not trained nor encouraged to see the film as all that?
Why is a film critic reduced to his personal taste and idiosyncrasies, when it is knowledge and expertise they should be conveying? Of course, here too, exceptions prove the rule, and these exceptions are the pillars of the trade. But even there, ignorance is on the lure.

That still leaves us with the story, the plot. When it comes to the ‘content’ of a movie, one finds a lot of misconceptions and absurdities. My favourite remains the notion of ‘incredibility’, the criticism that a story is ‘lacking reality’. It is a zealous argument, used not only by readers but also by critics themselves.
Maybe it’s time to redefine and restructure the practice of reviewing. Create one section with all the factual information on the story, the stars and last but not least that one part of much desired information: Did the critic like the movie? A second part could be devoted exclusively to the experts opinions. There the eager and interested reader will find entertaining gems about acting and true film making. The problem with this would be that it appears to be a big surrender to the ‘needs’ of this anonymous reader and hopefully soon-to-be-cinemagoer: consumer information to the max. Let alone the bankruptcy of the hard obtained knowledge that is needed to write about the arts. For who would accept an article in the financial section of a newspaper to tell you that money is somewhat ‘bad’ and economy possibly ‘boring’? And we’re so sorry, but our reliable staff writer does not ‘like’ the world market at all.
So why should the readers of the arts sections both accept and ask for ‘gut feeling’ and emotional judgments? It has come to the point were both readers and writers indulge in the feeling that ’they can do better’. And when film criticism has come to that, when will we be forced to lay down our fountain pens with painful modesty?

Claudia Siefen

Claudia Siefen is a freelance film critic based in Vienna. Started off in the film business as a props master and film editor. Currently working as an editor for film festival catalogues and as a writer.