Finger-pointing goes as far back as the middle-school playground when you could count your age on one hand and tattle-tell with the other. These instances usually included two or more guilty parties, yet the blame was cast in the direction of one suspect.
“He did it!”
“Nuh uh, she did it!”
Parents, you feel me, right?
If you think the blame game stops when a person reaches a certain point of maturity, then you clearly have never seen an artist and a critic turn their noses up at one another in a truly eye-rolling series of pokes and jabs.
The artist is the paradigm of the creator: they invent or adapt a story, a character, a look, or a performance from their years of experience and training in their field. The critic is meant to acknowledge and legitimize the creation. Their writing and analytical skills are intended for the betterment of the medium and to inform the masses. The tension between these critic and artist has been palpable for centuries and has been the subject of many plays and films.
What made me think of this childish conundrum was some recent articles from Cannes about Canadian wunderkind Xavier Dolan’s reaction to, well, the reaction to his most recent film, It’s Only the End of the World. The critical consensus was in the negative (and the generally salty Cannes crowd tends to squeeze some lemon juice in the wound as well) and Dolan took it personally. In response to one critic who equated self-pitying at the heart of the film directly to Dolan’s personal life, he had this to say:
This is not journalism. It’s gossip. It’s pretending to be a sophisticated analysis, but really it’s cheap psychology.
“You’re a whiny baby!”
“Yeah, well, you’re a stupid face!”
Dolan is not used to negativity since most of his films have received high critical marks, so his salty retorts could possibly be chalked up to his lack of experience in dealing with professional rejection. That being said, his quote in The Guardian is most apt for my argument. The publication gave one of the few positive reviews of his film, so perhaps he let down his guard a bit during the interview, but his words shine a light on the elephant in the critical world.
He starts off by nailing the first issue of current criticism, in reference to knee-jerk Twitter analysis, saying it breeds…
a sort of instantaneous harm and culture of hatred, which the festival seems to be sinking into.
This is an obvious truth that is the effect of the internet age of blogs and online critics. The only way to stand out is to do 1 of 3 things: be the first to have an opinion, be a troll and have a dissenting opinion, or have a click-bait column with a click-bait title. The former is fed by Twitter. Many critics, especially at film festivals where the films that screen won’t be seen by the majority of the public for months or even years, have a tweet ready to send before the credits roll. Nowhere on this list is the quality of the content. It pays to be first, not to be good.
But what kind of analysis is that? Your first impression after seeing a film is rarely the most accurate description of your opinion. The way you feel after seeing a movie is important, but I would say the movie doesn’t really take shape until after you’ve dissected it in your mind, through conversation, and/or by writing it out. Maybe you know you didn’t like the movie before the lights turned on, but do you know exactly why you didn’t like it? I know, for me, there has been several times where I had no idea what my critical opinion of a movie was before I started writing about it. You sit down to figure it out, thinking you have nothing to write and, suddenly, your brain starts to analyze and thoughtfully characterize your opinions. Twitter is the opposite of that.
Now, to get to the second part of the quote I’d like to highlight.
If the guy who gives Creed five stars and Fast and the Furious four stars and-a-half is saying that Marion Cotillard is a bore in my movie, then it really is the end of the world…….And you wonder what the fuck he’s doing here.
The end of the world!!
I love this. It’s melodramatic and illuminating all at once. Dolan truly is an artist.
However, the comment brings the ever dubious critical scale to the forefront. The obvious retort is, using the star rating system is ridiculous and anyone who creates art should brush it off. But, especially for smaller films, it sadly matters in an economic way. The more stars, the more likely people are to seek out a movie. This isn’t always true, as is the case with critic-proof blockbusters and horror movies, but a small movie with bad reviews doesn’t stand a chance. It’s such an insanely binary and limited scale with which to pass judgement and I don’t use it. It really isn’t that dissimilar from Twitter reactions in that, the critic is attempting to make their opinion known in the shortest, most visible way possible. People open up an article and at the top they see 4 1/2 stars, then when the movie comes up in conversation they can say, “I read that movie was good” without having actually read the critic’s analysis.
In what way is it good? 4 1/2 stars for a unique film such as Tangerine is vastly different from the 4 1/2 stars for a franchise movie like Fast and Furious. So what good derives from assigning stars when there is no weighted value for each star? The answer is in the text, not the stars. Personally, I hate and rarely have ever used stars to rate films. If anything, films should be rated on a 1-10 scale, or a grading scale (A+ through F). There’s more leeway for variations in films and opinions.
P.S. I’d like to point you to my Critical Manifesto, which I think every critic should write and have handy. I think something like this helps place a value on a particular critic’s reviews.
Now, we get to the good stuff!
In response to Xavier Dolan’s comments in The Guardian, The New Yorker film critic Richard Brody shared this tweet (oh, the irony):
Zing! The “last paragraph” part is a reference to Dolan’s latter quote about the star rating and such. Apparently, Mr. Brody does not like Xavier Dolan very much.
I engaged Brody on Twitter when he sent this out and asked him if he thought it was snobbery or disgust with Twitter film criticism, to which he replied that Creed is a fine film. This I don’t disagree with, but it certainly didn’t answer the question. This is no different than a sports fan tweeting something demeaning about their team or the opposing team in the heat of battle. In this case, Dolan attacked critics (Brody’s team) and Brody retaliated with a derisive remark that holds no weight, but I’m sure it felt good to write. I’ve been there, buddy. My Twitter feed has had its share of scathing, in-the-heat-of-the-moment posts.
But here we are, back to the crux of the issue. Dolan thinks critics are presumptuous and illogical, and Brody finds Dolan to be a snob. Who’s right?
One cannot exist without the other. The critic seems more expendable than the artist because they don’t create the art, and it is the art that the masses consume. But criticism, when done right, should be considered an art-form. It is rare to find a critic nowadays who can reveal the truth of a film, illuminate the highs and lows, and relate it to the world. The world lost its preeminent film voice, Roger Ebert, as well as Pauline Kael, and criticism the way James Agee wrote is obsolete. If you read Brody’s reviews you’ll find average criticism inflated with 10 cent words and all things New Yorker-ish. (Here is his review for Central Intelligence, you’ll see what I mean).
At this time I’d like to refer you to the definition of the word “snob”:
(noun) a person who believes that their tastes in a particular area are superior to those of other people.
I believe this definition applies to both of these gentlemen in some way.
Recently The Playlist posted a list of the Top 50 Best Foreign Language Movies of The 21st Century So Far. It’s a solid list with lots of obvious inclusions if you follow foreign cinema at all (In The Mood For love, Cache, A Separation, Volver, City of God, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Pan’s Labyrinth, Y Tu Mama, Tambien). Also featured on this list was Xavier Dolan’s Cannes favorite, Mommy. If you have a cursory knowledge of contemporary foreign cinema you’ll be pretty happy with the list.
However, if you wish to prove that your knowledge of foreign cinema is vastly superior to that of the staff writers at The Playlist, like Richard Brody, you concoct your own list, aptly titled, A Response to the Top 50 Best Foreign Language Movies of The 21st Century. Note that this is a counter to someone else’s opinions; it is not simply his own list, nor is it an extension of the previous list where he offers alternatives to an already established list. Brody directly relates his assessment of the initial article: “I found myself in instant disagreement with most of the titles included”.
Instant disagreement! Sounds like a job for Twitter, no?
So, right off the bat, he is rewriting the list. Nowhere in the article does he deride the The Playlist‘s writers, except to refer to their article as “the list in question” and simply stating the film sitting atop his rankings is “the best of the century so far”.
Again, I’d like to turn your attention towards the definition of the word “snob”:
(noun) a person who believes that their tastes in a particular area are superior to those of other people.
The titles you recognize from the first list are totally absent from Brody’s list (save for Leos Carax’s Holy Motors), but most tellingly is the non-inclusion of a single Xavier Dolan film, despite the critical love of Mommy, Laurence Anyways, I Killed My Mother and Tom At the Farm. It would appear Mr. Brody has a personal grudge against the Canadian filmmaker.
So, what have we figured out? Both critics and artists are babies. It seems like the artists that try to make something unique and different, like Dolan, take it more personally when critics don’t like or, as I’m sure they feel, don’t “get” their work. Filmmakers like Dolan make films for festivals, which are critical beehives (if not a hornets nest), so the legitimization of their work rests on the shoulders of critics. The critic is aware of this, which is why they feel an over-inflated sense of importance at these festivals. I imagine it’s not much unlike a court room, where the filmmaker is the defendant and the critic is the judge and jury (with delusions of being the executioner). But the goal of criticism has been reduced to getting your opinion out the fastest or playing the role of contrarian. It has to be out quick, under 140 characters, or be different. Being a good writer is passe. The worst example is the degradation of criticism at film festivals, where you’re allowed to have one of two reactions: loud boos or a standing ovation. And a snappy tweet. Which is followed by:
“You’re just a snob!”
“No, you’re a snob!”
Ahhhhhh. Children, children.