Even though the amount of film reviews one can find on the internet is enormous, the articles that critically question the function of the critic remain in short supply. There are not enough explorations of what a critic should aspire to be and what he needs to do to keep the art of film criticism relevant and not enough examinations of how internet has perverted the field of film criticism.
As the art of film criticism is very dear to me, I decided to take it upon myself to start a humble exploration of the current state of film criticism, an exploration that, in this respect, also involves a critical reflection on my own work as film critic.
But I am not going to do this alone. For this series of articles, I invited my friend and fellow film critic Niels Matthijs from Onderhond. He describes himself as an avid film fan with a strong focus on genre and auteur cinema and a soft spot for Japanese culture. He started writing about his personal favorites 12 years ago, in an attempt to bring more attention to under-seen and undervalued films, and hasn’t stopped since.
In this introductory article, we both present our own personal statement on the current state of film-criticism. These statements will form the basis for a comprehensive discussion on the art and relevance of film criticism. [Our discussion will be published in the coming weeks].
Update: The first part of our discussion is now released. Check it out: https://psychocinematography.com/2020/02/15/on-the-art-and-relevance-of-film-criticism-discussion-part-1/
Statement 1: Pieter-Jan Van Haecke (Psycho-cinematography).
With the advent of the internet, the amount of people reviewing/criticizing movies has multiplied. While the ease by which people can express their opinions on cinema should to be applauded, the multiplication of critics also necessitates that we question what a critic should aspire to be.
Criticism is not merely a matter of liking of disliking, it is – if I can put it like that – the art of informative analyzing cinema. A critique of a film is, in other words, an analysis of a cinematographic work, an analysis of – especially when the director is an auteur – of the filmic expression of a director’s subjectivity.
Before writing even one criticism, each critic needs to pose the question of what film is. It is not enough to like movies in order to become a critic, those who aspire to become critics have to reflect on the nature of the film. You can really sense when a critic has never posed that question. The reviews of someone who has not reflected about the nature of film are usually quite superficial. One could even say that the reviews these critics write fail to say anything relevant. It is just sad to see such reviews proliferate.
Another problem in contemporary film-criticism concerns the lack of knowledge critics tend to have. I’m not talking about knowledge about film theory, but about knowledge in social sciences. It is essential for the film-critic to have studied psychology, philosophy, sociology, as well as history. While films express the subjectivity of the director, films are also social and societal objects. Films are made by within a societal context, a societal context that has structured the subjectivity of the director. The movie says as much about the director as it does about the society that has formed the director and his filmic expression – it reveals, in other words, society as seen through the eyes of the director. If a film critic does not have the tools to understand the dynamic between subject and society, I fail to see how he or she can provide a film criticism that has any value for the spectator.
A critic that does not have a theoretical background is, in other words, unable to explore the intention of the director, investigate the way the director’s subjectivity is expressed in his cinematographic work or assess the societal relevance of a certain film. An a-theoretical critic tends to be more subjective than a critic should be. While film criticism is always to a certain extent a subjective affair, having a theoretical framework allows the critic to bring his criticisms to another level, a level less dictated by one’s own subjectivity but with value for the spectator.
Statement 2: Niels Matthijs (Onderhond).
Film critics have been around pretty much since the birth of film. Throughout the years their actual job probably hasn’t changed all that much, even though they cycled through and adapted to different media channels from time to time. I do feel that it might be time for contemporary film critics to reassess their place in the industry though. They are quickly turning into mere marketing tools, rather than a beacon of knowledge and enlightenment for film fans. In my opinion, an average contemporary film critic should have two main goals when presenting a film review.
First of all a critic should offer a film review in such a way that the consumer not only walks away with a good idea of what the film is about, but also whether the film could appeal to him. More and more professional film reviews I encounter are simply about the taste of the author, which doesn’t really interest me all that much. That doesn’t mean that a critic can’t incorporate his own opinion of course, but I don’t think it should be the main focus of a review. His opinion should be a reflection on the elements discussed and presented in the film, it shouldn’t however eclipse these elements. As such the audience can get acquainted with a critic’s taste, but the review will still be valuable for people who don’t share the reviewer’s taste in films.
But more pressingly, especially now that certain companies are dominating the film market and marketing budgets matter more than ever, a critic should be able to champion lesser advertised films to his audience. A critic should look for quality, regardless of availability, and make a case to his audience that they need to watch a certain film. This will offer film fans an extra incentive to give less marketed films a fair chance, instead of simply feeding the ever growing marketing machine, which is no doubt part of the negative spiral we are in now. It’s here that I feel most critics are failing horribly, as most of them just discuss whatever film is popular, be it in the arthouse or commercial market. Every Top 1O list looks the same, reviews are terribly predictable and accomplish very little beyond pushing people to the next big thing. It’s hard finding dissenting voices nowadays, which means a lot of great films are getting little to no broader exposure anymore, giving even more power to those who control the marketing budgets.
More content than ever is being produced, but more and more people are flocking to the same tired mass-produced nonsense. Film critics aren’t fully to blame of course, but they at least should set an example for the rest. And that doesn’t mean collectively praising the next Scorsese or Tarantino movie, people really don’t need critics anymore to find out about these type of films.