“A man becomes a critic when he cannot be an artist, just as a man becomes an informer when he cannot be a soldier.”
Edward Norton hurls this quote, by French author Gustave Flaubert, at a fictional theater critic in 2014’s Birdman. Michael Keaton confronts the same critic, accusing her of drowning everything in a sea of labels without ever having to truly sacrifice. And yet, both of them admit that this critic, and this critic alone, will determine the fate of their work. They hate her, but they need her. I wonder if the same holds true for film.
In Broadway, all that matters is the opinion of the New York Times, because their opinion will determine whether a play expands from New York to the rest of the world. But films don’t open in just one city — they open nationwide. So the question becomes: do the 500 critics that make up a Rotten Tomatoes web page mean anything? Do film critics matter?
Birdman certainly has a point. Being a critic costs nothing. The average movie takes years to make from initial concept to final product. Imagine spending years of your life dreaming, writing, planning, and executing a film only for John Shaw from Omaha to come along and call it “stupid.” That’s frustrating. Labeling is easy. Creating is hard.
But I’m not ready to dismiss labels just yet. Like it or not, we need filters. Movie studios have perfected the advertising machine. Every plot synopsis sounds intriguing. Every trailer looks stunning. Without a filter, expect to be bamboozled.
Part of why I think theater attendance is in sharp decline is because people are sick of wasting money. How many families have come to the cinema lured by an expert marketing campaign, only to stare at the credits afterward wondering where their $50 went? People have had enough.
The answer is film critics. Film critics provide a public service day in and day out. Using their finely tuned palettes, film critics slice through the propaganda and reveal the truth. Aggregate sites like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic have made things easy. Now, in just a few clicks, anyone can know whether a film is worth seeing. No more wasted money, and no more excuses. If 499 out of 500 critics hated a movie and you still pay to see it, that’s on you.
It’s also on the film. I’m tired of directors shifting the blame to movie critics for their failures. The theater critic in Birdman asks Edward Norton if he’s afraid she’ll ever give him a bad review. He responds, “Only when I give you a bad performance.” There’s no conspiracy. No bribes. Movie critics praise good films and they criticize bad ones. It’s that simple.
Christian filmmakers like to accuse critics of having a bias against Jesus. They don’t. They have a bias against bad art.
Dead Man Walking and The Apostle are two films which proclaim the name of Jesus from minute one. Critics loved them. They even won awards. Saving Christmas, on the other hand, was panned by critics nationwide. Kirk Cameron responded by gathering his followers and organizing a movement to “storm the gates of Rotten Tomatoes.”
There’s only one way to do that — make a good movie.
But there’s more. Film critics don’t just offer the world labels. They’re artists too. Rather than leech off movies, compelling film criticism enhances them. Film critics skin the surface of a movie and find the meat. They have a nose for truth, honing in on the film’s beating heart and holding it up for all to see.
Roger Ebert was great at this. His reviews were part of the film going experience. You’d watch a movie and then read his review to discover the deeper themes you missed.
There’s a personal element each reviewer brings to the table. The critic’s knowledge, faith, and experiences all come to bear, extending the pieces far beyond their original intent. Some call that a post-modern tragedy. I call it magic. Art taps into the divine. Once created, art becomes its own entity, a public property, ready to be dissected and interpreted by truth seekers the world over.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel recently took a stand on movie reviews. They abandoned local film critics, and now provide a summary paragraph for every film from a national syndication. What a tragedy. The more we consolidate film critics, the less impact they can have. The accuracy of Rotten Tomatoes is directionally proportional to its sample size. As the pool dwindles, so does its effectiveness.
But something even greater is lost in the process. We don’t just need the bottom line from critics, we also need their voices. Film critics are more than just label makers. They have wisdom to impart. We need their perspective, personality, and prose. If those voices are silenced, something deep and vital will be lost forever. And the film community, maybe even the world, will never be the same.
Filmmakers will always rail against the critics, like the jaded characters in Birdman. There’s that writer again, sitting in the corner with her pen. What does she know, anyway? But late at night, when no one’s looking, they read every word. Critics aren’t hacks or informers. Some are, maybe. Not the good ones though. The good ones are film enhancers. The good ones are truth proclaimers. The good ones matter.
I hope, faithful reader, you agree.