February 28, 2009

Who Replies to the Watchmen?

Respected critic Anton Ego [With apologies, my "Film of the Week" column was stopped dead in its tracks yesterday when my screener for Albert Serra's Birdsong refused to be recognized by my DVD player or computer. There's a joke in here about the film's accessibility, but instead I'll just say that Astra Taylor's Examined Life was my Friday pick.]

The innocent and guilty will be equally protected today: When a certain major motion picture was released this weekend, a certain respected film critic brutally but thoughtfully slammed it, and he was hardly alone in his disapproval. Yet the director of said movie singled out said critic with a venomous, profanity-laden, character-attacking email, which will not be posted here, nor the website where the review ran. Having been forwarded the rant, I began thinking about the one-sided conversation that is film criticism. If opinions are like belly buttons (in which case, Karolina Kurkova is indifferent), might they be honed to help further the medium itself if filmmakers and their critics interacted regularly? Or would that just lead to hurt feelings and more excessively nasty e-tirades?

Uwe Boll, boxing critics one at a time Nobody likes to have their labors of love picked apart for their flaws. One of my major gripes with criticism today is that it's not constructive enough, and commentators are often writing more about themselves than they are the work they're meant to contextualize. Sometimes writing a bad review is more fun; I've said in the past that I'm allowed to be flowery when the films are good, and funny when they're mediocre. But that's ultimately a bad habit many arts journalists and bloggers are at fault for—myself included—and how many of us stop to consider that these filmmakers are potentially our audience? (They should be, anyway!) Would we write such blistering take-downs if we had to read them aloud to their faces? Are we being productive and offering them useful advice that they might cull from going forth, or when we don't like a film, are we lazily heckling to avoid engaging what it is we don't find engaging? Would one-on-one confrontations make us more honest, or would that interaction pollute any chances for objectivity?

I reviewed a low-budget indie that few people saw, and let's just say I had been severely underwhelmed. Two months later, while at a festival where both that film and my own were screening, I was forced by happenstance to meet the director. Not only did he recognize my name from the badge around my neck, he was able to quote back the harsher parts of my review while I barely remembered writing them. How awkward! The experience was gratifying for both of us, however, because in his directness, he never questioned my taste, just my specific opinions. We were able to discuss in more detail than my 250-word capsule could why I had issues with the film, what I thought could've been improved upon. In the end, even if we disagreed on some things, we agreed on others, and most importantly, had each other's respect—there was no more awkwardness as we drank beers and watched films together. Could this happen in every case? Of course not, we're all built differently and some have thicker hides. But if filmmakers valued that good critics weren't just a gang of moustache-twirling villains eager to dip their fountain pens in hemlock, and the critics tempered any condemnation with judiciousness as if they were facing each filmmaker with a practical performance review, what do you think we might accomplish?

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Posted by ahillis at February 28, 2009 10:39 AM


Worst. Blog. Ever. ;)

While sharing dinner with a bunch of filmmakers last October, I realized that one woman was there with a project whose mere premise I mocked on Cinematical just months before, and while I never brought it up, I could see that she at least was more earnest than naive about the movie and any follow-ups. Even if I haven't entirely stowed away the snark, it certainly put a fresh perspective on my approach.

Posted by: William Goss at February 28, 2009 12:46 PM

Critique is so vast and often subjective for good reasons. Like the fact you could debate it and also good point about journalistic/blog ability to play to audience and entertain with harsh reviews.

Posted by: Filmupstart at March 1, 2009 8:20 AM


Posted by: ronald bergan at March 2, 2009 4:55 AM

agreed, good point

Posted by: Digital Film School Student at March 2, 2009 2:02 PM

And yet, panning a film wittily comprises a large part of the pleasure of reviewing, both for the critic and the reader. I wonder if your ideas would lead to dull, conscientious, earnest reviews that are sensitive to the filmmaker's feelings. Often, the flaws of movies are due to studios and their cynical ploys to pander to certain demographics. If reviewers were dealing with one filmmaker's attempts to make something worthwhile, then that would deserve a more nuanced, respectful criticism, but how often does that happen? So often, I feel like I'm discussing some endlessly compromised product instead.

Posted by: filmdr at March 2, 2009 2:23 PM

I agree with filmdr, which reminds me that I meant to compliment you on your review of Fired Up!, which provided more enjoyment for me than I'm sure the film would have.

Posted by: Joe Bowman at March 3, 2009 7:37 AM

If filmmakers and their critics interacted regularly ... it would lead directly and -- no disrespect intended -- obviously to conflicts of interest.

Critics' friendships with artists never make for good (honest) criticism. Why? Because it's inevitable that loyalties develop, and subsequent reviews are impossibly compromised. Some critics have argued otherwise, but I'd suggest that they're fooling themselves.

Posted by: philip at March 3, 2009 9:52 AM

Let us not forget that a lot of films in our canon come from a certain convergence of criticism and film authorship. I'm thinking specifically of the French New Wave. I haven't seen the film yet, but what if Snyder had constructed a film with its societal effect in mind? (300, for example, most certainly was not and will go down in canon as an example of early 21st century ignorance). With a little bit of foresight and planning for the future argument his film would have to partake in and stand up under, maybe we'd have a more stimulating film document of Watchmen, (again, which I haven't seen yet). I think it would be healthy for filmmakers to participate in a give-and-take with their spectators, not in interviews which glorify their power over us as creators, but as thinking people communicating to other thinking people. I think the critic's responsibility is to be the discerning conductor of art's message to the masses, and to make sure we know what we're consuming.

Posted by: Tommy at March 3, 2009 10:28 AM

I hate to ask but what critic? what e-mail? is this even about the watchmen? I don't care much about that movie, right now I'm just crippled with curiosity about the critic and the bashing and what this is about, not to discount the efforts of your post to bring discussion. I'm sorry, I hate being this curious but please alleviate this pain with names. Thank you.

Posted by: john at March 3, 2009 11:13 AM
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