Thursday, January 08, 2004

The Critical Eye

Matt Zoller Seitz wrote an interesting piece about critics and their Top Ten/Best of lists for today's New York Press.

On classifying a film as the best or worst or signifying some trend in cinema, Zoller Seitz says, "It's all part of the same transparent game: We're trying to wrap our personal, in some ways inexplicable response with an outer layer of importance. The essence of every piece of criticism is the same: You might not like this, but I sure as hell did."

I think that's a very good encapsulation of criticism. We critics state our views with authority, and the heat we receive from readers and viewers when our evaluations differ is due, in large part, to the perception of us being the men and women on the mountain passing down proclamations. All reviews should be read with the understanding that the words "in my opinion" are implicit.

Don't think, though, that I'm taking a relativist view on criticism. Not all opinions are equal. By definition, no opinions are wrong, but some opinions are better than others. It's not so much a value judgment--critic X is right and critic Y is wrong--but rather a matter of separating the informed from the less informed and uninformed.

We don't disregard expert opinions of doctors and mechanics, for instance, but when it comes to critics--movie experts, in theory--their opinions are frequently dismissed for various reasons. (Granted, critics aren't certified, and anyone with a computer, a website, and the initiative to collect his or her thoughts into a review can claim to be a critic.)

I think much of the distrust of film critics stems from cinema's populist appeal. If asked, most would probably say they like movies and are fans. The popularity of the movies and most people's familiarity with them permits the average moviegoer to assume a particular level of expertise that may not exist in artistic fields with less wide appeal and exposure. For example, the regular person isn't as likely to refute an art critic's review of a contemporary painting.

Ultimately, Zoller Seitz's asserts that "...I now read critics not because I trust their opinions, but because I feel that I've gotten to know them well enough to be able to split the difference between their opinions and mine, and make a decision on whether to see a particular movie (or watch it again). When a critic steers me wrong, or fixates on particular details for reasons that strike me as counterproductive, I don't feel mad or betrayed. I remind myself that everybody is different and every day and every week is different, and that if that critic had written the review in a different frame of mind or experienced a different upbringing, his verdict might not have been the same."

Psychology was one of my college majors. I don't remember who said it, but the statement that we're always betraying ourselves, leaking out personal information all the time, stuck. Film reviews are full of the critic's worldview, eccentricities, and experiences.

I was a big fan of LATE NIGHT WITH DAVID LETTERMAN--the NBC years--when I was in high school. I really liked how Letterman deconstructed television and his program, although I doubt I would have put my enthusiasm in such terms then. That's one of my aims with this blog, to make the process of reviewing films more transparent.

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