There have been more than a few incidents in which the integrity of the profession of film criticism has been called into question. Of course, this is the kind of thing that, almost always, pleases anyone unlucky enough to be in that lowly profession, myself, of course, included. Being told one is a jealous, raging, comic book movie hating, bribe taking, all-around jackass is so hilariously off base that one cannot help but be flattered that anyone could think a film critic had that much power or personality as to attract that kind of temptation from those with the goods in the first place. Call me a drunkard or a terminal defeatist and you’re inching a lot closer to the truth. But back to the question addressed in the headline of this piece, or should I say, “to the question” since I have not yet addressed it, who do people think critics are anyway?
The answer is one I cannot answer without polling a large sample of the viewing public but I suspect, from conversations in life in which I have either engaged or overheard, or others I have perused online, that people generally believe we critical bunch are an erudite crowd, highly literate and educated and trying desperately to lift the sodded masses out of their ignorant, comforting pop cultural trances.
Excuse me a moment. Aha ha ha ha ah ha ha ha haaa!
We may like to think ourselves erudite and literate and to the degree that many of us have formal education, like practically everyone else, I suppose this is true. But the numbers on the rest of that betting card just don’t match up.
A long time ago, back when film critics were in meager supply and the names of a few; Bosley Crowther and James Agee in the Golden Age, Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris for the sixties and seventies renaissance; were known to those fortunate enough to have a love of film and the desire to learn about it, it was different. These critics weren’t just reviewing movies, they were proselytizing. In France, critics like François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard were extolling the genius of Hollywood, of the Howard Hawkses and the Alfred Hitchcocks and the John Fords that the rest of the world seemed to think were just a bunch of entertaining hacks. Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris and, later, Roger Ebert, threw their reputations behind the movies that the snotty set looked down upon. Kael even made fun of those people, calling movies like the works of Stanley Kramer the kind that appeal to people who mistake a weighty subject for a good movie. Ebert expressed time and time again that it wasn’t what a movie was about, it was how it was about it. So to the lucky few who were reading them and watching as many movies as they could, these guys seemed like film professors, only cooler. They were letting us know that, despite what the carriage set thought, that Budd Boetticher movie with Randolph Scott and Maureen O’Sullivan was pretty damn good. It was an inside knowledge that the real art of cinema had nothing whatsoever to do with the social status of the story and everything to do with execution.
And those lucky souls who grew up reading those words? That’s us. They’re the film critics of today, and the movie going public, the ones that, if you simply hop over to a critic aggregator site like Rotten Tomatoes, give almost unanimous praise to movies like Inside Out, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and The Avengers: Age of Ultron. The ones who almost completely agree that Mad Max: Fury Road is a pretty damn good flick. Of course, we don’t all agree (what would be the point, or fun, if everyone thought alike?) which makes it tough when one of us doesn’t like The Dark Knight or Mad Max and gets an earful, or even threats, in the comments section. But the point is, what the public likes and what the critics like, especially if you look at the audience ratings on these very same sites, is almost always in line. In other words, the film critics, those lofty arbiters of taste, are just people who love movies and love discussing them. Take a bribe? Why? We’re not here to make money (and few of us do), were here to talk about movies. Hell, outside of my TCM gig, I do that for free as much as I can. Use a review to get back at somebody? Oh for God’s sake. If I want to get back at you, I’ll go to Twitter and take it directly to you so you can respond in kind. That’s the other thing about critics: we love conversation, even very heated conversation. Why would I waste my time in veiled attempts to critique you when I can engage you in a dialogue directly? The latter is much more fun, and satisfying.
Just like talking about movies, which is all we really want to do in the first place. If someone will pay us for that, we’ll take it. But we’ll do it, regardless.