Criticism Within LDS Film: Part 1 — What is Film Criticism?

Art criticism has existed as long as art has, if only through “critics” sharing personal reactions to the art form.  In ancient times, the Greeks and Romans not only developed great writers of literature, but great theories about literature as well — forming a foundation for early literary criticism.

In modern times, critical “reviews” can be found about everything from movie trailers (not just movies themselves) to the latest gadgets and fashion.  Modern ecommerce websites will usually let any registered user post a review and a star-rating for a product or service — great for getting the gist of popular opinion, not as great for discerning the informed critics from the noise of the uneducated masses who rant mindlessly.  In the Internet age, everyone is a critic…literally!

Art criticism, regardless of the medium, can take objective or subjective forms.  Some elements of criticism will always be subjective — fundamentally, it is the critic’s personal opinion — but objective elements will also come into play.  (Original versus derivative works, for example)

Some art forms (such as music) may seem almost entirely subjective — after all, if you like a particular song, you like it.  If you don’t, you don’t.  However, subjective criticism is not without objective value:  a critic who likes progressive rock, for example, but gives a purely subjective “thumbs down” to a new progressive rock album is still sharing information that other progressive rock fans may want to know when making purchasing decisions.

The medium of film provides criticism with more of an objective foundation.  The structure of film typically contains complete narrative stories, with sequential setup – development – climax sections.  Writers and directors have lots of leeway, of course, to depart from typical three-act structures, but unclear or inconsistent plot details are some of the easiest criticisms of a film to notice and make.  Good films tend to have well-developed characters who are realistic, identifiable and have some kind of “arc” from beginning to end.  Plot elements have certain “rules” like making sure third-act plot devices are set up in the first or second act (and likewise not introducing irrelevant plot elements in the first or second that are dropped by the third).

Creating a compelling story and memorable characters is not an easy process — it should be expected that films will have varying strengths and weaknesses in these areas.  However, without some concept of “criticism”, how can we discern “good” films from “bad”?   How can we expect filmmakers to make “better” films (however we define that term) if we have no concept of how to judge better from worse?

Is film criticism dead?

Articles proclaiming the death of film criticism have appeared in numerous places over the last ten years.  Their points are generally sound: in an age where studios are frequently choosing not to screen films to critics before wide release, where good or bad reviews for popular films — the upcoming third Transformers film, for example — will make absolutely no difference in box office, is there even a point to having professional film critics?

(A great many publications were asking this same question — Sean P. Means, critic for the Salt Lake Tribune kept track of over 60 film critics who were let go in the past six years, judged to be irrelevant and expendable.)

If reviews, good or bad, make no difference for popular films that most people have already decided whether to see or not, and if there’s likewise little point to writing negative reviews for smaller films that no one has heard of and won’t be seeing anyway, modern film criticism may be reduced to a small niche purpose:  championing smaller, unknown films judged to be worthy of more attention, without attempting to review general release films.  Still, without film “criticism” as a concept — without any distinction between “good” and “bad” elements, even when those terms differ in context between critics — film as an art form will suffer.

It is argued that there is no real incentive for the profit-driven movie studios to focus on “quality” versus “what the public will pay money to see”.  Conventional wisdom says that box office dollars are usually inversely proportional to movie quality — thus why spend time and effort making “quality” films when they won’t make anyone any money?

In this case, however, conventional wisdom may not actually be true:  a glance at the all-time domestic box office winners doesn’t show many films that were largely panned by critics at the time, and have been historically judged as “bad”.  (Star Wars: Episode 1 detractors may argue this point…)   The list adjusted for inflation shows even fewer “bad” movies, showing that the most popular films over time have, in fact, tended to be critically acclaimed films as well.  That provides a ray of hope that “quality” does matter in film in some context, and that truly worthwhile films will find an audience, sooner or later.

In that context, film “criticism” is certainly not dead and never will be.   There will always be a need for educated discussion of good and bad film elements and how to judge between them.

What is a “critic”?

In my view, a “critic” has three basic requirements, regardless of the medium:

Honesty: Without honesty, criticism is next to useless.  A critic should express his/her true opinion, whether good or bad, and whether that opinion is shared by the population at large or not.  A critic who modifies his/her opinion because of outside factors — giving a positive review because the artist is a friend, because the critic is afraid to go against popular opinion and be criticized themselves for it, or because of some quid pro quo involving money, benefits, or access to other movies — has little value to anyone.

Experience: An effective critic should have some experience in the medium he/she is discussing.  A critic who doesn’t listen to country music in general will probably not be an effective critic of new country CDs, as their opinion won’t be representative of (or useful to) those who do.  That experience is a vital foundation for the third requirement:

Reasoning: Simply saying, “I loved it!  It was AWESOME!” or “That film was teh suck!” may be honest on a primal level, but not useful for someone who is looking to make informed entertainment choices in the first place.  Any critic has a responsibility to articulate *why* a movie received four stars or one.  Most educated people know that opinions will vary about the quality of any art form; what they want to know is which of the many diverse opinions will most closely relate to their own — specific foundations for that opinion that will provide a clear guide as to whether that entertainment choice will be worth their time.

Film criticism should have something specific — whether acting, writing, structure, or something else — to base any positive or negative opinion.  Even when readers disagree with that opinion, they are more likely to respect a critic who presents a structured, reasoned defense for that opinion — drawing on their experience in the medium as necessary.

[Next:  Criticism within an LDS context]