The Devin’s Advocate: Defend Film Criticism

Kevin Smith and the Batfans have targeted film critics this week. Here's why they're wrong.

Film criticism is not consumer advocacy. The intention of the best film criticism is not to tell you how to spend your money come Friday night. The best film criticism exists to explore cinematic art and to contextualize it. All criticism is biased, and that's because part of criticism is opinion. But it isn't the only part of criticism.

This week has seen yet another assault on film critics, from above and below. From below come the raging mobs of Nolanite Batfans, deranged imbeciles who can brook no deviation from their personally enforced narrative of 'The Dark Knight Rises is the best movie ever.' From above (above our paygrade, anyway) comes Kevin Smith yet again, this time excoriating critics in a panel at Comic-Con. Smith thinks criticism is an unworthy endeavour, and that everybody should be creating instead of critiquing.

Neither Kevin Smith nor the Batfans understand the point of criticism. At all. With the Batfans it's not surprising - these people are the ones dragging our national IQ average down. But it remains disappointing to see Smith, who is butthurt about bad reviews of his bad movies, turn his back on the very people who helped get him where he is today.

So what is the point of a film critic? Why is the job important (in the ecosystem of cinema, anyway)? On the one hand we're explorers and champions. Our job, when we're really doing it right, is to help find talent and support it. To watch little movies as well as big movies and to pinpoint filmmakers, actors and movies that deserve more attention and then work to bring that attention to them. If we're advocates we're advocates for film, not consumers. 

That's the part of our jobs that helped Kevin Smith and Christopher Nolan out. Smith's Clerks was a black and white slacker movie that was partially propelled into the mainstream by the strong support of film critics. Weirdly, Smith himself will acknowledge this - I guess all that pot he smokes shields him from the cognitive dissonance. Nolan's early work was robustly championed by critics as well, with Memento being passed on by most US distributors because it was deemed too complex and risky. Newmarket Films took a chance on it, and with the aid of strong critical word they turned the film into a hit, truly pushing Nolan to the next level.

But critics do more. I don't read critics to see whether or not they liked a movie, I read them to find out what they thought of the movie. There's a distinction here - I'm much more interested in finding out the context of the critic's opinion than the actual opinion itself. Why did they like it? What about the movie turned them off? What elements spoke to them? 

People joke that the bad reviews are the most fun to write (and they're sort of correct - you can really let go with them) but the ones that are truly the most fun are the ones where you get to unpack a movie. Where you get to discuss why a choice resonated or fell flat, where you get to talk about the themes and the meanings of things. Movies can be more than a time-waster, and when movies reward deep, critical analysis, I get really excited. 

For the reader this context hopefully sparks new ways of looking at films. I have discovered so many ways into films because of the critics I read; I have been inspired to revisit movies when someone smarter than me shines a light on an exciting detail or presents a whole new way of looking at it. That's where criticism is the best, when it digs into the material and teaches you something, whether it be about filmmaking or narrative or the human condition.

What's more, criticism can be fun to read! I read critics with whom I disagree because of their crackling prose, their great humor or their terrific insight. I'd rather read a well-written pan of a movie I love than an incoherent embrace of the same film. I'd rather be challenged to defend my own thoughts on the film than have my notions held up. And I'd rather have that challenge come in the form of really great, evocative writing.

I don't have any plans to make movies. I'm not looking for a way into the industry. I love what I do. And when it's all boiled down, what I do now professionally isn't that different from what I did fifteen years ago as an amateur: tell my friends about a movie they really, really have to see and then sit around and bullshit with them about it afterwards.