I Am Biased

A word about opinions.

Warner Bros released some new posters for Suicide Squad ahead of their SXSW activation. The activation is 'Harley's Tattoo Parlor,' where you can get free movie-inspired tattoos, and the posters reflect that. Each character has a poster that's a tattoo design. I saw this and, in concert with a lot of the marketing for SS and BvS, I came to a realization: 



This infuriated people. I'll let you in on a secret: I'm often baffled by the way people respond to stuff I tweet/write. I know that a lot of you think I'm always trying to get a reaction, but I honestly am not (maybe like 10% of the time). But these tweets - which I think are pretty sane and which boil down to 'It's not my flavor, I hope you enjoy it' - really pissed people off. 

But this isn't about me making people mad. It's about this reply to a group of people complaining about my tweets: 


This is a reaction I see a lot, and I know other film critics/writers do as well. That reaction is "You're bias!" (almost no one ever uses the correct word, biased. I don't know why). The only proper response to this is: "Yes, I am biased." 

Video game reviewers get this all the time, but for film critics it's pretty much a seasonal thing. It comes during the spring and summer months, when the blockbusters are released. These blockbusters have partisan supporters who, despite not having seen the films yet, spend their days on the internet taking umbrage at those who say anything sufficiently not positive enough. Sometimes it leads to annoying tweets, sometimes it leads to death threats. I received threats that disturbed me enough to report them to the police over my Batman Begins review. My The Canon co-host Amy Nicholson got horrific threats and comments for her The Avengers review. Rotten Tomatoes actually closed down comments on individual critic ratings after The Dark Knight Rises fans flooded them with grotesque invective. Many of these harangues, harrassments and hillbilly hoots were rooted in the same logic - that the critic was biased (nevermind the fact that someone who will FREAK THE FUCK OUT about a negative review before they themselves have seen the film is the embodiment of insane bias). The critics were not being objective enough. 

I know a lot of you guys already understand this, but I want to get into it for the people who will be coming to complain at this website in the looming months about our reviews for blockbusters (and likely superhero blockbusters): there is no such thing as an objective piece of film criticism. It can't exist. You're asking for the impossible. 

A film review is inherently an opinion piece. The critic is seeing the film, considering the film and giving you their opinion of the film. It's the whole purpose of the form. There is no mathematical equation to review a movie because there is no algorithm that can say whether a movie is 'good' or 'bad' because the quality of a film - or any work of art, for that matter - is almost entirely subjective. There are objective measures against which a film might be judged - is the thing in focus? Do the actors speak their lines audibly? - but even those don't make particularly good parameters of objective judgment. It's like early critiques of punk bands, that they couldn't play their instruments. Yeah, which was why they were great. 

All art can only be experienced subjectively. Who I am, what I like, to what I respond, all these things are exclusive to me. I cannot watch a film through someone else's eyes. Literally every moment of my life leading up to me sitting down and watching the movie is part of the experience; all of that informs the way I will see the movie. The fact that I grew up loving the Marvel superheroes definitely plays a role in how I react to the Marvel movies - I love these characters, after all. But that goes for all critics; a critic who grew up watching martial arts films will always watch a martial arts film with different eyes than I do. The people who grew up watching 007 movies always approach a new one differently than I do*. 

That lifetime of experience never stops accruing. A film I hated when I was 15 may seem sublime to me at 42 because I have lived a lot of years in between and learned a lot of things. Just as the food that grossed you out as a kid becomes a delicacy later in life, so do movies suddenly begin speaking to you in different ways because of your subjective experiences. Because of your bias. 

This, essentially, is why it's great to have plenty of film critics. They're all coming at a movie from their own point of view, and if you care what critics say about a movie (I'm assuming you care if you were motivated to leave hate speech on The Dark Knight Rises reviews, for instance) then you will take the time to learn the POVs of these critics. To learn their biases. 

Of course this extends well beyond the world of blockbuster franchises. I don't respond as well to movies full of resrtained emotion; I tend to like broad, emotional cinematic experiences. That's why I love Todd Haynes' Velvet Goldmine much more than his Carol. That's my bias in play - the theatricality of Goldmine excites me, the big emotions on display speak to me. The quiet, restrained nature of Carol is harder for me to get into. Anyone who has read my work over the years would probably have seen my reaction to Carol coming a mile away. I respond very well to films full of ambiguity, perhaps better than some of my colleagues. I like movies that skirt around answers. I often enjoy movies that break rules of narrative, or that leave narrative behind. It doesn't mean I'm right and that the people who don't like these things are wrong, it means our subjective encounters with these things are different. 

Bias is good in film criticism. It allows a critic to look at a movie in a different way. The next episode of The Canon covers Lars von Trier's Antichrist and I can tell you - without spoiling the show - that myself, Amy and our guest Michael Lerman all read different things into the film. This is because we are each bringing our own subjective experience into it, and we're allowing the movie and our subjectivity to bounce off one another. The idea that someone reads a movie differently than you do is fun because it allows you to look at art from a new point of view. I can never watch a movie through Amy's eyes, but I can talk to her about the way she experiences it. This is one of the many ways that criticism is as valuable as the art it is criticizing - it is a tool that lets us experience the world as other people see it.

This is the point of all film criticism. It isn't to declare a movie good or bad. It isn't to be right or wrong. It's to describe a personal experience with a movie, and that personal experience is based on subjectivity or, in the words of the Batfans, bias. As a critic I try to be as upfront as possible about my bias - about what kinds of movies speak to me, about which aesthetics attract or repel me, about what kinds of stories I like. It's up to you, the reader, to parse what my personal experience might mean for you. This is why I don't give movies grades or scores - because the point is the experience, not the judgment. It's why I hate the binary nature of Rotten Tomatoes - my review of Zootopia struck many as negative, yet I rated it Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes because there's no option between the two extremes. The movie certainly isn't Rotten, although it has problems. And so I'm left rating it Fresh (and confusing people who didn't really read the review), which is basically correct but really misses the spirit of my review. 

So yeah, I'm biased. All film critics are biased. All film watchers are biased. It's crazy to think otherwise. It's crazy to want it any other way.


* It's worth noting here that these lifelong affiliations with genres or characters can actually lead to harsher judgment - a Bond fan knows exactly what he wants out of a Bond film, and it's quite likely the newest one will not deliver for him exactly as he wants. The same goes for me and Marvel - I have specific thoughts about how these characters should be portrayed, and I get judgy when the films/TV shows stray from that. Because I am a human experiencing all art and life subjectively.