So yesterday my hero Hugh Laurie besmirched my entire profession, how was your day? :(
Obviously now I’m feeling a little defensive.
So allow me to defend:
Let me start by saying, we film critics mostly use our powers for good.
Critics have directed people to all sorts of films—documentaries, indies, back of the rack stuff— that otherwise might go unwatched or unnoticed.
And while I can’t substantiate this with data, I feel quite strongly that negative reviews rarely deter a viewer (I wish!), but a passionately argued, rave review can encourage someone to see a film they might otherwise not see.
Okay, now let’s get to the meat of his gripe: The fact that film critics generally only see a film once (or at least have usually only seen the film once before they post their review.)
I mean, that’s just logistics, right? It’s kind of the nature of the art/commerce intersection that film has always awkwardly rested on. A certain number of films are released on Friday, we watch them, we write reviews on deadline. It’s a living.
But here’s a non-logistical argument: Reviewing a film after seeing it just once is perfectly acceptable, because that’s how people watch films.
Yes, the film may have untold layers, a depth of meaning or purpose that only gradually reveals itself after multiple viewings, but on some basic level, it just has to work that first time around. With film, the initial impression is meaningful, because it’s the only impression most people will get.
(Same was true of Shakespeare, too, back in his day.)
That being said, some films, even great ones, really only do need to be watched once. They’re not trying to be anything but good, old-fashioned whiz-bang entertainment. They are meant to be digested, enjoyed, and tossed away with that empty bucket of popcorn, not painstakingly poured over and analyzed.
Have I been wrong about a film? Sure. Plenty of times. But I like to think that if a film is ambitious, I acknowledge that in my review, even if I didn't like the end result. I try not be dismissive. A lot of times an impassioned pan can actually encourage someone to watch a film. They might say, “Wow. That sounds horrible . . . in an intriguing way” or even “Max sure hated that film but it sounds right up my alley.” (Critics don’t mind when that happens; we actually encourage that kind of reader/critic engagement.)
And yes, great filmmakers (like Scorsese) deserve the benefit of the doubt. We give them that, but not to the point of being sycophants. Even great filmmakers make the occasional dud of a film. (See Coppola’s Jack, Levinson’s Toys, Spielberg’s The Terminal, and 1/3 of the films that Woody Allen cranks out.)
(My thoughts on Cape Fear, for what it’s worth: Brilliantly acted and directed, but I bristle at any film where sexual violence against women is brandished as a means to punish a male protagonist. . .But I suppose that's grist for a whole other blog post.)
And finally, Pauline Kael?!? Thems fighting words, bub. Sure she had her peccadilloes, but she was a trailblazer. One of the first to treat popular film as art. Her “I got it” arrogance gave her writing energy, bravado, commitment and, yes, weirdness. Some critics are flat out fun/edifying/inspiring to read, no matter how wrong-headed their opinions might be. Kael was definitely one of them.
Okay, end rant.
p.s. Hugh's Twitter account is awesome. You should all go follow it.