Everyone’s (NOT) a critic now

I have a rather large document about film criticism sitting on my hard drive which I keep adding to with the intention of turning it into something readable and (hopefully) interesting. In the meantime though I felt compelled to commit some loose thoughts to a post after stumbling across a piece by Neal Gabler on the Guardian website entitled ‘Everyone’s a critic now‘.

A few month ago I got speaking to someone and after a it was mentioned by someone else that I have something of a ‘secondary job’ they inquired as to what. I replied simply, “I write about film”. The person then commented, “Well… everyone’s a critic now aren’t they” and continued further, filling me in on his opinions on a number of films. He liked Harry Potter, the Avatar: The Last Airbender TV series but not the film and he thought Lord of the Rings was brilliant. This was all though. No discussion. Just a list of films that were good or bad. It wasn’t really a conversation about film, even though this appeared to be what he seemed to be up for.

I constantly attempted to engage with what he was saying, asking what he liked about them, what he thought was interesting about them, even throwing topics related to the films to try and spark some discussion. But this was all met with responses such as “I just like them” or “they’re good” or more often ” I dunno”. Nothing wrong with stating his opinion, of course, and I’m well aware that not everyone is as interested in passionately debating films as I am (trust me I notice that glazed look and always try and reel it in) but it irked me somewhat when his opinions were preceded with the comment “Well… everyone’s a critic now aren’t they”. Are they? I wanted to ask. Prove it. Give me a critical appraisal of the films mentioned, discuss them with me in an intelligent and insightful way, engage in the critical discourse surrounding these films. At least make some effort to turn these simply stated opinions into something approaching a conversation rather than just a thumbs up/thumbs down list. I kept schtum though deciding this wasn’t the best time to be having an impassioned debate about modern film criticism. The experience stuck with me though as it seemed to represent a popular opinion and a common misunderstanding about criticism.

In Gabler’s piece he doesn’t go so far as to suggest that everyone with an opinion is a ‘critic’ but he certainly starts walking down that path.

The penultimate sentence is the following,

We live, then, in a new age of cultural populism – an age in which everyone is not only entitled to his opinion but is encouraged to share it.

Earlier in the piece he also speaks to the idea of the authority that critics hold,

The point is that authority has migrated from critics to ordinary folks, and there is nothing – not collusion or singleness of purpose or torrents of publicity – that the traditional critics can do about it. They have seen their monopoly usurped by what amounts to a vast technological word-of-mouth of hundreds of millions of people.

One of my issues with this piece and many pieces in general on the ‘death of film criticism’ is the absence of any definition of what a critic is and why their opinion might matter. I’ve been referred to as a film critic before and I have winced a little, feeling that perhaps I haven’t really earned that title yet. Growing up I believed film critics were something special, the truly exceptional writers and scholars who wrote with intelligence and class about a subject they were exceptionally knowledgeable about. Film criticism for me is the highly intelligent and insightful debate that surrounds film and this is a debate led by those who know what they’re talking about, the critics.

Sure, I write about film, have a degree in film and also a reasonably wide knowledge of film but in my heart I still aspire to be a critic, I’m not of the opinion that I can hold that lofty (in my opinion) title yet. Hence the response,”I write about film”. I will continue to write about film with my, perhaps naive, ideals intact, striving always to be better and at some point feel worthy of that description. Time constraints, editorial pressure, the availability of work or frankly my own laziness will undoubtedly impact my effort to stick to this but it will always be there in the back of my head as it has been since about the age of 16 (when I realised what film criticism really was), the aspiration to be a great film critic.

I’ve come to realise though that the term film critic is not held by most in the same high regard and to the same high standard as it is for me. This is one reason why I may perhaps slip into using the word critic about myself or accepting its use by others to describe me, falling in line easily with others – that’s that laziness creeping in again. I don’t think I like it though, it feels like its being cheapened by overuse.

The definition and use is starting to get really out of hand now though. These days it seems as if one doesn’t even need to turn in one thousand words on a recent release to qualify as a critic. Simply writing 50 dull, cliché ridden and uninspiring words on a film for a newspaper, magazine or website, or even just adding some words to an image qualifies you in the mind of most people as a film critic. This isn’t really film criticism though, as I understand it, it’s just a very basic opinion transmitted to a large audience.

Here in lies the problem. It is therefore no different to the many opinions on Twitter, Facebook, IMDB and so on, it is same thing but just from someone who informs you that they are a Film Critic. So if that’s all a critic is then why do we need them in this world democratised by the internet.

The very basic opinion transmitted to a large audience kind of ‘criticism’ will surely soon be dead though, as I agree that it really has been replaced by the opinions of anyone and everyone out there on the internet. And so the traditional divide returns between critics (real critics, by my understanding of the term) and the opinions of friends, family and random internet commenters. Film critics (and those on their way to that level of regard) will organically be reasserted as those possessing a special skillset and the aggregators of popular opinion, the status updates and the comments on blog posts will take the place of the recommendation in the physical world by a friend or someone you meet in a pub.  All that we lose (lose is probably an overstatement, take less seriously perhaps) is the middle ground, the hacks, the quote whores, those whose reviews are just animated gifs or lazy re-writes of the press notes and most of all the freebie seekers. And that’s a good thing, right?

(This was originally posted at my old blog in 2011.)