The problems with critics

For the last few months, I’ve been looking forward to the release of the film Inception, director Christopher Nolan’s latest mindbender.  The first teaser I saw blew me away, not only with its special effects (and I’m not normally impressed much by gaudy F/X) but with its basic premise of planting and extracting thoughts from minds, of playing games with perception and reality.  I like movies that mess with my head a little (Being John Malkovich is still a favorite of mine).  And if said movie features an all-star cast of great actors — Leonardo DiCaprio, Ellen Page, Ken Watanabe, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Marion Cotillard, Michael Caine, Ellen Page, Cillian Murphy, Ellen Page and Ellen Page, to name a few — so much the better.

Oh, and did I mention the movie has Ellen Page in it?  That’s a big point in its favor too.  (I’m fully on the “Ellen Page is cute” bandwagon.  My wife of 11 years is tolerating it wonderfully — probably because she knows that if all else fails, she can bring up her long-standing feelings about Brian Boitano or Joe Montana and leave me in knots.  Of such checks and balances is a great marriage made.)

So I was pretty stoked leading up to the July 16 drop date for Inception … only to have an early review of it set me back on my heels.

The review was by Dana Stevens of Slate magazine.  You can read it here if you like, but to summarize, she basically said, “great story idea, great effects, great editing, but cardboard characters and a general lack of emotion; fun to watch, but hard to care about.”

Ouch.  Because the two things I most enjoy in films are the story and the characters.  I don’t watch movies just to see things explode, jiggle or transmogrify.  I want a narrative I can appreciate with people I can care about.  I guess you could say I want something I can write fanfic for if I feel the urge.  So if a flick is flawed in those areas, it’s not going to be a good experience for me.

Furthermore, Dana Stevens is one of the better film critics out there, someone whose opinions I may not agree with, but can at least agree that they’re well-founded.  She’s not some incompetent like Armond White of the freebie weekly New York Press, who will bash good films while praising dreck like Jonah Hex just because he likes getting a rise out of people.  (For example, White was almost the only critic to give a thumbs-down to Toy Story 3.)  Stevens knows what she’s doing — and if she’s questioning the emotional depth of Inception, I realized, this may not be the movie for me …

Well, I rolled the dice and went Tuesday afternoon — and loved every minute of it.  The direction and editing were excellent, and made it surprisingly easy to follow a very complicated story arc.  (It helps that I read science fiction, where multiple entangled plot are more the rule than the exception.)  Maybe the characters could have been given a little more backstory — although if they had, the movie would have run over three hours instead of two and a half — but the actors were so good that they were able to flesh out their roles without a lot of extra exposition.  I was wondering how well Leo DiCaprio, always a baby-face to me since Titanic, would do in a role that required more maturity; he knocked it out of the park.  And Ellen?  She’s the moral conscience of what could have been a decidedly amoral film, and holds her own on screen with all the heavyweights.  I’d give it 4.5 stars out of a possible five, and I could be talked into the last half-star.

And in doing so, I realize there are two major differences between how a critic sees a movie and how a semi-regular moviegoer like myself sees it.

One is that a critic cannot afford to be a semi-regular moviegoer.  If you’re going to be a film critic, you pretty much have to see every wide-release film that comes out, every week of the year — at least every one that the studios allow critics to see beforehand.  (A tip: if you hear that a movie has NOT been screened for critics before its release, run in the other direction.  It means the film’s crap and even its own producers know it, but they’re hoping they can rope some people into paying to see it before the stench is widely known.)  If they’re working in New York or Los Angeles or maybe Washington, they have to see all the limited-release films too.

Think about what that means for (to continue using her carcass to make a point) poor Dana Stevens of Slate.  If there’s a movie that by all rights should never be inflicted on human eyeballs, she probably has to not only watch it, but also write about it intelligently.  She has to watch and write about brainless ‘splosion-a-minute craptaculars like the Transformers films.  She has to watch art-house torture-porn like Lars von Trier’s Antichrist.  Heck, she had to watch Gigli, a fate I wouldn’t wish on anyone.  She doesn’t have a choice — it’s her job!  I could never do it without becoming completely cynical and anal-retentive about films.  It’s to her credit that, if she has become cynical and anal-retentive, it’s only slightly so.

Furthermore, the more films one sees, even good ones, the more one realizes that the same plots and character developments are used over and over.  That can’t be helped, as there are only so many basic plots or character arcs that can exist, and an even smaller number that work in the context of a two-hour (give or take 40 minutes) space.  It’s like when I watched Surf’s Up with my kids and was disappointed because, if you changed the characters from flightless birds to sentient automobiles, you basically had Cars.  (Which is, or at least was, my son Sean’s favorite film, so I’ve seen it to death.)  Multiply that feeling by ten, and you get the life of a film critic.  You also get a little jaded, and are more likely to go overboard with the praise as soon as something, anything different comes along.  (Provided it doesn’t involve Lars von Trier.)

This is not a problem for the casual movie-watcher.  I literally haven’t seen an entire Christopher Nolan movie before Tuesday; I checked out of Batman Begins with a half-hour to go because it was too over-the-top for me.  (That, and the level of destruction had exceeded my admittedly low threshold.)  I hadn’t watched a film with Leo DiCaprio in it since my first date with Nina, watching Titanic twelve years ago.  It is my fourth Ellen Page flick in the last year (after Juno, Smart People and Whip It), but a) I have this thing about Ellen, and b) it was a markedly different role (and movie) from the other three.  I’m not tired of them yet.  And I was able to enjoy the story as a story, since I didn’t have to think of something new to say about what I was viewing, like a critic would.

Which leads into the second difference between how a critic and a paying customer see a film.  The best way of illustrating it is with a quote from one of my favorite writers, Spider Robinson.  This is his recollection of part of an interview with Jim Baen (then editor of the sci-fi magazine Galaxy), who was considering Spider for a job as Galaxy‘s new book reviewer:

“Here’s a good question,” [Jim] said. “What’s the difference between a critic and a book reviewer?”

I thought about it. “I guess I’d say a critic is someone who evaluates books in terms of the objective standards of serious literature. A reviewer is someone who believes those standards to be either imaginary or irrelevant, and evaluates books in terms of his own prejudices.”

“Say it simpler.”

I was itching to get back to my little basement writing nook. “Uh … a critic tells you whether or not it’s Art; a reviewer tells you whether or not it’s any damn good to read.”

Spider got the job, since Baen was looking for a reviewer, not a critic.  And that’s the position most of us are in.  In our natural state, we are reviewers.  We watch a movie, and the one question we ask is “did I like it?”  We don’t worry about whether or not the film is great art, or whether an actor or director has expanded their range.  In her Inception column, Dana Stevens brought up her distaste for how Nolan “lays the symbolism on with a trowel” — symbolism that I never would have noticed had she not pointed it out.  (And I think I’m fairly well-read.)  Why not?  Because I was too busy following a story to worry about the symbolism!  Symbolism is for literature papers in college; I’m trying to enjoy a movie here.  And I did enjoy it, even if it sounds like Dana didn’t.

So, in summary: I highly recommend Inception.  I also recommend Dana Stevens’ columns at Slate.  And most of all, I recommend reading movie reviews — but reading them with the knowledge that they may know movies, but they don’t always know us.  And that a critic’s goal in watching a film, and your own goal in watching it, may be very different.

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One Response to The problems with critics

  1. sheila says:

    This Inception flick did one major headjob on me! I thoroughly enjoyed it though. Need to see it again, and again, and again :-)

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