Friday, September 7, 2012

In Defense of Film Critics

By Steve Evans

Moviegoers might wonder why film critics seem to enjoy attacking and picking apart motion pictures. We're talking about critics who go far beyond a simple thumbs up or down; they eviscerate the movie and chew it up. Such vitriol. How mean-spirited of those nasty critics. For fans of a particular director or actor, negative reviews might spur outrage far disproportionate to the actual criticism.

You'd think it would be a non-issue. So many publications have eliminated film critics from the payrolls that a huge void in cultural analysis has been created and may never be filled, except perhaps by academics whose influence exists outside the sphere of mainstream movie going. In conversations with fellow film lovers, I have been asked whether contemporary critics deliberately rip into movies in order to spur controversy, sell publications and possibly hold onto their jobs. We are, after all, an endangered species.

I’ll always defend movie criticism as an important part of the cultural dialog. While there may be a few constipated critics who hate everything they watch, their numbers are minuscule in comparison to the true professionals who bring passion, integrity and a genuine love of the cinema to their reviews. Film criticism may be the most misunderstood of the rhetorical arts.  

As someone who has spent many hours in movie theaters, writing about films for newspapers, magazines and websites, I have had to sit through a lot of bad cinema. Sometimes the story doesn’t work or the narrative structure holding the tale together unravels, instead. Maybe the problem is a poor performance or miscast actors. Often, though, it is not one thing that causes a movie to fly off the rails and crash, but an accumulation of incompetence and bad creative choices, compounded by the filmmakers’ arrogance, hubris and access to too much money -- or perhaps not enough.

So why the critical hostility? Is it really a big deal when someone makes a bad movie? I suspect that those of us lucky enough to get paid for reviewing movies may have a lower tolerance for lousy ones, since we see so many. But when a movie actively insults our intelligence, that crosses the line and the pointed pens come out.

In fairness, no one ever set out to make a bad movie, but plenty of marketing dollars have been spent trying to promote movies that the studios realized, after the fact, are rotten to the core. The job of a film critic is to penetrate this smoke screen and answer a fundamental question: does the movie hold appeal for its intended audience? Analysis of a movie’s technical and artistic merits can help answer this question.

There is the old axiom that “everyone’s a critic,” which is certainly true, although I prefer to read the criticism of individuals with informed opinions. Someone who has seen many movies, who knows the history of the medium and its key players, has the contextual knowledge and experience to understand what works in a picture – and what doesn’t. Movie critics are part of the last bastion in a dying part of commerce: quality customer service. By reading reviews of critics whose insights you respect, you can make better decisions on how to spend your entertainment dollars. That's good value. That's customer service.

I have yet to read the work of any critic who ripped into a film without good reason.

Expect the worst if you read reports that a film was not screened in advance for critics. That is almost always a clear signal to hold off going to the theater for a few days, as the studio that made the film has no faith in its ability to sell tickets. Studios try to get a jump on revenues by bypassing critics and hauling in at least one day of ticket sales before word gets out on a bomb.

The sole function of movies made by the American studio system is to extract money from you in exchange for an experience that typically lasts two hours. You have no way of knowing whether it will be a good or a bad experience. Like any investment, buying a movie ticket is a gamble. So critics should indeed attack bad movies — savage them without mercy if they are utterly incompetent in the core areas of technical and artistic skill. People should not have to spend money on inferior goods. 

A good critical drubbing helps clear the marketplace of lousy product. It certainly won’t eliminate bad films but it can help.

Going to the movies is an increasingly expensive entertainment option. Theaters in most U.S. cities have long since broken the $10-a-ticket barrier, although a matinee costs a little less. It would be disingenuous to argue that theaters upgrading to digital projection would not pass along those costs to consumers at the ticket-buying level. Expect concessions to increase as well. Going to the movies is an investment.

Taken in that light, compare a film critic to a stock analyst. A good, unbiased analyst can help you make a sage investment decision with those precious entertainment dollars. This is especially true when confronting an artfully constructed movie trailer or TV advertising for a film. A skilled trailer editor can make a bullshit movie appear as shimmering gold. That's their job. The job of a film critic is to holler, “The Emperor has no clothes!” when necessary, no matter how slick the marketing effort.

Ah, and now my favorite argument in defense of critical attacks on lousy films: There is a unique pleasure to be enjoyed in watching a knowledgeable film critic tee off on a really bad picture. Comedy is where you find it, and I find that bad movies bring out the best writing in many critics. Roger Ebert's popular book, "Your Movie Sucks," is proof of this.

Finally, I may go see a hideously ravaged film despite the negative critical sentiment just to see for myself how bad it really is. You can learn a lot about making good films by watching the blunders in bad films.

Truly awful films are sublime — they are like a window into the deranged mind of the film’s creators. Take Mesa of Lost Women (1953) starring poor, old Jackie Coogan, struggling for a paycheck after his mother and step-father ripped off his fortune earned as a child actor during the Silent Era. Coogan plays mad scientist Dr. Arana, creating spider-women and dwarves on his isolated mountain bluff. Why he does these things defies explanation. Ah, but there’s so much more. Mesa of Lost Women has flashbacks within flashbacks, alternating points of view, atrocious acting, a narrative structure that an elementary school theatre group could easily surpass, plus bad special effects, disjointed editing, characters recalling events at which they were not present to witness, a grating Flamenco guitar and piano musical score, plot threads that go nowhere, and a thick layer of preposterous, hubba-hubba sexploitation, 1950s-style. Some bimbo named “Tarantella,” performs a weird dance in a bar in the middle of the picture — for no reason any sane person can discern, although it certainly holds the attention of the barflys watching her with glassy eyes.

With the exception of Coogan, who went on to a career in television, every other actor in this picture soon vanished like a virgin on prom night. Behind the scenes, the work that went into this low-budget movie required the efforts of two directors, two screenwriters, two editors and four producers, which is easily twice the number of creative individuals needed to make most films, including bad ones. 

Mesa of Lost Women is a fascinating 67 minutes of “Huh?” It is inept at every conceivable level of the filmmaking process and also entertaining as hell.

That is a fair and accurate assessment of the movie. On the chance you've never heard of this picture, as a film historian and critic I feel obliged to point out its existence as a high-ranking contender for the worst film ever made.

Whether you seek out and watch it is a decision that I leave up to you.

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2012 by Stephen B. Evans. All rights reserved.