The Velvet Café

A room for thoughts about movies

What is a good film critic?

with 34 comments

Do you know if your favourite film critic has a diploma in film studies?

I don’t for sure and what more: I don’t care. Not a bit.

Film criticism isn’t a branch of the academia. It’s not research. In my world it’s journalism and it’s entertainment and that’s quite different from writing papers aimed to impress on your peers.

Armond White
I came to think of this as I listened to the after-show of Episode 164 of /Filmcast, where the film critic Armond White gave his view on the state of film criticism, which was so narrow minded and grumpy that it became more hilarious than provocative.

This endangered species of an old school film critic has apparently found a protected area where he can make a living. He was strangely calm about the competition from the free online resources, not seeing any future challenge for printed media to keep its audience. Fair enough; perhaps he’s found a niche market that will hold up for a long time. Lucky him I guess.

But what bothered me was his view on what it takes to deserve the title “film critic”, which appeared to be narrow-minded to say the least. While he didn’t say exactly how many years of film studies that were required, it apparently mattered a lot to him; the more of them the better. At least if you wanted to belong to the exclusive club where he and his buddies dwell, spending their days admiring each other. They’re the chosen ones you see.

He didn’t rule out that ordinary people outside those circles could be allowed to express their views on films publicly in places such as blogs and forums. However it was apparent that it was nothing he would read or care about the slightest, since they weren’t Worthy Film Critics.

Writing for an audience
With all the respect for Mr White’s deep knowledge of film, I think it’s about time that he comes out from his reserve for a moment and takes a look at the real world.

This is 2011, a time in history when ALL journalists are struggling to find a role and a business model that works with the current and future media landscape. Film critics are not excluded from this, rather the opposite, considering the market. Demand and supply you know. There are ever so many willing workers out there, people who are capable of discussing films with about the same level of knowledge and insight as Mr White has. And they’ll happily do it for free.

If there ever was a time when Almighty Film Critics were worshipped thanks to their superior thinking and education, those days are over.

If you want to keep your job, you’d better bring something worthwhile to the table, and believe me, it’s not a diploma. People like me don’t ask for them. And – shocking as it may be – we are the ones who pay the salary of Mr White. Not the university. Not his colleagues.

Writing skills
So, as a consumer of film journalism, what am I looking for? What makes a good critic?

I’d say that what matters most to of all to me is the craft. It’s about how good you are with words, regardless if you’re working with printed or audiovisual media.

You know, a good film review isn’t like a consumer test of coffee machines. It takes skill, it takes passion, it takes maturity and personality. As a reader or listener I want you to make an impression on me. You need to stick out, using a language of your own, writing in a way that no one else writes, but more than that you have to provoke a reaction – something that involves me. If you write your reviews like you’d write an ingredients list on a biscuit package, I’m off.  Be as personal as you have to. But make me feel something. Make me sad or delighted or infuriated, but please, don’t leave me indifferent. Shatter your soul and put a shard into the text.  Touch me. Or – if you can’t: at least entertain me.

Integrity
The second quality I’m looking for is something that I’m afraid will make me appear as out of touch with reality as Mr White. You see, I expect integrity. I expect a certain level of ethics, journalistic principles, awareness and respect for certain boundaries that shouldn’t be crossed.

In a time when the lines between journalism, marketing and general babbling are blurred to say the least, it’s not something we talk about a lot. But I’m really old fashioned in that way.

I get sad when I see how one of the ex hosts for a Swedish TV show about films nowadays makes a living writing chronicles on the website of a video entertainment business. While I can’t really blame him – I assume he’s got to family to support, – I don’t bother about reading his stuff anymore. Why should I care? It’s not his opinions anymore. It’s his employers. And he’s lost his title as a film critic.

Who pays for this? In whose interest is someone speaking? Those are questions that I always have in my backhead.

Knowledge
So what about knowledge? Do I care about that at all, considering my previous attacks on Mr White? Yes, of course I do. It agree that it adds something when a writer can spot the influences in a new movie from previous ones and effortless make references to previous movies in the career of an actor or director, making relevant comparisons. But it’s more or less something I take for granted – a hygiene factor. Obviously someone who has specialized into film journalism should know more about the topic than Average Joe.

Film knowledge is my number three. Bear in mind though that you can get it in a multitude of ways, of which formal education only is one.

Favourite critic
After all this talk about what constitutes a good film critic, I suppose you’d like me to at least name one example.

Sadly enough I’m new to the English speaking world of film criticism, so I have to admit that I’m not familiar with a lot of names. But my favourite so far (probably obvious if you’ve been following this blog for a while) is Mark Kermode from UK.

He doesn’t only know a ton about film, he’s also an entertainer. There’s something in the way he puts his words that makes his reviews sparkle, probably because he’s so passionate about what he’s doing.

Recently I heard him talking to the director Steven Soderbergh, who talked about his plans on possibly quitting making movies to do something completely different in a couple of years, since he could afford it. Soderbergh asked if Kermode wouldn’t like to do the same given the opportunity and got a quick response: “No, I’m very happy to spend the rest of my life watching movies”. That’s happy news as far as I’m concerned. May he live long and prosper!

I just looked it up and found out that Mark Kermode has PhD, but not in film studies. It’s in horror fiction. Not that I care. He’s awesome anyway.

I’m not the only one to be inspired by the interview with Armond White. If you’d like a different take on this, head over to Duke and the Movies, who recently posted “Everyone’s a Critic! But not really“. You could also read “What’s the point of a film critic anyway” over at Anomalous Material, which also is in this area.

What do you think is an ideal film critic? Go ahead and discuss it further if you’d like to over a cup of a drink of your choice.

Cheers!

Written by Jessica

November 4, 2011 at 5:00 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

34 Responses

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  1. For starters, he should have a similar taste in movies as I do. In the end, I want to know if I should see a movie and you can only give me advice if your tastes are not too different from mine.

    Besides that, the reading should be entertaining. Humor, anecdotes, comparisons with other movie, try to stick out somehow.

    As for knowledge, yes, I do expect a professional reviewer to know his stuff. When reviewing the next James Bond movie I’d expect him to have seen the previous ones and be able to tell how it compares to Casino Royale. Technical details like how long shots take, what kind of shots they took, the color renaturation aren’t that important to me but a professional reviewer should have these basics.

    I’ve already hinted at my favorite reviewer and that’s Roger Ebert. But I don’t read that many movie blogs or reviewers. It boggles me where you find the time to follow 25 movie blogs and 10 podcasts. I’m happy to read one or two reviews for a movie.

    Carra

    November 4, 2011 at 6:45 pm

    • I’ll second my favorite reviewer as Roger Ebert. His Chicago Sun-Times page is full of good reviews and his blog is stocked with interesting film and non-film ideas. It is the only critics blog in my feeder.

      Oddly, I do know that my local paper’s film reviewer went to college and has a degree in film. He mentions it as least once a month and name drops anybody now famous that he went to school with.

      For me the most important quality for any professional reviewer of any art is the ability to tell the difference between what the work is trying to achieve and what the reviewer would like to see. Anybody can say ‘I like this, I don’t like that’. A pro should be able to tell me if something works or it doesn’t. Whether or not you liked the latest ‘Harold and Kumar’ movie, a pro should be able to tell me if it is a good goofy, stoner comedy.

      Kierbuu

      November 4, 2011 at 7:25 pm

      • @Carra: As Ebert said, when someone is asking you if the new X-Men movie is good they ask you if it’s good compared to the newest Batman movie or to Daredevil, not if it’s good compared to Citizen Kane.

        Sometimes you’ll see him give a movie a three star rating even though he personally doesn’t love it. His reasoning being that the movie set out what it meant to do and people who enjoy that kind of movie will enjoy this one.

        Carra

        November 4, 2011 at 7:56 pm

      • @Kierbuu: As I’ve said in other replies to the comments to this post: I like Roger Ebert too. Maybe I’m just a bit biased for Europe, giving Kermode my number one spot. I’m also listening to him every week. I guess I’ve gotten used to him.

        I think your expecations on a reviewer make sense. That’s something I appreciate too. That critic at your local paper sounds just childish and annoying.

        Jessica

        November 6, 2011 at 9:24 pm

    • Well… Actually I follow more blogs and podcasts than those on my link list. But “follow” doesn’t mean that I read every word and every post or listen to every show from the beginning to the end. With my background I can browse informaiton quite rapidly. And I’m quite selective.

      I like Robert Ebert as well. I’ve stumbled upon a lot of his older reviews when I’ve looked up movies at IMDb, and they’re alwas well worth a read. Besides he’s a great blogger. We all have a lot to learn from him, that’s for sure.

      Jessica

      November 6, 2011 at 9:20 pm

  2. This is a great article. I do not expect critics I read to necessarily have the same taste as me, but they should be open to seeing a wide spectrum of films. Not just big budget, not just indie, not just foreign but a combination of all these things and more. Having a degree in film is nice but not required. Some of the world’s greatest filmmakers are not formally trained. They just immersed themselves in watching a lot of diverse cinema.

    In regards to Armond White and several other critics who feel the same way, I think a lot of their disgust for blogs and online forums come from the fact that these sites often breed anonymous hate. While there are a ton of great blogs that write well articulated critics on film, there are hundreds more that do nothing more than post vile rants. Worst of all, they never use their real names so there is no way to take them to task on their remarks. More and more in mainstream film and television, bloggers and the online community are being portrayed as pariahs because of this.

    CS

    November 4, 2011 at 7:15 pm

    • Thank you CS! I wonder a bit about the disgust for blogs and online forums you’re talking about. While I think you might be right about it, I wonder about the reasons for the dislike. Is it really based on first-hand experiences? Have people like Armond White really taken the plunge into the blogosphere or is he just assuming things? And could there also be a certain amount of competition in it? Fear? Let’s face it; a lot of people are doing for free what he’s been doing for a living….

      Jessica

      November 6, 2011 at 9:10 pm

  3. First of all, welcome to the Lamb!

    Concerning film critics, I’m looking for a broad spectrum of opinions on different types of films. For example, some writers might just be sci-fi experts, while others are really into foreign films. I don’t want to just read people that focus on one aspect of filmmaking.

    I don’t read too many professional critics anymore once you get beyond Roger Ebert and a few others. I do subscribe to Film Comment and Film Quarterly, which both offer more intellectual takes on films. Overall, I find myself reading blogs and listening to podcasts more than anything to hear thoughts and recommendations on movies. These can vary between well-produced shows like Filmspotting and more amateur podcasts that just have fun discussing movies. The big thing for me is that the writing (or talking) is interesting and the person isn’t just following the expected consensus. There’s nothing worse than hearing a bunch of critics saying the same thing about a movie. I want to read someone who’s willing to disregard popular opinion and hate The Tree of Life or just rave about Real Steel. If they support what they’re saying and are interesting, it doesn’t even matter if I disagree strongly.

    I enjoyed the post!

    Dan Heaton

    November 4, 2011 at 7:39 pm

    • Thank you Dan for the welcome and the kind words!
      And yes, I agree with you about the need for diversity. And actually blogs and amateur podcasts are many times way more interesting in that aspect. Professional critics unfortunately have a tendency to group thinking.

      Jessica

      November 6, 2011 at 9:06 pm

  4. Having been writing reviews for both music and film for more than a decade so far. I’ve come to learn a lot throughout those years. Not on what to do but more importantly, what not to do.

    I don’t buy anything Armond White says because he’s full of shit. This is the man who is willing to compare films to another.

    Here’s what I’ve learned over the years.

    1. Always let the film stand on its own unless the comparison revolves around a film that is either a remake or another version of one’s story.

    2. Keep it simple. Don’t try to spoil anything for the readers and give them a chance to figure out if you want to see the film or not.

    3. Don’t talk down to your readers. This was something I’ve learned during my period with Epinions.com and it was something I didn’t want to do. One of the people that had wrote for the site said that everything that The Blind Side was about was true. That is insulting because, unless it’s a documentary, film becomes a form of fiction whether it’s based on real-life events and such. Plus, these so-called “true stories” are really just dramatized versions of the truth.

    4. The Ben Lyons rule. Never call a movie a masterpiece unless you the writer is willing to stand by it all the way. Ben Lyons said that I Am Legend is one of the greatest movies of all-time. It ends up making you look like a fucking moron.

    I’ve learned a lot through those years and I’ve felt I’ve become a better writer. Plus, I still want to improve and I’m still willing to learn. I learn from people like Ebert and Kermode. I may not agree with them all of the time but at least they have something profound to say.

    Steven Flores

    November 4, 2011 at 10:21 pm

    • Steven, I’m really impressed with your reviews. You combine high volume with high quality and depth, which is really rare. Thank you for sharing your experiences. I don’t only learn from people like Ebert and Kermode. I also learn from you.

      Jessica

      November 6, 2011 at 9:51 pm

  5. My goodness, fantastic post and WELCOME TO LAMB!

    I actually agree with basically everything you have said here. For me though, I have two sides tot his story. 1) film critics I like. 2) Film critics that are excellent at their job.

    1) A good example of this is Emmanuel Levy. His writing is meh and grammar the same (like me, obviously). But I almost ALWAYS agree with what he says! Needless to say, I don’t give a care about his credentials, grammar, or writing style. I like him because I can look on his website and trust what he says.

    2) An excellent critic (Rober Ebert) is someone who not only writes beautfully, but properly judges the work. In a sense, having diverse taste in films, meaning giving every genre equal chance to produce solid films. Not just brushing aside weaker genres such as horror and comedy. Biased opinions, which I feel Mr. White has, are only signs of a weaker critic that has much to learn. Again, like me.

    Great post, you have a new follower!!

    Matt S.

    November 5, 2011 at 12:26 am

    • Thank you so much for the warm greeting and the kind words! And basically I’m with you. Even if there are film critics I don’t think are particularly skilled, I might find them very useful to follow anyway since we happen to have a pretty much shared taste.

      Jessica

      November 6, 2011 at 8:41 pm

  6. Enjoyed your post. I like a little knowledge to back up what a blog is talking about. I am not suggesting a degree in film studies, but is it too much to ask that a blogger read some film criticism or pick up a dog eared copy of Understanding Movies on Amazon and give it a once over? I also enjoy a writer who can turn a phrase and demonstrates a modicum of understanding of the English language. Some people simply cannot write with any degree of competency.

    3guys1movie

    November 5, 2011 at 4:34 pm

    • Thank you. I haven’t read Understanding Movies; as a matter of fact I’ve never even heard of it. But I take it as it’s something I should read?

      Jessica

      November 6, 2011 at 8:53 pm

  7. I love this post. That Armond White interview really annoyed me. White is an incredibly bright guy, but his statements are controversial without actually making much sense. The way he calls out other critics for liking certain movies is ridiculous. He complains that everyone in the critical community unabashedly loves Pixar and that Pixar only gets good reviews, and then completely ignores the critical reception of Cars 2. What it comes down to is that he’s extremely narrow-minded, and though he sometimes says otherwise, his view of film criticism is that he’s right and everyone else is wrong. Certainly not a critic I admire.

    Corey Atad

    November 5, 2011 at 4:42 pm

    • Thank you Corey. No, he really didn’t come out well in that interview. To his credit though I must say that it seemed to me as if he doesn’t necessarily mechanically write down anything that isn’t an arthouse movie. But as a whole he sounded very unpleasant and in desperate need for some self distance. As you say, I don’t doubt he’s bright. But he fails to convey this to me since his arrogance gets in the way.

      Jessica

      November 6, 2011 at 8:57 pm

  8. I like to read Roger Ebert. He’s very knowledgeable about cinema history and he’s a great writer. I like to listen to Filmspotting, a great film podcast.

    themovieblog8

    November 5, 2011 at 6:39 pm

    • Yep, I’m a Filmspotting follower myself. If you haven’t checked out the community connected to the Filmspotting discussion forum, you should! Roger Ebert is great. If I check up on a movie at IMDb and go for the links to critics, his is always the first one I read.

      Jessica

      November 6, 2011 at 8:52 pm

  9. In my view, everyone is worthy of the title ‘critic,’ even if your taste in what you’re criticizing is downright horrible. So long as you have an opinion and are sharing it, you are a critic. Some critics might write better than others, some might be more personal, some might take a totally formal approach; it doesn’t matter. Criticizing is the art of sharing ones opinion, and it is a right we all possess as humans capable of decisions and thought.

    Tyler

    November 6, 2011 at 12:26 am

    • Actually I don’t think I use the word “critic” a lot myself about non professional bloggers. Especially not about myself. I’m someone who vents her opinions and thoughts about movies just for my own pleasure and “blogger” is a title as good as any for me. On the other hand I definitely don’t think Mr Smith is right in his exclusive-club-approach to what constitutes a “critic”. So maybe I should open up a bit more, like you have.

      Anyway: I agree that we all can peform this art of sharing opinions. And actually many times I find bloggers writings far more enjoyable and interesting to read than the ones of professional critics.

      Jessica

      November 6, 2011 at 9:04 pm

  10. I of course share your love for Mark Kermode. He has that combination of entertainment, integrity and knowledge that you talked about and in my case he seems to overlap a lot in tastes because given his background he seems to have a central appreciation for storytelling within film and when something like Godard’s Film Socilisme comes out he will call it out. So I feel like I’m not going to be lead into a completely wrong direction.

    One problem with critics generally is that if I haven’t seen a film I don’t want too much analysis, and if I have seen a film, I already have my view on it and don’t need to spend that much time reading other’s takes (I’d prefer discussion to reading reviews at that point). So what I really want is pretty shallow, fun reviews of a lot of things giving me just enough to know whether I need to look further into a given film. It can bring new films to my attention and help me weed out ones on the borderline. Ebert Presents and the former Rotten Tomatoes show both served this function without quite offering the reliability of Kermode.

    That bit about discussion in the previous post? That’s exactly why amateurs have so much value. Whether your review shows the same level of film knowledge as Armond White’s (in his opinion) isn’t relevant because I can respond to your review and have you respond back. I’m not likely to get that interaction from any professional reviewer on any deep or consistent basis. And ultimately that’s more valuable to me.

    Bondo

    November 6, 2011 at 8:10 am

    • My love for Kermode just deepening as I’m currently reading his latest book. He isn’t just opinionated and entertaining; the guy can back it up with a lot of knowledge. But under all of it is the most important thing of all: the passion for writing about movies. He’s been doing it since he was eight years old….

      You’re making really a good point about the contribution of amateurs. The possibility to discuss something with the writer really makes blog reading way more interesting and rewarding compared to passively taking part of the ideas of professional critics.

      Jessica

      November 6, 2011 at 9:16 pm

  11. This reminds me of a similar debacle a few months back concerning not films but food.

    A Swedish restaurant owner allegedly went ballistic over the fact that many food bloggers actually published reviews of his restaurant on their blogs without being “proper” reviewers. The bloggers wrote about their experiences at the restaurant and what they thought about the service and the food, and if they didn’t like something they said so.

    Be it films or food – people like different things, that’s life. A critic that explains why she thinks the ways she does (i.e not “service was slow” but “we waited 25 minutes for our drinks to arrive”) so I can decide for myself if the film or restaurant in question might be something for me, that’s a good critic in my eyes.

    Tessy

    November 6, 2011 at 8:39 pm

    • That’s a very spot on comparsion Tessy! And yes, I think people who run restaurants or make films just need to get used to this kind of public opinionmaking. On the whole I actually think bloggers make more good than bad for their business.

      Jessica

      November 6, 2011 at 8:51 pm

  12. Great article and a very interesting question. I personally just look at personality and the specific taste someone has in movies. If I know it is the same I will often decide based on their reviews on something whether or not to see something.

    That episode of the /Filmcast was an intersting listen.

    Nostra

    November 6, 2011 at 10:23 pm

    • Thank you! I think having about the same taste can be an advantage, but it’s not necessarily a must. I might like the works of a critic even if we don’t share the taste, just because I admire his/her craft so much. Also: our taste changes over the years. What I don’t agree about now might be something that I will agree some years into the future.

      Jessica

      November 6, 2011 at 10:34 pm

  13. Excellent post Jessica. You hit some really great points there.

    I am with you about Kermode he is brilliant. I trust what he says about film. Mainly because he often says very similar things about a film as I which is nice to know.

    I would never call myself a critic. I am a reviewer. I know very little about films, how they are made, and the history of the medium. But I know if something works or doesn’t. And that is all I try and get across.

    Going to the press events out there, it is amazing to see the sheer amount of people doing this out there. And everyone is better at it then I. 😦

    Scott Lawlor

    November 7, 2011 at 10:15 am

    • Thanks Scott!
      Like you I don’t call myself a film critic, not even a reviewer. I blog about movies, I reflect over them. But most of my posts aren’t what I’d consider proper reviews. I’m a blogger at heart. That’s what I am.

      I think you’re dead wrong about your last statement though. It can’t be that everyone is better than you are. I can’t claim that I keep perfect track on all British film writers, but if they were as good as you say I should have noticed. You’re one of my favorite film bloggers Scott. I know it might not be what you want to hear; it puts a certain pressure on you to live up to the expectations, doesn’t it? Suck it up. And keep doing what you’re doing. Even if you’re not calling yourself a critic.

      Jessica

      November 7, 2011 at 10:39 am

      • aw shucks Jessica, you made me all warm and fuzzy!! I too love your writing. I always sit here and read every word. I never skim, as it is always so insightful and personal. Thanks for lighting up my daily blogging rounds!!

        Scott Lawlor

        November 8, 2011 at 11:06 am

  14. I read parts of film reviews before a film to figure out if I should see a film. But I never read a whole one ahead of time because even the best of film critics often give away more than I want to know about a film. I don’t usually watch trailers for that reason. And because trailers are stupid and misleading.

    After a film is when I read film criticism. Therefore, I’m looking for something different. A good film discussion is one that helps me observe more about a film than I saw myself. The best critique is one that makes me understand a film I struggled with.

    Recently James (Sam on the FS forum) wrote a review of Syndromes of a Century that opened up the whole film and allowed it to make sense. It made me want to watch the film again just so I could see it from the new perspective. His review was only a few paragraphs long, but it was my favorite kind of review– insightful in a way that I wasn’t.

    Steve Kimes

    November 9, 2011 at 7:02 am

    • I read reviews both ways. But yes, it really adds something extra to read them after watching a movie.
      I don’t watch trailers on purpose, but I’m afraid they’re often hard to avoid since I watch a lot of films in theatres.

      Jessica

      November 9, 2011 at 9:37 pm

  15. I have a degree in Film and Digital Media, is that close enough?

    I must say that Film criticism is a clear academic discipline that exists, but for the average person, film criticism usually means people who write about movies. I prefer to call these people movie reviewers. I do think White is right that in order to be a film critic you need those years of background and knowledge, however, I don’t think the general world of film opinion in print should be only restricted to film critics.

    I’ll agree that writing is the most important element. If you’re very knowledgeable but can’t write well, then I probably won’t read much of your work.

    I’ve been meaning to write something lengthy about this subject but I’ve yet to get around to it. One day.

    James Blake Ewing

    November 17, 2011 at 11:34 pm

    • I’m still not sure what makes the difference between a film critic and a film reviewer. If you looked at the result – if you were given two texts where you didn’t know who had written it – could you easily identify who had the academical background and who didn’t?

      Anyway: I’m looking forward to see your lenghty post about this. Go ahead and write it. Just do it.

      Jessica

      November 18, 2011 at 7:36 am


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