What is a good film critic? | The Velvet Café

RAT_111Do 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.

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.

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.


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