Film criticism is important, I believe, because it represents that uncompromising search for truth, beauty, and wisdom in cinema. It connects social/cultural patterns to what is on-screen. Without film criticism, we wouldn’t have thoughtful debates on how and whether certain films are moving or even masterful. Of course, I refer to good film criticism. With all the blogging and tweeting and facebooking now, the critical discourse has been slightly obscured by people, I must say, who really do not know what they are talking about.
But before I sound like a living hypocrisy to this following argument, let me add that it’s not these people’s opinions that bother me, it is how they express them. To award The Avengers 5 stars out of 5 because it’s just awesome and Scarlett Johansson is so fuckin’ sexy is not film criticism. It’s a fanboy orgasm. Save it for the departing march down the theatre lobby. Yes, I know I haven’t quoted anyone here but trust me these comments are out there. I have had a Rotten Tomatoes account for 2 years and, therefore, I’ve seen my rotten tomatoes.
Why start on this acerbic note? Because the essential of all blockbuster movies releases this Friday. In fact it’s so essential some of you are catching the midnight screening to watch this 165 minute movie! (and I thought my jokes were bad…) This movie, of course, is Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, the final installment of Batman’s legacy (here’s hoping). With 2008’s The Dark Knight, Nolan pushed the Bruce Wayne/Batman enigma to the extreme with a villain whose lunacy defied any previous schemer.
As of now, I have not seen The Dark Knight Rises (missed the press screening, damn!). I admit I have my skepticism, because The Dark Knight was like the Touch of Evil of superhero movies. It pushed the genre to the absolute edge, to the point we could see the twisted rocky waters of humanity below on the Jokers’s rictus. There was nowhere else to go. Or maybe there is. We have master filmmakers for many reasons, including that they can pull off the impossible. Like how Paul Thomas Anderson could create tour de forces like Boogie Nights and Punch Drunk Love…and in 2007 bring us There Will Be Blood, a new entry in my Sight & Sound Top 10.
By now, I’ve realized I have avoided the topic of “Contrarian Film Criticism”. With all this build up, let me get to it. Last night, reviews for The Dark Knight Rises started to appear on the Rotten Tomatoes database. The anticipated praise was prevalent: “Potent and provocative” (Peter Travers, Rolling Stone); “Remarkable for its all-encompassing gloom” (Joe Morgenstern, Wall Street Journal); “that big, that bitter – a film of grand ambitions and epic achievement” (Richard Corliss, TIME Magazine).
Then…Christy Lemire, the faithful writer of Associated Press, deemed this new work a “letdown”, specifically because of the big expectations Nolan’s films now bear. Fair. Now, I haven’t read Lemire’s full review because I am trying to avoid spoilers until I see Rises this Friday. What I do know is Lemire received nearly 500 comments in only a few hours after her review went up. Unfortunately, the comments were not respectful disagreements or harmless food-for-thought, but ignorant and bigoted insults and threats. The first comment prophetically wrote: “Uh oh, good luck Ms. Lemire”. Following those well-wishes, the trolling arrived: “she’s bias and ignorant”; “she gave Magic Mike 4 stars. She has no opinion”; “she dislikes this and loves Battleship. Wow!”; and even this card – “we have one more wannabe who wants [to be] famous overnight.”
These comments fascinate me with their impudence. However, they – in themselves – suggest why film criticism is important: because everyone is a critic. If someone dislikes a movie of merit to yourself, you inevitably become upset. It is like that fellow person failed or undermined you. We need film criticism to filter out those who think something is bad because it is “bias and ignorant”. I like to think we all are sometimes, but in this case such characteristics are in the eye of the beholder.
Firstly, Lemire is an excellent film critic. I have watched her on the Ebert Presents… show with Ignatiy Vishnevetsky and she speaks with remarkable clarity. Her writing, from what I’ve read in the past, is shrewd and concise. One of her reviews of Rises online was titled “The Dark Knight Rises is disappointing, just flat-out boring at times.” Maybe trolls only read that opener, because that’s a vague statement.
I must admit, during this article, I snuck a peak at Lemire’s review. It is very well-written, with clear and concrete criticisms. For example: “Nolan’s approach is so coldly cerebral that it’s a detriment to the film’s emotional core. It’s all doom and gloom and no heart. There is no reason to care about these characters, who function more as cogs in an elaborate, chaotic machine than as real people whose souls are at stake.” (Makes sense.) Funny enough, Armond White delivered similar criticism to The Dark Knight and he got his own share of vitriol.
I have read endless amount of film criticism. By now, I sort of just know when it is good writing or not. It is instinct. It’s like the more you do something, the better you become. But that’s not really the point. My point is everyone develops their own opinion, not always the same as others. No one deserves hatred for disagreeing with the masses, as long as they are clearly not looking for it. Ms. Lemire is not. Her review is wise and diplomatic, and she clearly respects Mr. Nolan. She was disappointed with Rises, though. So deal with it. It happens.
I watched Beasts of the Southern Wild two days ago and found myself disappointed. It’s earned nothing but praise from critics, plus Sundance and Cannes embraced it. When I was watching it, I experienced that sinking feeling you may feel when you realize this diamond – for you anyway – is really a rock. It took me awhile to formulate my review of Beasts, because it is so much harder to criticize a well-liked movie than laud it. I am sure Lemire had similar sentiments writing her Rises review and it is difficult to articulate an opinion you know most will choose to reject or oppose.
But that’s the beauty of film criticism. To voice your opinion and do it with gusto. I will see The Dark Knight Rises on Friday and maybe love it…or maybe not. If you ask me though, I also think Magic Mike is one of the year’s best films so Lemire and I aren’t far off. Film criticism should never be waged, however, between the comparison of one movie to the other – unless there is an argument why. That would be the death of film criticism…and perhaps of us all.
Ignorance is not bliss. Opinions are important, but only respectful ones. That also applies to professional critics themselves. Please remember that being a Galileo is okay, if you can support your feelings and withstand the heat. While I doubt this article will tame the trolls, I guess I can leave you with this: as a film critic, there’s no shame in uttering “and yet it moves”.
Click HERE to read Matt Atchity, editor-in-chief of Rotten Tomatoes, letter to the online public confronting the negligent commenters for reviews of The Dark Knight Rises.
Read Christy Lemire’s review of The Dark Knight Rises in The Washington Times HERE.
Read my review of Beasts of the Southern Wild HERE.