I have an intense passion for movies, and I believe that film critics help people think better about the media they consume.
Almost everyone can relate to the following experience: You go to a movie and have a blast. You love the experience. The colors, the music, the performances, the visuals, everything about the movie moves and inspires you emotionally.
And then you go on YouTube or Rotten Tomatoes or IMDB or whatever, and you see intellectual, academic-type critics ripping the same exact movie to microscopic shreds. Yikes! You might be left wondering, am I just an uneducated yokel who can't judge quality in a movie? Am I stupid? Was this movie really that bad?
Well the truth is, audiences and critics usually have different perspectives on movies. You're not bad for liking something they don't like, or for disliking something they like.
Why is this? What makes the perspective of a film critic or academic type so different, sometimes vastly different, from the perspective of a run-of-the-mill movie goer?
Understanding the Critic
Sometimes, the critic can seem like a stuffy, boring elitist, the type who wouldn't know fun if it kicked them in the balls. They hate a long list of things, especially targeting sci-fi, girly stuff, fantasy, popular things, anything animated, and comedy. If it's happy, it's bad. Basically, they're like the school dean in a college or high school comedy.
Or are they?
Let's try to understand their perspective, instead of just categorizing them with broad stereotypes. This perspective largely comes from the following:
- They don't see movies as entertainment, spectacle, fun, or experiences in and of themselves.
- Instead, to them, movies are cultural artifacts that can be used in the academic study of the culture in which they were produced. This is because film studies is essentially an offshoot of literary criticism mixed with some art theory. These disciplines fall under the umbrella of cultural anthropology.
- So, instead of deeming value of movies based on their entertainment value, critics are far more interested in the broader social implications of a film.
A helpful way to think about this is that critics think much more about the wider context in which films are made and viewed by audiences. They use movies, or other elements of pop culture, to support claims they make about society or humanity in general.This includes feminist, Marxist, Freudian, and many other academic perspectives used in film criticism.
They also are more interested in the people who make films. They're the ones comparing different films that have the same director, studio, stars, etc. Auteur theory is a branch of film criticism that sees films as a representation of the vision of the director, for example. Another critic might look at a particular actor, and compare how they approach different types of movie roles. Many choose to focus on the studios, especially considering how the movie represents something the studio was trying to do to make money, or noting when a particular film was considered financially risky by the studios.
Another academic way to study movies is to approach them as stories. Stories can then be broken down into narrative tropes. For example, most people are probably aware that Lord of the Rings and Star Wars: A New Hope, as well as many other popular films, are examples of the 'Hero's Journey', which is a narrative archetype originally used to describe myths.
So, between seeing movies as results of directors' creative visions, seeing them as cultural artifacts, and seeing them as literature, there's not much of a place for simply seeing them for entertainment value. That's what the audience's perspective primarily focuses on.
Understanding the Audience
Critic vs. audience is the ultimate 'snob vs. slob' showdown so, we've looked at the snobs, but who are the 'slobs'? Are there really people who enjoyed Transformers, Twilight, Avatar, and other movies critics consider less-than? Of course, if we pay attention to the internet and the box office, we see that actually a lot of movies critics pick apart like ravenous buzzards surprisingly do well with people who are not movie critics.
To the serious, academic-minded film buff, this is depressing, proof that we're living in Idiocracy. They may ask to themselves, "Am I the only person left with taste, who takes movies seriously?" But the truth is, a lot of movies aren't made to be 'taken seriously'. They're not meant to be high art. They were made to make money for studios.
To do that, movies simply have to get a large number of people to buy a theater ticket and/or the tie-in merchandise of the movie. That relies mostly on marketing. To have a marketable movie, you don't need the entire movie to be a work of art on the level of Spartacus. You just have to have some gimmicks like:
- Cool cars or exciting car/motorcycle chases or crashes.
- Explosions or other scenes of epic-scale destruction.
- Witty comebacks or one-liners you can put into a trailer.
- A bankable star actor or actress.
- Sex appeal.
And so on. A passable or even bad movie can get away with not being Shakespeare by having something that attracts people to the theater. Did you go to see Jurassic Park for the dialogue? This is probably older than film, in fact, I bet Shakespeare himself had more than a few theater-attendees who were just there for the sword fights and brutal death scenes.
Sometimes I lump audiences and fans together. But they're different - fans have higher expectations than the general public. This comes from their familiarity and following of the genre, style, medium, or artists associated with the work in question. They have expectations based on what they've seen before and their (sometimes intensely detailed) knowledge.
For example, my experience with the recent anime film Mazinger Z: Infinity was colored by my expectations as an anime fan. My expectations would have also been different if I were a fan of the Mazinger Z franchise in particular.
Fans are not necessarily interested in the academic or cultural implications of a film. I lump them in with general audiences, because both parties want the same thing, entertainment. Both go to the theater expecting a fun time. Fans are a bit more picky, and sometimes harder to please, because their knowledge and experience is greater than the average person's. But ultimately, fans and audiences both are not concerned about the big-picture social, political, philosophical, moral, technical, and economic things critics think about when studying film.
And I'm here to say that's OK. Just like not every movie has to be The Godfather, not every movie-goer has to be Roger Ebert. We can't lose sight of the fact that movies should be fun. You should never be made to feel bad for enjoying something. And I hate the idea that something cannot possibly be both fun or entertaining and serious art at the same time, or that certain genres are to be taken less seriously than others. Or even the idea that seriousness is a requirement for art in the first place.
Case Study: Disney's Pocahontas
I chose this movie because how I felt when I first saw it (well, I was only 4) and how I have come to understand it through the perception of critics on the internet are so different. There's a huge chasm between how I felt as an audience member and what intellectuals think of this movie.
What I Felt:
Disney's Pocahontas had perhaps for me at the time the most engaging, inspiring heroine I'd ever seen on the big screen. I was engrossed by the music, the colors, and the reverence for nature expressed beautifully. I didn't see the lead character as a sexual object (again, I was 4). I saw her as free, free to run and move in a way that white European female characters, encumbered by bulky skirts and puffy sleeves, were not. She was also more connected to nature than other fictional characters. In other stories, nature was a background or an obstacle, like the wolves in Beauty and the Beast. But in Pocahontas, nature plays a central role, and the fact that Native Americans greatly respect nature is a major point of conflict they have with the Europeans, who do not. The movie made me question whether nature should be seen as something to conquer and tame, as the white settlers did, or if it was something to draw life energy and inspiration from and live harmoniously with, as the Native Americans did. I also liked Pocahontas' free-spirited way of thinking, and the way she confidently stood up for her principles.
What Critics Said:
Racist. Sexist. Problematic. Historically inaccurate (well duh, it's a friggin' kids' movie with magical language-learning and cliff-diving stunts you probably should not try at home and all). All these criticisms have some merit. Was Pocahontas too sexualized? Was she a fetishized form of Native American sexuality used to titillate white men? Well, was Disney making a movie for white men? Because I was a 4 year-old girl, and I'm pretty sure that based on the tie-in marketing, the movie was made for little girls. If older men choose to sexualize Pocahontas, or other Disney characters, that shouldn't be blamed on the movie itself. They were not the intended target audience for the movie.
The movie was said to have the flaw of boiling a centuries-long, complicated and multi-faceted racial conflict into a simplistic, more black-and-white conflict. What do you expect? Again, that's because it's a kids' movie. Sure, it's a kids' movie that tried to be Oscar-ish and serious. But at the end of the day, kids would just get confused by overly complex conflicts. I probably wasn't ready to take a crack at the Wheel of Time series at that age. Or to understand the real history involved in the story of the first settlement of America. That would come later, as I developed cognitively. But for the entertainment value of the story, and for having someone I could really admire as a heroine, the movie stuck with me, becoming one of those Disney movies I would watch over and over again on VHS.
Why Our Perspectives Were Different:
I wasn't the intellectual at age 4 that I am now at age 27, obviously. I didn't engage with the movie originally in an intellectual way, but in an emotional way. I lacked the understanding of the world to know that the movie, while attempting to be progressive (and it sort of was for its time) had some problematic racial aspects to it.
What I want to believe is that neither way of engaging with a film is "wrong", necessarily. Different perspectives are valuable. And a movie can have a lot of meaning and value to someone in one way, while being flawed or lacking in some other way of seeing things. One of the reasons I'm so deeply interested in film is because there are so many ways of experiencing and thinking about them.