Art is the closest we can come to understanding
how a stranger really feels.

- Roger Ebert

Film Critics (Guilty Pleasures)

Written a long time ago. Latter-day remarks appended at the end.

30 December 1997

I read Roger Ebert's book Questions For the Movie Answer Man last night. That is to say, I bought the book yesterday afternoon, started reading it, and kept reading until I had finished.

I am fortunate to be a very fast reader. (I am also a very fast walker and a very fast eater.) In the case of the books, at least, I have an excellent rationale; experience has shown me that if I don't finish the book in one go, I may not come back to it.

I used to read books while riding the subway to work in the morning; however, the brief reading time that afforded me was not very constructive, since by the time I rewound the plot sufficiently in my head, I had reached my stop. I now read The Economist on the train instead. One or two articles at a time. A single issue lasts me a week.

My reading habits have two notable side effects. First, I read fewer books than before, which I do not regard as a good thing.

Second, in the day or so immediately following my having devoured a book anaconda-style, I find that the book swims around in the forefront of my brain, coloring my thoughts until I have filed its body of information into the appropriate folders and can move on to something else. As with my eating habits, I have resigned myself to a period of mild indigestion following the rapid intake. Unlike my eating habits, I don't necessarily consider this a problem.

All of which, in my usual roundabout way, is meant to explain why I've been considering this morning whether or not I'd make a good film critic.

I don't have Ebert's book in front of me as I write this, but there is an answer somewhere in there where he lists, indirectly, the characteristics he considers desirable in a film critic. I agree with Ebert that it's silly to try to make film criticism "objective," that the whole point is for the critic to give a single human's opinion. All opinion is subjective. When writing about controversial items in these pages, I try to look at everyone's point of view before proceeding, but I do not claim to be objective - I have generally picked which horse I want to back before I begin writing.

A film critic, Ebert notes, should be able to write about film entertainingly, and again I agree. Through good opinions and bad, a film review should not be tedious to read, which is why I have avoided many "film studies" books which are basically film criticism, but couched in deep impenetrable language. My theory is that the language is designed to give the books a veneer of "respectability" that was neither needed nor desirable in the first place.

Inside every good film critic, I think, is the excitable kid who just plain loves movies - all movies - and I think that attempting to conceal this joy so that the other professors will take your work seriously is a mistake. (Or maybe they're trying to obscure the fact that they didn't get much joy from movies in the first place, in which case they need a new line of work. Hmmmm.)

My problem is, I can't imagine anyone who would want to read what I think about a given film. Ebert refuses to review films according to anyone's tastes but his own - and good for him! Anything else is pandering. But (and there is no slight to Ebert meant here) who decided, way back when, that this guy's opinions on films were worth placing before the public, back when no one knew who he was and his words therefore did not carry the cachet of fame? How do you win that particular lottery? And what kind of hubris does it take to assume that other people are interested in hearing what you think about a particular movie?

I love to read film reviews. I read all the reviews I can find, including electronic ones, and I usually read them after I've seen the film. I'm always interested in what someone else got from the film, and how it compared to what I got.

But I do not consider my behaviors representative.

It's my understanding that most folks read the film review to help them decide whether or not to see the film, in which case we go back to the same question: Why does Ebert's opinion, or Siskel's or any other public critic, matter? Why do people let it matter?

I recognize that I'm showing a certain amount of hubris myself by assuming that anyone cares to read my thoughts on random numbers, or the Woodward trial, or advertising excesses, or any of the other unexpected subjects I drop onto the web every week. But I am not being read by people as a presumed decision-maker. No one is reading my thoughts on the nanny trial and using them to help determine whether they agree with the verdict or not. At least I hope not. Oh, heavens.

I have been known to let film critics influence my decision on seeing a film, but it's more of a group consensus thing. If a majority of people think the film is bad, it reduces the chances I'll see it. An isolated bad review is not going to alter my course very much.

There are movies, such as James Bond films, which I will always see no matter what the critics say; conversely there are movies which I will not see no matter how many people love them. (I wonder why this latter mulishness disqualifies me from being a film critic, but the former does not? Ebert apparently feels that a film critic has a responsibility to see everything, or die trying.)

And then there is that peculiarity known as the guilty pleasure.

The true guilty pleasure, in the sense that I mean, is very hard to find. It will probably be easier to give an example.

Burt Reynolds is an easy target for sneering. He basically always plays the same character, even in Boogie Nights (where he was excellent). This isn't a problem with me. I happen to like that particular character - an expansive, easygoing, somewhat overindulgent good ol' boy - and I think he does it well. The Reynolds films I have a problem with are the ones where he was reduced to playing a character which was a parody of that one, like a memorandum which has been photocopied so many times that the words are now nearly illegible.

Hooper is, to my mind, the film which shows off Burt Reynolds' good ol' boy style to the best effect, and over the course of my adult life to date, I have successfully talked about ten people into overcoming their anti-Burt prejudices and seeing it. Most were pleasantly surprised. Yes, large portions of it do cover the same ground as The Stunt Man, an edgier movie which I find tedious to watch in places. And yes, it does have Jan-Michael Vincent in it. I don't find either of these a fatal flaw, however.

There is also a Burt Reynolds movie called Stroker Ace. It's about auto racing, and also has Loni Anderson, Ned Beatty, Jim Nabors, and John Byner. I find this movie fairly hilarious - and I dislike lowbrow humor; Beavis and Butt-head are not funny to me. Admittedly, a lot of the charm of this movie is in watching the supporting cast swirl around Burt, but never mind that.

Hooper is not a guilty pleasure because I will gladly defend its merits to others. Stroker Ace is, because when I watch it, I watch it in secret and do not attempt to convince everyone else that it's worth watching.

When sizing myself up as a potential film critic, I am not sure how to properly deal with guilty pleasures. I agree that keeping them closeted is wrong, but is it not equally wrong to try to lead the witness by indicating that "although I like it, I don't expect you to?"

It can be argued that the best course is for the critic to present her opinion without disclaimer, saying only that she liked the movie and why - but then the critic sets herself up for people who think she's an utter fool for liking the thing, that she is unaware of how many people don't like it.

Although it's probably a side effect which comes with being a film critic in the first place, I don't like the idea that there might be people out there who think I'm an utter fool.

Which, come to think of it, is probably the best reason of all why I shouldn't be a film critic.

14 June 2014

The essay above is actually one of the oldest pieces of my web writing still in public view. I wrote it for a more personal-journal-style site, so pardon the bits which seem irrelevant to the matter at hand.

In this essay, I have told a slight lie. I do sometimes read critics to find out what movies to see, but only if the critic has established over time that their tastes match my own closely enough that the barometer is reliable. This happens very seldom. The Boston Globe's Ty Burr is the sole remaining operational film critic who qualifies.

Roger is dead and we all miss him; my favorite whipping boy Owen Gleiberman was finally booted from Entertainment Weekly, long after the magazine got too dumb for him to coexist peacefully with it; pretentious maven Peter Keough went down in the scuttling of the good ship Boston Phoenix and now scrapes by as a freelance reviewer for the Globe, which gives him the films Ty won't review because they're too pretentious to be any fun. My friend who sometimes doubles as a film critic has a very difficult time finding people who will actually pay her to do it. The landscape has changed.

What I didn't see coming in 1997, nor even the last time I revamped these essays in 2010, was the utter democratization of film criticism - and not, I think, to the benefit of the form. I feel a little guilty - I feel as if the world took my "why should you care what any anointed person thinks about this film?" thoughts to heart a bit too well, and decided that, if no one's opinion was worth more than anyone else's, then why should anyone pay/be paid to assess films? After all, we've all learned by now that any idiot-without-portfolio can post words on the web about any topic (case in point: this author). These days everyone really is a critic, and you gather your opinions from the buzz on Twitter or the collective mind at places like Rotten Tomatoes, not some person whom a periodical has chosen to place on a Special Snowflake pedestal.

I'm not sure why this bothers me. I mean, I should be cheering, right? But I feel like something has been lost, something we're not going to get back. Thing is, I don't know what it is. It's not specialized knowledge - because the average person doesn't need to care about that stuff. We don't need to know what Lars von Trier is trying to do with his sparse blocking and his camera style. We only need to know that he's an asshole who makes nearly-unendurable films to demonstrate how much he hates life in general and America in particular. It's not mileage - because I don't think "I've seen ten thousand more films than you have" is much use when it comes to personal judgements of taste.

Perhaps I'm just nervous about being set adrift. After all, while I was happy to make fun of film critics, they were useful as landmarks - you learned as much from where you disagreed with them as you did from agreeing with them. It could be that I needed that compass. Which, I suppose, makes me twice a liar in my original essay. I guess it's true that you don't miss some things until they're gone.

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