Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Thinking: What's the Point of Critics?

I have come to the slightly sobering conclusion that in the great ecology of the internet opinion I’m more of a critic than a creator. I mean sure, Dissecting Worlds is original content but its whole premise is analysis and discussion of existing material, without which we wouldn’t exist. But I’m not sure I’d want to describe myself as a “critic”, for reasons at first I found hard to express, but, thanks to the wonder of the movies, I think I have the answer.

“In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.”
-          Anton Ego, “Ratatouille”

First off I think of all the film studios in the world, Pixar is the one with least to fear from critics, and the one with the most spotless record I can think of, so making a film which has, as its centrepiece, a battle between art and criticism is a little pre-emptively defensive. But its valid conflict, and one that is close to the heart of anyone who sticks anything out there for the public to review. I've been through phases where I have been productive enough write material for submission to various publications, and what you crave is constructive and honest feedback, and critics, in their traditional role as arbiters of taste and quality are the big beasts of the feedback world.

The problem with traditional critics, and where I think my distaste for the label comes from, is that their roles is increasingly irrelevant in some ways, and as vital as ever in others, and what they do, and what I think they should be for, seem to be drifting apart. Let’s use the movies as an example, but it applies to most areas of culture, both “high” and “low”. Back in the seventies, films opened small and ran for long periods, and critical to success was syndicated reviews. Critics like the legendary Pauline Kael could “make” or “break” films with bad reviews, and critics feature largely in any history of film especially the “New Hollywood” of 70s. But all this changed with the rise of the Blockbuster, and patterns of how films were released changed, with wider and wider openings, and often shorter and shorter release windows.

And now we live in a world where often the opening weekend is seen as “all”, especially over the long summer months. Films can open one weekend, run for a fortnight, and then vanish again, and still rake in hundreds of millions of dollars (or not, depending on the film). Critical opinion is secondary to massive advertising budgets and pre-sold franchises, internet-fuelled word-of-mouth and often-questionable reviewing in media outlets owned by the same companies that made and distributed the film in the first place. Now I’m not dumb enough to believe that there was once a golden age of enlightened taste and debate, but the point I’m trying to make is that our consuming habits have changed hugely, and it’s left the traditional critic with a much smaller voice.

Of course this is, in many ways a good thing. Critics like Kael could anoint films as somehow more artistically legitimate than others, when in reality it’s often a matter of opinion, not objective fact, or worse, about personalities and networking, or intent over content, just being downright snobby against anything that is populist. The modern age, especially the internet, bring a democratic freshness that gives my voice the same weight as The Guardian’s film critic, which is the same voice as whoever watches all those Twilight movies, and the same voice as anyone else with a web browser and an opinion. Obviously all of the above gets hugely different viewers, but the growth of the importance of sites like metacritic means that you can get a decent assessment of the mass of opinion, very quickly. Sure it tends to be a bit safe and a bit middle of the road, but its a good indication of crowd-pleasers and a good health warning for when Superhero Action Movie IV turns out to be a bit pants.

But I do worry we are losing something as well. A lot of traditional critics are just that – traditional, and with the best will in the world I’m not going to find out if Green Lantern is any good from a bloke who is into his foreign-language art-house flicks, any more than I can get an opinion on the new Iron Maiden album off my Dad. The narrow release windows mean we lose perspective as fans, it’s easy to excited about seeing the X-Men on screen, and caught up in that hype but it’s only once you’ve walked away for a day or so that either hidden depths, or hidden shallows reveal themselves. And in the internet age of the “now”, a review for a film that came out two weeks ago is already far too late; the next big thing is here.

So what role for criticism in this new age?  Is it destined to be relegated to just a slightly-better-informed voice amongst the cacophony?  I’m not so sure. Metacritic may be a great “one stop shop” aggregator but is the tip of a more interesting iceberg; the host of community sites, big and small, do the same job, not only covering the stuff that everyone has heard of, but allowing people to see things they may well not have. The internet increasingly supports small media outlets, downloads, streaming services, indie gaming, a vast and diverse comic scene and the like that you’ll never find without help and just as critics of the past have had a key role in bringing new talent forward then that need remains today.  

There’s another role too, as analyst and preserver of our heritage. When you rush forward, it is important to take what is valuable with you, and now Geek Culture seems bigger than ever, as film and TV strip-mine it for pre-built franchise opportunity, it feels important to take that sudden recognition that say, Fantasy or SF TV shows can be intelligent and complex, or Superhero movies can be Dark and Challenging, and be clear that has always been so, that the source material has been there along, and that there is more of it and it is worthwhile having, in its original form as much as its new one.

It’s not enough, I feel, to simply say something is good or bad, or worthy or unworthy. It’s not the decision of the critic to appoint one thing as art and another as trash. The internet puts all that information at your fingertips, lets you find a dozen opinions in as many minutes, and whilst writing 500 words and a star rating is an integral part of informing your community, I don’t think it’s enough. Hell, I do it, and I don’t think its enough! The real job, to me, the job that is hard to do, is provide context and legacy. Sure it can be pretentious, and wordy but look at the multiplexes this summer, look at the onslaught of geek culture mined out for blockbusters and toys and fast-food tie ins. It looks like victory and acceptance but it’s also disposable and hollow in the face of the next craze and key to is moving past the sheer joy of seeing it up there and giving it meaning and weight.

And that’s a critics job.

I’ll give the final word to the film that got me onto this line of thought, as Ratatouille’s newly converted villain answers his own question.

But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talents, new creations. The new needs friends.
-          Anton Ego, “Ratatouille”