Seth Rogen recently commented on the harsh words used by some critics to slate films – but at what point is a critic ultimately in the wrong?
For as long as films have existed, so too have film critics. Some use our reviews to dive further into what they loved about a film. Others point to our reviews and scoff, asking what we know about anything. Both are equally valid. Recently however, discussions around the roles film critics play have become increasingly heated. Most critics become critics because of their love for cinema. Yet, like the people whose work they critique, critics are not infallible. As such, it has introduced a question for those in the film profession to ponder – at what point is the critic in the wrong?
On Steve Barlett’s podcast, Diary Of A CEO, actor and comedian Seth Rogen weighed in on this discussion by addressing the potential side effects of negative reviews. He cited two of his films, 2011’s The Green Hornet and 2014’s The Interview. They both received mixed reviews, but saw vocal condemnation from those who disliked them. Rogen noted how some reviews took an apparent joy in ridiculing these films, with some critics going as far as to question the personal integrity or talent of those involved. Rogen argued that if critics understood the real hurt their words had they’d think twice before writing them.
It should be noted that there are things Rogen appears to be overlooking. For starters, cinema, like all creative arts, is inherently subjective. Filmmaking is an undeniably tough business – certainly tougher than a critic writing an opinion piece – but there’s no way to objectively measure a film’s quality. Therefore, no matter how much talent and effort is involved, there’s always going to be someone who doesn’t like the film you’ve made. Even Paddington 2 – at one point the most critically acclaimed film ever – received at least one negative review.
Furthermore, film creatives are not the only people who get hate in this business. Critics come under fire just as often. In fact, critics occupy a uniquely bizarre space in which we receive just as much vitriol for the films we like as much as the ones we don’t. It’s an equally upsetting situation to be in, especially for newer critics who aren’t as used to defending their stances against the diatribe of social media.
Worst of all, being a critic is usually not a financially rewarding occupation, especially in contemporary times. Creatives like Rogen will sometimes make more money on one project than most critics will make in their lifetimes. Obviously money doesn’t automatically make one immune to problems or hurt feelings, but the stark monetary differences certainly helps to shatter the illusion of critics being all-powerful bogeymen in ivory towers, which is the image Rogen seems to be conjuring up, whether consciously or subconsciously.
While the framing of his argument leaves something to be desired, his point of some critics taking pleasure in being negative is a noteworthy one. This has been a consistent problem in recent years; one that has contributed to the seeming decline of media literacy within the film reviewing business. Obviously not all reviews can be positive, but it does beg the question: when does a negative review go from highlighting negative attributes to outright malice?
Since the birth of the internet, and the subsequent rise of social media, the playing field on who can voice opinions has been widely expanded. This includes film criticism. Nowadays many people from different backgrounds, education levels and belief systems have the opportunity to express their views on film, whether that be via the written word or through audiovisual means, such as YouTube video essays. In plenty of ways this is a great thing, as it has allowed more than just an elite few to contribute to the conversation on the quality of cinema. A vast range of opinions are at your disposal more than ever, especially if you wish to find discussion on a specific film or genre.
However, this has also opened the floodgates to those who critique without the best of intentions, in the process influencing susceptible audiences. Particularly on YouTube, you have content creators like Cinemasins or The Nostalgia Critic amongst many others who have made a living from being as hyperbolically negative about cinema as possible.
One could argue that creators such as these are comedians first, critics second, and maybe there’s a case for that. Yet their content is more easily accessible than the reviews of genuinely informed critics. The consequences have been extremely harmful for media literacy, as their methods of analysis are designed to be as excessively negative as possible. Such methods only work if the reviewer is on a mission to find as many things wrong with the film as possible. This makes the reviewer more susceptible to cherry picking and making mountains out of molehills whenever the tiniest fault or inconsistent detail emerges.
Even if these supposed flaws can be explained within the context of the film’s narrative or technical choices, and more often than not they can be, this is overlooked in favour of making a smug punchline.
Worse than that, these creators tend to mix in genuine attempts at analysis with their exaggerated ranting. Pair that up with their accessibility compared to established critics and many viewers, including aspiring critics, have subsequently conflated the two. If we only have channels such as these to go by then our assumption of film criticism would be to ridicule every minute detail of the film as savagely as possible, regardless of context or intent.
It’s an approach bathed in bad faith, as it assumes that the reviewer is all-knowing and that the film is inherently valueless – especially if it doesn’t cater to the reviewer’s specific needs or beliefs. It stinks of the “the customer is always right” attitude, and only serves to expand the disparity between critics and creatives.
The effects of this are in full display in modern fandoms, such as Star Wars or Marvel. You can barely go anywhere online without seeing videos or articles with exhausting titles such as “What Ruined X” or “Y is Garbage and Here’s Why”. The vast majority of points in these so-called think pieces consist of nitpicking and mental gymnastics, and can be debunked by merely watching and engaging with the film in question. Reviews such as this put Rogen’s words into perspective.
Times like these are when critics are fundamentally in the wrong, as this desire – determination even – to find fault clouds overall judgement, turning what could’ve been insightful analysis into a mean-spirited tantrum. It is a blatantly entitled practice that is becoming frighteningly more mainstream, as one glance through Twitter will confirm.
This is in no way to suggest that bad films don’t exist, because of course they do. There are some truly terrible films that are artistically incompetent, morally repugnant, or contain a myriad of reasons as to why critics have reviewed them negatively. But these films are much rarer than the internet, and its projection of this inherently cynical approach, would have you believe.
There’s a certain catharsis to tearing apart a godawful film – any critic who says they haven’t once gotten personal enjoyment out of lambasting a bad film is lying. But to budding critics, and even established critics, who abide by bad faith, it is all catharsis. If you label something as total garbage but cannot efficiently explain where it went wrong outside of how it personally annoyed you, then there is no constructive conversation to be had.
In truth, critics and filmmakers should want the same thing – for the cinema industry to thrive. To play their part, and thus serve the cinematic medium like their creative counterparts, the best critics engage with film at the level of each individual project, offering their commentary without entitlement or condescension.
A critic’s role is not to judge films based on their own specific criteria, but to assess how it serves the cinematic medium to channel creative or emotional ingenuity. If a film fails to do this, their role is to evaluate why it does not achieve this so that the creative will know better for next time, not so the individual critic can get a one up on a project that hundreds spent time and money on. A critic’s role should not be to constantly demand, but to be constructive and knowledgeable so that they may bring out the best in the creative.
In Pixar’s Ratatouille food critic Anton Ego, in a standout scene, comments that “the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.” There’s truth in these words, even if we critics have a hard time admitting it. Yet there are times when a critic’s words can have positive meaning, and that is in the form of guidance.
A critic is in the wrong when they expect the filmmaker to serve them and their own appetites, but when a critic uses their knowledge and love of cinema to offer insight and constructive feedback – not to merely take pleasure in a film’s failings – that is when the critic and the creative can truly co-exist in a harmonious union.
For aspiring critics, the best way to practise such methodology is to read reviews from critics who champion these sentiments. This includes contemporary critics such as Mark Kermode, Wendy Ide, Simran Hans and Amon Warmann, and legendary late critics like Roger Ebert and Pauline Kael. Even if you prefer video essays, there are some terrific essayists such as Tony Zhao, Kevin B. Lee and Michael Tucker who offer brilliant analysis via their knowledge and enthusiasm for all things cinema.
Rogen’s arguments may have been framed poorly, as cinema is a subjective art form that’s not tipped in the favour of critics over creatives. Yet his comments do highlight how wrong critics can be when their conduct operates under bad faith criticism. Through a desire to see the creative’s talents fully bloom, everyone from casual viewers to aspiring critics can combat this toxic practice by seeking out reviews that truly engage with the films, without being filtered through the eyes of personal want.
Doing so will assist in the creation of an environment that encourages healthier, open-minded criticism while bolstering the relationship between critics and filmmakers. If you go into cinema with an open mind, you may find something to like in even the worst film, or at least be able to offer some kind of feedback in which the filmmaker can improve next time. But if you go in only looking for faults, then faults are sadly all you’ll ever see.
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