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Film-makers Vs Critics: A Cultural Cold War

Can't they just get along?

Last Friday presented us with arguably the worst selection of movies any opening weekend has seen this year. Four major releases opened in UK/ROI theatres – The Counselor, Don Jon, Dom Hemingway and The Butler – all of which received mediocre at best reviews as critics struggled to single out a “Movie of the Week” (the low budget, Irish set horror movie In Fear was the winner among the few critics who had bothered to watch it).
As we’re living in 2013, most critics tend to link to their work on Twitter, often accompanied by a succinct piece of praise or, in this case, a brief barb. If you randomly decided to check out the Twitter feeds of UK and Irish critics last Friday, you’d be led to believe they’re a decidedly negative bunch.
Should a pie chart ever be constructed to illustrate the most popular themes of Twitter, I suspect “abusing artists” (be they film-makers, musicians, writers etc) would form a substantial slice. Every now and then the objects of such derision will decide to fight back and this was the case on Friday.
The producer (it often seems to be those with a financial, rather than artistic, stake who are the most defensive of their product) of one of the above films took to Twitter in defence of the movie he had toiled over for the past couple of years. His targets included established broadsheet critics, internet bloggers and those merely disappointed after wasting their evening date. One particular question was repeatedly asked of his detractors – “Do you make movies?”
This is a question I’ve seen asked in various forms by several creative people and it’s pretty cringe-worthy. If you’re asking such a question of a film reviewer, you’re showing a blatant ignorance of the world of criticism. If you’re aiming the question at an everyday cinemagoer who feels they just wasted their money on your product, you’re demonstrating a serious lack of respect for your paying customers.
Let’s apply this scenario to the restaurant world. If a customer complains about the quality of their meal, does the chef have the right to tell said customer their opinion is invalid if their culinary talents don’t stretch beyond grilling Fish Fingers?
There’s always existed something of a cold war between artists and critics. (I suspect the first Neanderthal to sketch a buffalo on a cave wall found his ire provoked by derisive members of his tribe.) Like all cold wars, it’s the product of paranoia, mistrust and misunderstanding.
“All critics should be assassinated,” the photographer Man Ray once famously ranted. Thanks to the internet, it’s now often said that “everyone’s a critic”, meaning anyone can find themselves arguing with an artist after tweeting out a derisory remark.
The problem with criticism is that the term itself denotes negativity. Google’s dictionary defines the word as “the expression of disapproval of someone or something on the basis of perceived faults or mistakes”. Taken in this context it’s easy to see why so many artists are wary of critics.
The idea that critics are negative, bitter types with nothing positive to say is a myth. Unfortunately, many readers enjoy reading negative reviews, and many critics enjoy writing them because they’re easier to write and lend themselves to humorous writing in a way positive reviews rarely allow for. Few critics have the ability to crack up their readers while convincing them of the merits of the latest Francois Ozon movie but give them a Michael Bay travesty and they suddenly become the bastard love children of Dorothy Parker.
What film-makers need to realise is that critics don’t hate movies (though they might hate yours), otherwise they wouldn’t be in their line of work. You might have spent the last decade slaving over your art but critics don’t care about that, and nor should they. Critics don’t review sweat, just talent. Sweat is a given.
If you’re paranoid that all your hard work is suddenly going down the drain because of negative reviews, don’t be. Ultimately, the general public doesn’t listen to critics. If they did, Woody Allen would be a multi-billionaire and Roland Emmerich would be operating a car wash on the outskirts of Dusseldorf.
When critics gang up on what they see as vapid blockbusters, the effect is akin to Tokyo cops attempting to take down Godzilla with their pistols. However, when they champion a smaller movie that can’t rely on a multi-million dollar marketing campaign, critics can occasionally make a positive difference. Ten less customers won’t mean anything to Spielberg but ten extra customers might mean a lot to Andrew Bujalski (and if you never heard of Bujalski before then I’ve just illustrated the positive power of film writing).
If you’re a film-maker who’s worried about what critics will think of your work, don’t be, it’s essentially irrelevant. Critics don’t have the power to destroy careers; at best they provide readers with some entertaining but ultimately useless knowledge (though as Bertrand Russell once said, “There is much pleasure to be gained from useless knowledge.”)
The last thing a film-maker should be concerned with is making friends with critics but should they feel it a necessity, the answer is simple in theory but exceedingly difficult in practice. Make better movies.

Eric Hillis