Earlier this week, critic Jerry Saltz tweeted an Oscar Wilde quote that has pissed off a few thousand people. It reads:
“A good critic always puts more into writing about art work than the artist put into making it. The artist only creates. The critic must plumb that creation and also write creatively enough to deliver the full volume of the art while also creating a thing of beauty and clarity itself.”
It’s a provocative statement taken out of context, tweeted as an attempt to gain some respect for critics and the work they do. Not the worst of intentions, especially as critics, and film critics in particular, are generally viewed as a sometimes entertaining but typically cynical bunch who fail to find joy in the pleasures of the masses and profit off of the misery of artists. The tweet failed terribly to address this perception of critics, as the ratio of likes to replies and retweets demonstrates. The replies are full of vitriol, mostly from artists but also from fellow critics who are keen to point out just how facile their work truly is.
To be clear, this is a bad tweet. It’s a needlessly antagonistic sentiment (that was probably never intended as such), a quote without attribute (though you better believe once it started earning ire it was repeatedly attributed by the tweet’s original ‘author’) and it’s not properly explaining why critics are important. It’s unfortunate because film criticism is facing some difficult questions about it’s worth and identity and a little more respect for the form would go a long way to helping people figure out what good criticism is meant to be.
Generally film criticism is seen as a trivial entertainment at best, and a parasitic, valueless industry at worst. Sometimes you’ll get lucky and a film critic will achieve enough status and success to be considered pretentious and out of touch. For the most part, the archetype is the critic from Ratatouille. Indeed the Ratatouille critic was mentioned several times in the replies to the tweet. Although the critic eventually concedes critics are brave when they promote new talent, the sentiment is clear: Being a film critic is easy, it doesn’t cost you anything and there is no merit to the form beyond supporting artists.
Of course creating a film or painting or piece of music is more demanding in terms of time and skill. But the act of criticising a work is still an act of creation and it is one that will reflect the identity of the critic. Just look to the instances of film criticism being criticised. The responses are often very personal. If a member of the public disagrees with your writing, it’s not the writing they attack, it’s you! Perhaps you’re too middle class to get this movie, or too Black or too female or too young or too old or perhaps you’ve seen too many movies or not enough, perhaps you’re unqualified in some incredibly specific way that handily dismisses any points you may have raised. You put yourself out there with every review you write.
You also have just as much riding on each review. You’re only as good as your last film, runs the aphorism, but a critic is only as good as whatever article gets the most clicks. A 500 word piece on why Bad Boys 3 is rubbish is unlikely to have come at any great cost to your reputation but think of the death threats received by critics who wrote negatively of The Dark Knight Rises. Think of the online harassment of proponents of The Last Jedi. As a film critic, your reputation is often all you have, and you risk that every time you release an article. Sure there are lazy critics out there who write disingenuous clickbait to gain attention as provocateurs. But people who actually care about this art form are trying to have earnest conversations about it whilst risking their livelihood with every post.
There absolutely is artistry to criticism. I know this because I am a film critic and I’m aware that most of the time I am a mediocre film critic. The exemplars of the form are out there, and even in my contemporaries I am able to envy the alacrity with which they are able to summarise, investigate and expound. Occasionally the spirits take me and I feel the words flowing through me in an awesome surge of inspiration that carries me to the end of each sentence like a wave. The rest of the time, I’m just stuttering and straining to get the words together to explain exactly why Timothee Chalamet’s hair says everything about his character and the modern condition of romance.
Truly great critics do enhance the works they criticise. Sometimes they can even be more entertaining than the films. You’ll see this sentiment written beneath countless exasperated reviews of Adam Sandler or Michael Bay films. Other times the critic is able to truly unlock thoughts and feelings around a film that might otherwise have gone unexpressed. When I’ve loved or hated a film, or when I have no idea what to make of it, I absolutely love the experience of reading my favourite critics views on the piece. There are critics who make me truly sit up with a start when I see they’ve released a new review, an excitement similar to hearing that a new Scorsese film has been announced.
That, I think, is what is so often overlooked in this argument. Films are not released to be experienced in a black void and then put out of mind until the home media release, where it is dutifully bought and stored on a shelf until the next clear-out. At least good films are not made this way. Films are made to be discussed! As someone who has created media myself, I always want feedback and interaction and to feel that I have in some way reached people. Even if it has just pissed them off. You often hear that without films there would be no critics, a very benign point. After all without trees there would be no lumberjacks! Without lumberjacks there would be no furniture makers! But it is surely equally true that without critics at all levels, from the most lauded print journalist to the humblest blogger, it would be a lot less rewarding to make and release films. Art is a conversation between the artist and the perceiver. Should this conversation be only one way?
To be clear film critics could NOT exist without film makers, and film makers are far more likely to make something entertaining, provocative and absorbing than most film critics. To claim that critics work harder or risk more is, of course, absurd (which is probably why Wilde said it). But it’s far too easy to punch down at critics. Maybe some deserve it. After all with the form being plagued by clickbait generators and Edgelord writers and Cinemasins, is it any wonder that most people see this as a trivial art form? But when I was young I discovered that a truly great film critic can actually make you feel heard. They can reaffirm or challenge your feelings towards a film, and enhance your understanding of how effective the medium is. Video essayists are doing wonderful things with film criticism, creating engaging content that can examine films in ways that text could only previously do very laboriously. Talking about films is one of my favourite things, and I don’t feel we properly value those who do it well.
This is an exciting and strange time for film criticism and more people should be having the conversation of what makes a good critic. Saltz’s tweet tried to get people talking, but only managed to get them yelling. This article is to the yellers. Of course artists put more time, effort and skill into their craft, but we critics are not artless snobs who want to destroy you at no risk to ourselves and have everyone love us for doing so. We’re your audience. Would you really rather do without us?
Review of the original tweet: Two Stars
Review of this review: Pending.