Kubrick was Wrong About Critics!

For the most part.

“To see a film once and write a review is an absurdity. Yet very few critics ever see a film twice or write about films from a leisurely, thoughtful perspective. The reviews that distinguish most critics, unfortunately, are those slambang pans which are easy to write and fun to write and absolutely useless. There’s not much in a critic showing off how clever he is at writing silly, supercilious gags about something he hates.”

So said legendary filmmaker Stanley Kubrick when asked if he ever learned anything about his films from film criticism, after flatly answering “No.” Though generally considered one of the great filmmakers of the 20th century, Kubrick did not enjoy a good relationship with the film critics of his day. This was especially the case with Barry Lyndon, a film he hoped would serve as a dress rehearsal for his long dreamt-of Napoleon biopic, but instead drove him to attempt something more commercial (The Shining). His career was far more driven by popular success than critical praise.

Kubrick’s comment primarily concerns just one of the functions of a film critic; consumer advice. After all films are trying to find audiences and audiences typically want some form of quality assurance from their ‘products’. With cinema tickets so expensive, spare time so fiercely contested and, just at the moment, trips to the cinema so fraught with danger, consumers want to know they will be rewarded for having bought their ticket. If this all sound antithetical to artistic expression, you’re far from alone. Yet balancing commercial appeal against real artistic ambition is the business of every filmmaker. Those who succeed, both critically and commercially, tend not to underestimate their audiences but plenty of extraordinary films have failed to find their audience in their initial run, and critics are not always on the right side of history.

Producing this advice involves a paradox in which the means of producing these reviews negatively affects their quality. Every week critics are expected to see all of the major and minor releases. They do this over a few days of press screenings arranged by studios. Some films are not screened for critics and so critics must also find time to see these in theatres. They then must consider the films (typically a half dozen a week), come to some conclusions and write up their reviews in a way that is both insightful and entertaining. This does seem to preclude the possibility of thoughtful analysis and repeat viewings of every film. Kubrick is right that really a critic is typically only ever reviewing their first impression of a film, and rarely in the ideal circumstances.

Kubrick suggests this yields results that are fun to write, but are ultimately worthless. Yet this is also how an audience member will initially experience a film. Having taken a chance and buying a ticket, they will walk away with whatever impression it has managed to make on them in it’s short runtime. Very rarely, the film will make such an impression that the person will decide to see it again in it’s initial cinematic run. More commonly they will be inclined to watch the film again once it’s available at home. Should the film prove popular enough to get a rerelease in cinemas it will be upon those first impressions that people base their decision to return.

It’s not always powerful sentiment or easily accessed gratification that pulls people back to films again and again throughout the years. It could be a provocative intellectual point, a sense of mystery or perhaps even something affectingly off-putting! I myself have been drawn back to films I’ve disliked in an attempt to understand them better. Rewatching a film affords much greater understanding. The Spoiler Paradox suggests people enjoy films better when they know what’s going to happen. Foreboding, nuance, irony, subtext, ambiguity, all are much more apparent on second viewing. But the will to watch a film more than once has to be engendered by that first viewing experience, and that is the experience critics are typically reviewing.

Yet the art of film criticism is not facile. There is, firstly, value in the act of steering audience attentions away from the less inspired or derisive works in favour of the constantly emergent real talent that is all too often get’s crowded out by those with bigger marketing budgets. But the best film critics, the ones who really shape the art form and command the greatest respect, revisit. They return to films that they enjoyed, hated or were merely indifferent to and produce content that can challenge others to revisit as well. The best critics will see the films they write about multiple times. Print publications regularly feature retro reviews and detailed breakdowns of iconic moments as well as opportunities for writers to proffer their guilty pleasures. On Youtube the standard can be even higher! Detailed breakdowns of effective of ineffective films can prove to be more entertaining than the films they’re covering.

Kubrick was describing a very specific form of film criticism. The weekly worker who puts in their time, meets their word count and sends it to the editor. Even these critics can often be more useful and insightful than his quote would credit, but behind the frontline there is a wide world of film critics bringing unique insights and depths of understanding that I believe would have lent Kubrick a whole new perspective on his own works had he fully engaged, or lived long enough to see the form expand as widely as it has. It’s also worth remembering that long after the films have left the theatres, it is the critics who will curate their legacy.


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