Tuesday, August 5, 2014

If everyone's a critic, then no one's a critic

...What if we subject ourselves to a piece of art and see something we’ve never seen before. What if it leaves us uncertain of its meaning and it effect on everything else we’ve ever seen? What if it moves us deeply, delights us immensely, or inspires us in the very best ways? What then? Are we supposed to stand cheer and be content to say “that was wonderful?”…or are we as audiences and critics supposed to be able to recognize artistic genius when we are in its presence? Shouldn’t we be able to recognize merit, meaning, craft, creativity, and execution at the moment of its occurrence? There is much to be feared for giving in to fandom…should we not equally fear giving into our own skepticism? 
What sort of fan would have walked away from Jimi Hendrix lighting his guitar on fire at Monterrey only to say “ask me again about it in five years”?

I confess, I used the m-word when I tweeted my post about Boyhood yesterday. Not that I expect this to come across in a tweet, but I meant it not within the context of cinematic history, but within Richard Linklater's career. It's his masterpiece, not a masterpiece - at least, I think so. I'm pretty sure I'm not alone in that belief, either way, but regardless, using the word was just a tiny piece of hyperbole to get people to read my post (as if I was the first person to write about the movie).

I fully stand behind my assessment of Boyhood, and it has nothing to do with what we laughingly call the critical "groupthink" as presented on sites like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic. I've gone against the grain in the past. I thought Black Swan was a laughable and embarrassing piece of tripe, for instance, so I have some idea of what it's like to not get what everyone else seems to get.

Which leads us to this article by one of the few critics to not love Boyhood, the LA Times' Kenneth Turan. This section in particular stands out for me:
...what thinking about "Boyhood" brought home, and not for the first time, is how intensely personal a profession criticism is. Whether we like it or not, even if expressing it makes us feel clueless and out of touch in our own eyes as well as the world's, we cannot escape who we are and what does or does not move us. As I've said before and likely will have cause to say again, in the final analysis, as a critic either you're a gang of one or you're nothing at all.
As I make clear at the top of the sidebar of WSW, I don't consider myself a film critic, nor what I do, film criticism. That may sound like a cop out to some, but all it means is that I have aims for this blog that go beyond simply handing out a yay or a nay vote to a movie, and I don't want people to think that that's all I do. (That's not intended as a slight to bloggers who do exactly that, either.) Most of the time, I try not to get caught up in all that stuff anyway. I don't always succeed. I can, however, relate to the thought that criticism is personal, much more so than a yay or a nay vote can convey.

The question Ryan poses at the top of this post, therefore, has, perhaps, less meaning for me than it would for a Kenneth Turan. I'm not as interested in what history's judgment on Boyhood will be, nor do I care on which side I'll fall, but I do believe there's merit in asking whether or not we, critics and fans alike, should feel comfortable praising great artistic achievement when we see it. The problem, however, is that everyone on the internet not only has the opportunity, but the will, to express hyperbolic snap judgments (like my tweet, perhaps!).

Maybe the solution involves paying less attention to the groupthink. I know that I could stand to rely less on RT and Metacritic. One of the things I learned with my Spoiler Experiment from earlier this year is that criticism, even from someone you trust, only tells you so much. In the end, you have to decide for yourself whether a film is not only worth seeing or not, but whether it's any good or not. 

The groupthink can get in the way of that, but it's become so ingrained in our online film culture now that it's difficult to shake. I could remove RT and Metacritic from my bookmarks and uninstall the RT app from my smart phone and that wouldn't erase its influence. So I guess all one can do is to soldier on and try not to let the groupthink get in the way.

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