Sunday, July 24, 2011

What Being a Critic Means to Me

I wonder what great film would be defined as if critics didn't exist.

I don't mean a lack of criticism. I mean professional critics. Critics in newspapers. Critics on television. I've had dreams for years of getting paid to watch movies and share my thoughts on them, but I still wonder.

If we never heard somebody who is supposedly more qualified to tell us whether a film is good or not say what they thought before the person got to see it for themselves. If awards meant nothing. If professional press was truly as dead as people say (it's not.)

We put a lot of trust into a film critic when we ask their opinion of a movie. We trust them with our entertainment choices. We trust them with our money. We trust them with around two hours of our lives. We trust them to support what is good and shun what is bad. We trust them to fight for what we love and snuff out what we hate. We trust them to make us feel less alone when our friends and family don't get the genus of an artsy film, or when they seem captivated with the atrocity of a plotless CGI spectacle.

And I've always had faith in that, as any film buff does. I've always based my choices around those people higher on the film critic totem pole. I've acted better for seeing art in places others didn't. I've seen people who went to see big budget, popcorn movies without clear artistic merit as ignorant. I've taken comfort in, despite not thinking very highly of my intelligence, knowing that critical consensus tended to agree with me on what I thought a film was going to be.

And then this summer happened.

This summer, I saw Cars 2. I saw a film that I, according to those smarter and more season in film analysis, wasn't supposed to like. A film that I wasn't supposed to find merit in. A film that I wasn't supposed to see anything meaningful about. A film I wasn't supposed to fall in love with.

A film that is the only film besides WALL-E that I ended up seeing in the theater a ridiculous five times. And, unlike with WALL-E, I wouldn't be surprised if I was the only person who bothered to invest so much time, overpriced pink lemonade, and free movie vouchers into it.

Every time I watched it, I had an firm smile plastered on my face. Every person I talked to as the movie ended, even normal person in my normal theater, at the least didn't seem bored and at the most had as big a smile as I did.

I had become one of those ignorant people going to see the popcorn movie. I was voluntarily seeing a film that will never win tons upon tons of awards. That will not be remembered as a milestone. That I don't see any particular reason to have as a study point in film class. That was just a silly, fun escape from reality.

I was, by the standards I had built for myself and had been built for me by film critics, doing the wrong thing. But how could I be wrong to like the film? There was nothing immoral about it, and I liked it. How could I be wrong to say I liked it? How could I be wrong about my own obvious emotions?

I'd never felt so self-conscious about referring to myself as a film buff before this year. I'd never been less proud to be a film buff. I wanted to just be a moviegoer, like everybody else. I wanted to throw away the checklist of things that make a movie good or bad. I wanted to experience what I experience. Feel what I feel. Like what I like.

But hold up! We need critics! Critics give us the compass of film literacy. They inspire us to make better movies. They ask more than others ask and think longer about films than most would find sane.

And that's why I can't stop being a critic, even if I never end up in newspapers or even qualified to submit to Rotten Tomatoes. Because when it comes to film, I'm not sane. I analyze and I pull apart and I ask and ask and ask and ask.

As much as we look at a critic like Armond White with tilted heads and even a hint of malice for hating films we always seem to love and loving films we always seem to hate, he has made more of a name for himself than many of the critics who always agree with the vast majority. That's not to say that we should disagree to be popular and edgy, but that the reason to be a critic isn't to support a popular opinion, but to add our own opinion to the table, be it popular or not. Being "wrong" has, in a sense, vindicated me of my fears that my opinion doesn't matter.

Because, I think, the best critic is a regular person, who sees with regular person eyes, and just happens to be able to put those thoughts down with an extraordinary level of eloquence. And regular people vary in what they like.

We see movies together, we come together to discuss film, because we know that others will find something different in a film than we did. While critical consensus does have a level of importance, it's not just about whether most people liked something or didn't. A well rounded group of critics is, or at least should be, a representation of the different kinds of people who go to the movies.

In other words, a macrocosm of society as we know it.

Whether we sit at the popular table or with the other acne-laden geeks in the corner, how we feel about a movie means something. That is why more than one critic exists in this world, isn't it? That's why I want to be the voice for my feelings when nobody else is, and be another voice of support when everybody else is. That's why I refuse to be ashamed if I'm Armond White for the day or if I'm repeating the same thing ten other people already said before me.

That's what being a critic means to me.

P.S. To clarify the five times comment, WALL-E is still the best movie ever. Cars 2, for me at least, is trailing a good lap behind in 2nd place. Just wanted to make that clear.