These days, it seems like almost every week some filmmaker or actor goes viral with a new quote “bashing” film critics. This phenomenon has probably always existed, but naturally has a higher profile now, thanks to the current “___ EVISCERATES ___!” media ecosystem. Just to name a few recent examples, there was that scene in Birdman, then there was Jesse Eisenberg’s short fiction in The New Yorker, and this week it was High-Rise director Ben Wheatley. Does everyone hate critics? (Yes, everyone hates critics).
“It’s a job that I wouldn’t want or seek out. As a creative person, I think you should be making stuff. That’s the challenge. Talking about other peoples stuff is weird. Why aren’t you making stuff? And if you aren’t, why should you really have a voice to complain about things until you’ve walked mile in someone’s shoes?” he said. “There are a lot of critics that I like, but I don’t get that relationship with art where you can just talk about it but not create it.”
A lot of film critics immediately get salty over quotes like this. Me, I almost never take it personally, because I automatically assume the person isn’t talking about me. (You could say it’s my version of “I’m not black, I’m OJ!”) Which doesn’t stop at least 10 people from sending me the latest viral anti-critic nugget wondering what I think. Fine. Here’s what I think, just this once. Feel free to apply it to all future thinkpieces on the death of criticism.
Rarely have I felt the need to defend criticism as an abstract concept. Someone saying “a lot of critics are bad!” is not a statement that needs refuting, not least of which because it’s true. I don’t need to defend the idea of film criticism any more than I need to defend the idea of radio or stand-up comedy. Is a lot of it bad? Are a lot of the people who do it professionally not very good at it? Absolutely, and this is true of most things, including filmmaking. Nonetheless, it exists, and will continue to exist. The job of someone like me is to try to make it better. To try to make it different. To try make it less bad.
I understand why a filmmaker like Ben Wheatley (who, full disclosure, I’m entirely neutral on, having not seen his movies yet – though High-Rise definitely looks like something I’d be interested in) would say “Should you really have a voice to complain about things until you’ve walked mile in someone’s shoes?”
Of course he would say that. Any criticism you don’t like of anything you’ve done, your natural reaction is going to be to question the critic’s expertise. “Yeah? Well what do you know?”
That’s just human nature. More telling is his next bit: “There are critics that I like…”
Which tells me that if nothing else, criticism is something Ben Wheatley consumes. See, the reason I don’t normally respond to statements like this† is that I think people like Ben Wheatley and I are on the same side. I get the feeling Ben Wheatley’s relationship to film criticism is a lot like my relationship to NPR. We consume it voraciously despite being frequently, maybe even usually, infuriated by it. Believe me, I get it.
The unacknowledged corollary to virtually every “So-and-So Goes HAM On Film Critics!” piece is that So-and-So was seeking out film criticism in the first place. The most avid consumers of film criticism are actors, producers, filmmakers, etc. — people who care about films. I’ve got no beef with those people. Those are my people! And so in response to Ben Wheatley, I’d like to briefly paraphrase Jack Nicholson’s wall speech from A Few Good Men. As long as there are filmmakers, they’re going to read reviews, and those reviews will have to be written by critics††. I think you want me writing that review, Ben Wheatley. (Also, I did order the code red and I’d do it again. Josh Kurp is better for it.)
See, asking “is criticism worthwhile?” is sort of like asking “are jokes funny?” Is criticism a worthwhile art form? I don’t know, show me the critique and I’ll tell you. Good writing justifies itself. I don’t know if movie reviews deserve to exist. That question is a bit too existential for me. I only know that they do, and so I aspire to do them well enough that readers will be happy that I’m the one writing them. (Of course, I accept that at some level, opinions about movies are like farts – we all have them, and we all think ours smell the best.) Almost anyone who does anything aspires to do it well enough that someone somewhere will consider it art (and would that someone be, by definition, a critic?).
To put it even more bluntly, I write about the things I care about. I don’t give a sh*t whether you think it’s art.
Vince Mancini is a writer, comedian, and podcaster. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.
†Also, at some level, this is just another version of fiction writers telling non-fiction writers that non-fiction is less valid. It’s a popular topic at grad school cocktail parties once everyone’s had a few. It’s fine, the non-fictioners think the same thing about poets.
††Alternately, “and those reviews have to be written by men, men with asthma, with ostentatious eyeglass frames and a variety of skin ailments. Who’s gonna do it? You? You, Michael Bay, with your lustrous hair and God-like body? You have that luxury. The luxury of frequent human contact and of not knowing what I know. Of not knowing what men in suede berets complain about when they’ve cornered a publicist.”