Most people seem to hate film critics, and every once in a while, I feel compelled to disagree. Or at the very least, silently disagree (#NOTALLCRITICS). I’ve been doing this job full-time for about eight years now, and the truth is, I like it. Criticism, when done well, is something I love reading. And it’s the first job I’ve had where I get to tell the truth almost all of the time. But more often, I have to admit that I not only agree with the critic hater, but want to tell him “Man, you don’t know the half of it.”
Because it’s so much worse on the front lines, you guys. So much worse. People who get paid to watch films are some of the worst people to watch films with.
Last night I sat down for my press-only screening of A Most Violent Year. As I was waiting for the movie to start, I was trying to read and avoid eye contact with everyone else like always, but kept getting distracted, involuntarily eavesdropping on the two people behind me, the only audible conversation in the room. The man was explaining to his seatmate (loudly, under the circumstances) why she didn’t need to bother seeing Snowpiercer. It was dumb and full of plot holes, he said, and he just couldn’t understand how so many people liked it.
“The premise is that they tried to fix global warming, but went too far and the planet froze, and now the survivors are on this train. But I kept wondering: Why didn’t they just get off the train and go find a cave!” he said. “It was so full of holes!”
Now, I liked Snowpiercer, so I’m slightly biased (by good taste), but it’s not the kind of film I would recommend to just anyone, and I occasionally run across people I respect who hated it. Fine. But “why didn’t they just go find a cave” has to be the world’s stupidest reason for not liking a movie. “There might be some good stuff in there, but what I just couldn’t get past was the entire accepted conceit of the film!”
It’d be like agreeing to go see Face/Off and then petulantly folding your arms across your chest going, “This is stupid. Why doesn’t one of them just wear a hat?”
Again, this was a press screening, so presumably this was a man who reviews movies for a living. Or at least, reviews movies in exchange for money.
Also, I can’t let this go: how do you figure that staying on a train is a plot hole, but the idea that “finding a cave” would keep you warm isn’t? I’m pretty sure that at one point early in the movie, someone on the train points out the window at some frozen dead people who tried to do exactly that. “Hey, remember when Todd tried to find a cave last year and died? Wild, huh? Let’s not do that.”
I could get hung up on trying to break down just this one idiotic statement, but I have more to get through here. Incidentally, the guy also found fault with the idea that a “perpetual motion engine” would require maintenance. I don’t even know how to rebut that “point” other than with a severe melvin.
The point is, being a pedantic idiot is not the same thing as criticism. At the very least, you should go into a story willing to see where the storyteller wants to go with it. Otherwise it’s like trying to review a restaurant when you’re already full. “Zero stars, they kept asking me about apps while I was trying to enjoy the Lunchables I’d brought.”
A Most Violent Year‘s opening credits started to play, coming to my rescue just as the couple started in on how Tilda Swinton was overrated (eyelid twitch). They continued talking, about some good movie he insisted that she did need to see that’s currently on Netflix. I didn’t catch the title, but I’d like to think it was The Immigrant, which seems like exactly the kind of joyless, period realist slog this dude would love. Finally someone shushed them, which restored at least a tiny crumb of my faith in humanity.
It was a small screen, so I moved a few rows closer just before the movie started. The folly of this decision became apparent about 20 minutes into the film, when an older gentleman just in front and to my left – scraggly grey hair, puffy jacket, frog-like chin pouch, sort of disheveled – began a series of exasperated glottal sighs that would continue throughout the film, their volume steadily increasing. The characters would be in the middle of some dramatic dialogue when, with no rhyme or reason, Mr. Exasperated would unleash a fresh volley of surely stale air, often augmented with a derisive chuckle and a sad shake of his head. As if he not only hated the film, but pitied it, like it was one of his grandkids eating gum off the floor.
In a perfect (read: considerate) world, the critique should wait until the movie is over. But I admit, I’ve had an inadvertent derision discharge myself a time or two, sometimes they just leak out and you can’t help yourself. And every once in a blue moon, someone’s reaction is more entertaining than the movie. But this guy repeated his sigh routine a good twenty times, and with inexplicable provocation. The characters would be talking, nothing about their conversation substantially different from the minute before it, and suddenly “Ffff, ha ha ha ha, geeez, Louise, (*semi belch, sad head shake*).”
I couldn’t help but try to isolate what it was he was even sighing at, what private joke was so funny. Maybe it was dull? Maybe he was schizophrenic? It was impossible to tell. There was nothing. I began flipping off the back of his head every time he did it by the end, like a delinquent in the principal’s office.
I left the theater as the credits started to roll, leaving the man marinating in his own frog burps, still shaking his head at the screen and laughing to himself. (Is there a reason people stay inside the theater past the end of the credits? I never get that.)
I walk past the film publicist on the way out, giving my standard four or five-word answer to “what did you think?” which they ask after every movie, and head to the bathroom. As I’m standing in the stall, it occurs to me that Sigh Guy has to be one of those critics that I often see standing next to the publicists after the film, holding forth on everything that was good or bad about what they just saw.
Infatuated with my own prediction, I leave the bathroom, and sure enough, there he is, lecturing the slightly built publicist like a Pedantry 101 professor. The publicist, dressed in a grey pea coat and smart eye glasses, smiles politely looking down at his clipboard, at least making a show of noting the Professor’s comments. I try to discreetly eavesdrop, but there’s another couple talking nearby and I only catch pieces of it.
“…difficult to get through, I mean it was entertaining, but… (looong sigh, sad chuckle) …you have to …it’s like the killing the dog moment [note: not something that happened in this movie, he was using it as an example of some kind of moment] …some people find that entertaining, I’m sure …I just find it morally and artistically, kind of, you know…”
Now, you have to be a special kind of asshole to lecture a movie publicist about the movie he/she’s publicizing. It’s like complaining to a Starbuck’s barista about how you think the company should roast their beans. Except worse, because at least with Starbuck’s, there’s an infinitesimal chance that something you say might affect a future product. Whereas with a movie, the thing has already been shot, edited, marketed, and released, and there is no way curling a marketing firm employee’s stylish coif with your brandy breath is going to change that. More than likely, the publicist has a list of names that they’re trying to write a smiley or frowny face next to, so your 20-minute diatribe about deus ex machinas probably isn’t what they’re after, no matter how informative.
So, that was my night. To make an already long story slightly shorter, I rarely defend the idea of criticism, because good criticism justifies itself. But you would be correct in assuming that most critics, you probably wouldn’t want to hang with. Watching this particular sausage get made is gross, and it smells like menthol burps.