Last week, I criticized criticism (as well as criticized the criticism of criticism), discussed how critics enjoy movies, and disapproved of Kevin Smith’s anti-critic campaign. This was all uppermost in my mind after the early reviews of The Dark Knight Rises provoked some rather unsavory behavior.
In the interim, I have actually seen The Dark Knight Rises (twice) and read the original reviews that caused such a stir. I’ve also endured an absolutely soul-crushing onslaught of “reviews” of The Dark Knight Rises passing themselves off as criticism. And I’ve come to question whether I even want to be considered as a film critic anymore.
Perhaps the most disheartening yet ultimately helpful piece I’ve read in the last week is Jim Emerson’s “Well-Shot and Needs Editing.” Although at first it seems like the most elitist, condescending article ever, through the comments and a couple of updated addenda, Emerson explains his position more clearly (though why he couldn’t have done that on the first pass remains a mystery; perhaps he needs more editing.)
I present the article’s opening salvo:
The other night I had dinner with some longtime film critic friends (mmmmmm, homemade Rogan Gosht!) and we got to talking (and laughing) about the dumb things you overhear people say in movie theaters—whether at critics’ screenings or multiplexes. The funniest kind are those intended to convey some kind of filmmaking savvy or insight but that actually reveal ignorance by saying nothing at all. It’s inexcusable when critics use these buzzwords, and it’s just as embarrassing when affected “laypersons” (“civilians”? “Regular Joes”?) use it, even as inane small-talk. [Clarification: It’s not just empty-headed, it’s the very definition of pretentious.
Rather than get into a long, rage-filled rant about why this is so offensive, I shall instead point you to an eloquent response by a reader named James, who takes Mr. Emerson to task. One representative statement is this: “Are you really faulting movie goers for not having a professional movie critics way with words? You should count your blessings that they don’t. You’d be out of a job.”
Emerson responds (and to be fair, he does respond to most of the comments on his articles, even the negative ones) in part with this:
See my (exhaustive and exhaustingly detailed) previous post, “A.O. Scott on criticism: ‘This is not a progressive kindergarten.’.” “Phony criticism” is exactly what it says—an invalid form of criticism. That’s “criticism” as in “the analysis and judgment of the merits and faults of a literary or artistic work”—not as in “the expression of disapproval of someone or something based on perceived faults or mistakes.” An “opinion” is not at all the same thing as “criticism,” and I’m always trying to make that distinction clear.
These are actually two definitions of the word criticism that Emerson has pulled from the Oxford Dictionary. Yet if you read the following reviews of The Dark Knight Rises, I challenge anyone to determine that they are one or the other and not a blending of both, with one frequently taking precedence.
Marshall Fine spends the first two paragraphs telling kids to get off his damn lawn, and buried in between a few compliments, he mostly makes what he thinks are funny, ironic jokes at the movie’s (and the review’s) expense. Christy Lemire‘s two out of four stars are at least consistent with the content of her review. Germain Lussier has a more positive review but fails to explain the “plot holes” that appear. David Chen‘s review is also mixed although it does end on a mostly positive note. Neil Miller provides a thorough list of reasons as to what worked and what didn’t but tosses in some unnecessary speculation about whether the ending was written first or not. Cynthia Fuchs gives a thoughtful analysis but gets bogged down in a lot of Occupy nonsense (though she isn’t alone there). I’d like to point out that Bob Cashill‘s review is okay but including statements like this is part of why people hate movie critics: “That’s enough for now, except to say that my IMAX screening was attended by all of 50 people (including Matt Lauer and Whoopi Goldberg).”
(I’m not going to go through every single review that’s out there, but feel free to chime in with your picks in the comments.)
One of the few positive reviews I’ve read comes from Daniel Carlson. It’s wonderfully written and even emotionally stirring (even if he falls into the trap of trotting out the tired “hero/movie we need/deserve” pun; I’m also looking at you Germain Lussier, James Marsh, and Neil Miller). Scott Weinberg has an exuberant, enthusiastic review that also praises many aspects of the film from the cast, to the action, to the plotting. Another huge blast of fresh air comes from Gabe Delahaye, who skillfully uses humor and plain language to poke gentle fun at a movie that he clearly adores. (The comments are definitely worth reading.)
What I’m not so keen on are these follow up articles called, and I’m only somewhat paraphrasing them here, “X Reasons Why The Dark Knight Rises Sucks,” especially when the writers gave relatively high ratings to the movies. To their credit, Film School Rejects does present an article called “11 Things That Did Work” as a counterpoint to the “11 Things That Didn’t Work” (Movies.com could only come up with FIVE good points to counteract TWELVE questions?). But Slashfilm’s article is ridiculous and makes me wonder, what exactly they are trying to accomplish? Criticism or complaining?
I must say I took a lot of pleasure in reading the comments that not only explained the things that these reviewers clearly missed or just didn’t grasp. The comments section in Pajiba’s review is also a good lesson in paying attention. Thus we come to two things that I think are important to criticism and enjoyment of movies in general. An understanding of what plot holes actually are and the phrase “suspension of disbelief.”
I’m going to toot my own horn here and say that I knew what the definition of “plot hole” was before I looked it up, but I’m posting it here so we’re on the same page (emphasis mine):
A plot hole, or plothole, is a gap or inconsistency in a storyline that goes against the flow of logic established by the story’s plot, or constitutes a blatant omission of relevant information regarding the plot. These include such things as unlikely behaviour or actions of characters, illogical or impossible events, events happening for no apparent reason, or statements/events that contradict earlier events in the storyline.
While many stories have unanswered questions, unlikely events or chance occurrences, a plot hole is one that is essential to the story’s outcome. Plot holes are usually seen as weaknesses or flaws in a story, and writers usually try to avoid them to make their stories seem as realistic as possible. However, certain genre (and some media) which require or allow suspension of disbelief are more tolerant of plot holes.
Now for suspension of disbelief (again, emphasis mine):
Suspension of disbelief or “willing suspension of disbelief” is a formula for justifying the use of fantastic or non-realistic elements in literature. It was put forth in English by the poet and aesthetic philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who suggested that if a writer could infuse a “human interest and a semblance of truth” into a fantastic tale, the reader would suspend judgement concerning the implausibility of the narrative.
The phrase “suspension of disbelief” came to be used more loosely in the later 20th century, often used to imply that the onus was on the reader, rather than the writer, to achieve it. It might be used to refer to the willingness of the audience to overlook the limitations of a medium, so that these do not interfere with the acceptance of those premises. These fictional premises may also lend to the engagement of the mind and perhaps proposition of thoughts, ideas, art and theories.
Do these writers not understand these terms? Or do they just not care? Are they bored? Are they looking for more site hits? Are they just assholes? When asked why write the article on the “15 Things That Bothered” about The Dark Knight Rises and not The Watch or Step Up Revolution, Peter Sciretta replied:
We dont care as much about those movies. After writing 600 articles about TDKR on the site, we expected something great. Or at least something on the level near TDK. Sadly, it does not reach these levels.
My response, which I have also posted on their comments section is this:
So because you chose to write 600 articles your disappointment in the movie is Nolan’s fault? (Or Bale, Pfister, pick as many as you need.) Simple solution: Have more reasonable expectations. It makes life easier.
So where was all this grousing for The Dark Knight or Batman Begins? (Seriously, I don’t have the heart to spend all day looking for it but a few preliminary searches reveal little.) What about how Batman had a bat sonar in his shoe that we never knew about? Why didn’t the bottles of antidote break when Rachel grabbed them so quickly? What happened to the thug who fell down after The Joker poked him in the eye with a pencil? What happened to the Mayor after he fell when he saw the Joker’s victim hit his office window? What about all the unnecessary cutting back to the water tower during the climax when the one guy says “it’s gonna blow!” a couple of times? What about the repetitive, corny dialogue of the cop who’s sitting in the passenger seat with a masked Jim Gordon? And perhaps the most important question: what happens to Batman’s black eye makeup after he takes off his mask? You are all fine with believing that Batman can fly around with his cape like he’s actually in a plane but can’t grasp how he could get back to Gotham after being imprisoned by Bane? Seriously? What is wrong with you people? PLOT HOLE! CLUNKY EXPOSITION! NOLAN SUCKS!
See how easy it is? It makes me feel queasy to even type all that out, but it just proves the ridiculous nature of the backlash. Not so much for the critics who aren’t Nolan or Batman or superhero movie fans in the first place, but those who once claimed that Batman Begins or The Dark Knight are flawless films. It’s almost like The Dark Knight Rises is Nolan’s first Batman movie and everyone hates it like it was directed by Joel Schumacher. You know, they could handle all the plot holes or Christian Bale’s voice and fighting style or Nolan’s editing the first two times but OH MY GOD NOW IT IS JUST INTOLERABLE. (I can totally mock people and make jokes, too, you know!)
Last week I was defending critics like Marshall Fine and I’ll still defend him, though I find his atrocious writing mostly indefensible. I can’t defend wallowing in mean-spirited negativity and petty ignorance, however. I’m certainly not above finding fault with movies (and while we’re talking about Christopher Nolan, you should check out the biggest problem I had with Inception, a movie that I still think is brilliant. I also make the cardinal sin of using the phrase “beautifully shot.” OOPS!).
I consider myself a movie critic, not merely because I have a film degree; or because I’ve been obsessed with movies and movie history as far back as I can remember; or because I watch an awful lot of movies and think, talk, read, and write about them. I also consider myself a film critic because I want to share my love and knowledge of movies with others.
If being a critic means being an asshole, then I quit.