Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Why Many Critics Should Stop Writing

I often wonder to myself, just why do I do this? What’s the point of critiquing movies in an age when everybody and their great uncle has a blog about movies, in an age when the printed word is dying, in an age when the opinion becomes less and less pertinent as everyone feels free to offer theirs and listen to no one’s through the wonderful world of the internet. I don’t even get paid for this. I offer my time and my intellectual assets with no compensation. Why do I bother? Well, you’ve got to fight for something.

I read an article on OMG! of Yahoo! about Justin Timberlake’s recent article in GQ after being chosen as one of their Men of the Year. Timberlake gets rather harsh in the article about the critical bashing his acting career took after the disappointing box office for his recent film “Runner, Runner”. He’s mad and he’s not going to take it anymore. What he’s mad about gets to the heart of why I continue to fight the criticism machine that has become the hateful face of film criticism in the comment section age.

OMG! contributor Taryn Ryder speculates that what inspired Timberlake’s question of whether he should just quit acting because a film flops in the GQ article is due to another article that ran in Variety at about the time of the “Runner, Runner” release. The name of the article, written by the magazine’s film editor Ramin Setoodeh, is “Why Justin Timberlake Should Stop Acting”. Really? Is this what even professional film criticism has come to? True, the article isn’t a critical review, but an op-ed piece; and yet, there is a level of professionalism that has escaped the film criticism world here.

You don’t suggest that someone leave a profession that he has worked at and earned a place in just because you don’t like a particular performance. Even Ryder takes a cheap shot at Timberlake, writing, “JT is understandably sensitive to the criticism.” Timberlake isn’t being “sensitive” to criticism, because that isn’t criticism. It’s bias, hatred, vitriol; there is nothing of criticism involved in suggesting someone of Timberlake’s level of success is doing something wrong overall rather than in specific terms. This is the stuff of nervy message board swipers, who take pot shots at people who’ve achieved more than they can ever dream. You may not like Timberlake, but that in itself is not a criticism. Anybody who outright dismisses someone just for who they are has no business in the criticism game.

The true critic must find a balance between the objective and the subjective. Certainly a critic’s opinion is subjective, but it is necessary for the critic to enter into their purpose with knowledge about their subject and an open mind in order to give the reader a fuller understanding of the subject and leave them ability to judge for themselves. There’s nothing wrong with thinking that someone’s ability is lacking or a particular project is bad, but it is necessary to back such an opinion up with knowledge on what makes their project unsuccessful or their contributions insufficient. It’s OK for Joe Shmoe to call Timberlake a pansy in the comments section of a web article while listening to Metallica’s black album on repeat like it was the last bastion of true artistic expression in his parent’s basement, but a critic must work from a broader perspective.

I played the acting game for a very brief period of time, which makes me less inclined to see an actor as solely responsible for a poor performance. Yes, it happens, but on film a poor performance can be covered up. It can be worked through in most cases. When it isn’t, there are many factors that play into failure. You don’t reach the level of success of most movie stars if you don’t have some raw talent or pure artistic skill that earns you that status, even if you come by the sliver screen through the music industry.

Setoodeh tries to defend his position by listing a handful of other musicians who have found some degree of success on screen through supporting roles. He only cites Jennifer Lopez as having landed leading role success, credit I can’t imagine he gave her for some of her individual roles. It’s a little selective to only single out JLo while omitting a great deal of musicians who have successfully crossed over in leading and supporting capacities. Frank Sinatra did both. That’s a big miss, Mr. Setoodeh, especially considering that Timberlake has been compared to Sinatra on more than one occasion.

Setoodeh also cites Timberlake’s acting successes in the proof of his theory, which seems counter intuitive. Timberlake gained Oscar buzz for his work in “The Social Network”, for which Setoodeh gives him credit. So how does excellence in supporting roles warrant a total acting stoppage? The writer claims that like so many other musicians turned actors, all of JT’s acting success comes in supporting roles, yet he has the audacity to take leading roles that are offered to him. First of all, success in supporting roles at the beginning of an acting career is hardly a trait only attributable just to musicians turned actors. Most actors have to pay their dues at first. Yes, some skyrocket to stardom over night, but hey, Bradley Cooper was the heroine’s best friend suffering from nice guy syndrome for years before “The Hangover” gave him his big brake. Secondly, JT has a leading man’s face. Should he turn down roles that are offered to him and the credentials it gives him to be taken seriously in an artistic venue which he obviously wants to work? Should he quit just because he’s offered the lead? In what profession is it logical to turn down a promotion because you've earned it?

To suggest that “real” actors have it different is true, because they don’t have the perception hurdles to surmount. For one, they’re considered real actors before they even get a job. But, I’m getting off track here. The purpose of this is not to defend the acting career of Justin Timberlake. Can he carry a movie? Yes. No. I don’t know. It depends on the movie. And that’s the whole point. It all depends on the movie, if you’re a movie critic, not who’s in it. Who’s in it and in what capacity is all part of the artistic whole, and you have to judge each one on its own merits. And you run into dangerous territory dismissing a career before it’s over. Look at Ben Affleck lately. Afterward, yeah, maybe then you can determine that someone wasted theirs and your time. To call it all off based on some prejudice or bias is just not what criticism is about.

I fear the way film criticism is going is the way of cynicism and preordained judgment. There was a time when the film critic loved movies. Today it seems many of them love criticizing, even when it’s unfounded. Roger Ebert famously named one of his books, “Your Movie Sucks”, after a snarky remark he made about a Rob Schneider movie. And yet, Rob Schneider never held it against Ebert. Why? Because even though Ebert hated most of Schneider’s movies, he never went into one determined to hate it. He wanted to like them. Schneider could tell that from the way Ebert wrote about movies, his included.

Disappointment should be the negative feeling of the critic, not hatred or disgust. But reading film criticism today, whether it be from a blogger or an actual paid professional, there’s very little sense that they love movies. They seem to love only the opportunity to cut down those in the industry for which they’ve deemed themselves judge, jury, and possible executioner. Well, perhaps these types of critics should just stop writing.

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