Film Criticism? Count Me Out, Folks

Yesterday I was going through my bloglovin feed and found the kind of post that always makes me happy: 5 Favourites: Women Who Inspire. One of them was vulnerability guru Brené Brown, celebrated for her TED talk on letting go of shame and embracing emotional risk, the one true path to a happier life. She’s a wonderful speaker, as many TED participants are, but despite her captivating personality it was her words that really spoke to me. I identified with her story more than I’d like to admit and, judging by the 16 million views of her video, I wasn’t the only one.

Last night, with the words from Brown’s conference and book in my mind, I went out to watch Magic in the Moonlight with my family. If there’s a Woody Allen film in theatres, it doesn’t matter what it is about, we’re going.


This particular Allen film, however, was especially in tune with what I had experienced earlier in the day. Colin Firth‘s character is a notorious magician who doesn’t believe in magic. He’s a skeptic genius who lives life through a series of rational decisions based on solid common sense. He’s rather contrived, self-conscious, judgmental, stubborn, arrogant; a perfectionist. Though polite (to an extent), he seems emotionally distant, locked up, thinking too much. And this weighs on him, making him a pessimist, acutely aware of the human condition, and of the lack of meaning and purpose to life, like many of Allen‘s characters. He also fits into the behaviour Brown describes, the one that prevents us from being truly happy. Again, I saw a bit more of myself in him than I had liked to.

Now, film criticism. I came home, ready to write about what I just described. I was looking for some quotes and inevitably stumbled upon a couple of reviews. As always, I wasn’t surprised that most critics didn’t like it (the travelling agent accusation is getting kind of old though, seriously), but for some reason reading those articles did it for me. I’m sick of reading the same obnoxious, negative bullshit over and over again. 

This didn’t all dawn on me last night, of course. I had been treading this train of thought for months now, but yesterday was it. It was when I realised that not only I’m tired of reading shallow negative reviews and mean-spirited commentary, but also I’m tired of thinking about flaws, of choosing between three or three and half stars, of sharing the disappointment and then regretting it because ultimately it is pointless and insignificant.

You know when you’re having a conversation and there’s that one person that keeps pointing out the things they don’t like? Last night I ate delicious spaghetti… / Oh, I hate spaghetti. I read this pasta talk in every other review, from magazines to TV programmes, in blogs and social networks. I’m not saying it’s wrong — if you keep it respectful (which rarely is the case, though) your opinion is as valid as any — it’s just exhausting and boring.

Discussion is crucial, and film analysis is immensely interesting, even beautiful, but it’s also rare: what most commercial and amateur “critics” want is not discussion, they’re probably not even ready for it (it may actually be a blessing that they seem to be facing extinction). All they want is to throw the hate in your face and see if it sticks, because more often than not, it does. And that’s extremely profitable for them — no such thing as bad publicity, right? Well, for me there is. The minute you do this, you lost me. I’m not coming back. 

Because I don’t want to know if you think Magic in the Moonlight has a weak script and a clichéd ending, if Firth was too old, or if Vicky Cristina Barcelona was the only Allen film you liked from this century. I don’t care to read it, and I care even less to write about it, but most of all, I think it’s all terribly irrelevant. Films have been around for over 100 years now, and these critics are still stuck to standards of quality, to the objective and superficial criticism of something that is anything but rational. Worse than that, is when personal remarks about the people involved are thrown in the mix, usually without purpose, and definitely not even remotely politely. It’s degrading you, can’t you see it?

So yes, I’m out. This kind of criticism doesn’t remotely interest me, and I’m sorry if I ever helped perpetuate this mindless shit (because really no other word comes to mind). Thorough analysis of film and its history, of technique and what inspires, learning and sharing it all with whoever is interested in talking about it — that’s why I’m here. And I hope that’s why you’re here, too. Even if it is a cliché.

And by the way no, he wasn’t too old, are you insane? I’d totally hit that. 

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25 Comments

  1. September 14, 2014 / 1:57 PM

    Your thoughts make a lot of sense. The greatness of the Internet is the ease of access to broadcast opinions, set up a blog, and write about anything. But it also can lead to a strange sameness to a lot of what people say about a movie, even when it’s overly simplified. And then there are the contrarians, and the contrarians to them, and so forth. I still love the idea of film criticism and think it can lead to fascinating analysis. Those tend to be the exceptions, though. I still have a long way to go in my own work. I’m not out, but it’s easy to want to just shut it all down. I do tend to avoid reading any criticism prior to seeing a film. Afterwards, the key is finding voices that aren’t predictable, write with nuance and depth, and don’t stick to the consensus without explaining the reasons behind it. They’re still out there, but finding them within the crowd is more challenging than ever.

    • September 14, 2014 / 3:26 PM

      Completely agree. I’m out of reading the superficial stuff, not out of entirely writing about film,bBecause like you said, it can still be interesting and rewarding, and there is so much to learn. I also tend to avoid reading reviews before watching films, otherwise I’ll have their words in my mind while watching it and I really don’t like that. Yes, there are critics and bloggers that are still worth reading for various reasons, definitely – like I said, they’re rare, but they’re out there!

  2. September 14, 2014 / 2:25 PM

    I find these kinds of rambling to be quite hysterical, sorry. Also I find these sorts of articles hugely disrespectful to other bloggers.

    Some people are not easy to please. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. If someone hated the movie, they should be able to talk about it. That’s free speech. That is in no way making your positive review of the movie any better than the person’s who wrote negative things. Every opinion is valid if it’s honest and not written just because you were paid to. If someone spends their time on a movie and dislikes it they should be free to write about disappointment.

    I don’t care if a critic complains 9 out of 10 – if this is how this person feels and they have arguments for it, that’s terrific. I do not find having some standards ‘degrading’, ‘exhausting’ or ‘boring’. How is it irrelevant to criticize bad movies? How will they learn if no one tels them it’s shit?

    And the idea people have that Firth was too old is just insane.

    • September 14, 2014 / 3:19 PM

      Well see, but if you truly believe in what you just wrote, you shouldn’t be offended by this post because then my opinion on what kind of articles I want to read and write are as valid as yours. Either way I’m not saying negative criticism is bad, or wrong, or that it shouldn’t be done. I specifically said that it’s the superficial, arrogant and often insulting analysis that I can’t accept, much less care for. And obviously there is free speech, but there’s also a limit to that right, and frankly, some articles could start law suits over offending someone’s honour (I don’t the name in english, but you get it).

      So yeah, of course you should say if you didn’t like a film – I do it, too. I just did it on my last post. But there’s a difference between negative criticism and flat out trashing. As there is a difference between not liking and saying that it is not good. That’s where the standards of quality come in. I probably shouldn’t have kept that bit in there without further clarification, true, because that’s not really the issue: it’s not using a standard, it’s being definite about it.

      Just because I like a film doesn’t mean it’s good, and just because I think it’s good doesn’t mean everyone has too, that’s right – what we can’t do is make an opinion article pass for a definite assessment, and again, that applies to journalist and film critics, because you and me can be as vague as we want. In reality they can too, just don’t call it film criticism because it’s not. I’m gonna stop here because this is whole other discussion – an interesting one, but a really long one that has gathered no consensus whatsoever so far. It’s like the old “what makes a piece art?” question.

      So yeah, I think that so-called criticism is irrelevant, and it becomes sick, when it takes advantage of something personal about the artist, and you ought to know this is starting to be norm as some newspaper reviews are turning into gossip columns to gather more traffic. In fact it’s no coincidence that this comes after seeing ‘Magic in the Moonlight’, because Allen has been one of the most insulted artists this year, and just yesterday I read “reviews” that talked about his obsession with young actresses.

      Right?! Colin Firth will never be too old!

      EDIT: also, Sati, you’re kind of mixing things up there – I never wrote those words about the standards. The degrading was about insult, and the other two were about mindless negativity. But since I seem to have personally offended you (maybe?) I wanna clarify this, and be really honest because I think you’re honest too.

      Nothing of what I said reflects upon you, except for the insulting, and you gotta know this. Sometimes I think you go a bit far when talking about celebrities – I don’t even comment most of the time. And clearly you think it’s okay, and I don’t care enough to stop reading you blog or cherishing your opinion. And I’m only saying this because I don’t know if you felt insulted or not, but that was not my goal, at all.

    • September 17, 2014 / 6:43 PM

      I wasn’t offended by this article, I simply find pieces like that to be quite – for the lack of a better word – ironic. It’s kinda like comments ‘why do you even watch movies?’ if I review one of the movies I saw and rate it below 5/10. It’s pointless, it changes nothing and it’s being negative about others being negative.

      And then you go with that edit – ‘I GOTTA know this?’ I go ‘a bit FAR’? If you do not like the way I write just don’t read my posts. ‘I don’t even comment most of the time’ – am I supposed to be impressed by the lengths of your dislike of my style here?

      Funny way of ‘cherishing’ someone’s opinion you have. If degrading is about insults than I suppose it applies to my posts according to you? I wrote that women on porn videos are degrading themselves, you seemed to have written that about a fellow blogger. And as insulting as I according to you am, I would never write that about a fellow blogger.

    • September 17, 2014 / 7:44 PM

      okay Sati, you know what, forget it. You wanna keep twisting the things I write, you do it on your own.

  3. Nikhat Zahra
    September 14, 2014 / 4:44 PM

    Completely get what you mean. Sometimes even when I feel like writing a review, it just feels so pointless. Plus the movies I’m most moved by, I end up talking about them in the podcast anyways.

    I’m so sick of people going on and on about Woody. Just watch the movie and shut up (I still haven’t btw. Sadness)

    I’d TOTES hit that too.

    • September 14, 2014 / 4:59 PM

      Talking is a great way to keep it fresh, you could try vlogging!

      I know, it makes me mad – they’re practically crucifying him these days. Like what does that have to do with anything? But it’s same with everything now, people condemn before there is even a “trial”.

      Oh you should see it, it sort of reminds me of Midnight in Paris and you liked that, right? It has an old hollywood style to it sometimes, it’s sweet. I kept thinking about the Darcy effect, I was practically melting the whole time.

  4. September 14, 2014 / 7:46 PM

    This is a well written piece that can really struck a nerve with some people. I do agree to an extent but having studied semiotics, which in a way is a science that is the fundamental basis for criticism, I can’t fully agree. I think negative criticism is also crucial, it is to balance out the good because without balance, there is chaos.
    I do agree on the argument of “discussion” which I find to be lacking in my own blog. I’ve also noticed that in many cases, people don’t even start to argue with me in the comments or to defend my negative arguments or disagree with my positive ones. Does this mean I make valid points and arguing them in a way that people can’t seem to agree or disagree with me? Or does this mean people don’t care to argue? Or am I not saying the right words to provoke an argument or a discussion?
    This is something that bothers me at times because on one hand, I seem to lack the passion for the “good reviews” and the hate for “bad reviews”, which means I either am not as good as I think or I have found the way you defend in this piece. The way where you look at the movie in its own point of view, and not compare current movies with cult classics or movies in the comedy genre with movies in the drama genre. A movie is as strong as its parts and not the parts of another movie… though it is sometimes impossible not to mention a director’s filmography to prove a point.

    Oh man, this comment is way too long but then again, you said discussion is crucial and this here, is something that I enjoy discussing!
    Thanks for giving me something to think about on this fine Sunday evening! 🙂

    • September 14, 2014 / 8:40 PM

      Maybe it’s not that well written because I couldn’t get across that it’s not negative criticism broadly speaking that I don’t support, it’s only the superficial one. Constructive negative criticism may be the hardest thing to achieve, but really, a lot aren’t even trying.

      Oh, semiotics, I would love to study that; to know deeply about the theory of things like this and not just speak from my common sense and education. Sometimes I feel Law is a bit limiting, though a great tool, nonetheless.

      I feel the same way about discussion and have the same situation here, and I’ve pondered the same things. I think it can be a mix of all those reasons. Sometimes I don’t comment because I agree, other times I don’t feel compelled by what was presented to start a true discussion. And when I read past reviews of mine, honestly, if I were a visitor, I wouldn’t have known how to say something substantial, either.

      As for the passion/hate thing, I have found that I am most happy with what I write when I feel like I’ve said something that adds to the conversation and that is thought-provoking, that it will get someone to think. But oh man, that rarely happens. When it does though, is when I think film criticism (or any kind of theme-driven article) is at its best. And it doesn’t matter if it’s “positive” or “negative”, in fact most of the time it’s both, because there is substance to it, and it’s constructive, not destructive – which often is the rule, and that is what made write this in first place.

      Oh and the critique methods (comparisons, etc), that is another great debate that I have in mind so many times! I guess I need to read some books on it and get back to you on that point.

      It’s long but it’s great, bc I do want discussion! Thank you so much for your thoughts Mettel, I’m sure we’ll debate this even further someday 😀

    • September 14, 2014 / 9:40 PM

      Alright, I get your view a bit more clearly now but may I add that I wouldn’t call superficial writing criticism in the first place. There’s a fine line between negative reviews and the ones (I’m guessing) you’re tired of..and that line is easily crossed by many people stating things that might offend a movie, a director, an actor etc. in a way that is obnoxious.. BUT negative criticism often does the same thing in a more sophisticated manner, and more clearly. I don’t know.. we use different words for the same thing all the time, in reality and while writing. Stating that “the movie sucked” or simply going for “the movie didn’t live up to its potential” eventually says the same thing, just chooses different ways to do so and then it’s just a matter of taste which one you prefer..

      But yes, semiotics is rather interesting. I myself think I should revisit it soon, some articles at least because it’s been almost 4 years now since I’ve had contact with it (not including my MA thesis where I used tourism semiotics) and I sort of miss it.. I’ll recommend you something if I find something in regards to this topic! 😉

    • September 14, 2014 / 11:00 PM

      lol yes, if vocabulary is a risk in our native languages, in a foreign one is even more dangerous. But okay, by superficial I meant… not just devoid of arguments strictly speaking, but also devoid of substance, of real meaning…? I got into this a bit more in my reply to Sati, where I mentioned that this type of article is especially disconcerting in the professional community, where I think a bit more depth or reasoning is required. Because otherwise, they can’t even call it film criticism, that’s right, just like you said.

      The case of being plain rude is different and basically applies to everyone because, in my way of seeing things, there’s no reason nor need for it, and it ultimately leaves to the discredit of the person who writes like that. It’s a very fine line indeed, and in that frontier our sensitivity is very much at play, but often they go waaay beyond that line, there’s no way to deny that. The internet fuelled this freedom to get away with saying anything, and the way I see it, it needs to stop.

      And as to negative criticism (as in the type that fits into the substantial writing, as I think we’re now classifying it, yes?) sometimes doing the exact same thing – oh yes, they do. But my point on that still stands, and I think that’s what you’re saying, as well: even if the offence is wrapped up in nice words, it still is what it is. And all of it, paired with the obnoxious attitude that you mentioned, too, and the mixing of things that are totally off limits (such as personal scandals, rumours, whatever), is what troubles and tires me, in sectors of film and other types of journalism.

      And I think what you said up there wraps it up nicely: it’s not criticism.

      Yes, please do send if you find some – I’d very much like to read them!

  5. September 14, 2014 / 8:38 PM

    As soon as you said this I was on board: I’m sick of reading the same obnoxious, negative bullshit over and over again.

    I am all with you on this one, nothing more to add!

    • September 14, 2014 / 8:42 PM

      Concise, but truthful – cheers, Cherokee!

  6. Brittani
    September 15, 2014 / 1:38 PM

    This is a very well written post, but I don’t have the same feelings about negative reviews. I tend to always find them amusing, maybe because Bloggers always try to be funny when they’re tearing something apart. At least the ones I read are. I disagree that the people write them aren’t open for discussion. I think most Bloggers are, that’s why we’re here, to share our love of film, even if we just hated the movie we watched. But maybe you’re referring to actual critics that write for bigger sites and don’t reply to comments? I’m not sure. If I like the blog, I like all the reviews, even if I don’t agree.

    • September 15, 2014 / 4:25 PM

      I can find it amusing if it’s good natured, but if it is insulting or bitter no, because at that point I think it stops being real criticism, which is the issue (when we keep calling it that way. That’s why I said I don’t want anything to do with that type of criticism). Yes on that particular point I was referring to critics, not bloggers, I think most of us do want comments and to engage. Either way, it’s not so much that they don’t reply, is that the article itself is not begging for discussion in the sense that they’re opinion is… not up for debate, you know what I mean? I used the word definite but I don’t know if it applies in that sense. Like someone who is not willing to consider anyone else’s opinion.

      I wasn’t talking about negative in the broad sense – like I said, it’s the arrogance and the lack of depth (from professionals) and the insults, and the way they mix gossip-like info with actual reviews. Like Allen’s “taste for younger women” (bc of the scandal that recently made a come back) and pairing them with much older men, like Firth – which was what finally made me write this. It’s mean, and unnecessary, not to mention probably not even true, and has nothing to do with the film’s quality or lack of it.

      I think the opener to the second to last paragraph is what gives the impression that I mean negative as a whole. I wrote this in one sitting and rather quickly so I might’ve vented a little about Magic in the Moonlight there lol

      Thanks for your comment, Brittani!

    • Brittani
      September 17, 2014 / 4:09 PM

      Any time! I think I understand your points better too. 🙂

  7. Tom
    September 20, 2014 / 7:42 PM

    Great great post. I am both in awe of and unsurprised by some of the tension its caused, because negative criticism — i actually am growing to dislike the word ‘negative’ because it’s so. . . negative. . .lol! — has such a reputation. When I see a review that’s generally not in favor of what a movie does or did, I go in cautiously. Depending on how harsh that reviewer is, I’ll either retort or i won’t. As a person with a background in writing, I find that it helps if that writer is particularly well-spoken and makes his/her arguments clearly without becoming a jerk about it. Emotions can run high when venting opinion, particularly on the internet when you don’t have facial mannerisms and expressions to help guide through some of the connotations of words. That said, I am getting pretty tired of seeing negative comments on my own blog, when there’s nothing constructive behind the negativity. So far I have not had too much of an issue with this. Whenever this happens, however, I just ignore that user. No response is necessary cuz that just goes nowhere. I’m not in the mood to get in arguments with people online anymore. Lol. Ive been there for a long time. (YouTube is one such lovely place. . .)

    All of this is just a foreword though, for I was trying to find the list you created of films you wanted to see, that I think was adapted by Mettel Ray a little while ago. I was trying to reuse the concept on my own site if that was okay with you. (Copyright/intellectual use of property is becoming a big concern of mine, that’s for sure.)

    • September 20, 2014 / 8:12 PM

      You know, you’re right: it’s easy for things to get out of hand when we’re venting, lots of things are misinterpreted, etc. But even for the writers themselves it’s easy to go too far. I’ve experienced it a couple of the times since I’ve started blogging some years ago, and always ended up deleting those posts because it didn’t feel right. I sounded like a jerk, precisely like you said, even to me. And sometimes it doesn’t even reflect who we are in real life. I think the internet has a way of unleashing the best and worst in all of us.

      I don’t like ‘negative’ (or let’s call them destructive) comments either of course; but I think they show that what we write on our blogs/websites always has an impact on someone, and so we should be careful about how we say things. Which is precisely one of the points of this article.

      Oh youtube is the meanest online platform I’ve ever encountered, it really is the worst.

      You can find the link to my post on my sidebar (there’s an image with “40 Movies…” written on it). And please do make your own, yes! In fact if Mettel’s is up already I need to go check it out. Thanks for commenting, Tom!

  8. Alex Withrow
    September 26, 2014 / 4:11 PM

    First off, I think it’s commendable of you to even post this
    essay to begin with. It’s a bold move, and I respect that. For me, I don’t have
    a problem with negative reviews of films, but I can’t stand many of things that
    you don’t like as well. Snark, for example, is such a lazy form of
    “criticism.” I personally don’t gain much by writing negative
    reviews, so I tend not to. But I do feel that there is, on occasion, a place
    for them. But really, great work here Sofia.

    • September 26, 2014 / 5:02 PM

      Thanks Alex. And yeah, it’s quite the risk but ultimately I think it’s healthy and constructive to discuss these things. There can be some backlash, but over time I guess one gets used to that.

      Lazy – that’s a good way to describe it too, actually. Yes of course negative criticism couldn’t (and shouldn’t) disappear. Like you said, it’s not the negative per se, it’s what comes with it, and how it is approached/dealt with. I think in a lot of cases it’s being done in a way that is not right and deserves no merit, but yet we (or many people) often allow and encourage it.

      Thanks again for your comment – anyone who dares get into this conversation deserves recognition as well. And it’s exactly what I was hoping for. 🙂

  9. September 27, 2014 / 10:50 PM

    I found this article via a link on Dan Heaton’s blog, and I’m so glad he linked to you! This really struck a chord with me, as my own thinking on criticism in general has been undergoing a lot of changes this year, and a lot of that was set in motion by the kind of superficial negative criticism you’re talking about. The internet can be a toxic place, and I think with sites trying to be first and trying to get the most buzz/clicks/whatever, there’s a lot of thoughtless writing out there right now, and extreme opinions that seem more intended to get strong reactions (and clicks) rather than actually foster thoughtful discussion. Obviously that’s not everybody, nor is it even the majority of bloggers I know, but just try to hang out on Twitter for a day or two without hearing someone hate-tweet about some film that doesn’t deserve it.

    I’ve pulled back from a lot of what I’ll call geek culture (though of course that term is fraught as well) because of that this year, and been happier for it.

    I hate to just pop in out of nowhere into your comments and self-advertise, but I really am interested in your thoughts on the culmination of my thinking this year, which basically eschews evaluative criticism altogether – http://www.the-frame.com/2014/09/against-evaluative-criticism-a-personal-manifesto/

    • September 28, 2014 / 12:28 PM

      That was very well put Jandy, I completely agree. And I love links to other discussions when it’s done this way, so thank you — I’ll check it out soon and let you know 😀

  10. Josh
    December 2, 2014 / 5:29 PM

    Excellent write-up! I can be quite pessimistic at times, but I try to be more forgiving and levelheaded in my reviews. The tendency is to rip into a film that is disappointing or disagreeable. I now try to stick to Roger Ebert’s method: every film I see starts with a perfect score, and each one might drop a little – but a film doesn’t have to win me over from the start. I try to approach film with a positive attitude, especially since there are so many movies I love.

    • December 4, 2014 / 11:20 AM

      Thanks, Josh! That’s an excellent method, I sort of do the same since I rarely see movies that I’m not excited about.

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