Films are more than their message

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Sometimes you have to wonder if people can read. How to watch. How to interact with art. Obviously I don’t mean you. You are better than that, I know. Recently, however, a series of online conversations around the practice of film criticism (although relevant to just about any type of writing / thinking adjacent to art) makes me think that the media expectations of people have been distorted beyond recognition. Last week, a doofus wrote an article astroturfing the lukewarm critical reception of Adam McKay’s brutal satire on climate change. Do not seek in a battle between “sneering critics” and “climatologists”. McKay and co-writer David Sirota have fanned those flames, as The Daily Beast puts it, “classifying anyone – but mainly journalists – who criticized the film as indifferent to the threat of climate change or, more extremely, as climate change denier.” Later that same week, a Disney animator called on movie critics to add disclaimers that besiege readers and remind them that often words are written by people who mean them. Reduced to their essence, they are both literacy snipes for people who watch and read movies, just aimed at those dirty bastards, the movie critics.

There are plenty of reasons for these quirks: Rotten Tomatoes’ binary percentage serving as a pseudo-scientific extension of Roger Ebert’s thumbs; the blurry line between independent film writing and public relations (both on the part of the shills and actual Netflix employees); the old but enduring belief that the people who write about the films are elites in tuxedos rather than obsessives working multiple jobs and struggling to pay their bills; an overall reduction in media literacy encouraged by the consolidation of companies that would love people to shut up and consume. The results are innumerable and disturbing, those which apply to my profession being the most benign. It’s not particularly important that people condemn or clamor for the myth of objective film criticism, as if we’re just pushing those suckers through the scantron, or mistaking a media message for its merits. Not compared to people who can understand COVID reporting and guidelines. But by emphasizing that criticism can and should be much more than those myopic extremes that assume it will judge something on the basis of right answers (artistic or ethical), perhaps we can encourage reflection on the issues under- underlying in the way we broadly interact with entertainment. .

As the very intelligent Katie Rife pointed out years ago, both of these issues stem in part from changing trends in the way we popularly talk about films – with a certain contingent of white journalists turned critic fading away. in favor of a more socially conscious criticism. While the more vocal critics of the critics mostly seemed to want the ‘is it worth your money’ service journalism approach, the ‘my personality is my funko shelf’ corporate line or their own printed opinions to their satisfaction. , preferably all three, if possible – the new trend is asking why, if a movie takes a politically acceptable point of view or talks about something capital-I important, it doesn’t automatically receive rave reviews. Why don’t we indiscriminately applaud someone who finally makes movies that:

  • Represents people who are under-represented in the actors, team and / or subject
  • It really sticks to The Man on climate change, capitalism, etc.
  • Document terrible abuse or heartwarming success stories
  • For some, these qualities may really be enough to appreciate (or, often, Make) something. But the films are more than their message. One message, an ideological bent, is inherent and entertaining: Art is the product of culture, and contextualizing where your ideas come from can be rewarding critical work. But if that’s where readers stop, they might end up caring more about what a movie says than how it says it – and expect critics to respond in turn. Here are those who are conditioned to hyper-literal thinking, those who preach that representation equals approval, and those neo-puritans who want to reestablish the Hays Code where institutions are sacred and any immoral behavior requires on-screen punishment.

    My grandmother has this. She gets angry when she sees an actor she saw playing a villain before appearing in another movie. “Oh, I don’t like it. He’s really bad, ”she said. What if he does? Forget that. Willem Dafoe doesn’t deserve this. On the other hand, neither are entire works of art. This is an extreme example, but it is representative of a desire not for good movies, but for movies full of goodness. When films are their message, there is no difference.

    For non-fiction films, most of us are already there, with many documentaries judged on the importance of their subject matter rather than the quality of their production. Among the tragedies associated with the extension of this flawed mindset to fiction is the praise Green book for being a racial reconciliation fantasy or for taking Dwain Esper’s ridiculous exploitation of morality as Reefer Madness at their face value. When you look beyond the literal text, you can see how professional incompetence or technical tendencies, entrenched biases, or financial crudeness transform art in hilarious, exciting, silly, or revealing ways. It’s good! I like a lot of movies that I don’t agree with politically, and I hate a lot of people whose opinions I share. If we all stopped at “Yes, abuse devil’s lettuce is bad and so I enjoyed that ”, we cut ourselves off from everything that separates the film from the parable.

    And one of the reasons it’s becoming more and more prevalent is that it’s great for marketing. Naturally, he’s encouraged to make sure that the critical narrative surrounding a movie’s release fits into the Mad Lib of “best / first / perfect movie for the # MeToo / Trump / COVID era”. It is lively. It’s a selling point. Formal analysis, not so much.

    How films are made, how their actors approach performance, how special effects are deployed, what moving images really are look like and what they inspire in your senses, they just aren’t sexy. It doesn’t tell you if your pleasure in art is correct. But it allows for lush appreciation and meticulous consideration. When reviewers approach a film as a complete work of art, rather than researching a theme and writing it, or just going through a merit checklist, it thrives. He lives on his own, with words that jump and express themselves as palpably as diving cameras or gesturing actors. It inspires discovery and enthusiasm, risk taking and understanding that both Cats and Citizen Kane are important. It can be academic; it can be a brief. It can be art.

    Reading that kind of review, or one that prioritizes gender expertise or historical / technical knowledge, may spark ideas, but it won’t give you that simple serotonin surge that comes from someone who tells you something that you already agree with. Therefore, due to the way people read things now and the way traffic is generated (both increasingly depend on playing with Google’s search algorithm) this type of writing is more and more difficult to find – and almost (if not completely) impossible to make a living. What thrives, and what is expected of artists and readers in turn, is the writing that falls into one of those previous buckets: criticism that gives investment advice (“It’s worth it. coup? ”) or the criticism that gives ethical advice (“ An important satire ”). It encourages those aforementioned types of sneers, wanting backpats for their politics or just wanting / discouraging (they can never decide when it comes to objectivity) reviews to be robotically evaluated for … I really don’t know, microphones in the plan? Actors missing their lines?

    The Disney host and the Do not seek morons are right. Some readers and filmmakers are so driven into rotten or fresh films that are either entirely good or bad that they have slowly stopped wanting to think of a film beyond its message, and by extension see film criticism as a mere monolith existing only to distribute “an empirical measure of the correct universal reaction to it”. It could happen to anyone, really, and institutions far more powerful than movie nerds who earn less than minimum wage exist to encourage it. But that doesn’t mean it always has to be. It only takes one initiative to work against these systems. If you love movies or any other type of art, read extensively about it and find the ones whose ideas, not their metacritical scores, resonate with you. Find people whose writing makes you want to review / read / experience art, with a fresh perspective or blown mind. It’s a shame to only view a film as its message, but it’s also a place of potential from which you can rekindle the love of cinema.

    Warning: Taste, temperament and expectations make a visual experience unique and not universal. This play was written by a human who holds these opinions and it is not Truth set in stone, delivered from above by an omniscient, infallible and utterly detached deity.


    Jacob Oller is Film Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.

    For all the latest movie news, reviews, lists, and features, follow @PasteMovies.



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