On the whole, this distaste of mine for movie-haters reviewing movies holds true today, but I do have an encroaching fear—that I’m becoming one of them.
In my mid-teens I started routinely watching more serious films and reading a lot of film criticism, and from that early age, peaking most especially around the time I was an undergraduate film studies student, I harbored a special resentment for film critics who seemed to hate movies. There are all kinds of ways to define what constitutes a “film critic who hates movies,” but here I’m not talking about ones that hate the movies I like, but ones who seem to just hate everything. It was for this reason that I had trouble getting into Pauline Kael’s writing, I always found Gene Siskel a little too hard to please (and Roger Ebert perhaps too easy to please, so they did make a good balance, at least), and don’t get me started on stereotypical “types” of film writers: the academics, the conservatives, the failed sports writers. I had no use for any of them.
On the whole, this distaste of mine for movie-haters reviewing movies holds true today, but I do have an encroaching fear—that I’m becoming one of them. I don’t believe this to be the case, but at the same time can see where someone else would think this of me, which I find troubling.
The conception of myself as the thing that I hate began a few years back. After press screenings, film critics have to stop by and exchange a few words with the film’s local publicist on whether you liked said film or not. For movie after movie, it seemed like I’d be the only one who didn’t like something. This was particularly noticeable around the time of the release of The Hangover, which I was disappointed in, and then The Hangover 2, which I outright despised. On hindsight, people still seem to like the first Hangover okay, but where the critical response the night of the press screening of The Hangover 2 was fairly positive (in St. Louis, at least), history has not been so kind to that movie (on account of it being a piece of shit, of course). Elsewhere, I often hate movies that become hugely popular, award winners, or both—both Avatar and American Sniper are among movies I couldn’t stand. Currently in theatres is The Big Short, which is an abominable piece of shit, and which I found myself getting in fights about before I’d even left the auditorium the press screening was held in. (I’m right! It’s awful. But that didn’t stop it from securing a bunch of Oscar nominations, and, shudder to think, potential wins.) Even some generally undisputed classics rub me the wrong way: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Forrest Gump, etc.
To make matters worse, in a general sense I lean pessimistic. Say I see a press screening of a movie, and have mixed feelings about the film—like, on a scale of one to ten, I’d give it a five. Where I think my written reviews are at least a little more balanced, if you talk to me about this movie, especially immediately after the screening is over, I’m likely to only complain about it, and not mention anything I liked. Even movies I do like a lot I often will find at least one little thing to bitch about. It’s like a compulsion to complain.
But here’s the thing: I think my appearing to hate movies is actually an extension of how much I love movies. This line of thinking of course requires me to reassess those film critics of the past that I had trouble taking seriously for their seeming inability to enjoy watching movies. And while I can’t ultimately speak for them, I can speak for me. For starters, consider this: how old were you the first time you watched a movie that you yourself picked out, and you didn’t like it? It probably wasn’t until you were a teenager, and maybe even in your late teens. When you haven’t seen anything, everything seems new and fresh and fun; you only start to acquire anything approaching discriminating taste when you have a good groundwork of quality films to compare other films to. So if you’re fourteen and see Transformers or the new Adam Sandler movie or something and like it, that’s fine; you don’t have better action movies or better comedies to compare it to. (For what it’s worth, I still have at least some nostalgia for many of the bad films I liked in my own youth.) But you have to question the person who has seen only one movie currently in theatres and claims it to be the best thing currently playing, versus the person who has seen everything playing in theatres and then picks what they think is the best among them.
Moving on, let’s look at how many film critics operate. To start, here’s a horror story: I first attended the Cannes Film Festival as press in 2004, and a few days into the festival, I was appalled that some guy behind me in the press line was talking to his editor on his cell phone, asking permission to go home early. (In fairness, I don’t know why he wanted to go home early—maybe he had a dying family member or something—but I have trouble imagining much of anything pulling me away from Cannes once I was there.) More common were critics with press credentials who would only see one movie or so a day. Now, you can make the argument that seeing six or seven in a day, as I’m prone to do, is not good for your potential to fully take in what you see. But between the person who sees seven movies a day at what is probably the world’s best film festival and the person who only sees one, who does it sound like hates movies more?
At the risk of using this article only to try and vindicate myself, consider this: I see just about everything with no hesitation. Big movies, small movies, American movies, foreign movies, movies directed at kids, movies directed at minorities, long movies, short movies, old, new, documentaries, experimental films, whatever. I’m willing to pay to see movies—you’d be amazed at how many film critics are adamant about not doing this, or only do it on the rarest of occasions. There is legitimately no answer to the question of what my favorite genre is—I don’t have one. I like good movies, and don’t like bad movies. It’s common that people who know me personally accuse me of only liking foreign or arthouse films, but that’s not accurate, either; if any given year it seems like I like more foreign movies than American movies, that’s a reflection of the state of the industry. Well, that and the fact that I’m willing to watch foreign movies in the first place—you’d be amazed at how many film critics seemingly aren’t. Consider this: The St. Louis Film Critics Association, for which I serve on the board, in 2015 had 20 members eligible to vote in the year-end awards, which members are at least theoretically the quote-unquote “most important” film critics in St. Louis. All 20 members voted in the Best Picture category, but only 16 voted for Best Documentary, and 14 for Best Foreign-Language Film. And those that didn’t vote are in my opinion on more solid ground than those who voted in those categories but hadn’t seen all of the nominees. As an extension of this logic, I could also complain about the dearth of foreign, animated, or especially documentary films ever getting nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, but that’s subject enough for its own column.
Somewhere in the years where I was transitioning from being someone who hated film critics who hate movies to being one myself, I started reading Manohla Dargis’ reviews. At the time, she was writing for the Los Angeles Times, and while it seemed to me she disliked a disproportionate amount of the films she reviewed, when she liked something, she was absolutely right—it was always one of the best. A little later she took a job as a film critic for the New York Times, and at this time it seemed to me that she was suddenly less hard to please than what she used to be, but with the same impeccable taste. In actuality, I doubt that she became more lenient so much as that I became more understanding of her perspective—a deeper appreciation for filmmakers with something to say, and less patience for those who don’t. | Pete Timmermann