Give It a Pass? Should Critics Bow to Internet Pressure?

Once upon a time, film critics were hidden behind a veil of editorial protection. Film criticism was not generally the chief draw of any publication, but rather a piece of commentary that served to entertain and enlighten, and more importantly to "class up the joint." A good critic added an air of sophistication to what might otherwise be a dry, bland collection of news stories. For a newspaper or magazine, it didn't matter whether or not people actually agreed with their critic or even particularly liked him -- what mattered was that he was there, day in and day out, representing the publication on all things movie related. If you didn't like the critic, you could complain about it or, if you really disliked him, you could write a letter to the editor. But that took time, effort, and the cost of a stamp. You really needed to weigh your options to see if it was even worth complaining about to begin with. And even after you fired off your angry, disparaging letter to the editor about this column or that column, there was always the chance that the critic wouldn't ever see it, let alone read it all the way through or answer it. A critic was subject only to the whims of his editor; if the editor was happy with what he was doing, then he could march merrily along, collect his paycheck, and type away in the manner to which he was accustomed.

But then came along the era of the Internet and someone thought it would be a good idea to put a comment field at the bottom of their articles so people could share their own thoughts on the topic. Conceptually, this was a great idea. It engaged people, kept them coming back to the same page over and over again to continue discussions and gave instant feedback to the writer and his editor. Unfortunately, the Internet as we know it is built around the idea of anonymity, and as it turns out anonymity doesn't go so well with free speech. People have some very ugly, occasionally random opinions on things, and as most everyone wants to be heard, they have no qualms about writing the silliest, meanest, most inflammatory thing they can think of to express their displeasure before closing the window and moving on to whatever it is they hope will entertain them next.

As you can imagine, this can be quite rough for someone who expresses a minority opinion. A good critic is someone who knows how to express their opinion in an entertaining and educational way; a great critic is someone who can express a minority opinion and get people to read them even if they always disagree with him. But now in the era of open, anonymous communication, it is very hard to express any opinion without some level of angry dissent. Most of the time this has little to no effect on most writers; they write to be read, by the easily bothered or otherwise. But occasionally there comes along a film with a rabid, barely literate fan base that bands together and savages dissenters with the fire of a thousand punctuation-free sentences without a capital letter anywhere to be found. And when this happens a critic is forced to ask himself: Is it really worth it? Do I really need to call this movie out for its every flaw? Or could I just give it a pass? And that is the moment that separates the wheat from the chaff.

Our job as critics isn't to agree with our audience or give them the opinion they were looking for; our job isn't even to be right. Our job is to make people think, and polite, cowardly agreement doesn't cause anyone to take pause and reconsider their opinions. A critic forces the reader to think about their opinions, to sharpen them on the abrasive edge of the Socratic method, and allow them to formulate what they think on a topic as much as they are afforded the critic's way of looking at it.

But the temptation to phone in a review rather than writing what you really feel on an unpopular topic is a great one. Whether the reader is a Twilight fan, a Christopher Nolan nut, a Coen brothers worshipper, or a Whedon devotee, a misplaced word in the wrong direction can often cause an avalanche of vitriol. As writers we are a notoriously navel-gazing lot to begin with -- heap criticism on us and we're likely to crawl under the bed and wonder why we're doing this at all. So it is no surprise that sometimes writers will simply type around their problems with a film, throwing a few kind words the film's way while never saying anything at all. In fact, it seems to be a growing problem. Of course, that might have something to do with the growing group-think mentality of communities that seek out writers whom they do not regularly read, only to flame over the audacity of a negative review. For the most recent egregious example, simply google a number of the Inception reviews and read the comments on them. Then compare the total number of comments versus the comments on every other story by that reviewer. I think you'll find them overwhelmingly engorged.

We aren't gatekeepers, nor are we the ambassadors of taste; we are the conversation you would have if you had the time to spend thinking about this kind of thing 24/7. That's what we exist to do -- help you with your mental conversation. The minute we back down out of fear of reprisal, we have failed. Giving a film a pass is one of the cardinal sins of our profession. It would be easy to lay the blame on the audience, but really it falls on the critics themselves. If we allow ourselves to be bullied by comment sections or hate mail, we are the ones who have failed. This isn't a job about being liked; it is about being interesting and staying interesting. Cowards are boring. I have five-year-old reviews that people still call me out over when they write about me. That isn't my failure to get the movie, it is a successful review living on well past its shelf life. Give me 2,000 comments of hate over zero comments any day.