Every Friday afternoon, the film industry blog CriticWire invites dozens of professional and amateur film critics, columnists, and bloggers to answer a topical movie-related question, the great many answers to which it then compiles and publishes the following Monday morning. The topics are broad and the responses, as one might expect from such a diverse group, typically range from erudite to jejune. In any case, the CriticWire survey results are at their best when they’ve drawn out some soft-shoe riffing from writers with a bit of spare time; it’s always fun to read tastemakers tossing off witticisms between proper reviews.
The subject of this week’s CriticWire survey most assuredly did not lend itself well to casual wit or writerly flippancy, and so it should perhaps come as no surprise that the answers frustrate far more than they delight. The question was posed as follows: “What movie widely regarded as a cinematic masterpiece do you dislike (or maybe even hate)?” Even for a survey that by its very nature routinely incites a kind of inside-baseball discussion and debate, this question seems designed to make critics and readers alike hot around the collar; it’s a veritable open invitation for ill-considered misreadings to calcify and be made very public, to candidly air grievances for no good reason. All possible answers—and one could easily predict the most-cited offenders—are necessarily stand-offish, intended not so much to open a deeper discussion but, more alarmingly, to close off any chance for persuasion, the answer itself a vote cast that can’t be swayed.
In almost every case, the reasoning behind these choices stopped at mere rejection. Edwin Arnaudin, granted the dubious distinction of first pick, writes that Terrence Malick’s “Badlands” is “nowhere near” the designation of masterpiece because he “find[s] the writing and acting atrocious”. Scott Beggs lambasts Jean Vigo’s poetic “L’Atalante” on the grounds that it has “a ton of logical gaps”. Marc Ciafardini shrugs that “Citizen Kane” “simply does not do it for me”. Jette Kernion complains of feeling “nothing but distaste for any of the characters” in “Vertigo”, recently cited by the Sight & Sound survey as the greatest film of all time and therefore an ideal candidate for sweeping dismissal. The answers more or less continue in this vein, with only a handful of critics taking the opportunity to dig deeper than their own confusion. It's important to note that the question as posed doesn’t demand an explanation, and we're not suggesting that the critics aren't capable of producing more elaborate reasons for their antipathy, but the answers are troubling all the same, and there are a number of reasons why they disappoint.
The most obvious, perhaps, is simply the dearth of imagination in the selections themselves; “Citizen Kane” has been such a sacred cow for so long that “it isn’t that great” is about as novel as it is true (it isn’t either). But more than that, the very notion of the “overrated” film (used here by the framework of the survey, and not the responses themselves) irksome, suggesting as it does some blind foundation of unified critical support that’s simply waiting for the one critic smart and savvy enough to see through the bullshit for the mediocre work it truly is. To use the word “overrated”—as opposed to, say, mounting a considered argument against a film that happens to be well-liked—is to orient oneself deliberately in reaction to something perceived as somehow disingenuous, which has the simultaneous effect of both handily erasing mountains of discourse without having to properly engage in the discussion and, more gallingly, conferring upon the wielder of the word an unwarranted sense of superiority. “Overrated”, simply put, is a term of smugness, of such arrogance in distaste that the prospect of appreciation seems laughable.
But the more pertinent problem here is that any dismissal of a work of art, particularly of works widely regarded as masterpieces, just isn’t an appropriate or adequate response, and knowledgeable readers should know better. A critic ought to value the opinions of her colleagues enough that their widespread acceptance of a classic film should count for something, ideally to the degree that, rather than assuming that others are wrong, the critic questions their own response. It’s best to practice deference, both to great films and to the many smart people who like them. In other words, if you see a canonical classic and don’t respond strongly to it, try to examine why you didn’t—read the work of others, empathize with their perspectives, rewatch if necessary—and see if you can’t reconcile yourself to it after all.
Jessica Elgenstierna’s response to the CriticWire survey is telling: about Jean Renoir’s “Rules of the Game”, she says, somewhat exasperated, that she “just can’t see what everyone else appears to see”. Similarly, Alonso Duralde writes that “whatever I’m supposed to be seeing” in Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita”, “I just don’t see”. Many other answers echo such a sentiment: critics seem to like this film, but I don’t get it. But if the problem here is misunderstanding—which these two, at least, fully admit—than the solution is a more rigorous attempt to understand, and if one can’t understand why the film is good, in the final estimation, one is therefore obligated to understand why it’s bad. Stopping before reaching a conclusion is giving up, and it’s unfair both to the film and to the practice of critical engagement.
This isn’t to say that the films listed on this CriticWire survey are unequivocally great and cannot be argued against; rather, one needs with dissent to actually posit an argument, one whose consideration and rigor makes it compelling to others. “I don’t get why anybody thinks this film is great” is not an argument; it’s a confession of ignorance that can, believe it or not, be remedied by a deeper reading. Many critics have articulated dissenting opinions of “Citizen Kane” and “Vertigo”, and it would perhaps behoove those who feel cool on either film to seek them out, reflect on them, and reconsider their own bewilderment. Registering disagreement is an important part of any healthy critical discussion, but that disagreement ought to come from a place of honesty and integrity, not just in the sense that one is true to a gut feeling but in the more important sense that the gut feeling has been pondered, chewed-over, and expressed in meaningful terms. That’s what criticism is and that’s precisely what it does: it makes sense of art for oneself and for others. “That film is overrated” does neither.