By James Treakle, Chief Writer & Editor
“…you know what I’m craving? A little perspective. That’s it. I’d like some fresh, clear, well seasoned perspective. Can you suggest a good wine to go with that?”
- Anton Ego, Pixar’s ‘Ratatouille’
Criticism of any kind is a balancing act over the flaming pit of hubris. It’s far too easy for someone like me, with a love of film, writing, and analysis, to go in and wield the pen like the sword it is and hack a movie to pieces in the name of criticism. That would be a naïve, self-serving exercise in missing the point. Film criticism, though sometimes necessary to explain how and why a movie is badly made, is not chiefly about negative estimation. Nor is it quantitative analysis, that is, determining the number of stars or points out of ten a film deserves, even though that can be a useful comparative tool. No, whether the film is good or bad, the ideal function of a film critic is as a mirror, just like the silver screen itself. The purpose of mirrors (or any reflective surface), of course, is to give a perspective otherwise impossible to human beings. That’s not to say that a review is an entirely objective, unemotional reaction, to the contrary, emotion is crucial to the process. That’s one reason negative criticism is dominant. Bad movies have a tendency to make us angry, especially when we know how good they could’ve been, and so we draw the critic’s sword and behead the damn things. But what if there is some factor we have not considered, some paradigm that may completely change our estimation of a given film? Films are often misunderstood if there is a greater distance between them and the viewers than the filmmaker intended. They need a little perspective, somebody in the middle reflecting the image closer and clearer, and this is where critics come in.
Yet many a critic fails in this crucial trust because they assume they already understand the work, be it film or anything else. Consider Roger Ebert’s declaration that video games can never be art, and then contrast his sadly unenlightened opinion with this spectacular article on Hero With A Thousand Hitpoints. Roger Ebert is a great film critic, but he is a poor video game critic, because he totally lacks the proper perspective to make judgments on that particular form of (yes, indeed) art. As a result of his long years as a professional critic, Roger Ebert finally tired of the balancing act and fell into hubris, acting as judge, jury and executioner on a case he had no business trying. This isn’t, of course, an article attacking Roger Ebert, but I feel it necessary to illustrate the heights from which one may plummet. On the opposite end, the writer on Hero With A Thousand Hitpoints has great affection, experience, and knowledge of video gaming, making her the ideal person to weigh in on the subject, even though she isn’t doing that directly in the article.
Criticism is a democratic act, not a tyrannical declaration of end value, and should always be open to change. I’m just the guy holding the mirror. I try to point it in such a way that the image bounces off in the reader’s direction, and if I should fail, I always appreciate the chance to adjust the angle. Now, due to criticism’s democratic nature, everybody wants to get in on the act, which is not necessarily a bad thing. The world needs a constant flow of fresh opinions. The trouble is, as Sturgeon realized, ninety percent of everything is crap. It’s difficult to find “fresh, clear, well seasoned perspective” with so many opinions, proudly and authoritatively stated, articulate or not. I attempted to delineate some helpful guidelines in this previous Elements article, and I stand by that attempt.
One of my favorite critics is Ken Begg, chief of the B-movie enthusiast site Jabootu.net. He handles negative and positive reviews with a masterful hand, and writes some of most engaging — and longest — pieces on the web. Best of all, the man is a true enthusiast, totally immersed in all things B-or Z-grade cinema, meaning he has some truly valuable… wait for it… perspective. I read Jabootu and Hero With A Thousand Hitpoints when I want to puncture the ballooning self-importance monster. They humble me with their mastery of the English language and artistic insight.
But I digress. To use a cliché and cut to the chase, the perspective a good film critic offers may totally alter a person’s conscious appreciation of a given film. A previously bad movie warps over to the good side, or vice versa, or possibly they become stuck in the Mediocrity Nebulae. Ideally, a good critical diet should show every good and bad aspect of a film, helping the viewer not only to make a more intellectually satisfying appraisal, but also to take part in the narrative to the deepest extent. Despite the emphasis I place on auteur theory, I do recognize that cinema is a communal art, and that applies to both ends. Cinema may not be properly made or appreciated alone, and I say “may” because there are certainly exceptions. It’s a big world.
Lastly, I’d like to tie up the loose end I introduced by quoting Anton Ego, the villainous food critic from ‘Ratatouille’, which isn’t a story about food, but filmmaking, and I’ll get into that in my review at a later date. Ego’s arc in the film is a great piece of work, both simple and profound. He’s a food critic consumed with pride in his abilities, rooted in his deep love for the culinary arts, yet despite what he says in the quote above, he lacks proper perspective. When he finds it, here’s what he has to say, in a narration that helps close the film:
“In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations, the new needs friends. Last night, I experienced something new, an extraordinary meal from a singularly unexpected source. To say that both the meal and its maker have challenged my preconceptions about fine cooking is a gross understatement. They have rocked me to my core. In the past, I have made no secret of my disdain for Chef Gusteau’s famous motto: Anyone can cook. But I realize, only now do I truly understand what he meant. Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere. It is difficult to imagine more humble origins than those of the genius now cooking at Gusteau’s, who is, in this critic’s opinion, nothing less than the finest chef in France. I will be returning to Gusteau’s soon, hungry for more.”
My best hope is that readers at The Silver Mirror may discover something that rocks them to their core. For this reason, I will continue to hold my mirror, reflecting as best I can while I keep my balancing act above the hubristic flames.