What's the Job of a Film Critic?

One of my earliest mentors in the trade/craft/scam of arts criticism gave me a piece of advice on the rules about writing reviews: There are no rules. No one has ever been able to say exactly how a review should be structured, or what it should contain, or what exactly it needs to be in order to qualify as a “proper” critique. Yes, you always need the raw material, the clay, with which to sculpt your piece, namely the work under your rigorous consideration. But after that, you’re as free as Ornette Coleman.

Criticism is not journalism, regardless of how close the spaces are that they occupy. Personal opinion is what criticism is all about — though how one arrives at that opinion can be a circuitous journey.

Of course, if you want to actually publish what you’ve written, there is the occasional speed bump. During my 25 or so years of film criticism, I’ve written for outlets as diverse as Variety, Newsday, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Indiewire, Slate and The Jesuit magazine America. Maybe more. I can’t remember, frankly. But while none of these venerable institutions would want the same review you’d write for the others, the ability to finesse the demands of a particular publication/platform -- while still saying what you want and need to say -- is a little like negotiating the Robert Frostian tennis net.

Constraints and obstacles don’t strangle creativity, necessarily. They can do exactly the opposite -- the same way a lack of money has often made for more innovative solutions in, say, filmmaking.

Criticism is not journalism, regardless of how close the spaces are that they occupy. Personal opinion is what criticism is all about -- though how one arrives at that opinion can be a circuitous journey. I’ve wondered, from time to time, whether there aren’t two philosophically opposed ways in which you decide exactly what you think about a work under critical consideration:

1) Decide you like it and then justify why

2) weigh the various virtues and flaws of a particular piece, and then decide if you like it.

Virtually no one does the latter, though that may be changing: In an era when woke-ness is not just fashionable but urgently necessary, can you pretend to be practicing some kind of blind justice – blind to color, ethnicity, sexuality, when being a critic?

Ideally, yes, but it’s a deviously unsimple question. In the realm of documentary, just for instance, critics can be waylaid by a film’s political point of view, subject matter and likable characters -- whether or not the same film is competently conceived, constructed or argued. Shouldn’t evaluating the aesthetic and architectural qualities of a nonfiction movie be just as important as whether you agree with it? Of course it should.

But critics would be disingenuous if they tried to claim that the circumstances of a movie’s upbringing haven’t occasionally been a factor in the sentence they pass. You see promise in a young director, you are inclined to overlook the fact that he or she didn’t have a budget. You see a film by someone like Steven Spielberg, someone who has every resource at his disposal, and you ratchet up your list of demands, and scrutinize the choices more intensely – especially the political choices, which come in many flavors.

This may not be totally fair, but I don’t think it’s dishonest. What’s the job of a critic, after all? To put a seal of approval on what’s the best art? Or to lobby for the best world in which art can be made? I’m not sure I know. But I know I’m thinking about it more and more. And about how criticism is, and should always be, an activist art form.

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John Andreson is a film critic with publications in The New York Times, Time Magazine, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and more.