How about a little
incredibly heated light discourse about the nature of criticism before you pack it in for the weekend?
Almost exactly one week ago to the minute, we told you about the episode of The New York Times‘ web series “The Sweet Spot” in which Times critic A.O. Scott and media columnist David Carr got into a good-natured but feisty argument about the purpose of film criticism. “The Sweet Spot” is back this week with another episode and another topic — but critics don’t seem ready to let last week’s conversation go just yet.
At Some Came Running, Glenn Kenny wrote a passionate response entitled “I Believe in Criticism” in which he defends not just his profession, but its practitioners’ right to speak with authority even if they don’t possess any personal experience working in the film industry (an argument commonly made by those who hate critics, i.e. thin-skinned filmmakers). Meanwhile, over at Scanners, Jim Emerson penned an even more testy reaction, pouring over Scott and Carr’s 7 minute debate line by line like it’s the Zapruder film and he’s trying to figure out which direction the Magic Bullet came from:
DC: But there is no objective excellence, no objective truth —
AS: No, but there is —
DC: There’s only your subjective version of it.
JE: This reminds me of Roger Ebert’s story about the reader who told him to keep his opinions out of his reviews. It’s a straw man argument. Who said criticism could be, or could even endeavor to be, “objective” when by definition it can only be subjective? The critic’s job is to lay open the standards he’s applying — and they may not be the same as yours — and to show how he thinks the movie measures up to them. That’s NOT to say that there are any pre-existing sets of standards (like technical specs you could apply in reviews of automobiles, computers or stereo equipment) that can be applied to all movies. But it’s not enough for a critic to simply assert that a movie “works” or “doesn’t work” for him; he has to explain why, using specific examples from the movie itself.
Emerson’s piece — which makes some damn good points — has already spawned several additions (including a reaction to Carr’s dismissive tweet about the imbroglio surrounding his critic-bashing remarks) and over 60 comments, with many from notable critics.
So whaddya say? Are all critics secretly (or not-so-secretly) failed filmmakers? Do you need to to work in the film industry if you want the right to criticize it? Are critics merely bowing to their own subjective whims? These are not questions for 5:00 PM on a Friday. So we’ll have to get to them at a later date. And, I promise, we will.