As literature critics continue their civilized discussion on how uncivil to make their reviews, film critics are slowly making their way into the conversation. Are critics too nice? Are they too mean? Are they too chatty with their subjects on social media? Are they too self-obsessed? Is that a ridiculous question to ask on a blog about film criticism? (Don’t answer that last one.)
My favorite response from the film world so far comes from The New Yorker‘s Richard Brody, and an article worthy of its title, “How to Be a Critic.” It’s so rich in practical words of wisdom, I could just excerpt the entire post, but I suppose that sort of behavior would be more fitting for a piece entitled “How to Be a Content Thief.” Instead, here’s just one of Brody’s many useful nuggets:
“It’s unseemly for self-interested critics to beat their breast in pride over negativity. But this has become a popular stance, as in a Jacob Silverman’s recent post at Slate. Its very title, ‘Against Enthusiasm,’ rankles. Enthusiasm should be more or less the only thing that gets a critic out of bed in the morning, except in the case of ghouls who are aroused by the taste of blood… Critics don’t need to be nice (programmatic niceness is itself another sort of self-falsification and self-punishment, and is at least as sanctimonious as self-justifying meanness), but they do need to know where they stand.”
With the slow (or maybe not-so-slow) erosion of this great profession, it’s only natural for critics to ask themselves about their place in the world. What exactly makes them relevant? Certainly hate gets more eyeballs than hosannas, and in today’s traffic-obsessed world, that’s increasingly important. In the real world, you catch more flies with honey. Online, acid’s your best bet.
Of course, a critic who’s irrationally venomous is about as useful as a critic who’s irrationally kind. As a general rule, the only reviewers worth reading aren’t the softies or the cynics — they’re the ones who can do either as their subject merits. I’m fond of baseball metaphors, so I’ll use one here: in baseball there is a concept called “situational hitting,” in which the batter adjusts his approach at the plate based on the score of the game. Down six runs in the bottom of the ninth with no one on base, it does your team no good to swing for the fences; better to work a walk and start a rally. Likewise, if you’re tied in the bottom of the ninth with a runner on third and nobody out, trying to get a hit is the wrong strategy: if you sacrifice yourself with a fly ball to the outfield, the runner tags and scores, and you win the game.
Critics should be situational hitters: acerbic in one review, fawning in the next. The inflexible critic might hit a home run every once in a while. But the flexible one will have the better batting average.
Read more of “How to Be a Critic.”