In the months I’ve been running Criticwire, I’ve received several emails from filmmakers that begin with some variation on the phrase, “I know you’re not supposed to contact critics, but…” In nearly every case, I’ve been able to come to a peaceful resolution with the parties in question (I’m still not clear if Mark Duplass thinks I was mean about his hair), but I’m still bothered by the idea that it’s conventional wisdom among filmmakers not to interact with their critics.
The relationship between critics and creators is an uncomfortable one, and it should be. I certainly understand why someone who puts years into making a movie would resent the judgment of someone who at most spent several hours on their review, and critics in turn can be awfully thin-skinned when they feel their work is being attacked. But there’s a way for the parties to interact with each other in a way that, if not exactly comfortable, ought at least to be civil. Filmmakers need to bear in mind that a critic’s job is not to tell them how to make films — which, unless a critic is specifically asked, would be an insufferable presumption — but to represent the viewing audience, and critics need to be mindful of the fact that they’re taking a small part of their subject’s livelihoods in their hands every time they open a new document.That’s not to say that critics should be “nice,” but that they should be conscientious, something they owe to their readers as well.
And then you come across something like James Franco’s Instagram response to Ben Brantley’s New York Times review of “Of Mice and Men” — captured by Vanity Fair‘s Richard Lawson before it was deleted — and you give up just a little bit of hope.
For the record, I think Franco is a talented actor and an interesting, if not especially great, director, and he’s certainly within his rights to take issue with Brantley’s review — although it’s a little bit depressing how predictably actors, directors and the like single out the most positive notices of their work as the ones who really “got it.” But citing Brantley’s supposed lack of popularity in the theater community — which, more than any other, insists on the false idea that a critic’s job is to act as a booster rather than an analyst — is not an especially convincing argument that he should be bounced back to the minors. (And the idea that Gawker even has a theatre critic is kind of hilarious.) Franco’s outburst is heavily reminiscent of Samuel L. Jackson’s response to A.O. Scott’s “Avengers” pan, where he also suggested that the Times critic be bounced. It’s not that hard to rustle up anti-critic sentiment, especially in the star chamber of social media, but it ends up making the complainant seem like an easily bruised egomaniac. (If only Samuel L. Jackson had a vast fortune and millions of adoring fans to console him.) I guess when people tell filmmakers not to contact critics, this is what they’re trying to avoid. In any case, I look forward to the post-credits scene of “Avengers: Age of Ultron” will involve Nick Fury joining forces with Harry Osborn to attack the New York Times.