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Everything Is Personal: Criticism Isn’t Objective, and It Shouldn’t Be

Everything Is Personal: Criticism Isn't Objective, and It Shouldn't Be

Jesse Eisenberg’s “An Honest Review,” a satirical portrait of a narcissistic film critic, stirred up a flurry of comment and counter-comment this week: Some critics took offense, others rolled their eyes at their thin-skinned reactions. Some of the infighting was foolish, some of it spectacularly ugly — one writer who took Eisenberg’s caricature perhaps too much to heart was jeered by his ostensible peers until he quit Twitter — and none of it is worth re-hashing now.

But like the grit in an oyster, the minor irritation of “An Honest Review” has produced a handful of pearls. At RogerEbert.com, editor Matt Zoller Seitz uses it as a jumping-off point to explore the way critics have been portrayed in art, and the extent to which their own experiences and biases inevitably color their views.

“Eisenberg’s piece is onto something,” Seitz writes, “though perhaps in ways that its score-settling writer may not have intended. It got me thinking about times I’ve allowed my opinion to be affected by external factors unrelated to the work onscreen. That’s all the time, though hopefully more to lesser degrees. It’s unavoidable. In fact, it’s human. Just as people get cranky with coworkers or snap at their kids because they’ve had a bad day, or a bad year, critics take whatever they happen to be going through and work through it in their writing…. I admit all this not to excuse or confess anything, merely to suggest that Eisenberg isn’t out of bounds to make sport of the idea that critics are capable of objectivity in the manner of a scientist evaluating a soil sample (and even the scientist might be carrying external issues into the lab).”

Especially in the GamerGate controversy, there’s been a lot of talk about “objective criticism.” It makes a certain, limited amount of sense in the realm of video games, where you’re evaluating a piece of software as well as a personal experience. But where movies are concerned, objectivity is a chimerical goal — and, I would argue, not even an especially desirable one. Movies can present an extraordinary opportunity to step outside yourself: to experience the world as someone of a different gender or race, to imagine what life was like a hundred years ago, or what it might be like a hundred years from now. But you never get all the way outside. At best, you’re half-in and half-out, projecting yourself into someone else’s reality but always mired in your own.

As with anyone else, critics’ responses are filtered through the lens of their own subjectivity, not just whether the movie they’re watching strikes a personal chord, but whether they’re hungry or tired, anxious about the date they’ve got that night or an email that hasn’t been answered. This isn’t, or at least shouldn’t be, a surprise to anyone: It’s how human beings work. (Eisenberg takes a shot at his fictional critic for sneaking out to pee during a screening, but when you gotta go, you gotta go.) Sometimes those subjectivities are a weakness, but in good criticism, they’re a strength. The goal isn’t to suppress your personal reactions, but to contemplate them. That doesn’t mean your “SPECTRE” review should include a long disquisition on how your father never played catch with you, but it does mean examining why you respond to certain things and not others. That’s the difference between reasoned subjectivity and unexamined bias.

True confession: Sometimes you don’t want to leave your nice cozy house and slog an hour each way to a screening of some movie you weren’t that interested in to begin with. But it’s funny how quickly a great movie can make you forget everything else. I’ve gone into midnight screenings feeling like I was about to nod off and emerged two hours later wide awake, alive with excitement and possibility. Even Lindsay Duncan’s axe-grinding theater critic in “Birdman,” who promises in advance to destroy a dilettante movie actor’s Broadway debut, ends up responding honestly to the play. Any half-professional critic does their best to minimize petty distractions: Arrive well-fed and well-rested, put your cell phone in your pocket, and for God’s sake, pee before the movie starts. But the idea that you can check your self at the door is a fantasy, one that, far from enabling an unprejudiced response, makes it vastly more likely that bias will flourish. Critics may not take everything personally, but everything is personal.

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