Corey Fischer sits down to examine the value of film criticism in response to its detractors.
Of all the arts – theatre, music, painting, literature – perhaps no other is as universal or culturally shaping as cinema in the modern era. And as with every other art form there are experts who devote their time, careers, and expertise on critiquing films. Since emerging as a profession in the 1960s, film criticism has grown with the film industry while still retaining its essential function.
On a basic, simplistic level there are two main types of films: those that are meant to be entertainment, and those that are culturally driven pieces. Films are a visual, interactive display of how we see our own world and give us insight into who we really are. They teach us and warn us and make us aware of things we have overlooked. They entertain us and take us to new worlds and places we could never have imagined. They shape who we are as a society, help us define what is right and what is wrong, and they inspire both positive and negative behavior. In this way, film is truly a mass art.
“The nature of film criticism is to enlighten and enrich one’s experience with the art of film, not to interpret film for them.”
Because there are these two basic types of films, two types of film criticism have emerged to respond to them. There is film criticism that evaluates films based solely on their entertainment factor, on how engaging or funny or scary they are. And then there is cultural criticism, criticism of those films which are more than laughs or explosions. This criticism is vital in linking filmmakers who are trying to do serious, culturally important work – usually those who make documentaries or independent films – and film-goers.
In recent years, concurrent with the rise of social media, many have questioned the value of having a film critiqued and asked why film criticism matters. Many have also bashed film critics for supposedly telling movie-goers how to feel and what to take away from specific works. The nature of film criticism is to enlighten and enrich one’s experience with the art of film, not to interpret film for them. Just as with any art form’s criticism, film criticism is meant to put elements of specific films into cultural context and give background to the decisions directors, actors, producers, and composers made in making the film. Film criticism is not meant to supplant our individual experiences and feelings gathered from seeing a film, but rather to expand them. This holds true for both types mentioned earlier.
Film criticism is not only meant to help shape how we view films, but also meant to help shape the film industry as a whole. By providing film experts and gurus an outlet with which to highlight the good and bad of every film, directors and actors can relish in their technical successes and learn from harsh reviews. This is how directors and actors grow, by listening to those who can see past the silver screen and into the heart of a production.
To quote the late great American film critic Roger Ebert, whose decades of criticism work defined the profession and has also given rise to the now universal expression of something being “two thumbs up”, “film criticism is important because films are important.” How else can we evaluate films without criticism? How else can we value what challenges films tackle head on, what societal flaws they highlight or fears they expose? Is there another way for us to truly appreciate and understand this mass art? No.
Without criticism, films are devalued and the cultural importance of films and documentaries wanes. We lose sight of the true meaning of any art when it is not fully examined, and film is no exception to this. Through the work of Roger Ebert and scores of his talented contemporaries in the field of film criticism we have learned more about the films we love than any number of trips to the cinema could ever teach us. Film criticism shapes us, and it is not something we should ignore or throw by the wayside.