Kicking Around the Can Some More: My Two-Cents on Film Criticism


Far be it from me to pee in another man’s pool. For the record, that ain’t the purpose of this week’s humble installment. In the chatbacks of a piece that occurred recently in these parts, I’d even said as much – that I’d been tinkering off-and-on with some ideas about the very topic of Film Criticism. Since it garnered so much attention, I thought it’d be interesting to get another take on the State of That Union.

See, I’ve always thought of watching films as more of a ‘cultural experience’ than it ever was an artistic expression. (Eff you, Susan Sarandon, and take your ex Tim Robbins with you.) How can I say that?

Well, I can say it because – simply – there are many types of films in my universe. Think what you might, but I don’t think of a bawdy Apatow comedy or a Japanese Pink film (look it up, I’ll wait) is so much about ‘artistic expression’ as it is about exploring a cultural norm or maybe even defying one (for art’s sake!). So, in that respect, one man’s art is – as they say – another man’s toilet tissue, but never – and I mean never – try wiping with a strip of 35mm. That’s just a recipe for failure … or a visit to a gastroenterologist.

What we are as a people – who we are, where we come from, where we’re heading – that’s the stuff of film.


Now, sure, I do understand how some blokes might say that’s artistic expression, so maybe – maybe – my issue is more semantics than it is true disagreement with ones who know more than I (and there are plenty because I don’t consider myself an expert at anything, much less film). All I know is what I like. What I write about is what I consider worth writing about. Today, that may be Film Criticism, and tomorrow it may be graphic novels. I’m terrible with ‘assignments’ not because I can’t meet a deadline but that it’s hard to wake my inner muse to a subject that doesn’t interest me or it. That’s why grandmothers wear shirts that say “ask me about my grandkid” instead of wearing shirts that read “ask me about installing a pacemaker”: one topic interests them, the other doesn’t. Or they’ve got a good heart. (Pun intended, and no I didn’t say it’d be a good pun.)

And, yeah, I get the whole, “Well, what is art is it’s not culture?”

The point I’m trying to make is that I don’t see all art as “art.” Sure, some of it’s “art,” but not all of it’s “art.” If it ain’t “art,” can’t we still talk about it? I don’t see most films by Ben Stiller as art, but he sure makes enough of them. I don’t see most skin flicks on Cinemax as art, but folks still tune in for ‘em. (Not me. I watch them for the articles.) And I certainly don’t see any producer who’d dare to sign Ashton Kutcher, Katherine Heigl, or Tyler Perry to headline anything as being all that interested in luring “art” patrons to the cineplexes, but they still do it.

My Big Fat Fake Movie

For example, I suspect I watch more foreign films than does the next reader/writer you’ll rub knuckles with today. Does that make me more qualified than anyone to write about them? Well, only in so much that I may be more familiar with some of the names, places, movers, shakers, and events depicted in celluloid … but, again I ask, does that make me more qualified? Personally, I don’t think so. I know others who’d disagree with me, who have disagreed with me, but that’s their business. I only represent my own.

Honestly, half the job of any film critic is to convince you – the reader – that he (or she, God forbid!) knows what he (or she) is talking about. (Read closely, naysayers: I said that’s H-A-L-F the job.) In fact, that’s how many of us who occupy cyberspace on a greater-than-average basis get asked to commit something in writing to places like Unreality and beyond. Someone somewhere sometime stumbles across something we’ve written sometime ago; they like it; and, for whatever reason, they reach out to us, asking us to provide an opinion on A, B, C, or D. Or – in other cases – a smiler like Paul Tassi (if you don’t know, then stop reading now) puts out a request seeking new voices to add to his growing stable of voices, and – in order to apply – you have to provide samples for him in order for the man to give you the once-over.

I guess what I’m trying to get at is, when it comes to Film Criticism, any one of us has the ability to flesh out a competent voice about such things. Any one of us can watch flicks – or read books or buy products or listen to tunes – and have something to say about the completed product … what it meant, why it worked, why it didn’t work … because, in the end, it’s a personal experience. It’s interpretive. It means to you what it means to you, and that’s why 1980’s seminal Flash Gordon will always be one of my closet favorites because the film spoke to me in ways it didn’t to you. That doesn’t make my opinion any better than yours. It just means my experiences in my world with my culture led me to having a much different experience with it than you did. Same thing with Citizen Kane. Same thing with Casablanca. Same thing with To Kill A Mockingbird or Soylent Green or Blade Runner or even Scary Movie 3. Such is life. Get over it.


However, I take exception with the idea that simply seeing more movies than the next person makes an opinion any less or any more qualified than mine. What’s my evidence? Roger effing Ebert. That’s my evidence. The guy’s clearly seen more than most people alive, and he’s still recommending garbage.

I’d have you know that the dirty little secret – for the most part – is that Film Criticism is about exactly whatever the current film critic you’re reading says it’s about (i.e. film), and that’s nothing bigger or smaller than simply jawing on films. The good. The bad. And the ugly. (Which, I think, is vastly overrated, but that’s a whole other story for when we’re jawing about Sergio Leone. For A Few Dollars More is a vastly better film, by the way. Suck it.)

Two Men Talking in Ecuador

What draws me to jaw about film is that I like jawing about film. Furthermore, I take tremendous delight in jawing about films with other people who love jawing about films. My wife is one such person. Some online buds are others. Some distributors who are so kind to send me advance DVDs of films and TV shows are more. Many of the readers on are still more.

Have something to say about a film. That’s good enough for me.

I’ll see your Top Ten List, and I’ll raise you my Top Twenty.

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  1. No, no, no. “Smiler” is a word that goes back to my college days, not any Doctor Who or other sci-fi property. It’s just another way of saying “fellow dude who shares like interests.” I forget that I’m ancient compared to most around these parts, and, sometimes, the idioms & euphemisms don’t translate as well.

  2. I’m just glad the conversation’s not over. To pee in the pool of your peeing in the pool metaphor, I see this more as you jumping in. And it’s a public pool. And the water, by the way, is fine.

    I… I don’t even want to get into that whole “what is art” thing right now. I do think you’re ultimately making a semantic argument.

    But you mentioned Ben Stiller: Tropic Thunder is, for me, a great comedy because it thoroughly and wittily deconstructs the tropes of war movies and the Hollywood actor. At the same time, it displays a lot of creativity in its jokes, and the actors by and large turn in hilarious performances with loads of conviction. There’s more, but it is art. Good art. Subjectively, sure, but the work of the film critic comes in building his/her argument for the subjective.

    Seeing more movies doesn’t automatically make your opinion “right.” What it does do is give you a better context to see and understand any particular film in. Ebert is often quite good at this, regardless of whether I agree with his final verdict. He’s also, you know, getting older. There are always other factors.

    Tropic Thunder works better if you understand the history of war films, particularly the ones made about Vietnam. And it works even better if you understand the process by which actors trained to be in those films. AND if you’ve seen a thoughtful comedy like Tropic Thunder, it’s easier to identify other comedies that aren’t trying as hard. A good film critic will understand these things and make an effort to communicate them to the audience.

    It’s not good to get too concerned with declaring a movie’s yes-or-no worth. Sure, it’s nice to know whether or not to check out something, but “recommendation” should not be the only (or primary, IMO) job of a solid piece of criticism… and when a recommendation comes, it should always be clarified so the people most likely to agree with it know to listen.

    In conclusion, I would actually love to hear a good argument for why that Flash Gordon movie is worthwhile.

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