Critiquing the Critic: The Evolution and Functionality of Film Criticism

Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert
Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert

The critical community is something that exists by the strangest and more confusing means in regards to the world of art. In dealing with the overall production quality and effectiveness of any other form of work (architecture, science, geology, anything really), the outcome or ending product is something that is accessed and (in a way) graded, and the ending result of that placement of use determines the life of that ending result. But this is the distinction. In every other field besides the arts (and philosophy), things are being looked at objectively and rationally (which is the correct stance). However, traditional art (paintings, sculpture), multimedia (film, video, music) and literature are all in the realm of subjectivity. Whether the resulting emotions and rationale toward a piece of art is trepidation, indifference or elation, it is dependent on the tastes of those judging the work.

Now there are many proponents to the argument that suggests that a piece can and should be viewed objectively to determine quality and significance. And to a degree, this is unavoidable. There will always be work that is primarily judged first on craft, but there are so many schools of artistic thought in determining what can be defined as quality of craft that the line between good and bad art is never defined. It is more as if the two have always been congealed and swirling rather than opposing ends of the spectrum. Using film as an example, the determining factors to each audience member making the viewing experience of a film enjoyable or unbearable (and everywhere between) is different for each person. With such a wide array of tastes and interpretations, there will never be a definitive result. However, though subjectivity plays a very large role in the understanding and appreciation of art, there is one last factor that separates the art world from the rest in terms of definite grading: art has no use to society.

Demarcating, art has no fiscal or social use in the stabilization of a society, but it is essential for the enrichment and longevity of the culture of a people. This strange duality in which art exists makes it simultaneously expendable and essential for a civilization to exist. And so this brings us back to the world of the critic. Art critics came out of a population’s need to make sense of emerging (or existing) art that flaunted the lines of definable use and quality. For example, in pre-Hayes Code America, the films that were created could touch amongst any topic and in any way. Though critics of all three arts had existed for quite a while before film, this medium was so new, there was a general awe about the worlds it could create more than a need to critically interpret the work. It was the age of experimentation on all fronts, whether by concept or craft, the world was being explored and tested. One film that was a champion on pushing the boundaries of a very new industry was Alfred E. Green’s 1933 feature Baby Face.

Though scorned and ridiculed for its depiction of highly sexually suggestive material (which prompted the New York State Censorship Board ordering a recut of the movie), Baby Face was a film that was more important to the artistic world than could be measured. The study of Nietzschean philosophy (in the recut a statement on morality is used instead) is strong throughout the work, prompting vastly different and engaging points of view that were widely considered taboo for the time, including friendly and supportive interracial relationships between blacks and whites. The social implications that the film addresses are still relevant and starkly unforgiving, just as the world happens to actually be. The film reflected a growing attitude of the time as well as a perspective toward “everything is up for grabs” mentality in motion pictures, which was sadly squashed by the stranglehold the Hayes Code, put on multimedia art that still effects major film releases to this day.

Though the introduction of the MPAA Rating System is a far more accessible and understandable choice, the setup of the rating in regards to releasing films is highly influenced by individual tastes and warped moralities. For example, every film in the Saw Franchise has been rated R, and each installment is equipped with a menagerie of torture and gore that preceded more and more excessively as the (ridiculous) story continued. But on the opposing end of that, a film like William Friedkin’s Killer Joe is rated NC-17 for the sexual content, though the film is more realistic and reflects an attitude of a particular way of life and comments on that lifestyle and its associated choices.

The personal prejudices of the MPAA Ratings Board effectively carries out the same effect, as did the Hayes Censorship Boards, limiting the exposure and possible profits a film could generate due to their own tastes, which is why the truest exploration in American film occurred before the implementation of censorship. Now why the rant? Because the censorship committees and ratings systems in place are all a form of criticism that highly affects the functionality of the business of the art world, which in turn affects a vast section of America’s economy, having a social and economic impact. This most extreme form of criticism directly influences the whole of the film world, even before published critics get their hands on the work and determine its fate.

Though the critical community generally doesn’t take the ratings of films very seriously due to many of the aforementioned points, it still requires the system because with it, film critics still are defined. Without it, every audience member with a computer and ability to write or rant into a web camera can be considered a professional critic, just as it was originally. To clarify, when it comes to the breaking down of the elements and subtext of films, the professional critics are those select few who have made it a career to consider and evaluate movies. However, unlike many positions where career dedications to a specific field denote expert qualifications, film criticism is a broken system. Due to the dynamic (even organic) organism that is filmmaking, the way to approach critical interpretation of cinema continues to drastically change in the face of technological and artistic alterations and evolutions that sway the projected future of the medium constantly from one possibility to another. The strength of filmmaking is the power it has to stay equivocal. If approaching the foundations of the art (and the industry) back in the early 1900s it was considered ludicrous and even damaging to create a film with sound. Many of the first sound features released to the American market bombed horribly financially because of the infancy of the technology and an audience reacting to a position taken against the norm. Now, modern audiences would consider this ludicrous, considering how woven into the framework of filmmaking sound design has become, where silent films produced in the modern market are in arthouse and avant-garde territory. Though there are still silent films being produced to this day, including the multi-Academy Award winner The Artist, the critical community shifts with public opinion, especially when considering films and movements/eras in retrospect, which makes it fickle and too changeable.

Films such as Tod Browning’s Freaks, Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom and Buster Keaton’s The General were critical and commercial failures when they originally debuted (both Browning and Powell’s careers were killed by these movies) but now, the critical community not only considers these movies to be very good, but also seminal classics of filmmaking history.

Dramatic critics critiqued early films and their evaluation came from a background of the stage and their critical interpretation was not necessarily reflecting the whole of the public mood toward each reviewed work in a way that was actually relatable to the new medium. As aforementioned, these were still the unique opinions of individual people who had access to published media; and due to this premature involvement in the assessment of films so early in its infancy, the public was easily swayed due to the power of strong person wills of these critics. Though the technology advanced so rapidly in filmmaking, the artistry behind it moved slower, trying to experiment more and more, but always met with strong resistance from critical sources, government sources and (eventually) the Hayes Censorship Code.

Because of this mismatched and mutated embrace and elucidation of filmmaking themes, tropes and techniques, the modern way films are made and perceived is almost counterintuitive to the very nature of filmmaking. The lower the rating, the more widely acceptable the material, the more chances for financial success a film will have. Filmmakers pander to audiences and audiences pander their responses to the substandard work to the filmmakers to keep the vicious cycle rotating. Though the whole of filmmaking is more than littered with a plethora of amazing films and at many times there were works of art so provocative that it shattered the molds of convention and social understanding, holding a mirror back on the times it was made in (including many children films). Though due to the birth and evolution of film theory and criticism in many ways it could be suggested that filmmaking as a whole has not reached for its full potential, nor has it been reaching in the right direction as of the last decade, focusing entirely on the technological and gimmicks aspects of movie making and distribution rather than creating films of any breed that pushes the limits of our understanding and perspective.

Though the tone of this article may be believed to be of absolute opposition to the critical world, this isn’t the complete case. It is in opposition to the self-perpetuating execution of critical commentary on the arts, and filmmaking specifically that has plagued the artistic world for generations. Even if the concurrent evolution of critical understanding can be argued in the positive for the growth and understanding of art in its creation, personal opinions conclude the cons are far outweighing the pros in terms of exploring the range of human creativity within the bounds of antiquated critical conjecture.

The issues present in the functionality and usability of the critical side of art is also a debate of censorship, creativity and a test in the complexities of morality (in some cases) as to what can be done, what can be handled by the public and what should be done.

Also Published in The Baltimore Examiner.

Written by Matthew Roe. Published: October 30, 2013

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