The Critics VS The Public


The Critic Season 1 _Alt_

‘Ah, critics, frightful people I know, but so necessary…’

So said a colleague when I raised the topic. But are critics really needed anymore, now that we can take an aggregate of opinions both biased and unbiased from online resources? Okay, I wouldn’t trust Tripadvisor with the purchase of a bag of nuts, let alone a holiday, but some sites are filled with knowledgeable, intelligent people who review for the pleasure of informing their readers. Ahem. So why do we read to need what the Evening Standard reviewer thinks of ‘Sleeping Beauty’? He’ll have already seen half a dozen other things this week, he’s jaded and has been doing the job too long and has now rather come to hate everything he sees.

Literary reviewers have their favourite writers. Film critics cling to glimmers of left or right wing polemic in the tawdriest films to justify some inner meaning and validate their pre-decided opinions. But online reviewers are quite happy to take the latest iPhone entirely to pieces to show you what’s good or bad about it, and before you buy a game online don’t you check to see if there’s a stack of one or five-star reviews? My rule of thumb is, if five people find the same flaw in something, it’s a flaw. If five people offer a mix of opinions, it’s just that; opinion.

I realise that as a reviewer for several newspapers I’m shooting myself in the foot here, but even I don’t think they’re of much use. The difference between a reviewer and a critic is that a reviewer chooses what to cover, so we look for excellence. A critic covers everything, and is therefore more prone to finding fault or drawing comparisons. But the public – especially the young – have no experience to draw on, and may find the most banal play or movie exciting and appealing to their age bracket.

British films were ignored for decades because elitist critics sought to reduce the visibility and importance of home-grown product, most of which was aimed at working class audiences, and routinely dismissed all those without socialist subtexts or auteur tics. French cinema, to which the general public had extremely limited access, received endless column inches in the highbrow press while popular releases were blanked.

I just checked through the Top 100 films for 2012 in the UK, and there’s not one single art film or indie that made it onto the list – ‘The Master’ comes in at 106 but received an insane amount of coverage in the broadsheet press. Those making art in a populist medium have their work cut out for them, and I’m thankful that they do it, but critical perspective is a tautology at best. If you want to read critics at their most insular and arrogant, check out Time Out New York for its film reviews.

11 comments on “The Critics VS The Public”

  1. Ken M says:

    Mainstream critics also have a tendency to be genre blind, so are unable to distinguish between two films containing car chases and explosions, dismissing them as “people who like that sort of thing will like it” even when people who like that sort of thing will actually hate it if it is a bad example of the genre.

  2. Dan Terrell says:

    The New York and Chicago critics of the thirties through sixties, but particularly those active in the earlier years, set the standard in most ways. Those we have now seem to be ink-rubbed copies, but well studied of necessity in the history of stage productions/films/books(all that they weren’t born to have known.)
    There’s a variety of classic critical styles to select from: the rumpled, portly, grumpy bar-seeker; the silk scarf wearing and exotic hat wearer, who drops bits of French about and has a go-for tagging along; the cliff walking, half of the first act misser, who can’t sleep when at home; the I was sent here and when does this tripe end? type; and the bored, loud and self-promoting perk seeker with a do-you-see-me eye on everyone else in the lobby. Sprinkle all with eau de Scotland. And what fun to have big paper critics circling each other in the latest rivals war and complaining to management about the lack of even-handedness in seating and perks.
    Like you, I prefer the “every man/woman” approach to review/criticism.

  3. Helen Martin says:

    If you aren’t a regular film goer (or play, etc.) the critic can be helpful, but only if you know into which of Dan’s categories he/she fits. I read the reviews whether I’m likely or not (usually) to go and it gives me an insight into their styles. We had a reviewer whom I detested for his negativity and when he retired it turned out that my feeling about him was quite common. He, of course, was of pretty well no use at all.

  4. John Howard says:

    Professional critics are needed to give us an idea of what the product might be like as these are the people that are given access by the PR companies when trying to tout and puff up their product.
    The man in the street also needs to be taken into account when making our mind up, as their opinion is given after actually paying out their own money rather than having the product put in front of them. They aren’t necessarily better but it is another view.
    Now here comes the ‘but’. Taking note of only one view is restrictive and not necessarily helpful when making up your mind. The more the merrier I think and of course your own experience is just as important when making a decision. There have been many times I have read a review of a film and if I had only taken notice of that one then I wouldn’t have gone to see it but, because I had a mind of my own, I went and enjoyed it contrary to the reviewers opinion.
    You do eventually get to know specific reviewers, a la Clive James and our own Amin, whose opinion you find generally chimes with yours so they become a help rather than a hinderance.
    Long live critics and a pinch of salt.

  5. Bob Low says:

    Dan-”eau de Scotland”? Can this, perhaps, be a reference to what our local licencing board used to call ”spirituous liquors”?

  6. Alan G says:

    Yes Dan. Like Bob I also want to know given that it’s very likely that I shall be moving to Scotland soon to care for my ailing father.

  7. Dan Terrell says:

    Bob and Alan – a pair of perceptive readers, as ever were!
    My Dad started out as a Drama/Movie/Entertainment critic with the long-gone Washington Times-Hearld working for Cissy Patterson one of the first American women ever to own/run/edit a newspaper.
    When I visited the paper’s offices after lunch as a child, I always smelled one of three odors on the breaths of the people there: beer = sports, Bourbon or Scotch = management and reporters, and gallery arts = wine. Oh and cigarettes and cigars, too. “Well, hello, young man. Nice to see you again.” Blast of one of the three.
    Alan: I have been down that run with my parents, but not daily hands on. It can be a very good giving-back, but fraught, experience. A heavy-bottomed, fist-sized, cut-glass glass with ice cubes and a glub-glub of eau de Scotland.” How nice, once an evening.

  8. Helen Martin says:

    Otherwise known as water of life. I can neither spell nor properly pronounce the Gaelic. I agree that a range of opinions is of the greatest help but if you wait too long you risk missing the production/film entirely.

  9. Alan G says:

    Thank you Dan. Frankly my Dad almost drove me to drink even when he was healthy. But – it has to be. He has his carers but it ain’t the same as having family to wait on him hand and foot. I’m just a bit sad to give up the life I have here.

  10. glasgow1975 says:

    ‘Eau de Scotland’ . . .as someone who lives there my first thought was ‘rain’ lol

    As for critics becoming jaded, there have been a lot of snarky comments recently on the Guardian tv site that recent reviews have been phoned in & formulaic as the main tv critic is so overworked reviewing everything. . .

  11. Helen Martin says:

    I’m betting you’re either an only or an unmarried child, Alan. I know how it is, and I hope “a bit sad” is as bad as it gets. This can be a very bad situation.

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