Critical Risks

“In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new…”

So spake Anton Ego, insufferably captious food critic, after having his entire world turned upside-down by Remy in Ratatouille‘s denouement. His speech almost reads as an admission of defeat; he has come to the realization after years of wielding a self-inflated sense of power and worth that the meaningfulness of his criticisms pale in comparison to the efforts of the chefs whose food he critiques. Driving this speech: the idea that artists risk more than critics, and specifically that critics only truly risk anything when they are speaking on the behalf of something unique, new, and unheard of, in order to support it and champion it in its fledgling moments as a work of art newly subjected to the mercy of its creator’s audience. Critics put little on the line in yielding their commentary and ultimately it’s this realization that allows Ego to cast down his pretensions and experience a personal catharsis so powerful he willingly endangers his career to acknowledge Remy as a true chef.

But for all of the poignancy of Mr. Ego’s words– after all, here he renders himself vulnerable in the same way artists do when they present their work for both audiences and critics alike to observe– do I actually find myself in agreement with him? Do I strictly believe that what a critic risks is less valuable than that an artist risks? Resoundingly, unwaveringly, I respond with an emphatic shake of my head and waggle of my finger.

There is no doubt in my mind that an artist risks something deeply personal in a way that a critic simply does not. The process of creating art– from poem to novel, from painting to sculpture, from play to film– is utterly and undeniably intimate, so much so that in order to succeed in creating art a genuine artist invariably must infuse their work with the attributes and characteristics that make them who they are as human beings. But in Ego’s speech, the gap between critical and artistic pursuits is never bridged, and I posit that the two disciplines cannot be compared head-on by virtue of the vast differences between them. Art is steeped in the creative; criticism is based on the scholarly. If an artist risks so much of themselves, all that can be objectively stated is that the artist risks something completely separate from what the critic risks; but in the end and taken in context with their profession, a critic risks just as much as an artist does.

But what exactly does a critic risk? For starters, their credibility. One could also say their knowledge, too. Remember, criticism is a scholarly pursuit; when I post a review or a piece of film analysis, I’m exposing to my audience my general knowledge of critical theory as well as my more specific knowledge of film history and theory while also demonstrating my ability to think critically about the movies that I watch. Every review in this very WordPress blog you’re reading is accessible to anyone who bothers to check it out, and therefore vulnerable to counter-criticisms and responses from people who may– or may not– possess a greater degree of knowledge than I or at the very least a dissenting opinion. In short, when I write in this blog, I risk portraying myself as a rank amateur to people who know better, and I risk being insulted or derided for having a different read or reaction to a movie. Do I maybe sound paranoid? Just check comment sections for movie reviews written by other bloggers or by professional film critics writing for, say, the Boston Globe or the New York Times. While you’re less likely to find flame wars breaking out in most non-professional or amateur blogs– since bloggers have more direct control, I assume, over what comments do and do not see the light of day– you could burn a city block down with some of the stuff that’s posted in reply to the reviews of established critics. (In fact, I might argue that critics today risk more than critics of decades past explicitly thanks to the Internet, through which anyone can have a voice and raise that voice to dispute the opinions of critics.)

Why is this important? Ego’s monologue suggests that the artistic food chain begins with artists and ends with critics, with nobody else in between save for perhaps the audience, but this just isn’t true. Critics, fittingly enough, have their own critics. If what a critic risks differs from what an artist risks, then at least they can share in common their intentional relinquishment of security against scrutiny from their respective patrons, and in doing so they risk their reputation and by extension the perpetuation of their careers and livelihoods. When a critic publishes an essay or review and chances the appearance of being uninformed, uneducated, and lacking in insight, they take a risk equitable with those taken by artists who put their works on display and invite potential commentary regarding their worthiness as an artistic talent.

Of course, up to this point I’ve been focusing on how criticism and artistry differ from one another in terms of what’s required to succeed in either endeavor– notably in how creating art requires the investment of personal elements into said work, and how criticism does not. But this is something of a half-truth, because the reality is that when a critic reviews a film, they’re writing about that film by way of the personal lens through which they view the world. While the artist might invest more of themselves into their work, there’s no doubt that a critic must put their perspective on the line each time they critique a film. One reviewer might, for example, have found Scott Pilgrim vs. The World to celebrate the frivolous and fleeting nature of youth culture; I, on the other hand, suggested that it’s really about breaking away from said mentality in order to grow up. Our personal reactions clash for certain, and because of the lack of complete objectivity in film criticism there’s no opportunity to reconcile the two and determine who’s demonstrably “right” or “wrong”. And this is how and why we must be prepared to defend our observations about films– which are made not just through study of film and critical theory but also through the thought processes that inform our unique beliefs and world views.

So, yes, Mr. Ego. Yes, an artist risks more of themselves than a critic– but to be a critic isn’t to eschew taking risks or to make oneself immune from doing so. No, a critic must take risks in their favored discipline, too. A critic risks their reputation, their cinematic acumen, and their point of view. And maybe the work of even the most hackish artists is more valuable than that of the strongest critics, but this is strictly a load of malarkey or at least a dangerous path to trod (though perhaps that’s another argument for another essay). But a critic’s input, when structured with clarity and precision, holds great worth in terms of our understanding of the films that we love and even the ones that we don’t– if only one is willing to listen.

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5 thoughts on “Critical Risks

  1. I think my stance on the whole critical debate is perfectly clear. In a way the problem with criticism though is that it appeals only to a select audience, Good criticism to even less. Everyone goes to the movies but only people interested in criticism really read valueable criticism. It’s a matter of sharing ideas between like minds. In that sense though criticism is more alive. It is there to provoke debate between people who have put thought into the same ideas. It grows even after it is publised. Film can, you could argue, do the same but again, everyone who has seen a movie has an opinion on it, why bother going if one leaves feeling nothing, but people who see movies don’t necessarily care about criticism the way people who write criticism care about movies, if you see what I’m say. So yeah, the critic risks their place amoung their own. They can alienate their readers, be known for bad judgement of taste, be poor writers, arguerers and so on.

    The thing about criticis though, and why compring it to filmmaking itself is not exactly write is that, like I’ve quotes innummerable times before, is what Renior was saying when he said the songwriter is usually greater than the song. Thus the criticism is the critic (to a good critici anyway). To reject it is to reject the writer.

  2. Fantastic quote and in my opinion, absolutely true, as it should. It’s easy to criticize, especially on a negative light, the work of other people. I disagree that the critic puts nearly as much of himself out there. Sure, he might look like a fool if he turns into an Armond White for example but even in that case, only a very small segment of the population (mainly other critics) will have their view affected.

    As Mike says above, insightful and meaningful criticism isn’t something that a lot of people will read. Short, concise and entertaining reviews will be much more popular than “high brow” in-depth analysis of a film, much like people would rather read some quick tabloid gossip over some lengthy explanation of the economic crisis. So when a movie can be seen by millions, the critic himself will only be “seen
    by a few dozens or hundreds people. It just isn’t the same stage.

    • It isn’t the same stage. In fact, the stages are demonstrably different. But while you’re both right that only passionate cinema lovers will seriously read and digest criticism– by which I mean the kind of writing that critics do beyond their weekly reviews– hundreds of thousands of people read what critics have to say every single time a new movie is released. I would say with confidence that around 80 million people have seen Inception worldwide (through purchasing a ticket, of course), but that’s one film out of one release year by one artist (if we want to capture Inception under the Nolan umbrella and only the Nolan umbrella). Professional critics release their work often daily. So, you’re right, it’s not the same stage, but the critic puts himself out on his or her stage with infinitely more frequency. Which is why the stages are difficult to compare.

      Mike identifies exactly my point– that critics, in context with their own field, risk as much as an artist does. The scale might be different but the risks are absolutely as high, even if a critic doesn’t strictly put as much into his or her writing as a filmmaker does into a single movie (though I reckon that that’s a very, very debatable point).

      I guess my biggest issue with this debate is the idea that White Chicks could conceivably be considered more valuable than anything collected in The ‘I’ of the Camera. Put simply, I just disagree with that notion– sure, White Chicks is arguably “art” but being “art” doesn’t automatically endow a work with real, genuine value. I think we can safely say that there are, in point of fact, films that simply aren’t valuable, or at least not MORE valuable than an adequate piece of criticism. Maybe that’s just where I fall.

  3. “I think we can safely say that there are, in point of fact, films that simply aren’t valuable, or at least not MORE valuable than an adequate piece of criticism. Maybe that’s just where I fall.”

    Not to mention good criticism’s abililty to make a movie seem better or worse than it actually is.

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