Joe on Film Criticism

Since the days of highly talked about local plays in small, stone amphitheaters where villagers gathered in gleeful anticipation, our levels of societal sophistication have been worn on the sleeves of our entertainment. Entertainment, as we know it in film, is not merely an inconsequential time away from reality. Entertainment is a gauge by which our society can be judged.

To some small degree, the forms of entertainment we seek out and appreciate can determine our level of morality. We look back and sneer at the Romans for watching people die horribly in an arena in the days of the Caesars. But are we really that much further along when we find great fascination in watching brutal combat matches and videos of children hurting other children online? Our desire to bet on the outcome of cock fights and pit bull match-ups show us that we have changed for the better only a little in recent times. Based on our preferences of entertainment alone, any extraterrestrial observers of our world would have a good idea of whether or not we would be hostile to them if they made themselves known.

I don’t recall who said it, but the saying is true: “Nothing says more about humanity than the games she plays.” Movies are not only indicators of our spiritual, intellectual, and social levels of awareness, but will always serve as time capsules as they say so much about us and our species. The movies we watch testify to our ideologies regarding the religious myths we hold to be true and other convictions that will one day be thought obsolete. Television and movies alike act as parallel testimonies to our vast and pervasive ignorance.

The dedicated film critic is separate from the devoted film fan primarily in that it is not the serious fan’s obligation to explore these issues. It is the critic’s mission to explore them exhaustively, but both have one thing in common—not necessarily opinions, but the belief that there is a level of objectivity when it comes to the merits of determining a “good” or “bad” film. The careful critic and ardent fan are one and the same in that they both realize that film criticism is not meaningless, nor is it created by someone writing merely to express their own personal likes or dislikes.

Film criticism is an art, an art like any other, which involves a principled methodology (however abstractly conceived), intelligence, cultural awareness, and psychology. For this reason, reviewing a film in the time in which it emerged is crucial. When reviewing a new film, the astute critic asks: What does said work contribute to the body of works presently available in a particular genre(s)? Does it do what so many other works have done before it? Does it do it better? Does it tread new ground? Will it become influential in society? Will it influence thinking in times to come? Will it make us question some previously held conviction(s)? Chiefly, does it do well what it sets out to do?

The study of film is, in essence, a look at how well human behavior and nature can be duplicated or examined. We want reality to give us fantasy, but we expect fantasy to tell us more about ourselves in reality (at least we expect as much subconsciously). We know this because we call out bad fantasy when it fails to relate sufficiently to known reality. What we want to do is to predict ourselves and reduce to terms most familiar to us the encapsulated meaning of our lives. We want to understand ourselves better. We want to know what lies ahead, as well as what we are leaving behind in terms of our personal evolution. 

To a great extent, it is film criticism that deals with the core attributes of what it means to be human. When audiences watch movies, they look for different things. Some look for novelty, some for cosmetic concerns and vanities. Some are impressed with technology. Some like to see impressive-but-primal displays of power and violence. Some want to see love, but all are looking to receive back a portion of the human experience to which they can relate. The film critic makes this his/her work. The film critic simply expects a return much greater than that of the average moviegoer.

For as much as we want to waste time and revel in the fantastic and impossible – laughing at parody, gawking at absurdity, being brought to tears in tales of trauma, true or false – we want to be touched by the moments of life portrayed, including the most awful and painful ones. Entertainment, then, could be called a preferential form of spirituality, not unlike a worship service.

In addition to providing what amounts to a spiritual form of nourishment, movies misinform us, deceive us, and show us our limitations. But movies can do nothing of themselves. They are only a mirror, reflecting back the net result of what we have put into them, being only what we created them to be in light of our perception of the world (or how we wish it to be). The quest to understand ourselves through movies is a search, a search of memory, a look at history, a motivation to learn more about philosophy and the sciences. In this exhilarating search, we learn to appreciate the limitations of our knowledge, principles, and our minds.

It is through devotion to film that our imaginations are allowed to soar to increasingly greater heights. We learn to accept our limitations or be confounded by our utter lack of growth and stunning shortsightedness. Movies can consume us and make us profoundly unhappy if we watch them to escape from reality and hide inside them, instead of as a river in an outward channel, with waters that lead us back to a rippled-but-telling image of ourselves and our society.

The study of film is a search for what speaks to the human experience. We want a better grasp on what it means to be human. We demonstrate through the pursuit of entertainment that we do not yet, as a species, understand ourselves, which is why we want to share our hurts and our happiness, and everything that underlies what it means to be called finite. We want to be patted on the back and to know that we are not alone in our experiences and trials. In so doing, we go within and beyond who we are in efforts to better ascertain who we want to be.