The work of the Critic ™

A long time ago Hulk posted a scathing review of The Amazing Spiderman, and I had a riposte, and I find myself now having to come back again to defend Spiderman: Homecoming from his “criticism“. His basic problem is that this new iteration doesn’t show Peter growing or changing – let me tell you, as a long-term reader of the comics, growth and change are tiny and incremental because the bulk of what happens is about showcasing the implications of being Spiderman, not of becoming Spiderman or of Spiderman fundamentally changing what that means. Put it this way – Spiderman is not Hamlet. Once again, I cite Robin Laws’ work on “Iconic” versus “Dramatic” heroes, and the necessarily different narrative structures that surround those approaches to character.

So what? I disagree with Hulk, he disagrees with Marvel, what’s the point of rehashing all of this? For me, the point is the larger question in play, which is what the heck a critic is “supposed” to be doing in the first place, and whether Hulk (or I!) is doing that. And I think there are two main aspects to what we should be doing.

The first, the mainstay really, is that critics are arbiters of taste. Perhaps the greatest critic in this sense is Dr Samuel Johnson, whose neoclassical predilections led him to advocate for certain critical positions, certain aesthetic decisions, and hence to make value judgments about which artistic works have how much merit. This is what artists whose work is maligned always mean when they say that they make art for “the masses” and not “the critics”. “Critics” in this reading always have a more refined, rarefied, and elite taste, for works which are in some sense inaccessible or undesirable to the masses. The critics who can retain a genuine taste for mass-production are uncommon – every critic I follow, including Mark Kermode, Robbie Collins, Wendy Ide, and Fancine Stock, have advocated at one time or another for nigh-unwatchable films that fitted into some niche of their highly refined taste, while only Robbie Collins seems to me to have retained the “common touch”, even if this does lead to occasional head-scratchers such as his defence of Transformers: The Last Knight.

Why a critic’s opinion should deviate from that of the average punter is an interesting question, and has to do with the second function of critics, which is simply to consume film in the vast quantity that is necessary to get a genuine perspective on how individual films fit within the field as a whole. Without this massive back-log of experience, critics won’t be able to either develop their taste or to understand the subtle gradations in quality that make some films great while ostensibly similar films are to be lamented. In my case, as an aficionado of detective-based film noir, I find Dead Reckoning [1947] to be a shabby copy of Bogart’s earlier detective personas, while the design of Lizabeth Scott’s persona and concomitant romance with Bogey is a clear attempt to recapture the lightning in a bottle that was his real-life love-affair with Lauren Bacall. Having seen virtually all of his movies, the cynicism in its construction could hardly be more naked or blatant – but it’s rating on IMDb of a respectable 7.2 shows that for “the masses” the copy is close enough to get a pass.

Yet these two functions are actually insufficient, because what they amount to is an emotional reaction to a work, informed by a history of other emotions. What’s necessary is to be able to take that emotional reaction and break it down in order to understand how and why it was generated, which requires an honest engagement with both your own internalised taste and with the strategies adopted by the film – and it is on this hill that most reviewers in die in my experience. Once a real engagement happens, going beyond an emotional response, you can start to build a critical repertoire, where you can use your emotions as the basis of making a structured aesthetic argument that can illuminate why you responded a particular way, giving real access to the basis for your own responses and hence a way for a disinterested reader to use your work to form their own notion of whether to see a film or whether it will bug them. In this vein, I found Robbie Collins’ defence of Transformers: The Last Knight compelling because I recognise that his praise is based on an aesthetic paradigm that doesn’t work for me. His explanation of why it’s a good film told me more about why I wouldn’t like it than all the other negative reviews combined. Robbie in that piece engages in real criticism, not just an arbitration of taste, but an arbitration of taste based on experience and engagement with the work being explored.

The most interesting film reviews I’ve read recently cluster around War for the Planet of the Apes, which has garnered major critical plaudits. I’ve never seen the new films because I had an intuition that I wouldn’t like them, and in the absence of a specific prompt to test that intuition I’ve not bothered. When I read reviews from reviewers I generally like, like James Dyer, it seems like I should give them a try:

War is the second angry ape movie to homage Coppola’s ’Nam epic this year, following in Skull Island’s significantly larger (though still Notary-shaped) footsteps. Graffiti in the Colonel’s compound even spells it out, snatching the low-hanging pun from lazy journalists with a hastily scrawled ‘Ape-pocalypse Now’. But as the small group journeys, on horseback, through the mountains — picking up a mute human girl (Amiah Miller) along the way — the film more closely adopts the feel of a ’50s Western: its five riders setting forth into a sweeping new frontier. But while the bristling tree lines and jagged peaks of the Canadian Rockies make for a stunning backdrop, even nature’s beauty can’t hold a candle to Weta’s.

I should fucking love this movie – I love Westerns, I loved Kong: Skull Island. I love Heart of Darkness (despite its problems) and many derivative works. But read that paragraph again – it’s pure emotion. I am projecting a range of associations onto it, which was James’ structural gambit. What a “50s Western” means to me is quite different from what it means to Ken and Robin, whose thoughts on a genre they love does not closely match my thoughts on a genre I love. It’s all evocative and fun and pithy – but it’s not yet criticism. It doesn’t really help me identify the source of my unease, or make a decision about whether to go.

The most-informative review I’ve found is from Anita Sarkeesian, a critic whose work is almost entirely divorced for me from any actual texts, because she works primarily in video games, which I don’t myself consume. But her piece on War for the Planet of the Apes takes her emotional reaction (hate) and parses it through a combination of detailed close readings and a critical apparatus that I understand. She has written a very thoughtful work which explains the story mechanisms, political resonances, and emotional valence.

I think the difference is even more striking when we compare her take-down of War to Hulk’s dismissal of Spider-Man. Hulk arrived at the film with a pre-made critical agenda, of the Hero’s Journey, as if that were some determinative factor in how films should work, and then proceeded to just ignore all the aspects of the film pointing to a different way of thinking about narrative. Anita arrived at War and then looked at the film to say “this is what it’s doing” and followed that up with “and this is why I don’t like what it’s doing”. It’s real criticism, not just another opinion dressed up with some prior experience.

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