On Second Thought: Kenneth Turan on how a film critic can’t go wrong
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Everyone has had the experience of disagreeing with a critic, but do critics ever second-guess themselves? We asked Calendar’s critics whether there were any reviews they regretted. First in a series.
I am not now nor have I ever been mistaken in my judgment about a film.
Now that I’ve gotten your attention with that bit of unwise bravado, let me explain why I feel that asking critics about what they got wrong, or for that matter what they got right, is to fundamentally misunderstand what it is we do and how we do it.
Let’s start with some history. When Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo’ came out in 1958, critics were almost unanimously dismissive, with the New Yorker speaking for the fraternity by saying ‘the director has never before indulged in such far-fetched nonsense.’
Cut to 44 years later, to the prestigious poll of international critics that the British magazine Sight & Sound conducts every 10 years to determine the best film ever made. ‘Vertigo’ not only finished second, it came within a hair of unseating the perennial champion, ‘Citizen Kane.’
What happened? Were those critics back in 1958 hopeless fools? To say that would be to arrogantly assume that today’s practitioners have reached some ultimate pinnacle of knowledge that neither past nor future generations can hope to equal.
The reality is that critics are creatures of their particular time and place, that even the most rarefied criticism is at its core opinion shaped by all the personal and societal forces that shape anyone’s taste.
Just as you can’t be wrong or right if you prefer Italian food to Chinese, it’s hard to be right or wrong about what we like in a film, no matter how much we think we can.
What criticism offers, ideally, is informed, thoughtful, well-written opinion, an expression of personal taste based on knowledge, experience and insight that helps readers both decide what to see and understand what they have seen. And the closest I’ve come to making a mistake has been when I haven’t trusted my own instincts about a film.
That happened in 2000 with the Mexican film ‘Amores Perros.’ I saw this film later than did most critics, and by the time I did I was very much aware that this was one of the most praised films of recent years. My own reaction, or so I initially thought, was indifference, so much so that I passed on reviewing the picture.
But the more I thought about ‘Amores Perros,’ the more I remembered what I now tell my students when I teach reviewing at USC. If you come out of a film and aren’t sure what your opinion is, it likely means you do know but are not comfortable with your thoughts. The truth was I’d been more or less bored by this widely lionized, would-be classic, and I’d allowed what I call the tyranny of the masterpiece to let me think this was an unworthy reaction.
Whenever I get to moments such as these, I reread, as I did then, a passage from ‘The Immediate Experience’ by critic Robert Warshow. ‘A man goes to the movies,’ Warshow wrote. ‘The critic must be honest enough to admit that he is that man.’
By reminding us that anyone who writes about film is a person with idiosyncratic tastes before he or she is a critic, Warshow underscores how human and personal a job criticism is when it’s done right. If I didn’t appreciate ‘Amores Perros,’ I had to say so (and in fact I did in a subsequent Sunday essay), even if it meant realizing sometime down the road that I’d missed the boat on the ‘Vertigo’ of our time.
To pretend either to like it or that I didn’t really have an opinion, to pretend in effect that I was someone else to save face and be one of the gang, was simply unacceptable. Criticism is a lonely job, and in the final analysis, either you’re a gang of one or you’re nothing at all.