When Critics Hurt Instead of Help

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Over the course of reviewing hundreds of movies a year, a critic over-hypes at least one movie; it happens more times than one would like, but it happens. The main culprit is often red-carpet festival premieres that lead to a dizzying high that positively impacts a film’s reception. A plethora of four star reviews that may have only been three or three-and-a-half after said critic digests the film for a week or two more. Eager cinephiles read these glowing reviews out of Cannes, Telluride and Toronto and place those movies extremely high on their most anticipated lists.

Months pass and the film is finally available for moviegoers to see for themselves. You pay your admission, watch the film, and, following the end credits, disappointment inevitably hangs in the air walking out of the theatre. It’s not that the film was bad necessarily, but the hype took hold and played out entirely in the minds of viewers, making whatever appeared onscreen almost impossible to replicate. Critics obviously don’t over-hype films intentionally, but in the perpetual race to be ‘first’, sometimes thoughtful consideration is lost in the rush to build consensus in a film’s reception.

Take for example the toast of film criticism at the moment, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. Boyhood currently enjoys a 99% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes.com, and while that is exciting news for fans of Richard Linklater’s work, the collective goodwill behind that rating is bound to cause some viewers to feel overhyped when they eventually see it themselves. And through no fault of its own, the positive feelings Boyhood inspired in some critics will cause scorn in viewers who don’t share the same feelings as Grantland’s Wesley Morris. “To sit with this movie and witness the concentrated passage of time is to watch, in a true, moving way, your life unspool before your eyes, without fanfare or idealism or romance.” It is a moving quote, but some will not see their lives reflected in Ellar Coltrane’s performance and choose to take it out on the film itself.

Contrarianism is a popular shorthand form of criticism for those who either haven’t seen the films in question, or have an agenda. For as quickly as hyperbole can be constructed, so can snark. Negative backlash is certainly not one of the common ways that critics wind up affecting a film when they praise it, but it is becoming increasingly present in the new awards season race that starts in May and doesn’t end until the following February. However, there is another effect of overhype that is also becoming far more common in certain circles of the blogosphere: the takedown. With so many critic’s personal favorites contending for a limited number of spots, lively debate turns into something much less constructive. A critic gets it in his/her mind that in order for a film that they like to gain support in the awards race, another film has to be taken down.

Disagreements are a natural byproduct of passionate takes on films, but bitter feuds like these are doing nothing but harming cinema in the long run. Between the holy crusade Glenn Greenwald launched against Zero Dark Thirty for what he considered condoning of torture, or the slams Silver Linings Playbook received for not accurately conveying mental illness, awards chatter can get quite nasty. What was worse was that some of those writers who started echoing Greenwald hadn’t even seen the movie they were tearing down.

There are few professions that champion movies as well as the critics who spend their lives dissecting the medium, but they are also prone to the same hurt feelings and subjectivity of even casual viewers of film. Let’s take that passion and really analyze projects with not just an eye for what awards a film might win, but the reputation it could have for years to come. If that means that you won’t be first, so be it. The viewer who watches later will thank you.

— Colin Biggs

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