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Is Film Criticism a Blessing or a Curse?
In the latest edition of Totally Normal, Tony Stamp posits that maybe film critics are... good.
Film criticism is a funny thing.
When Mister Organ was released in New Zealand, Aotearoa’s biggest media outlet “Stuff” decided to publish a very negative review from Damien Grant, who did not like what I’d made.
“If I wasn’t labouring under an obligation to produce content […] I would have avoided seeing the film,” he began. “It is incomprehensible that this production was allowed to continue,” he continued. “This wasn’t a documentary,’ he concluded.
Today — as Mister Organ officially opens in select American cinemas tomorrow — The New York Times has awarded it their NYT Critic’s Pick:
“Farrier directed and co-stars in an account of those events that can rightly be called a documentary horror film. If its title, “Mister Organ,” initially strikes you as humorous, you won’t be laughing long,” critic Glenn Kenny writes.
With all that in mind, in this edition of Tony Stamp’s Totally Normal (I adore his regular Webworm column and the archive makes for great weekend reading) Tony looks at one of his favourite things — film criticism.
Take it away, Tony.
Totally Normal with Tony Stamp:
Why Critics are Good, Actually
by Tony Stamp.
Recently I logged onto the internet and became consumed with rage.
No surprise there: online spaces these days resemble the most deranged comments sections imaginable. This time though, it wasn’t to do with conspiracy cookers, or fascists. It was to do with some young people.
I, myself, was young once. And when I was, I noticed certain older people loved being assholes to anyone their junior. These were elders of my current demographic (white, male, middle-aged), and it was common behaviour in workplaces where knowledge about, say, music, could be flaunted.
It goes without saying that my female colleagues got it much worse than I did.
The more I saw this happen, the more I vowed to never do it myself. So when I notice legacy media having a go at the youths, for, say, inventing a new acronym, I tend to instinctively take the youths’ side.
But there are exceptions. Case in point: as soon as I laid eyes on this little punk, I wanted to punch his face in.
In August, the New York Times published an article about MovieTok, a new school of TikTok-based film reviewers who shun the word ‘critic’ (a word which in this context essentially means ‘film reviewer’). The old school was “snobby” and untrustworthy.
They were “fans”.
The whole thing made my blood boil, mainly because everything they said was factually incorrect and pig-ignorant of cultural history. There was swift backlash proclaiming MovieTok “the death of film criticism” — pointing out the corrupt nature of creators accepting sponsorship deals from movie studios, and highlighting that what Kodak Cameron is saying in this clip is far snobbier than anything a traditional critic would.
In it, he calls Rachel Zegler (who will star in an upcoming Snow White remake) “disrespectful” for “bashing the name of Snow White” (she actually just said that the original 86-yr-old cartoon is maybe a little old fashioned and sexist, which it is). He says she’s not a “true fan” because she watched it as a kid and got scared. I’m not making this up.
Honestly, it’s so dumb it’s not worth dwelling on. Go lick Disney’s boots some more you sniveling twerp. And that’s a fucking lapel mic, stop holding it like that.
One line in the NYT piece really stuck in my craw, a retread of something that’s become accepted wisdom about critics even though it’s total horseshit: “They watch movies and are just looking for something to critique. Fans watch movies looking for entertainment.”
Get fucked, dingus.
People tend to forget… movie reviewers love movies. That’s why they do it. They also tend to love reading reviews. I am constantly consuming criticism, in part because, at its best, it can be as legitimate a piece of art as the thing it’s critiquing.
I am personally invested in this, because I have found myself in the very lucky position of being what you might call a critic. Occasionally I get to review a movie, and a good part of my full-time job involves reviewing music. This is something I’ve wanted to do since I was a kid. I studied music production and media literacy, but, despite having obvious things in my favour (white, male, middle-aged), I didn’t think it would actually happen.
That’s partly because the media is dying. And criticism in particular is under threat. Even The AV Club, which once spawned some of America’s best critics, has taken to publishing articles written by Chat GPT.
Public opinion has also turned against critics in the last twenty years or so. And a lot of that is to do with the word: critics must love to criticise, right?
Portrayals in things like Ratatouille and Birdman don’t help. There’s this idea that film reviewers are hopelessly snobbish, and only like the most obscure things. But you only need to look at the response to something like Barbie to see that isn’t true. They just like things that are good.
And championing things is where critics become essential. Because sure, they might not be raining love down upon The Flash, but they will on Aftersun. One of those things will eventually fade from view, and the other will continue to show up in lists of favourites, and nurture film fans for generations to come. That’s the value of criticism. To provide context.
I do understand that being on the receiving end isn’t fun. Sometimes I’m called on to host a radio show, and when I do this, the computer in front of me shows in real time what people are texting in. Probably no surprise to learn that some can be very personal, and very insulting.
Negative feedback can be helpful and constructive, (and honestly, 99.9% of what comes in is positive). But it only takes one nasty text to ruin your show, and sometimes your day.
So I get that for filmmakers, musicians, artists and so on, getting critiqued can really suck.
But when I see Charli XCX and Lizzo, two incredibly successful, wealthy, and very well reviewed artists railing against critics — going so far as to commission t-shirts — it feels a lot like punching down. Like, people who live in mansions having a go at someone struggling to pay the rent on their studio apartment, because they got a job talking about a medium they love. Lizzo and Charli saw that one negative comment, and it wrecked them.
It should go without saying that having a negative opinion about something popular is allowed. I’d go so far as to say it’s a crucial part of the whole cultural shebang. Apply the same metric to say, politics, and it goes without saying. But a few years ago, in the fever swamp of internet reckons, people started to opine, rather gleefully, that it wasn’t ‘needed’ anymore.
Everyone's a critic now, so no one is, goes the thinking. But I’ve never seen a single paid critic begrudge anyone doing it online for fun; quite the opposite in fact.
The exception is dire shit like those Cinema Sins videos, which are garbage. They’re like anti-criticism, but that’s a whole other story.
I am blessed in my day job to only discuss music I like. This neatly keeps me out of the ‘negative critic’ crosshairs, and as I’ve discovered, it’s very valuable to musicians. The overwhelming response I get is “Thank you for listening”.
Multiple local publications are no longer with us, and while several websites are filling a crucial void, it can feel like an industry run on vibes and streaming figures rather than actual engagement. There should be many more people in my position (ideally people who aren’t white, male, and middle-aged). It should be a dialogue, not a monolith of PR and metrics.
There’s a website/ app called Letterboxd which has risen to prominence in recent years. Started in New Zealand (he wrote, tearfully saluting the flag), it allows users to rate and critique movies. Tellingly, it’s very popular with critics, who, again, tend to welcome as many people joining their sandbox as possible. And these paid critics frequently log the same kind of jokey, brief review as casual fans. I’ve seen a few people decry this kind of thing as destroying the medium or whatever, but that’s horseshit. It’s clearly doing the opposite.
Much more of a concern is the kind of braindead brand adherence displayed by the MovieTok people. The way media has blobbed together into a handful of giant companies is 1) bad and 2) gross, and it’s not hard to see how armies of fans came to log on every day and defend, say, Disney — given that a handful of social media companies are set up to enable exactly that type of behaviour. But it’s still troubling.
On social media, some critics have been decrying the death of media literacy, and there might be some truth to that. The web has changed our brains. Staying objective is more and more challenging. We can diagnose why this is in the years to come, but a refrain among certain “fans” is that movies should deliver plot and nothing more. Anything else is “pretentious”, or “shock value”.
Recently these people decided that sex scenes are unnecessary.
This speaks to a real misunderstanding of what art is, in my opinion. And it might indicate other, more troubling things. In fact it’s too much to get into here.
So let’s pick this up next month, with a special Totally Normal entirely dedicated to onscreen sex. Humping. Making love. Bumping uglies. And why that, too, is good, actually.
David here again.
If you are new here and have missed Tony’s other stuff, I urge you to check it out. I love his stuff.
If you’re not on Letterboxd, I think you might like it. It’s a great way to track your own movie going and thoughts (here are mine), and to find other movies you might like by other fans, directors, and writers.
Oh, one more thing — on convicted fraudster Damien Grant.
Damien Grant getting published on New Zealand’s biggest site to slag off Mister Organ (and me) really demonstrates how weirdly political New Zealand gets. Damien Grant is closely aligned with Sean Plunket, who actively fucked with me during the film’s release. I do think it’s pretty weird Stuff let Damien do this.
I wrote to them about it at the time, and they shrugged it off.
With Mister Organ out tomorrow in the US, I’m going to shut up about it for a while.
I feel proud it’s out, and as a kiwi growing up looking with awe at “Hollywood”, I am taking a short time to feel proud. And… to shut up about it.
For those in the UK or Japan or Switzerland — it’ll be out on digital and blu-ray on Amazon later this year. Sorry I haven’t been able to get it on screens worldwide, but I am not Taylor Swift.
Much aroha and thanks for the support in my documentary work, and here at Webworm. And thanks Tony for writing such a fucking great column.