In a recent interview, filmmaker Anjali Menon talked about the need for film critics to be educated on the various technical aspects of filmmaking. Her comments generated an outpouring of heated responses on social media and she later clarified in a social media post that professional film critics would benefit from a better understanding of the filmmaking process. She added that since audiences themselves now write detailed and interesting reviews, professional film critics should aim higher. But Menon is not the first to make this argument. Several other filmmakers, including Vetrimaaran and Mysskin, have spoken of the need for “qualified critics”.
These arguments seem rather strange. First of all, there is no clarity and consensus on what could really make a reviewer “qualified”. And if there is indeed any merit in the argument, then we should be allowed to turn the same argument against filmmakers as well, and demand that only qualified filmmakers be allowed to make films. This could then lead to a situation where our movie theaters barely see a release.
Like cinema, film criticism is also a work of art. Just as a filmmaker responds to an emotion or thought in life and communicates it through their cinema, a critic also responds through their emotion and thought in their articulation. This demands that filmmakers and film critics approach their craft with honesty. As long as movie critics react to what they watch onscreen with complete honesty, they’re doing a good job.
However, that is not to say that the quality of film criticism today is top-notch. The first serious shortcoming lies in the homogeneity of opinions. Since most movie critics come from similar socio-economic backgrounds, they all react the same way to any given movie. It is amusing to note that even their choice of vocabulary is often the same. “Delightfully wicked”, “Charmingly delicious” or “Hilarious and heartwarming” are some of the expressions that critics from different media use for the same film.
While cinema is consumed by the masses, film criticism, especially in English, has remained the domain of the elite. This extreme lack of diversity among film critics has actually forced readers to search social media for new voices.
The second problem lies in the race for the fastest examination. Trying to compete with editors on social media and other outlets, reviewers are pressured to post their review first. Today, film criticism is literally written, published and forgotten at breakneck speed. Unfortunately, this has forced critics to rely on simple, reliable review templates that offer very little time or space to brainstorm and write thoughtful ideas about a film. Opinions are superficial because they remain a reaction and not a reflection.
The third question concerns how the finicky selection of a film for political correctness has been presented today as a valid form of film criticism. While this form of outrage initially found some readers, it has now reached a saturation point. What readers are looking for in criticism is political understanding, not a barometer of political correctness. A film critic should be able to convert his anger into thoughtful criticism. Merely outraging and dismissing films as “toxic” or “problematic” is not criticism – just laziness masked in volume.
Another problem is the complicated relationship film critics have with filmmakers. In their aspiration not only to review or critique films, but also to interview filmmakers, actors and other technicians, they are left in the lurch. Interviews require critics to maintain a cordial relationship with the filmmakers. And that often influences what they can or cannot say about movies.
The work of film critics does not depend on the certification of filmmakers. It depends on how much readers trust them. We live in the age of streaming where the lifespan of a film goes far beyond its theatrical release. For film criticism to have a life beyond the weekend as well, critics must come up with honest, unique, and thoughtful writing and not just stick their faces on written or video reviews.
The author is a Chennaiwriter and filmmaker