Differentiating the Critics

July 16, 2006
A thought by James Berardinelli

There are essentially four types of film critics, and there's not a lot of love lost between members of the different groups. That doesn't mean we can't get along, but it's like putting Democrats and Republicans in the same room. As long as you don't talk "shop," you're usually on safe ground.

For the record, this is how I label the groups:
1. Elite Critics
2. Popular Critics
3. Quote Whores
4. Non-critics

Let me elaborate about each category.

"Elite critics" are those who view film first and foremost as a medium for art. They downplay the commercial and entertainment aspects. Elite critics tend to be highly educated with degrees in film and/or film-related subjects. They often write lengthy reviews that delve into esoteric subjects that will be of interest primarily to like-minded individuals.

"Popular critics" are those who do their best to write for the general population of movie-goers. They view film as a valid medium for artistic expression and entertainment/commercial purposes, and don't outright dismiss a film for falling into the latter category. Their reviews tend to be shorter and more easily accessible to readers without specialized knowledge of the subject. Many of them do not have a formal education in film, but have arrived in film criticism after taking a non-linear career path. This is the largest branch of film critics, and the one that shows the most growth. It also contains the most diversity.

"Quote whores" aren't really critics, and shouldn't be confused with them. They're people who are in the business of seeing movies at advance screenings and providing positive sound bytes that studios can use to publicize their films. Some of their names are familiar as a result of overexposure: Earl Dittman, Jeff Craig, Jeffrey Lyons. These are people who trade quotes for the red-carpet treatment: free trips to movie premieres, access to stars for puffball interviews, and other assorted goodies. Whenever a studio can't find a quote from a legitimate critic to sell their movies, they rely on blurbs from quote whores. No matter how bad the movie, you can always rely on one of these individuals to call it a "masterpiece" or "one of the year's ten best."

"Non-critics" are often confused with "quote whores" and, indeed, the line between the two is blurred. I would, for example, consider Harry Knowles to be a "non-critic." He's a fanboy who operates his own (popular) website, but it's misleading to call his ramblings "film criticism". After all, one expects some degree of coherence and grammatical integrity from a film critic. Non-critics write about movies, but usually from the perspective of a fan or an entertainment reporter. Throw Larry King into this category as well. Are Knowles and King quote whores? One could make that case, but I prefer to think of them as babbling movie lovers rather than individuals who have sold their souls.

That brings us to the disagreements between the groups.

Elite critics believe that their members are the only ones who deserve the title of "critic." They are the keepers of the true flame; anyone who defends a movie on the grounds that it's enjoyable or entertaining has become a shill of the studios. They are unforgiving in their censure, dismissing popular critics with the same disdain as quote whores and non-critics. In some instances, they don't seem (at least to studio heads and the general public) to like movies all that much. Their words of praise are often reserved for the most obscure independent and foreign films. They often sneer at blockbusters. And they would rather be tarred and feathered than give a "star" rating or a thumbs up/down designation. In short, when people talk about the chasm that divides critics from "regular" viewers, the finger points directly at the elite critics.

I am a popular critic, so I have received my share of slings and arrows from members of the elite groups. My reviews are unsuitable because they are not scholarly enough. They do not show enough insight into the mechanics of filmmaking and its aesthetic aspects. I have the temerity to recommend movies that are lacking in artistic value. And I lack the proper educational background (being trained as an engineer and a writer) to possess a true appreciation of film. These are all things that have been written about me, many in print publications. However, those who are making these statements are missing the point. I am not trying to be scholarly, nor do I view artistic achievement as the holy grail of cinema. My agenda is different. I know my audience and my audience knows me. My reviews are informed opinion pieces, not essays that dissect the essence of cinema. I leave that to someone who is better qualified to perform a motion picture autopsy.

Popular critics often dismiss elite critics as being snobbish and arrogant. I will admit to falling into that category at times. However, it's impossible to deny that they bring something to the table that popular critics rarely do: a thorough examination of filmmaking as a craft. I don't aspire to be an elite critic (it would kill my enjoyment of film), but I can, on some occasions, admire the work they do. Unfortunately, the feeling is rarely reciprocated. The reason? Elite critics view popular critics as a blight on the vocation - improperly educated hobbyists whose growing "voice" is threatening the fabric of serious criticism.

The disdain of popular critics is reserved for the quote whores. This lowest breed of "critic" is shunned across the board. Their lack of ethics is only part of the problem. If they would cease calling themselves critics and be honest about their profession (they are a form of publicists), we would treat them less viciously. I am more kindly disposed toward some of the non-critics, who are open about the things they write. They do not pretend to be serious reviewers. They're interviewers, entertainment reporters, and Internet bloggers.

The point to this is to illustrate that all critics are not created equal, and there are deep divisions within the community about what constitutes legitimate film criticism and what is worthless writing designed for popular consumption. From the outside looking in, it may appear that we're all part of one big happy club. Like in any other industry, however, the truth is more complex.