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January 11, 2004

Your "Best Of" List is a Lie

Rambling ruminations from Matt Zoller Seitz on "best ofs" and the nature of criticism:

The Eye of the Critic

...Critics really hate admitting this because it damages our fantasies of oracular wisdom, but the continual evaluation of quality and importance that goes on in our columns is a fancy-pants smokescreen–a ritual that lets us prattle about movies we either responded to or didn’t, often for reasons that have less to do with technical, esthetic or political merit than with our own personalities (and personal baggage).

A critic declares a movie The Year’s Best Film (as I did recently with Tim Burton’s Big Fish) not because he really thinks it’s the year’s best film but because he really, really, really liked it, usually for personal reasons he can’t or won’t explain, and desperately wants to get word-of-mouth going and make the movie a hit...

...It’s all part of the same transparent game: We’re trying to wrap our personal, in some ways inexplicable response with an outer layer of importance. The essence of every piece of criticism is the same: You might not like this, but I sure as hell did. Unfortunately, that doesn’t sound as grand or compelling or near-omniscient as "the film of the year" or "one of the most moving dramas of recent times" or "a litmus test for serious moviegoers."

I’ve been a professional critic and journalist for 13 years now. During that time, I’ve probably watched thousands of contemporary theatrical films and thousands more on tv or home video. I’ve learned a lot about different filmmaking styles and historical trends, and I’ve read and thought a lot about how politics and money affect films (and filmmakers). I’ve gotten into who knows how many arguments about the merits of particular directors, writers, actors and processes. (Spielberg vs. Kubrick is a fun one; so is ‘Scope versus flat.) I’ve read god knows how many books on film history and theory. I’ve also made features, an experience that has required me to learn a variety of technical skills–from lighting and shooting to sound recording and editing–that I did not have before. I wish I could say this combination of experience and enrichment brought me closer to understanding what makes a movie great as opposed to good, or enabled me to more effectively persuade readers of a certain movie’s merits, or improved my ability to predict which current releases will still be watched and discussed after I’m dead and buried. (That’s what all those yearly critics’ awards are: a charming attempt to jump-start historical consensus.)

But the truth is, I’m no closer to those goals than I was 13 years ago. And I’m beginning to think that the goals themselves are illusions that critics and wannabe-critics have been conditioned to believe in... Criticism is such an inexact science, more like a cleverly disguised form of confession than a sincere or quantifiable attempt to separate wheat from chaff. (That’s why my yearly 10 Best list is titled 10 Favorites.)

I’ve gotten to the point where I now read critics not because I trust their opinions, but because I feel that I’ve gotten to know them well enough to be able to split the difference between their opinions and mine, and make a decision on whether to see a particular movie (or watch it again). When a critic steers me wrong, or fixates on particular details for reasons that strike me as counterproductive, I don’t feel mad or betrayed. I remind myself that everybody is different and every day and every week is different, and that if that critic had written the review in a different frame of mind or experienced a different upbringing, his verdict might not have been the same. (If you think critics don’t occasionally pan movies because they saw them after having a nasty fight with their significant other or writing a big check to the IRS, you are naive indeed.)

In the marvelous interview book Moviemakers Master Class, John Boorman, director of such films as Deliverance and Excalibur, admits: When I made Hope and Glory, which is about my childhood memories, it wasn’t until I saw it finished that I realized that my obsession with the Arthurian legends could be explained by the fact that my father’s best friend was in love with my mother. Like filmmaking, criticism is an art, and all art is autobiographical. Whether a critic intends to or not, each time he writes a column, he’s writing a diary entry that happens to be published. He is systematically revealing his prejudices, preferences and fears. He is, in some sense, an actor playing a part, and like any actor, the act of performance renders him simultaneously concealed and exposed. Human thought and action are part of an ongoing mystery, one that only gets solved years after the fact, if ever.

I think the weed was really starting to kick in when he wrote that last paragraph.

Posted by jsmooth995 at January 11, 2004 3:42 PM

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