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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

critic’s minifesto #1: it’s not personal

(In which I expound upon aspects of my critical philosophy that seem obvious to me but probably aren’t at all obvious to you.)

It occurred to me after I posted my review of Killer Elite, in which I examine all the ways in which Jason Statham’s onscreen persona is thuggish and distasteful, that some readers may not realize that I am talking about Statham’s onscreen persona, and not the man himself. Offscreen, he may well be the nicest, kindest, sweetest, gentlest, most sensitive man ever. But that’s not what Jason Statham, Movie Star(TM) is. And that’s what I’m critiquing.
When I review a movie, it’s never personal. It’s always about what we are presented with as an entertainment artifact. Sometimes that public persona does include some ostensibly personal stuff, like if a celebrity is also a philanthropist… or also an actual, for-real thug or criminal. (I’m thinking of, for just two examples, Angelina Jolie in the first instance and Roman Polanski in the second instance.) If that offscreen-but-still-public behavior is a factor in my review, I’ll always mention it. Otherwise, it’s safe to assume that I’m not getting personal with anyone. Certainly, I never wish anyone ill. Or, in rare cases when I might, I’ll let you know that, too. I’m just praising or condemning the work.

(If there’s some characteristic of my criticism that you think needs explicating, feel free to email me with a question.)



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  • Accounting Ninja

    I’ve noticed that on the internet it’s not JUST that they think you are insulting their favorite actor. You are also somehow insulting THEM, personally, when you say you don’t like the movie they like.

    I will never get that mindset. Seriously, how much of a narcissist do you have to be to think “well I LIKED IT, therefore it is OBJECTIVELY GOOD in perpetuity throughout the universe, and you can STFU!!!”

  • mortadella

    I don’t, nor will I ever understand that mindset either. Nolan fan boys have been guilty of taking reviews too personally. Christopher Nolan doesn’t need you to defend his work…..he’s a big boy….and a freaking millionaire. 
    And how many times do people need to be told the difference between subjective and objective?

  • Jason Statham was in Tree of Life then?

    Confused of Nagoya

  • About as often as they need to be told that posting a “disclaimer” does NOT allow them to opt out of a TOS or save them from getting sued for copyright infringement.  “Not for profit – please don’t sue!” isn’t a valid legal defense, no matter how many people think it is.

  • A related mindset is, “I LIKE/LOVE this, and therefore I have the right to badger other people into trying it, and if they don’t like it, I then have the right to CONVINCE them that they should.”  With “convince” usually translating to “insist.”

  • RogerBW

    I know people who seriously contend that they cannot, for example, watch a Roman Polanski film without his real-life problems becoming a factor in their enjoyment. (Rather more rarely, I encounter someone who feels this way about the music of Wagner.) I think a critic should try not to be thus influenced.

    If an actor has an “onscreen persona” at all – i.e. if he plays a lot of similar roles, as Statham does – that in itself is something of a problem, in my book; playing one type of role is all very well, and stylistically not unlike what real film stars did back when the term had some meaning, but a decent actor almost always wants to be more versatile than that. (Consider some of the roles Sigourney Weaver has taken on – though she seems to be getting typecast now as the “tough woman in position of authority”, which is a shame.)

    A great many people on-line seem unable to distinguish between mild disapproval and full-bore attack – I suspect because of the modern prevalence of a simplified version of fan culture, in which in order to be a fan of something one has to love everything about it while attacking anyone who expresses anything less than total approval. (It’s the usual primate pack behaviour, proving one’s worthiness to be in a group by attacking someone who’s outside it.)

    I am not a fan of anything in this sense, and I suspect MAJ isn’t either – for example, she likes Doctor Who a great deal, but not at the price of assuming the programme-makers can do no wrong.

  • If at some level we are defined by our relationships to a network of people and things, then it doesn’t seem too irrational to interpret the activities of a critic as somehow affecting our own sense of identity. Our dearly loved media can be ‘kin’ to us, just as much as our family members and an ‘objective’ critical reading that belittles the things we ‘identify’ with, belittles us. So yes, I can understand why some people would take these things personally.

  • LaSargenta

    This is something that comes up in lots of contexts, not just the internet. There have been loads of times in my life I’m suddenly, shockingly, confronted by someone (at the same dinner table, part of the group I’m with at the moment) furious with me for not tasting his/her food or drink when they offered. I have no issues of tasting something from another’s plate…but, at that moment, I just didn’t feel like having some of whatever they have so I said “no thanks” and then it becomes like I’ve led the tanks over the border into Poland!

    I suspect every one of those people who’ve done that is also on the Internet rabidly ‘defending’ their favorite whatever.

  • I can’t really pin down my own thoughts about this, and I think that can be explained by me feelings about two huge movie stars: Mel Gibson and Tom Cruise.

    Mel Gibson was my favorite actor. Braveheart was my favorite movie; I saw it in theaters 13 times. The Lethal Weapon films are among the greatest action movies of all time in my book. But now all I can think about when I see him on screen is what a complete douchebag he is.

    Tom Cruise, on the other hand, is one of those stars I’ve always just found entertaining. I think he’s a tremendous talent and I have never once been weirded out by his crazy religious antics. And, coming from an atheist and a humanist, that’s a pretty big deal. I can’t take Kirk Cameron seriously, for instance. But I’ve remained a steadfast Cruise fan for over 20 years.

    Dunno how it works. And of course, Tom Cruise’s weirdo antics aren’t anything like Mel Gibson’s racist, misogynist rants. So there’s probably something to that. I do know I haven’t watched a Polanski movie since Romeo & Juliet back in high school. And the only Woody Allen movie I’ve watched is Antz (yes, I know he has made some great films, I just don’t care). So I guess creepy stuff with kids is another line I draw in the sand?

  • If you’re serious about that line in the sand, it might please you to know that the version of Romeo and Juliet you’re probably thinking about was directed by Zeffirelli, not Polanski. Of course, Olivia Hussey was just 15 when she shot that film, nude scene and all, but I’d call that age appropriate casting, not necessarily “creepy.” Then again, he also directed the Mel Gibson Hamlet. Do with that what you will. :-)

  • OnceJolly

    If I understand what you are saying, the only purpose of the media is to reaffirm your own concept of yourself, and anything that functions to the contrary is a personal attack. Must be a curious way of going through life.

  • I_Sell_Books

    re: Polanski – I am one of those people.  My mother and everyone I know who’s seen The Ghost Writer loved it, I thought it was a turgid piece of ****.  Love the actors, was bored to death by it all and never felt any suspense, didn’t bother watching to the end.

    And I vote with my wallet.  So!  No more Polanski movies for me.  Or Tom Cruise.  Or Rosie O’Donnell.  Oh, wait…Anyway,  I’ve stopped reading some authors for the same reason – please STFU about your political views, because now I have to stop reading/buying your stuff.  Why hello there, Orson Scott Card.  And Elizabeth Moon.  And Dan Simmons, please stop.  Ditto for Sheri S Tepper (I know!).

    Nowadays I try to know as little as possible about people whose performances or writing I like…better the devil I don’t know, y’know?

  • Michael

    Psychological studies (which I cannot cite–though I can tell you the time of day at which I heard it on NPR!) have shown that, unfortunately, this tends to be the way the average brain works.

  • I_Sell_Books

    Er, don’t care for Polanski due to the, y’know, whole rape thing (Or as Whoopi Goldberg put it ‘It wasn’t rape rape’)(because 13 yo’s they’re just so slutty – especially when they’ve been drugged!

    /rant

  • Knightgee

    I think you’re falsely turning “media can be kin to us” into “media *must* be kin to us or else it’s worthless” which was not the point he was making.

  • Knightgee

    I think it’s less narcissism and more over-identification. People let their likes and dislikes mean more than they do for them as a person which to be fair, is not entirely ridiculous as that is certainly a factor in determining your likes and dislikes. But some turn this into a personal insult, because they identify with this thing you are hating on, so that’s the same as hating on them, or at least it feels like it to them.

    Of course, such sentiments aren’t helped by criticisms which imply some kind of mental deficiency on the part of the person that did enjoy a film by someone who didn’t, which I think is the logical inverse of the aforementioned attitude: it’s not enough that I disliked it, I must seek out others who hated it too and anyone who enjoyed it must be worthy of ridicule.

  • Huh! Well! I always thought that was Polanski.

    Though, I have seen the Mel Gibson Hamlet. So I guess we’re back where we started. :)

  • OnceJolly

    You think wrong. I’m thinking of the critic as being part of the media (in addition to those parts of the media that have obtained the status of “kin”).

  • Firstly, I’m not saying that’s how *I* function, but I am saying that I can understand why “people” function in this way, because I think it might be a basic psychological mechanism. I do think that the ability to objectify, to reason and to critique come through education and experience (not necessarily a formal system of education, but certainly by a learned discipline).

    Or perhaps I flatter myself because I am a university lecturer. So maybe I agree with you that the unexamined life surrounded by uncritiqued phenomena is indeed a curious life, but I do not think that it is an unnatural life.

  • OnceJolly

    I guessed that was what you were doing *after* I posted my response (I figured there had to be a reason for your extensive use of qualifiers and quotation marks). And of  course there is a difference between understanding and condoning a behaviour. As you can probably guess, I have no interest in doing the latter in this case.

  • Knightgee

    And yet none of that explains how you jumped from can to ought, but whatever, maybe I’m just doing more of that thinking wrong thing.

  • OnceJolly

    I may not have been sufficiently precise in my wording, but I don’t think what I’ve written implies that all media should be kin. I’m simply saying that IF every critique of something that you’ve adopted as “kin” is taken as a personal attack. then unless all commentary in the media is favorable to that kin, you’re going to feel like you’re constantly under attack. 

  • I think there are some crossed signals here. Here’s how I saw it: lescarr said that he understood why people might identify with certain media figures/products as “kin” and why they might feel personally insulted when those things are criticized. You took that to mean that he endorsed or supported the phenomenon, and made a snide jab at him (“Must be a curious way of going through life”). Knightgee was simply saying that you misinterpreted lescarr’s “can be kin” as “must be kin,” which was something that lescarr himself clarified in his response, which you accepted. (Without, however, any hint of apology for your uncalled-for snide remark, but hey, that’s your call.) So, really, all three of you agree.

    Of course I may be misinterpreting the intention of your remarks as well. It’s hard sometimes to correctly read tone without access to people’s faces and voices.

  • OnceJolly

    I thought it would be obvious that my comment applied to someone that held a particular view-point, and that if lescarr didn’t actually hold those views, then the comment wasn’t directed at him. However, since I’ve always valued the civility of the discussions at this site, I formally apologize to lescarr for my uncalled-for snide comment.

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