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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

critic’s minifesto #4: I am biast

(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’s astonishing how often I am “accused” of being biased — or “biast,” as a reader once blasted at me — as if there were something extraordinary or unusual or unlikely or uncriticly about this.

Of course I’m biased. I’m human. I’m a movie lover, and have been for as long as I can remember. Which means I have preconceived notions about actors, directors, and genres: some of them have taught me to expect that I will hate them, some have taught me to expect to love them, some have taught me to be wary and expect anything.

Do my biases color my approach to movies? Of course they do. It would be abnormal if I could walk into a movie and not be thinking I really want this to be great! or Oh, crap, this is gonna suck hard, isn’t it? But my biases do not rule how I react to a film. If they did, then I would have loved John Carter (because I tend to love pulpy sci-fi adventure) and The Dictator (because I generally think Sacha Baron Cohen is brilliant). If they did, I’d never have the experience of expecting to hate a movie — or an actor in a movie — that I’ve ended up loving: recent examples include Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (holy god, the trailer made it look idiotic) and 21 Jump Street (I mostly cannot abide either Channing Tatum or Jonah Hill).

I am not ashamed of my biases, nor do I think I (or any critic) should be ashamed to be biased. Just as I cannot turn my brain off at The Movies, nor can I turn off — for lack of a better word — my heart. And I don’t think it would do anyone any favors if I could.

(All critics are biased, by the way. It’s an inevitable outcome of what we do in sharing our informed opinions with readers. Any critic who says he isn’t biased is lying, or badly lacking in self-awareness. If a critic comes across to you as unbiased, it’s probably because you share that critic’s biases, and so are tricked into a false sense of neutrality.)

I have never made a secret of my biases. And yet, readers who are not regulars around here, or who are newcomers, will not have that history of having read my writing for long enough to have absorbed knowledge of those biases. And so, from now on — beginning with God Bless America — I will briefly identify my biases, both positive and negative, at the top of each new review. I hope this will help you better understand the angles from which I approached a film, in order that you may have a stronger sense of how much to trust that my opinion may align with your own.

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

posted in:
maryann buzz
  • OnceJolly

    It amazes me to no end that this needs to be explained.

  • Karl Morton IV

    There’s a guy over on DVDTalk who identified his biases at the head of very review. It seemed to free him up compared to those who either kept them under wraps or made the review about explaining them as opposed to their reaction to the film in question. He often had fun with the “bias-ometer”, which I encourage you to do. :)

  • abyssobenthonic

    More generally, people are biased because all experience is subjective and interpreted in the light of prior experience.

  • Arthur

    The irony is that the complaints are likely inspired by the complainer’s own bias. How dare you insult Adam Sandler’s genius!

  • Yes, but subjectivity is objective.

  • Sharon Lurye

    Obviously, everyone is biased. If fact, your strong biases are the reason that I read your reviews. Even when I think you’re absolutely off your nutter, the reviews are at least outspoken and can therefore grab my attention. I enjoy reading film criticism with strong and provocative ideas, whether I agree with it or not.
    The only time bias becomes a problem is when your biases are so strong that the criticism is no longer about the movie; it really is just about you. At that point, your articles are no longer insightful pieces of film criticism, but instead smack of paranoia. For example, in your review of Horton Hears a Who, you called it a “far-right propaganda about how Christians are a persecuted minority.” You even complained about how there are W’s all over the mayor’s office, as though this is a reference to Dubya Bush. I found this a little ridiculous.
    Please note that I am not in any way trying to attack you. You’re actually one of only a few film critics I read on a regular basis. However, while normally I enjoy your biases (especially biases in favor of geeky stuff), at times they can get a little overbearing, and that hurts the quality and the insightfulness of your film criticism. I hope that you can understand why people accuse you of bias, and how they are not *completely* ridiculous. Only around 90% ridiculous. There’s a grain of truth in there. 

  • Kim

    I couldn’t remember the name of your site, so I google “biast film reviews” and there you were. I just thought that was funny. :)

  • Zalarious

    You’re an absolute imbecile. A trashed mouth, pompous, left-wing lunatic. The people who made the 3 Stooges remake should be concrened about Global Warning and this movie should’ve never been made? Did you write that about all the other movies you disliked?

    Why is it that so many women don’t get the 3 Stooges? It’s a cartoon! No different than the coyote getting blown to smithereens 4 times by the roadrunner during an 8 minute cartoon. The slapstick humor is the movie- that’s what we think is funny. No one is actually getting hurt. You don’t think it’s funny, that’s fine. The 3 guys are harmless and to many of us they’re hilarious.

  • Edgytarian

    Biased is easy. The trick is to be intelligent, knowledgeable and most important of all, to have the ability and insight to bring an original perspective that adds to or complements a film.

  • Bluejay

    Yes, she’s all that too. A good critic must have those qualities, but the point of this piece is to debunk the notion that a good critic must also be unbiased (which is impossible).

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