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.)

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