Quantcast
your £$ support needed

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).

  • jobardu

    The issue isn’t having biases but rather controlling them. There is a big difference between Edward Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” and a version of same by an ideologue hack. Gibbons had biases, and some of his work has been debunked, but his work is timeless because it was a quest by a skilled, smart historian to find out the truth.

    Similarly, umpires often have biases, but their obligation is to make the best and most honest calls they can. Either the runner is “out” or “safe” at the base. If the call depended on the umpires biases then the game would fall apart in a tsunami of incriminations, sort of like what is happening in society now.

    Reviews are supposed to be about the film and not about the reviewer. The reviewer ought to have clear criteria, or refer to same. It is impossible to eliminate bias but it isn’t impossible to determine if the reviewer is honestly trying to evaluate a movie or is trying to use the movie to further themselves of their agenda.

  • Bluejay

    Reread her third paragraph: “My biases do not rule how I react to a film.”

    Having said that, historical research and refereeing sports are very different from arts criticism. The first two are attempts to determine verifiable facts — yes, there is interpretation of those facts, but there’s still an empirical baseline of “this happened” or “this didn’t happen.” Arts criticism is much more about one’s personal subjective response to a creative act; “the acting was great,” “the storyline sucked,” “the themes are problematic” are not universally agreed-upon facts set in stone. You want the facts of a film, go to the IMDB page for cast lists and plot summaries. Everything else IS interpretation.

    If “reviews are supposed to be about the film and not about the reviewer,” then all reviews of a film would be the same and render the same verdict (since they’re all talking about the same thing after all). But they’re not, because reviews are just as much about the reviewer as about the film. A critic’s worth lies not in making some monolithic universal pronouncement on the “truth” of a film, but in offering their unique perspective, in making you consider the film through someone else’s lens, whether you agree with it or not. Is their perspective interesting? Does it make you see the film in ways you hadn’t thought of? Does it enhance your appreciation for the film or uncover disturbing aspects you overlooked? Does it resonate with your own response and clearly express points you’ve tried to articulate? Or do you disagree with it and want to grapple with its ideas? A critic’s evaluation of a film is inseparable from the critic herself. You’re not expected to blindly accept her opinion as law. But it would be nice if you considered and engaged with it. Because that’s the whole point.

  • jobardu

    Thank you for your long and thoughtful reply. I agree with a good amount of what you say, but I think it is important to identify what differences there are. Perhaps clarifying the word bias would help.
    When I think bias I’m thinking constraints, such as those imposed by political correctness. For constrained reviews, what you say is probably correct:
    ” reviews are supposed to be about the film and not about the reviewer, then all reviews of a film would be the same and render the same verdict” . That is what we get in most modern mainstream reviews. It isn’t what we get in quality, independent reviews.

    I don’t agree with your statement regarding reviews being about the film and not t he reviewer. Two people can look at the same cloud formation and interpret it differently and still insightfully..Good reviews are about the insight and personality of the reviewer, but they shouldn’t be predictable or externally constrained.

    There are qualities that make a film good regardless of what the subject of the film. For example, Birth of a Nation is considered a good film. Leni Riefenstahl’s films are considered high quality despite their despicable themes. Similarly, not all politically correct subject matter films are good. Soviet Socialist Realism films are considered low quality cinema. .
    The summary is that reviewing a film shouldn’t be about the authors’ agenda. Virtue signaling, denouncing Trump, supporting Democrats and their causes are not doing a service to readers. Free speech and independent judgement are under attack, and it shows.

  • Danielm80

    If you think that technical proficiency outweighs any moral considerations, that is your bias. Many people would object to the idea that a movie supporting the Ku Klux Klan is a “good film.” And, in my opinion, any critic who called actual Nazi propaganda “high quality” would be doing a disservice to readers. It’s important, of course, to recognize the movies’ significance as historical artifacts, and to acknowledge their influence on the craft of filmmaking, but I don’t think it’s at all radical to say, “The message of this film is so abominable that no technical accomplishments can redeem it.” If you think that denouncing Riefenstahl is worse than denouncing Trump, I find that very telling.

  • Bluejay

    I don’t agree with your statement regarding reviews being about the film and not the reviewer.

    No, I’m saying the opposite. YOU are the one who said “reviews should be about the film and not about the reviewer” in your first comment. So apparently you’re disagreeing with yourself.

    The summary is that reviewing a film shouldn’t be about the authors’ agenda. Virtue signaling, denouncing Trump, supporting Democrats and their causes are not doing a service to readers. Free speech and independent judgement are under attack, and it shows.

    “Agenda” and “virtue signaling” are just labels you use for other people’s values and opinions if you happen to disagree with them. A liberal critic reviewing a film within the context of her liberal worldview is not an attack on YOUR free speech and independent judgment. Anyone who feels threatened by that is — what’s that word you guys use for people who can’t handle being exposed to differing opinions? — ah yes: a snowflake.

  • jobardu

    A reasonable if inaccurate observation. I do agree with the statement that reviews being about the film and not the reviewer. The statement you quote is my response to your statement. No matter, mine was made late at night and I think we both know what I meant to say.

    My statement about virtue signaling … needs clarification in view of your interpretation. Interpreting a film in terms of your political agenda is allowable but doesn’t take the readers needs into account. I’m trying to decide whether to see the film or how an expert viewed the film. Nothing wrong with a liberal worldview, but if it colors the response to the film I find it a distraction that degrades the quality of the review. Thus a feminist who colors every review in terms of the roles of women and how women are depicted often distorts the context and human values of the film (or book etc). It isn’t wrong or personally assaulting, it tends to propagandistic and not what an educated sophisticated reader is looking for .

    Curiously, your comments interpreting my comments as indicating a personal attack on my free speech is a case in point for what I was saying. Your use of PC pejoratives with an ad hominem focus is exactly what our liberal brothers and sisters have been taught to do in response to any opposing view points.

    So in the larger context, this societal encouragement of reviewer-centric reviews and disaffirming those who disagree is a major reason that free speech and independent judgement are under attack. It is so pervasive it is hard to believe you haven’t observed this.

  • Bluejay

    I’m trying to decide whether to see the film or how an expert viewed the film. Nothing wrong with a liberal worldview, but if it colors the response to the film I find it a distraction that degrades the quality of the review.

    When a liberal critic reviews a film from a liberal standpoint, that helps you see how the film would affect a liberal viewer, and helps you draw conclusions about whether or not it would affect you. That IS helpful to the viewer’s needs.

    And a critic’s worldview ALWAYS influences their review. You only notice it when it’s not the same worldview as yours.

    Thus a feminist who colors every review in terms of the roles of women and how women are depicted often distorts the context and human values of the film

    The idea that focusing on women “distorts the context and human values of the film” is ITSELF a bias, one that prefers to ignore or de-emphasize the role of women. Do you not see how that is in itself an agenda or philosophy? If you watch a film that treats women badly and you’re able to ignore it or enjoy it in spite of how it treats women, that’s not a “neutral” attitude. That is itself a statement on how important (or in this case unimportant) you think the film’s treatment of women is. A feminist criticism of that film is not “distracting” from the film (because a film doesn’t have a single “truth” or a single way it’s supposed to be interpreted or enjoyed); it’s presenting a different and equally valid perspective on the film, just one you don’t happen to share.

    What if another reviewer centered their reviews on how white males were depicted and their roles?

    Um, this happens all the time. Look, if you watch a James Bond movie, I bet you’re identifying with Bond and enjoying his adventures. You’d probably enjoy reading a review about how badass he is and how awesome his actions are. If a feminist critic complains about how poorly Bond treats women, you’d probably say that’s a distraction from what the film was “actually” about. But what you’re missing is that you yourself, and the “neutral” review you enjoyed, are actually choosing to focus on the white male in the story. That’s not neutral at all; that’s a choice to support an agenda.

    What would the reviewing landscape look like if reviewers wrote about how a film impacted their races, genders, religions, nationalities or other interests?

    Then we would have a landscape of very interesting and varied reviews. We would learn that the same film can affect different people in different ways. We would learn more about what is pleasing or offensive to other groups that are not like our own, and hopefully we would learn empathy. I’d love for that to happen!

    free speech and independent judgement are under attack

    Yeah, you keep saying this, but no one is silencing you or forcing you to think differently. Criticism is not censorship, and argument is not silencing. The only thing happening is that people who have different opinions than yours are finding their voices and speaking up more, and you may find that yours isn’t the only or the loudest voice in the room. Get used to it.

  • jobardu

    Your reply is a case in point for what I was saying. You have a bunch of assumptions about the world which are beyond question. Such as
    “You only notice it when it’s not the same worldview as yours”. Well no, I notice it when it doesn’t provide useful information. Time is limited.

    Your comments about my likely response to a James Bond movie sounds like an excerpt from a Woman’s Study course on how men behave (a sexist structure,by the way).

    Your comment concerning my question on what if every reviewer wrote from a parochial viewpoint was
    “We would learn that the same film can affect different people in different ways”
    I don’t need to learn that, I already knew that, and knew it from an early age, when diversity of thought and viewpoints were valued and appreciated.

    Your response to my statement about free and independent judgement being under attack was
    “but no one is silencing you or forcing you to think differently”. In fact, they are trying to, but failing. There is the “no platform movement” the suppression of politically incorrect speeches on campus, the persecution of conservative speakers in the workplace and the 90% of journalists and faculty being liberal. The concept of liberalism has morphed from a philosophy and way to living to a group of political advocacy of certain groups, intolerance and denunciation of others, and intolerance of opposition .

    When I was at the University you couldn’t get 90% of the faculty to agree what day of the week it was. Nowadays you can’t find faculty disagreeing about most things. Multiple accusations and denunciations are made with assertions, not proof, and little or no accountability. Much of the latter arises from the intellectual monoculture in the media and academe. Leftist verbal abusers feel confident that they will have the support of their peers.

    Your conclusion is typically liberal and confrontive:
    “people who have different opinions than yours are.. speaking up more, …yours isn’t the only or the loudest voice in the room. Get used to it.”

    Not exactly respectful on interested in what I have to say. But no, I don’t have to “get used to it.” This country still has a constitution and an emancipation proclamation. I have a lot of options, and one of them is not having to listen to people who disrespectfully objectify me or presume to know what I think or will say based on my race.

    This entire discussion started over how to review cinema. My belief is that politicizing it makes things worse, as it has and does in many other forms of endeavor and locations. You disagree and advocate politicizing reviews. So good luck with your bias and politically correct advocacy.

    By the way, I respect your calling it out up front. Few people do that, and that is why I started this discussion.

  • Bluejay

    “You only notice it when it’s not the same worldview as yours”. Well no, I notice it when it doesn’t provide useful information.

    And of course, you deem a liberal viewpoint on a film as not useful. So you’re going in circles.

    sounds like an excerpt from a Woman’s Study course

    Bet you’ve never taken one.

    “We would learn that the same film can affect different people in different ways”
    I don’t need to learn that, I already knew that, and knew it from an early age, when diversity of thought and viewpoints were valued and appreciated.

    And yet here you are, failing to value and appreciate liberal and feminist perspectives on film, and arguing that we don’t need critics who point out how films may be perceived through different lenses of race, gender, religion, or nationality. It would appear that you haven’t learned the lesson of diversity of thought at all.

    the 90% of journalists and faculty being liberal

    Perhaps having to deal with reporting facts turns journalists liberal. And when surveys show that 58% of conservatives have a negative view of college, perhaps it’s a factor in why so few of them go on to teach college. :-)

    When I was at the University you couldn’t get 90% of the faculty to agree what day of the week it was. Nowadays you can’t find faculty disagreeing about most things.

    How do you know this? Are you still at the university? Or are you getting your info about “how things are now” from conservative outlets?

    Not exactly respectful on interested in what I have to say… presume to know what I think or will say

    Everything you’ve said has confirmed everything I expected you to say. You haven’t actually surprised me with any of your views. Sure, rail against me for presuming to know your position. I was right, though.

    And “respectful”? Once you’ve admitted that discussing the treatment of women in film “distorts the human values of a film,” and in effect suggested that the treatment of women is irrelevant to human values, I don’t feel a need to respect your views very much, or at all.

  • jobardu

    I”m just trying to learn about a movie from someone knowledgeable about the subject..Period.
    There are plenty of expert sources about social justice issues, and I go to them when I want to learn something on those subjects. The rest is equivalent to testimonial advertising.

    There are sure a lot of “you” messages in your reply. Also, you would lose your bet about what I have and haven’t taken. You don’t know who I married, dated or hung with during my earlier years. You don’t know what I’ve seen or lived through

    Yet you, and most other liberal or social justice liberals feel free to set up a strawman and then knock it down suing your own images and speeches.

    I don’t see that as an effective way to interact with the world and its people. Just because people aren;t reflecting y our behavior or being adversarial doesn’t mean they agree or will do business with you. If you haven’t already done so, a listen to Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling St one” will give you the idea.

  • Danielm80

    Some people find it genuinely painful to watch a movie that’s full of stereotypes and clichés, or that doesn’t include women and minorities in places where they’d usually show up in the real world.

    If you’re one of those people, then you’d probably appreciate a warning, so that you don’t see a movie that you’d consider unrealistic or badly written. (You might even find those movies unintentionally hilarious, the same way I find it ridiculous when the diplomat in “Like a Rolling Stone” is carrying a Siamese cat.)

    If you’re not one of those people, you may think her commentary on those subjects is unnecessary and intrusive. That means her reviews probably aren’t for you, but she’s still providing a valuable service. MaryAnn sees hundreds of movies a year, and she’s very good at spotting those sorts of flaws in a film. That’s a subject on which she’s very knowledgeable. If it’s not the kind of knowledge that’s useful to you, you’re free to move on to other critics with different biases and different “agendas.”

  • Bluejay

    There are plenty of expert sources about social justice issues, and I go to them when I want to learn something on those subjects.

    And movies have nothing to do with the issues in the outside world? There’s no connection between the attitudes we have and the way we choose to tell stories, and how those stories influence our attitudes in return? It’s not worth examining those connections as part of a thoughtful review?

    And from the way you’ve been talking about social justice, I’m SURE you read those “expert sources” with an open mind.

    There are sure a lot of “you” messages in your reply… Yet you, and most other liberal or social justice liberals

    I’ll wait for you to get the irony here. Nah, on second thought, I’ve got better things to do.

  • jobardu

    An open mind was the precursor to cults and totalitarian regimes throughout history. Refugees from those regimes advocated having a strong mind so that a person can avoid being captured by the latest fads and crazes.

    What goes into a persons mind affects their mood, actions, physiology and psychology. I value my mind, and am very careful about what I let get into it. That isn’t a closed mind, it is rational and prudent mind. It keeps societies out of chaos.

    Many people define virtue or moral high ground by what causes you favor. I don’t. Favoring feminism doesn’t make you a good person. Opposing feminism doesn’t make you a bad person or even one who wants to oppress women. It is possible to be a feminist and endorse or commit many anti-social acts. and positions and still be a feminist.

    Moral high ground depends on having functioning morals and principles. A principle is something you will support or accept even if its application is contrary to your self-interest. A moral position would like the Golden Rule. If you oppose what was done to you, but say it is OK to do it to someone else, then you are arguing that you have a right to be a victimizer and not a victim. After victimizing another then the position reverses. Just look at Syria. You can take that position, but then you have no standing to complain that others act as you do. That leads to a contest of might makes right.

    The same argument can be made for other causes. Advocacy is one thing, zealotry and denouncing those who disagree is another. I apply that to movie reviews. To my mind either I am reading a review from a grownup with an independent mind or something else. There are grey areas where separating those categories requires more and repeated evidence.

    I have little doubt that Ms. Johanson is capable of crafting excellent reviews. She is verbal, smart, aware, persistent and up front with her opinions, among other things. I think the field, especially now, can use reviews that rise above ideology and partisanship. I think those will stand the test of time. It will be interesting to see how she evolves.

  • Tonio Kruger

    1. I suspect you’re confusing an open mind with a weak mind. Moreover, you’re making the assumption that being strong-minded automatically makes you immune to the allure of cults and totalitarian regimes when history all too often tells a different story. For example, Tomas de Torquemada always struck me as being a strong-minded individual but I’d hardly wish to live in a society ruled by the likes of him.

    2. Yes, what goes into a person’s mind does affect a great many things and I’d like to think that most mature adults take that in account when they’re selecting the type of stuff they want to watch, read or listen to. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re evil just because their list of acceptable items isn’t the same as yours.

    3. Yes, one can buy into an otherwise promising ism and still commit antisocial acts. Religious people have proved this many times over.

    Then again much of the progressive stuff we take for granted today — the right to free speech, the right to question authority, the right to worship as we choose, the right to make a living without having to be owned by another human being, etc. — were once considered antisocial.

    And no doubt much of the stuff you find too liberal about MaryAnn’s beliefs might some day be criticized by future generations for being too conservative. It happens.

    4. As for feminism specifically, I’ve known too many women who have been assaulted or worse by various male acquaintances to have any great conflict with any philosophy like feminism that says that such behavior is wrong. Granted, feminists aren’t necessarily the only ones who believe this. But in my experience, they do tend to be the most vocal about it. And I have great difficulty pretending that that is a bad thing.

    5. I could say more but I believe you’re reading a lot more into MaryAnn’s words than I’d consider wise and I say this despite being someone who frequently disagrees with her.

    For that matter, your last paragraph was more than a tad condescending. After all, her site has been around for about two decades. If her writing hasn’t evolved enough by now to suit your tastes, you might want to prepare yourself for the possibility that it never will.

  • I think the field, especially now, can use reviews that rise above ideology and partisanship.

    The problem here is that the reviews you think are objective do not “rise above ideology and partisanship.” They just align with your ideology and partisanship.

    That isn’t a closed mind, it is rational and prudent mind.

    Yeah, that’s when the one who benefit from the status quo always believe when they’re justifying the status quo.

  • jobardu

    OK, I give up. You and Tonio win. I really do wish you all the best for the future. I’ll even stop by to read some of your reviews.

  • jobardu

    I do regret expressing a tone of condescension. My grown children sometimes accuse me of the same thing. It just shows that you have to adapt all through your life. I’ve had to, both at work, in my relationships and in the way I look at movies.

Pin It on Pinterest