In a post-COVID world, film critics seem more ornery than ever, more prone to disengaging with or dismissing art and content that they deem not worthy of their time, either because it’s “for children” or because it’s “messy.” They want their art clean as a whistle, clean of controversy from the left or any such baggage. For example, they were never going to seriously engage with the merits of Zack Snyder’s Justice League, the infamous director’s cut that has received better if still quite mixed reviews from the chorus of Film Twitter. For one, it would mean admitting they were wrong for three years as they continually denigrated those online who believed it a worthy cause. I was one of them, and I was wrong. Toxic fanbase or no (and make no mistake, there’s toxicity in nearly every fanbase), they have a professional duty and obligation to honestly appraise what they see and hear, no matter how many basement-dwelling cretins are rooting for it. They even, to this day, defend their cultural-rebel-wail against it and what it represents because, as they put it, “we were right, the Snyder Cut never existed,” which isn’t true. Two hours of footage shot in 2016 and never seen on screen in 2017 certainly beg to differ. And for two, they already hated it. Joss Whedon’s theatrical cut is no doubt an entirely different film, a lesser film by orders of magnitude, but regardless of how different Snyder’s vision turned out to be, asking critics to honestly reappraise a terrible comic-book movie is like asking a food critic to reappraise Wendy’s if Wendy’s ever transformed into a five-star restaurant. It’s why so few of them ever get around to watching or reviewing director’s cut blu-rays. Admitting you’re wrong isn’t exactly a common human pastime, particularly in the age of ego-driven social media.
If it were only a matter of Justice League, I wouldn’t be writing this. Malcolm & Marie, Cherry, Chaos Walking, and to a lesser extent Hillbilly Elegy, have all been unfairly maligned by the critical establishment. All of them represent filmmakers and artists reaching for something more than a genre typically allows (Liman), or something relatively transgressive (Levinson), or something pitched to a younger generation (Russos). With the exception of perhaps Hillbilly Elegy, a merely mediocre film that was pillaged for daring to address the plights of white poverty, all of these will receive reappraisals at some point in the future. They’re works of art that rub people the wrong way for wrong-headed reasons, or were seen through the prism of infamous production woes (Chaos Walking). If there’s one guarantee when it comes to films and film critics, always expect them to beat a dead horse when a film is dumped unceremoniously after such shooting debacles. But they beg the question, is there a trend happening here that goes beyond different opinions and social media influences (critics love to be liked by their puritanical followers)? Is it possible that COVID, home viewing, and the Trump era that was and still is has warped the ways in which they digest and engage with the art of filmmaking? Does a toxic landscape of pessimism and wanton disregard for civility or democracy encourage critics to disassociate from pictures that are pessimistic rather than optimistic? On the other end of the spectrum, has such a landscape made it impossible for them to engage with a brand of sincerity that, for anyone overly preoccupied with the social whims and norms of Twitter (and they are), comes across as maudlin or plain ol’ make-believe. I look at their differing reactions to Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland and David Fincher’s Mank for clues as to how, now more than ever, they are echoing the same sentiments that Academy voters were and still are criticized for bellowing in their secret ballot interviews or their voting choices. Snarky inferences to low temperatures followed Mank in spite of their admiration for it, and emotional hosannas followed Nomadland no matter the critic. They’re both great films, and only one of them was docked points for something it was never even attempting. As it turns out, many are not as dissimilar from average Joe moviegoer as they would like to believe, sneering at wild ambition (Cherry) and laughing at intellectualism (Mank). Without considering film critics a monolith or a hive mind, I contend something has changed in the last six to ten months with regards to how they engage as a viewer. Perhaps I’m writing this because I’m one of them, and I don’t like what I see from within.
What you may not realize is that critics don’t often see films under the best of circumstances, particularly now with movie theaters closed or viewed as petri dishes for the plague. They often watch DVD screeners on TVs or laptops, screeners that bear hideous studio watermarks to prevent piracy. TVs have obviously come a long way, what with 4K, HDR, Dolby Atmos, surround sound, etcetera, but do most critics possess all of these very necessary ingredients to mimic a proper theatrical experience? Movies are often an entirely different experience in a theater, with a screen and a soundscape meant to envelop the audience. People like to pretend that a good movie is a good movie no matter where you see it, and a bad movie is a bad movie no matter where you see it. The problem with this sentiment is it completely ignores the basics of human psychology, the manner in which we respond to our environments, even supposedly “honest” critics. Even with all of the ingredients at my disposal, I’ve had a time and a half attempting to recreate such an experience. And I’m desperate to do so because I’ve been aware, on more than one occasion, of the diminished returns of watching, say, a near-masterpiece like Soul in the distracting comfort of my own home. Will the return of that great equalizer, the silent, dark chapel of theatrical cinema, bring this notoriously crotchety group to their senses? Or am I simply a wanker with an axe to grind because I no longer find validation in their opinions? If film criticism was nothing but a matter of opinion, Rotten Tomatoes wouldn’t exist. Why read or listen to them, to us, if our expertise matters not? If film criticism, or any art form for that matter, was nothing more than a glint in the eye of the beholder, subjectivity without an ounce of objectivity, then art schools wouldn’t exist, and any formal or educational discussion would be a moot point. Let’s hope the end of COVID will bring an end to their wayward subjectivity. May the chapel of theatrical moviegoing make movies great again, for them anyway.