The position of the trusted tastemaker in deciding whether films are quality material or mindless drivel is one that is slowly but surely collapsing across the board. Or rather, it’s the position of the sole tastemaker that is becoming muted against countless, smaller voices claiming to be professional critics.
From the giggly amateur to the snobbish film-school graduate, the difference between opinion and “the truth” has diminished with the levelling of the playing field that is widespread online critiquing.
As anyone who visits YouTube, Facebook, or one of the countless sites dedicated to regularly reviewing pieces of entertainment can attest, the presence of these kinds of platforms has created a new world of potential for quickly gaining an online following.
Whereas in past decades people would turn to television personalities like Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel for movie suggestions, or check out the entertainment section of their local papers, website personalities are now the voices many of us look to for film recommendations.
And due to the accessibility of creating a YouTube channel and generating content, it seems anyone with a little personality and some technical know-how can build up an audience and deem themselves a trusted critic.
When there are a countless number of voices, however, all coming to different conclusions on a film and passing them off as holy gospel, how do we discern the good from the bad in our entertainment? And what exactly are the criteria necessary for being a strong critic?
Brian Gorman is a journalism professor at MacEwan University, and a former critic for newspapers including the Toronto Star, the Edmonton Sun, and the Ottawa Sun. He says the rise of the amateur critic is far from a positive thing.
“I think it’s ruining it,” Gorman says, referring to how so many people have taken up the critiquing position. “Everybody thinks he’s a critic. It’s the old story that opinions are like assholes. Everybody has one; everybody else’s stinks.”
In Gorman’s eyes, there are quite a few must-have skills necessary to speak with valid authority as a critic — skills he believes the average online critic simply doesn’t have. Gorman says it’s important to have “all the same qualities a journalist has.”
“One of the great myths … is this belief that, to be an entertainment writer, you sit at your keyboard and just wait for the muse to just issue forth from your fingertips,” he says. “And that’s horseshit.”
“Then, on top of that, you have to be able to write in an entertaining, sort of artistic fashion,” he explains. “You have to be able to write engaging features that cut (to) the human core of the story. And you’ve got to be able to write reviews, critical writing, which is a combination of editorializing and reporting.”
Facebook film reviewer Cody Baron would beg to differ.
“That’s the great thing about film,” Baron says. “I don’t think there are any qualities anyone needs to have. Anyone can watch a movie and have an opinion on it, and I think that’s kind of the best thing about it.”
Baron is a graduate of NAIT’s Radio & Television program, and has been writing personal reviews of films on Facebook since the summer of 2012.
For him, the craft of the critic strays away from the idea of an authoritative and experienced voice absolutely knowing whether a film is good or not. Instead, his goals were initially to communicate with his audience the way one would casually talk about films with friends.
‘It’s the old story that opinions are like assholes. Everybody has one; everybody else’s stinks.’
“Sometimes I feel like critics in certain papers you read, they don’t really feel like real people,” he says. “They feel like some sort of stiff upper-lip, kind of pretentious reviewer. They don’t feel like the person that you would actually see . . . sitting in a theatre with you.” Baron’s belief about online reviewers is one in which the informality of the opinion presented provides a more engaging viewpoint.
“Especially with YouTube videos,” he says, “I feel like there’s more of that camaraderie sometimes, (where) you can watch a video, and watch someone talking about a movie, and they kind of feel like you or your friends.”
Despite their differing ideas on the merits and weaknesses of the traditional critic against the modern reviewer, both Gorman and Baron hold common ground in a belief that having an appreciation for classic cinema can help to strengthen one’s critiquing skills.
“Movie critics will know if a movie is good because they’ve seen more of them,” Gorman says.
“They’ll know if something’s derivative, they’ll know if something’s hacky, because they’ve seen the good stuff, (and) they’ve seen the bad stuff . . . You’ve gotta have some sense of history.”
Baron agrees, with the added point that watching films of all genres is an important means of gaining healthy knowledge.
“I think the best education is just sitting down yourself and watching all different kinds of movies,” he says. “Like, if you really want to be someone that has an eclectic opinion on a lot of different types of movies, then you have to watch a lot of different types of movies …, because that’s the best way for you to learn more about what works . . . and what doesn’t.”
Ultimately, it can be difficult to definitively pinpoint someone’s opinion on a certain film as being more objectively correct than anyone else’s, given how much personal taste inevitably seeps into the reviews of even the most stringent of critics. That being said, the real key to successful critiquing, in Gorman’s eyes, is the ability to back it up with a convincing argument.
“If you write from the standpoint of experience,” Gorman says, “and you don’t flaunt the experience or shove it down people’s throats, and you can really support your opinions and explain why you reacted a certain way to a movie … people will read you because they feel that there’s a discussion going on.”
Whether or not distinct voices with more weight and mass acceptance behind them eventually rise to the top of the online critiquing world is something that remains to be seen. In the meantime, however, it might just be time to embrace, more than ever, the subjectivity upon which we judge our films.