We critics get it all the time. As a matter of fact, among all condemnations lobbed at us, it’s perhaps the most frequent. It comes from a place of both inferred sour grapes and some stereotypical truth. It also stems from an ill-informed conclusion based solely on that most elusive of interpersonal appeals—the consensus. You see, not everybody likes the same things. As a matter of fact, there’s an old adage about opinions that is better left to the sleazy and the scatological. But this doesn’t stop some from complaining loudly, especially when a favorite is being slagged. Indeed, no matter the intellectualized or well-constructed expression of their view, critics considered ‘outside the loop’ are often labeled with the following fallacy (and we paraphrase):
“You’re just a frustrated filmmaker. Before you go about undermining another’s work, try making your own movie and see how successful you are!”
The parameters are almost always the same—i.e. your opinion is wrong because, as someone unable to compete on the same level as the title (or actor, or director, or writer) in question, you have to take your aggravation out on something. Another way of looking at it is to argue that, until you’ve walked a mile in the shoes of someone actually invested in the artform, you have no credibility to criticize them. Perhaps the most telling out of all the interpretations is the “you’re wrong because you’re talentless” approach, basically defending their love of a certain film by implying that the only reason the journalist is wrong is because, when faced with the daunting challenge of cinema, their weaknesses are translated into pans.
For instance, this past Awards Season, the press and online communities all fell for the solid if limited joys of the French silent film The Artist. They ended up giving it the Oscar for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor (among a few others). It was heralded as a breakthrough by some, while disparaged by others as nothing more than a cleverly crafted stunt. While the overall view was favorable, there were still some who felt the film was being unfairly pressed beyond the obvious better works of the year. A quick perusal of the comments sections for some of these reviews gleans that dreary, derivative sentiment—until you’ve done it yourself, keep your mouth (or laptop) shut.
Sadly, many who pull out this position known little about argumentation. They know trolling, or in less incendiary words, the beautiful anonymity of the internet. Under any name, they can step into the critical conversation and pull out the “wannabe” whine. Now, it is true that a few in the field of film journalism are frustrated artists. They have screenplays sitting in draws, blockbuster ideas untapped in their always fertile brain. Because they need an outlet for their passion, because they hope (or in the conspiracy, believe) that writing about film will lead to a gig making one, they take up the mantle of the fourth estate and set about scribbling. So naturally, when they complain about a movie, it’s because their own unheralded classic is sitting around in their head, being unjustly ignored by the rest of the ticket buying populace.
In theory, this means that every negative review of a film someone otherwise likes is based solely on one’s inability to match what they see. No analytical overview of the various components of the creation. No flaws in filmmaking or maker. If you didn’t like The Artist, it’s because you can’t make it yourself - and then the biggest leap in logical of all - you are disqualified from criticizing it. No matter your problems with the stylistic choices, the borrowing from better films, the stunt like nature of the entire presentation or your devotion to other 2011 choices - the proof is in the prose. Put up or shut up.
Naturally, this is nonsense. Those who toss out this attack willy-nilly know little about something debaters call “reciprocal reproach”. In essence, this theory highlights the illogic in claiming displeasure because of a lack of knowledge when, in fact, the lack of said should discount all opinions. In simplistic terms—if you can’t ‘hate’ something because you are a frustrated filmmaker, you can’t “like” something for the very same reason. What this means is that every time you rave over some sensational piece of filmmaking (like the surrealistic Spanish gem The Last Circus), your praise is invalid. It has to be.
Why? Well, it’s simple logic. If all opinion is based on your predetermined bias (remember, we are all just frustrated filmmakers unable to bask in the glory of our own unmade ideas) then good opinions are as poisoned as bad ones. Hate and love are linked—they are both a matter of personal preference. Whatever clouds said preference clouds both. Yes, you can nitpick out the positives from the negatives, but the stain remains. So before someone can say anything about movies (or music, or television, or books) they have to go out and do it themselves. Once they’ve mastered the medium under scrutiny, only then can they discuss it accurately, pro or con.
Really? If you hear a Katy Perry song on the radio and it grates on your nerves like fingernails on a chalkboard, is it because you can’t write and record earworm pop candy like she does? If you pick up a copy of Twilight and realize that Stephanie Meyer is a horribly bad writer, is it because she beat you to the sparkling vampire literary punch? Envy and jealously can play a part in anyone’s determination, but to say that experience cures all such ills is ridiculous. They can also add to them. A journalist can go out and make the best damn movie they can, and yet still sit back and say that something like A Thousand Words is garbage. One does not coincide or contradict the other.
While there is some minor validity to the argument pragmatically (a journalist does indeed have limited knowledge of the trials and tribulations that go on behind the scenes of any production), there is none esoteric or aesthetically. Opinions come from a variety of places, only a small percentage of which might be from jealousy or unrealized goals. In fact, unless the writer says something specific like “I believe I could do better,” the assumption that it’s the basis for his or her approach is inane. The main reason it exists however is because fans need a shortcut to their censure. Instead of digging deeper into the mix and making a determination based on their own learned opinion, they latch onto something ludicrous and consider such an assertion truth. Now that’s illogical.