Jim Emerson has an intriguing post up on his scaners::blog about whether film criticism can be or even should be objective. I’m somewhere in the middle on the issue; like many of the commenters (read the comments, too; a lot of the good discussions is down there), I usually find Roger Ebert’s reviews too high on emotional response, and I have the same problem with Pauline Kael. (The analytical side is apparently covered by J. Hoberman, who I haven’t read enough to comment on myself; and to be fair to Ebert, his essays on criticism itself and on older films are quite good–it’s only the reviews of new films that tend to bother me.) On the other hand, the more I write about film the more I realize that what’s really important to me is the experience of watching the film, often even more than what the film made me think about. The experiential nature of film is largely what Emerson points out in his original post.
I’ve had a couple of people in the last few months mention that they watched a film because I praised it and they didn’t care for it the way I did. I’m sorry about that, but I think it comes down again to the experience. Quoting one of Emerson’s footnotes: “The best reviewers (who may or may not also be critics) share their insights and perspectives on a film so that the reader gets an idea of what they experienced — which is not the same as saying the reader should expect to have an identical one.” I would hardly put myself into the category of “best reviewers,” and I know that those particular reviews were written hurriedly, but this strikes me as exactly right. The best that I can do as a reviewer/critic is tell the experience I had watching the film, acknowledge that it was my experience (colored by my background and personality, as well as perhaps the conditions surrounding my watching of the film)–I can’t guarantee that anyone else would have the same experience, and wouldn’t necessarily want them to. Though I don’t think criticism should be reduced to “this is how the film made me feel,” because some standards of quality DO exist and some analysis of how the film achieves its experiential power is helpful, you can never take the personal out of it. That’s why I dislike critics who try to pretend they aren’t personally involved and thus biased to some degree.
I don’t have much more to say, other than it’s a good post and discussion and you should read it, and then you should add Emerson’s blog to your feedreader, because his blog is uniformly excellent.