How Much Should Movie Critics Know About Movies?

Should there be a 'ground zero' of knowledge for movie criticism? And what makes a critic effective at their job?

This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.

When I sat down to watch It Follows for the first time at the start of last year, I had no idea what I was getting. I’m increasingly an avoider of trailers, and try as much as possible to see films cold. It doesn’t always work, but in the case of It Follows, it very much did.

As I’ve written before, the film had a primal effect on me, in that it had me backing further and further into my seat, genuinely unnerved and more than a little scared by what was happening on screen. I hadn’t felt like that watching a film for a long time, and my eventual write-up reflected that. Aside from the subtexts of the movie, which I, in truth, only came to later, it was the surface story that shook me up. The thought that someone is coming for you. Always.

I loved It Follows, and still do, but I’m conscious that it’s a film that very much split opinions. And for the last year, one review in particular has stuck in my mind.

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Ground zero

Mark Kermode, talking about the film on the Kermode & Mayo Film Programme on Radio Five Live, was fond of the movie, but clearly not to the level I was. And he said something particularly interesting, that’s stuck heavily in my head: “where is ground zero?”

He, after all, references his horror from the films of the ’50s and ’60s, a period he’s particularly passionate and knowledgeable about (although he, in turn, notes that he regularly defers to Empire‘s Kim Newman for all things horror).

My own horror base was more ’80s and ’90s. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gone further and further back, of course. But during my formative years, it was strange things like Stephen King anthology movie Cat’s Eye, the original Alien, bits of Halloween and Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom (I still maintain it’s a horror movie) that got under my skin. By the time I eventually saw a horror classic like The Exorcist, it was in broad daylight, on DVD, and I’d seen the spoof of it – Repossessed – the week before. The impact couldn’t help but be a little different to those that discovered it in a darkened cinema.

Do I then, I wondered, know enough to be an effective critic of It Follows? Or was my expertise on the genre too shallow to give it a proper assessment?

Going further, where is ‘ground zero’ for film critics, and how much knowledge does a film critic need to bring in order to be effective at what they do? And, more to the point, trustable, to the point where people will hand over ten quid at the box office based on something they say?

In short, how much should a movie critic know, before they get to criticize movies? And where should that “ground zero” be?

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“Everyone should at least know one generation back,” Mark Kermode argued to me, when I put these questions to him. “But it’s an interesting thing about what’s your ground zero. It was funny to realise that – I’m at the age of 52 now, of course – I was at least one cycle out with the primary audience when it came to It Follows.”

With specific relation to that film, Kermode told me that “it reminded me of people looking at movies and saying ‘that’s a reference to a Quentin Tarantino movie’,rather than seeing that the Tarantino movie was a reference to Robert Aldrich.”

“It just seemed odd that we’re now at a generation of [horror] filmmakers to whom ground zero was Halloween, rather than Halloween being the first or second natural break point,” he added.

On a related point, Kermode also heavily recommends Adam Simon’s film The American Nightmare, a documentary about the history of independent horror. Simon’s documentary argues that horror in particular has cycles, from the political horrors such as Night Of The Living Dead and Texas Chainsaw Massacre of the late 1960s and 1970s, through to the start of the modern slasher movie with Halloween, and how that in turn led to Scream nearly 20 years later. “For my generation,” Kermode noted, “Halloween was the end of something.”

Yet for mine, it was the start. And there’s nothing I can really do to change that.

Appreciating that director John Carpenter brought his own experiences of growing up with horror in the 50s, for instance, to Halloween, should it be a prerequisite for people writing about film to actually know that? And doesn’t that legislate against younger critics, whose less time spent on the planet Earth means they simply won’t have seen so many films? Should we only be trusting critics when they have, say, 20 years under their belt (I’m not quite there), or who aren’t tuned to the history behind the movies?

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The filmmaker perspective

Peter Ramsey directed the animated DreamWorks adventure Rise Of The Guardians. I’m very fond of the film (and its outstanding score), but Ramsey – on release – found himself in the crossfire of mixed reviews, and a broader story about DreamWorks Animation and its commercial performance.

Ramsey poured years of his life into his project, and – as the nature of the beast dictates – found his work assessed by critics who, I’d imagine, in general spent about three to four hours focusing specifically on his movie. Two hours to watch the film, about the same again to digest and write about. Is that in itself, for a filmmaker, easy to reconcile?

“Well… yes and no,” he told me. “That is the way most people will experience and judge a film, from a first viewing, and that is the way they’re designed to be experienced – in the moment.” He did ask a question of the way the weekly cycle of film releases are screened to critics. “A critic who’s seeing lots of films in a short window seems that much more likely to have more ‘off’ viewings, where they’ve had a bad morning, or a bad night – on top of that, they have to watch your movie, maybe at a time they’d rather not,” he mused.

It’s a slight aside, but not without value. Richard Bracewell, director of Bill, broke through with the feature The Gigolos (a movie whose critical response helped get the film noticed in America), and he argued to me that the timing of the film’s sole national press screening in the UK had an impact. “We were on a Monday afternoon, a 4pm slot. I was told at the time that its a slot for films that people didn’t really know much about. We were in that unknown slot and it worked … with smaller films, it’s really, really hard, and if you miss that window, it’s gone.”

How much knowledge?

Going back to Peter Ramsey and Rise Of The Guardians, then, in hindsight he’s generally happy with the critical assessment of his feature. “Of course I wish they’d all been raves,” he laughed. “But some of them were raves; some people thought the thing was a classic and should’ve won the Oscar. Others thought it was just ‘eh’, and some thought it was a shameless crime against animation.”

Yet Ramsey also firmly believes that there are basics a critic should bring to a film. “I think there should be at least a knowledge of film history and basic film technique, as well as what the realities of making a film are. I constantly see critics who don’t seem to understand the interplay between writer, director, actor cinematographer, and editor, and how all those crafts intertwine.”

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My counter-argument to this – just to play devil’s advocate – is that the critic, ultimately, should surely be more on the side of the audience than the filmmaker. That they should be respectful of what goes into a film, but not at the expense of giving an honest response to material. My own personal approach when reviewing – and I’m not saying this is the right way, necessarily – is to imagine someone who maybe can only get to the movies once every now and then, be it for financial or practical reasons.

Could I look them in the eye and say, hand on heart, that the film I’m talking about is the one they should see?

That said, if you’re actively seeking out film criticism for guidance on what to watch, I also think you should expect more depth than a simple yes or no (and there’s a broader debate about how social media has affected film criticism in that regard). And I do think there’s something to filmmakers being afforded an appreciation for just how difficult it is to get something made, in any form.

The difficulty

Julie Salamon’s excellent book The Devil’s Candy, for instance, charts in compelling detail the making of notorious 1990 Hollywood flop The Bonfire Of The Vanities. What I distinctly remember when reading the book about a film I previously had little care for was that I was willing it to be great. The same with Steven Bach’s book Final Cut, that charts the making of Heaven’s Gate. That there was a clear sense that many people were slogging their guts out to produce the movie, and when I subsequently rewatched The Bonfire Of The Vanities – it’s still not a great picture, I should note – I was a little softer towards it. Not least because I was looking out for a shot that won DP Eric Schwab a bet with director Brian De Palma.

“On a personal note, I guess I’d love critics to know just how hard it is to even make quite a bad movie, let alone a decent or excellent one,” Ricky Gervais said, when I asked him about his views on movie criticism.

Gervais, who has two directorial projects – Special Correspondents and David Brent: Life On The Road – coming this year, did concede though that “the truth is that it isn’t a necessary prerequisite for anyone giving their honest opinion about a film.”

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“And that’s what most criticism is, I guess: one person’s opinion,” he added. “It’s not to be taken personally or even seriously. If you’re doing anything that’s ‘auteured’ you should expect as many people to hate it as love it and anything in-between. Including indifference and not watching it. These last two are, of course, the worst.”

Film critics, in my experience, certainly concur on the need to understand the complexities of making a film. There are few more satisfying moments for a film critic that being able to champion a film, particularly one that desperately needs the oxygen of added publicity and exposure. But even on productions they don’t like, they’re on the lookout for something to admire. And sometimes, it takes background knowledge to help with that.

Robbie Collin is chief film critic for the Telegraph, and he argues that “where the film critic expertise comes in is in knowing how things work – the craft of a scene, how it’s been structured, shot, edited – and also in terms of the historical context of it. What has everyone done before? How does it reflect on their career as a whole? Stuff that doesn’t come from insight, but is already out there, and you need to be tuned into that.”

“When you’re a kid,” Mark Kermode adds, “which is the primary time when people engage with horror in particular, it tends to be those movies you grew up with that will always be the lodestone. For me, it’s The Exorcist. But even The Exorcist didn’t come from nowhere. It had predecessors too.” The obligation, then, is on the critic to dig deeper.

The quandary

And therein lies a quandary. The modern film critics who try and round up the weekly releases in the UK have to watch at least ten films a week, sometimes more, just to stay still. Simply to be able to keep on top of new releases, and even that’s assuming that they don’t have to cover television as well.

Granted, every film watched adds something to the memory bank (even you, Big Momma’s House), but for young critics jumping in, finding time to explore the deep riches of cinema isn’t always easy.

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“With someone like [the late Observer film critic] Philip French, who was one of the greatest film critics that ever lived, he was alive for more than half of film history,” Robbie Collin notes. “He was steeped in the medium that nobody born after him will ever be. The era of critics having encyclopedic knowledge in the way that Philip French and Roger Ebert had is coming to an end.”

But still: the onus is on anyone wanting to write professionally about film to find the space to fill in their knowledge gaps. “If you want to do film criticism seriously,” Collin argues, “it is incumbent on you to know as much as possible. And when you find a gap in your knowledge that could usefully be plugged, you work very hard to plug it.”

I asked him if, though, someone who had never seen The Godfather could legitimately review Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, to move away from horror examples.

“Yes, I think you can. But I think it’s probably a bad idea. What are you going to bring to it? You can say something about Goodfellas, but you’ve got to offer something that people can’t just get by popping along to the IMDB or Amazon. In order to do that, you can write very well, or be very astute, or be both. And in order to be astute, you should want to have that firm grounding. If you’re writing about Goodfellas, that means writing about Scorsese’s earlier crime films as well. Knowing about the stuff that Scorsese is referencing in terms of tracking shots, for instance.”

And back to It Follows

Bringing this full circle, I’m conscious I didn’t bring quite that level of background to my It Follows review, but conversely, I accept that it’s impossible to draw a definitive line (you can hardly call the precise moment when you level up, and are greenlit to go and watch a the new flick from the Coen brothers). Even if there was, one of the by-products of watching films cold is you don’t always know if there are things it’d be useful to have seen beforehand. And, in defense of film critics, they generally only get one take to get it right.

What’s more, film, as a medium, is now around 120 years old. Each year, around 500 English language films at least get a UK release in some form, and every newborn child will have access to a catalogue of films from day one of their life that they can no longer physically sit through before their death, even if all film production stopped dead. It means film criticism, as much as filmmaking, is changing, and any notion of drawing a ground zero line is as much of a folly as it sounds.

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But that doesn’t mean those who want to do the job seriously shouldn’t try.

Going back to Robbie Collin, one point he made to me is that “if you haven’t seen Citizen Kane, it doesn’t mean you can’t be a film critic. But if you don’t want to see Citizen Kane, why do you want to be a film critic?”

I think there’s something in that. I think most of us who get into reviewing films do so because we love films, and can’t get enough of them. And I think, as with any job or hobby, the more you put into it, the better you tend to get. For me, above all, preserving honesty is key. As Peter Ramsey told me, be it critic or viewer, “what you bring to a film in terms of attitude and expectation has a huge bearing on how you experience it.” And I think it’s important to be honest about that.

Where does this leave me with It Follows? I’m up to four viewings now. I’m perhaps a little less keen on the ending than I was once was. But the film still scares the bejesus out of me. And, folks, I know scary. My Wild Wild West Blu-ray, after all, has just arrived in the post…