Nobody's a Critic!
Feed me into the recommendation engine.
Background illustration by Sonny Ross
I read with great interest a story in The New York Times on Tuesday about film criticism on TikTok: “They Review Movies on TikTok, but Don’t Call Them Critics.” (The previous sentence itself belongs in The New York Times, introducing a letter to the editor written by a retiree named Charles.)
In the article (which I enjoyed!) the author interviews TikTok creators in their 20s and 30s who “reach millions of people by reviewing, analyzing or promoting movies.” The story covers a lot of ground, but one thread runs through the whole thing: The young creators who spoke with The Times don’t like critics, and don’t see themselves as critics.
“When you read a critic’s review, it almost sounds like a computer wrote it,” one says.
“A lot of us don’t trust critics,” offers another. “They watch movies and are just looking for something to critique.”
Yet another describes their work as driven by a “mission to combat film snobbery.”
Empathizing with young people (I am 28 lol) is among the easiest ways to stave off death, so I’m inclined to write this off as “these folks are on a different bend of the ‘living with media’ sine wave from me.” I used to edit the op-ed section of a college newspaper; I understand how a confident young person with a platform might earnestly arrive at a bad opinion.
Still, I’d like to write about this perspective not just because it is wrong but also because it is resonant.1
I’ll start simple: Critics are just people.
I think every generation believes that their crop of critics belongs to some elite class — and maybe at some point in the past this was true. I don’t know. It definitely isn’t true these days. Being a critic is just a job. Sometimes it’s barely even that. When it is a job (meaning: paying, full-time), it’s a desk job. And the job is to produce words.
Some critics have art history degrees. Others play in local bands. Some dream of becoming artists in their own right. Others still have never picked up an instrument or a camera or a paintbrush or Unity or whatever. But while these things can alter the scope or cut or persuasiveness of a critic’s work, the qualifications for the role are 1) you have experienced the thing you’re talking about and 2) you can talk about it. This is perhaps the greatest point of similarity between critics and the pointedly-not-critics on TikTok.
Next: Critics are, themselves, creating things — and generally with good intent.
“Criticism, not a parasitic genre, is governed by the same charmed tenets as poetry,” wrote the artist Wayne Koestenbaum in an essay about the poet and critic James Schuyler. Schuyler, Koestenbaum wrote, “put unusual words together to short-circuit humdrum comprehension; he found new ways to describe color and to enter the life of paint” in his criticism.
When a critic sits at their desk (on a good day, and not every day on the job is a good one) poetry is what I believe they dream of achieving. Wrangling language into a new shape, the shape of what the critic experienced upon contact with the work they’ve engaged.2
Of course, there are caveats — one small, one big.
The small one: A critic can be bad or lazy or incurious.3 Obviously.
The big one: Not everyone who offers an opinion about media is a critic in the mold that I’ve described above. There is a large (and growing) tranche of content-producing Internet that’s designed to enrich people at the top of some complicated ad revenue food chain. Thousands of websites that you’ve never heard of are constantly pumping out slurry — video game reviews that amount to “the game was good because it was fun” and movie reviews that read “the movie was epic and nice” — in a bid to generate more virtual space on which to plaster banner ads. These websites are not meant to produce criticism, and they don’t. But the line between opinion-haver and critic can blur if you’re not paying attention.
For me, at least, the Koestenbaum passage above is a useful litmus test. Is the criticism a work of its own? Does it sing?
It’s fine — for all the gracious reasons listed above — if MovieTok creators do not consider themselves critics. I agree!
Good critics offer audiences a second admission to a work. The MovieTok creators profiled by The Times,4 by contrast, work to generate social pressure. Their job is to trigger enough neurons for the viewer to think they arrived at “I heard it was good!” all on their own. In a cosmic sense, that’s fine. Relieving audiences of the mental anguish associated with choosing a film is just fine.
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There will never be a shortage of people who believe now a more crude version of what you believed four years ago. (Don’t worry though, you were right when you thought those things.)
This is also why I don’t really understand handwringing about critics needing to write for “consumers.” Criticism isn’t really about stretching your money. It can do that, but I think a lot of good criticism presupposes that you’ve already spent time/money on the work. This point deserves more time/space/attention but I would feel bad not even gesturing at it.
Notice that I did not use the word mean here. Being mean can be good. It’s definitely fun! I wrote a mean review once, and I think it holds up better than the ones in which I tried to be nice.
I like the New York Times article because I have a sneaking suspicion that the author was “having a laugh.”