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When We Were Jerks: On Film Criticism and Hate Mail

We get lots of mail from readers. Some of it is fan mail. Lots of it is incoherent. And tons of it is hate mail. ‘How can you give my favorite movie 2 stars!?!?!’ ‘How can you disrespect some dead artist!?!?!’ ‘You’re stupid and I’m never coming back!’

Well, okay. Thanks for sharing.

While we hear your concerns, if you’re going to send us criticism, at least make it understandable. Use your spell-checker. (Use English, too.) And above all, don’t send us one of these complaints, because they make you look extremely stupid.

So one day, New York Bureau Chief Jeremiah Kipp and I decided to provide our responses and commentary to some of the most common flaming hate mails we receive in response to negative reviews. (Almost no one writes nasty things if they disagree with a positive review; this — along with studio co-option and sheer idiocy — is why so many critics give outstanding reviews to the worst crap that seeps out of Hollywood.)

We’ll be using this story as a permanent warehouse for hate mail responses, so if you find yourself directed to this page by one of us in response to a letter you sent, it’s not because we think you’re stupid. It’s because we think you’re special. (Meanwhile, check out ‘best of’ archive of fan and hate mail here.)

The rest of you, enjoy. — Christopher Null, Editor-in-Chief

Why don’t you try and make a better movie!?

CN: Oh this is my favorite type of hate mail! And I have a standing offer: Give me the same budget as the director got for whatever movie I panned and I will deliver you a superior product. But please, if you are going to send this kind of asinine message, be sure to include a check.

How can you live with yourself saying such mean things about [insert actor/actress/director]? If they read your reviews, they’d be heartbroken! You crush the creative spirit! Do you know how much people risk emotionally to put their work out there?

JK: Honesty is the best policy, isn’t it? If an artist came up to me an asked what I thought of their film, I’d tell them point blank — and in my correspondences it has often opened up a much-needed dialogue between the artist and the critic.

I would hope critics don’t go into things rubbing their hands together saying, ‘Whose creative spirit am I going to crush today?’ Though, to be fair, someone has to tell Sylvester Stallone to cut the crap. He hasn’t been making as many movies, so obviously he must have listened. You may have noticed that Robin Williams did a career rerouting, too.

Frankly, someone should be telling this stuff to the filmmaker beforehand, though I don’t see anyone stepping up to the plate and questioning George Lucas’s artistic vision. Money talks, doesn’t it? Until they start changing their system around, I see no reason to stop criticizing their fallacies. To paraphrase a Sam Shepard play, we’re looking for themes and all we’re finding are theme parks!

CN: As Jeremiah alludes, believe it or not, filmmakers often do read our reviews and we’ve had some lively conversations with them. You get the occasional whiner, but by and large even if we pan a movie the filmmaker is far more civil in his response than the moviegoer who thinks he’s sticking up for his hero.

For mainstream movies: ‘Don’t you ever just go to the movies for fun, you heartless ass!?’ Paradoxical corollary for art movies: ‘You aren’t supposed to enjoy this movie! You’re just supposed to think about it! It’s life-changing!’

CN: Sure we do, I just find it hard to have fun in the presence of cheeseball mediocrity like Goldmember. You see, jokes have to be funny or else we can’t laugh. A fat suit and a couple of sex jokes just don’t cut it.

JK: It’s too bad most films have a limited idea of what ‘fun’ is. I mean, ‘Wow, when the kid kicked that fat guy in the balls, that sure was fun!’ Give me a break. Yes, not every movie has to be a grand philosophical achievement. But what folks need to remember is it takes a brain to be entertained! You’re actively involved when you laugh. The idea that you have to shut your mind off to have fun is a popular, and stupid, fallacy. I had boatloads of fun with the creative, really audacious vulgarity of Blazing Saddles and Kingpin.

CN: As for the other side, some readers confuse a director’s desire to make a life-changing movie with his ability to do so. Just because a movie aspires to be profound doesn’t make it so. I humbly suggest that your closeness to subjects like the plight of the Kurds (A Time for Drunken Horses) and the Armenian holocaust (Ararat) might be coloring your opinion of the quality of the films.

Don’t you know that Ebert and 100 other critics loved this movie? You’re the only one who didn’t give it five stars! You’re stupid!

CN: Why are you here if you’ve read 100 other reviews? Are you just trolling for something to complain about because you need to have your voice heard?

That said, I’m saddened to inform you that many film critics are like cattle. They just go with the conventional wisdom, which is how pap like Gladiator ends up as Best Picture. We rarely follow the conventional wisdom here, and we think that’s what makes the site great. But just because we don’t agree with a bunch of hacks doesn’t make us wrong — it makes them wrong. Similarly we don’t respect the work of the ridiculous gossip sites, anonymous reviews, or ‘quote whores’ like The Movie Minute, all of which praise everything as The Greatest Movie Ever!

JK: I’ve sometimes been accused of being contrary to the mainstream because I want to rack up my cool points, but that’s not true. I really do believe Black Hawk Down is a nefarious, racist, and inaccurate piece of propaganda. Monster’s Ball was a bland filmmaker’s excuse to shoot an elaborate sex scene. Requiem for a Dream was all about its sleek surface, and never thought about what’s under the skin. Those reviews pissed a lot of people off, because I didn’t go with the herd in praising them. But I stand by everything I wrote. Who needs 100 party line opinions anyway? If anything, a different and unique review might shed some new light on a film. Even if you walk away still loving those horrible movies (you poor sucker), hopefully you have a clearer idea of why.

CN: The same argument goes for the ‘This movie made a bazillion dollars and you think it’s bad? The people will prove you wrong!’ Since when do ‘the people’ know anything!? That’s why we’re here, to help them avoid making a terrible mistake in wasting their money on stuff like Bad Boys II, one of the top grossing films the year it was released. The sad truth is that most people will eat whatever is spoon-fed to them — in real life and in the world of cinema — but if we can keep one person from seeing The Mummy Returns, we’re doing som
e good.

You can’t review this movie unless you’ve been in the army/are a woman/have one leg/etc.! You are ignorant on this subject matter and should not write about something unless you’ve read the book/done in-depth research on the subject/lived for 10 years as a Bedouin/etc.

JK: Let’s return to Black Hawk Down (there’s no escape from it).

A motion picture is not a historical treatise. If you want the non-fiction account of what happened, go read Mark Bowden’s book. Once you translate that to film, it becomes something else. When I’m reviewing Black Hawk Down, I’m considering the cinematic aspects of it — and what those represent. Quite simply, Black Hawk Down fails as a story, as a visual experience, and even as a representation of history.

I have not been in the army, but observing whether or not Black Hawk Down works in a dramatic medium doesn’t necessitate my army experience any more than traveling to Mars affects my viewing of Mission to Mars or Red Planet or Ghosts of Mars. I wasn’t aboard the Titanic, nor have I been in a shipwreck, but I can damned well tell you that Titanic was a disjointed narrative, the characters were pencil-thin sketches, and the spectacle overwhelmed the sentimental pap humanity.

A foundation in movies and how they work is the tool for evaluating those films, not an expertise in the character’s jobs or lives. Think about it.

CN: Let me also point out that we are film critics, not book critics or cultural commentators. I review 400 to 600 movies a year, and I work full time as the editor of another magazine. Suffice it to say that I don’t have time to read the source material every movie is based on. Much along the lines with what Jer said, ‘reading the book’ should not be a prerequisite for reviewing a movie. In a perfect world, that would be ideal, but ours, alas, is a world with Pauly Shore.

Who are you to say this movie stinks!? (i.e., What are your qualifications as a film critic?)

CN: Well, for starters, who are you to say it’s good? Suddenly you’re qualified to review a movie or critique a film critic just because you know how to send an email? You can’t have it both ways.

Personally, I believe that anyone with a basic understanding of cinema, a thorough history as a moviegoer, an ability to write well, and an intellect that’s at least average can become a superior film critic. Hardly any film critics have been to film school. Most didn’t go to journalism school either. But few people agree on what ‘qualifies’ anyone to be a critic. Case in point: In 1999 the venerable New York Times replaced retiring film critic Janet Maslin with its second-string critic, Elvis Mitchell, and a former book critic, A.O. Scott!

So what qualifies anyone to be a film critic? Depends on who you ask. Ebert lambasted the choice of Scott, asking ‘Has he seen six films by Bresson? Ozu?’ Jesus, has anyone besides Ebert? How relevant is Ozu anyway when you’re trying to say something coherent about A Night at the Roxbury? But I digress. I’ll play that game: As for my qualifications, I’ve reviewed over 3,000 movies for countless outlets since 1995, and I’ve seen 11 films by Fassbinder and eight by Makavejev. So eat that, monkey boys.

(As a side note, Ebert has since played kissy-make-up with Scott and counts him as a dear dear friend. I guess that little outburst didn’t look to good, huh?)

How dare you ridicule dwarfism, the holocaust, and the U.S. armed forces? What kind of sadistic, communist heathen are you?

JK: Yeah, we’re such assholes. Maybe it’s the movie that’s being ridiculous, facetious, or simplistic. How about them apples?

CN: Or maybe we’re being sarcastic. If you can’t take a joke, you shouldn’t come to our site. In fact, you should probably commit suicide. Now.

Have you ever heard of the saying, ‘If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say it?’

JK: Yeah. Have you ever heard of the saying, ‘Honesty is the best policy?’ Besides, I’m not writing these reviews to coddle the artists (though, as I said before, a critic-artist dialogue can be useful whether you love or hate the movie). It’s written for the audience that has to shell out the increasingly high prices for movie tickets. I would counter that statement with a smarter, more productive one: ‘If you don’t have something useful to say, don’t say it.’

If you don’t like this kind of movie, don’t review it!

JK: What ‘kind of movie’ is that? It can be just as valuable to trash something you know to be insidious or stupid as it is to praise something you cherish.

CN: This complaint usually comes up when a male critic trashes a ‘women’s picture’ like Anywhere But Here or that Ya-Ya movie. In general, we try to admit in the review when certain subject matters (the plight of the single mother is a typical one) fail to hook us due to cultural or genetic circumstances, but that alone doesn’t let a movie off the hook. Some movies are just plain bad (like Star Trek: Nemesis), and they try to hide behind their devoted niche audiences — who will accept whatever pabulum they are served as gold — in a vain attempt to become critic-proof. And we are not that dumb. You are, for buying into it.

(We also got the reverse complaint when an Asian female reviewed a Martin Lawrence movie. She was called out as a racist simply for quoting Lawrence’s own dialogue!)

In the end, a movie needs to stand on its own merits regardless of who’s reviewing it. If we only send to any given movie a critic who’s sure to love it, what would be the point of that?

You didn’t understand it!

CN: If I didn’t understand it, then it’s crap. But chances are I did understand it, and what I understood was that it was crap. If I really didn’t understand it (Lost Highway comes to mind), then it’s really crap.

JK: That movie is great. Chris, you obviously didn’t understand it! (laughs)

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