The Critics Interviews is a Much Ado series in which we interview film and cultural critics about the industry, social media, responsibilities of a critic and their advice for young writers.
Our second interview is with Ty Burr, author and film critic for The Boston Globe. Enjoy!
In this day and age, how do you think the rise of social media is impacting film criticism?
While the internet as a whole has been a force for broadening and diversifying the range of voices that can be heard in film criticism, social media platforms generally encourage a quick-take response and mentality that is antithetical to critical thinking. The mob effect that can be seen at such sites as Rotten Tomatoes, Twitter, Reddit, and elsewhere encourages group-think, overvalues arbitrary metrics and the the snarky tweet over sustained articulate thought, often caters to commercial and corporate interests, and generally punishes the variant response, especially one that might come from women or minority writers. The best new critical writing can often be found at sites that don’t cater to the social media masses but rather to those readers who understand the rules of critical engagement. In short: social media may spread the word about movies and movie reviews but are generally speaking an enemy of critical thought.
There has been a lot of debate recently regarding the responsibility of the media in wider culture, for example, concerning the portrayal of minority groups, or the work of known abusers. Do you think that films, and by extension film critics, have a moral responsibility to the general public? Is this something that critics should be commenting on, or is the role of a film critic purely that of artistic merit?
It is not the business of a film or a filmmaker to have a moral compass, although many, if not most, do. A film is a film; it doesn’t “have” to do or be anything other than what its maker wishes. The position of the critic, on the other hand, is more complicated, because a movie is watched in a real world in which the critic also exists. A movie review consists of subjective opinion in a wrapper of objective context. The objective context can contain real-world issues of racism, sexism, gender dynamics, and more; as part of the cultural discussion, they’re also part of the discussion around movies, especially when relevant to a film’s or filmmaker’s history. Part of critic’s subjective opinion involves his or her personal ethical framework and beliefs. These can (and arguably should) be signaled, directly or obliquely, in colloquy with the film, whether the critic feels he or she is speaking for him or herself or mirroring the presumed ethical beliefs of the reader.
The issue of whether a creator who is a bad actor should be judged solely on his or her creations is an issue that will never be satisfactorily answered and, as such, should be part of the ongoing conversation. I will defend your right to not see a Roman Polanski or Woody Allen film or even read my review of their films, but I will (sometimes grudgingly) insist on my duty to critique those films, acknowledging within the review their makers’ problematic cultural (and, in Polanski’s case, criminal) status but only directly discussing the issue if the film itself seems to raise it (as was the case with Allen’s recent “Wonder Wheel”).
Whenever a filmmaker or artist directly responds to your criticism, how do you typically react? Do you ignore it, or try to inform the artist on why you feel the way you do. If or when this has happened, has the response been reasonable, or have their been artists who take more hostile approaches?
I rarely get a direct response from a filmmaker; perhaps it would be different if I wrote for a publication with a national distribution. I once received a very angry email from a European director livid that I had panned his film, an art-house darling beloved by virtually every other critic, My response was to gently suggest he enjoy his many good reviews and not lose sleep over the one bad one. I didn’t hear back; presumably he just wanted to vent. Another time I received a phone call from a very well-known Hollywood director who just wanted to talk with me and (he said) a handful of other critics he respected; he had thought his previous film would be a hit with critics more than audiences, and he was confused as to why even the critics didn’t go for it. He wanted, and got, a polite conversation about what did and didn’t work in the film for me; I hung up the phone after 20 minutes thinking much more highly of him. This has never happened before and it will never happen again.
What would your advice be to younger generation of critics?
Don’t expect to be a movie critic in the classic Pauline Kael/Roger Ebert sense, because print publications are dying and movies are changing. Watch as many movies, from all eras and countries, as you can, because being young is all about input. But also: Watch TV, read great books, expose yourself to art and music, take long hikes in the mountains, travel widely, and generally live. There is nothing more depressing than a movie critic who only knows about movies and nothing about life. Movie criticism is essentially talking about life through the prism of cinema.
And write constantly, about everything you see and think and feel; it’s the only way to build up the writing muscles and acquire a voice. Write in a notebook rather than on a blog, so you’re not worrying about being performative and can try new things without feeling like eyes are on you. Don’t just write about movies but about TV series and other media. Look for niche formats and specialties and other areas where other people aren’t working. Very important: Learn to “write clean”: Everything correctly spelled, grammatically corrected, and well-structured. Editors will love you because it means less work for them, which means more assignments for you.
Was there a moment or a film that made you decide to become a critic?
Not one singular moment, no. But I always cite watching the Marx Brothers in “Duck Soup” on TV when I was 14 as the moment that turned me on to movies, and reading Pauline Kael in the New Yorker during the 70s was hugely formative. As was the wave of new rock criticism that developed in the 1960s and 70s.
Where do you think film criticism is going as a business? What are the changes that
are needed in the business to improve the standards in which we review films?
It’s hard to say where film criticism is going as a business because it’s hard to say where film is going as a business. The main change that needs to be made is for major publications, print and online, to start thinking outside of the theatrical-release box and to begin covering movies the way people watch them. In other words, the streaming experience, while not the best way to see a movie, is often where movies are seen, and more arts coverage needs to reflect that.
What is a film that you always go back to for a rewatch?
Oh, many, many, from “The Godfather” and “Celine and Julie Go Boating” to “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.” Here’s the thing: A good movie critic loves movies, or why would he or she do it in the first place? So we’ll watch anything that’s on. We’re cheap that way.
If you’d like to be part of our series or want to suggest a critic you’d like us to interview please contact Dilara Elbir at twitter or mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org