That might not be the best way to introduce a column on film that wants to build a solid readership. The series remains extremely popular, raking in dump trucks full of money. Revenge of the Fallen was the number one grossing movie of 2009. Michael Bay uses hundred-dollar bills to light Cuban cigars wrapped in paper from a Gutenberg Bible. Probably.
I’m deeply skeptical of all the big summer blockbusters anymore and don’t bother with many of them. My friends peg me as a snobby cynic, harshing everyone’s cinema buzz. “Sorry, Fellini! We didn’t realize everything had to be artsy fartsy.” (Nothing quite screams “I’m the next Pauline Kael!” like the criticism “artsy fartsy.”) When fellow movie lovers query how I can know if a film will be terrible without seeing it, I invoke the critics.
Film is mass entertainment. Just about anyone can go to a movie. This easy accessibility leads to a sense of equalization where fairness demands that everyone’s opinion is equally valued. “Roger Ebert hated Jaws: The Revenge? Well I liked it, and since we’re both moviegoers, who’s to tell me I’m wrong?” People seem to take criticism of a movie they enjoyed very personally. Rather than just admit that they liked a movie that wasn’t very good, they take it a step further and insist their opinion is just as valid as a film critic.
Except it’s not.
I don’t care how someone is entertained. You’d rather watch reruns of 227 on a black and white TV with rabbit ears? Have a blast. You’ll pay to see the Twilight film when Lincoln is playing next door? I hope you enjoy the show. Truly.
What I do care about is the war on expertise that masquerades as balance in current American culture. Whether it’s CNN putting an evangelical preacher alongside a scientist to talk about evolution, or cousin Miles insisting that critics suck because Olympus Has Fallen was obviously way better than Argo, we all too often treat expertise with contempt.
There are experts in film. Not all movie critics are created equal, of course. But many of them have dedicated their lives to understanding movies and their impact on the social conscience. They’ve seen tens-of-thousands of films. Some have degrees in film history. Art deserves experts that are taken seriously.
Film matters. Movies have remarkable potency. JFK, as brilliant a film as it is terrible history, single-handedly moved millions of Americans to think the President was the victim of a vast conspiracy. Philadelphia helped shift attitudes towards AIDS patients. The Triumph of the Will and Birth of a Nation are appallingly powerful works of propaganda.
Not every expert is always right; there’s plenty of gray in film criticism and sometimes even the most respected critics are fiercely divided. But often consensus exists and moviegoers should take that consensus seriously. We might just end up with better films, something that Roger Ebert championed every single day in his writing, in one way or another.
Remember Ebert’s thumb next time you suggest a critical darling and your friends say, “That looks boring, but you know what looks fun? That Queen Latifah Sister Act reboot!”