Film Critic Pet Peeves: “The Fountain” Edition

Just ranting about another film criticism pet peeve…

Don’t you hate it when a critic makes a statement that says, “If you don’t agree with me, well, you’re just not enlightened like I am”…?

When I was a much younger reviewer, I liked to make definitive statements. It made me feel powerful, to say which was the very best and declare that no one could possibly argue with me. I was arrogant, presumptuous, and completely lacking in credibility.

Even today I don’t see enough films out of the year to make a definitive statement about which is “undboutedly” the best.

And if I did see all of them? No, a lifetime of study would not equip me to be able to divide people into the insightful and the blind based on their responses to one particular work of art.

I ran across another one of these statements today reading Christian film reviews of The Fountain. The critic probably didn’t mean anything offensive by it, but he drew a line in the sand with his review. Writing about The Fountain, he said,

“For those prepared for a brilliantly profound mixture of story and visual, The Fountain will undoubtedly be the best film of 2006.”

While I agree that the film is, in some ways, profound, I cannot agree with this severe conclusion. Undboutedly the best film of 2006?

By what method does he arrive at this conclusion, that humankind can have no doubt about his correctness? How can anybody prove beyond doubt that a film is “the best of 2006″? Who has the right to declare that anybody open to greatness will undoubtedly arrive at one specific conclusion?

I go to the movies very much prepared for a “profound mixture of story and visual.” And I got just that with The Fountain. Is it worth seeing? Yes. Profound? At times, yes. Brilliant? Yes, in several ways. Worth seeing? Absolutely.

But even if I agreed with this critic and called this film my favorite of the year, I’ve learned to avoid making any sweeping generalizations like that. There is a lot of room for doubt and debate as to whether or not The Fountain is the “best film of 2006.” Art is a medium by which we share ideas, impressions, experiences, and stories. It is not a contest. By the logic of this critic’s statement, anyone who does not agree with his claim is somehow “unprepared” for “a brilliantly profound mixture of story and visual.”

I wonder… has the reviewer seen every single significant film of 2006? Is he absolutely certain that there is no more profound mixture of story and visual this year? Has he seen the films that blew the minds of critics at international film festivals… critics who devote their lives to finding “profound mixtures of story and visual”? Can he see into the future, fifty years down the road, when these works of art will have shown whether they can stand the test of time?

We all come to art with different experiences, open to different interpretetations. We will appreciate different aspects differently. Great art is alive, mysterious. We can recognize which films are great by their technical excellence, by how they affect people now and how they impress us twenty years from now. We can come to a consensus about what we think is the best. But even then, we must be careful not to make arrogant claims that insult those who do not agree with us. I’ve been combing back through some of the reviews I wrote ten years ago, and I’ve deleted some of them, embarrassed by my own audacious, pretentious, self-glorifying statements.

So many years later, we still can’t declare which of Shakespeare’s plays is “the greatest” in any quantifiable way. It is a matter of opinion and experience. Film critics frequently change their minds about what the greatest films of all time might be. Top ten lists give us an idea about which films made the strongest impressions on critics, audiences, or the box office, but even that doesn’t make a definitive, “undoubtable” conclusion about artistic greatness. Hollywood’s elite vote on the Best Picture of the Year at the Oscars. But few people actually take their word for it. The subject is wide open to debate.

A prominent Christian film personality just called The Nativity Story the best film about Christmas “since the 1890s.” (This same person decribes the awards that he personally gives to certain films as “prestigious awards,” in case we missed his egomania the first time.) Has this man seen every single Christmas film made in more than a century? Even if he has, is he equipped to make such a definitive statement? Of course not. Perhaps he admires The Nativity Story more than all the others, and that would be a sentiment worth sharing. But why make some kind of definitive claim and stake your credibility on it? Art is too porous, too flexible, too likely to reveal different strengths and weaknesses over time. Criterion by which people judge “the best” will differ significantly. We must proceed with caution.

Personally, while I am a big fan of The Fountain, I was more impressed with the “mixture of story and visual” in The New World and in Children of Men. For me, these are stronger, richer, and more lasting. But that’s just me. I’m not going to make any kind of judgment against this Fountain fan because he disagrees with me. I’m not going to say he’s “unprepared for a profond movie.” And I’m not going to conclude my review by dividing the world into “the enlightened” who agree with me and “those who are unprepared for revelation” … those who disagree.

Why not end his review with some high praise and a statement about how it moved him? Why conclude with a statement that slaps a derogatory label on anyone who has a different opinion or experience?

I’m glad when reviewers are enthusiastic about good movies. But I hope that, in my enthusiasm, I don’t draw lines that show I’ll think less of people who don’t arrive at exactly the same conclusion as me.

Art can give us reason to respond with enthusiasm or dismay, praise or criticism. But it should always, always prompts us to respond with humility. Let’s encourage each other toward that end. When you sense me thinkiung more of my own opinion than I should, email me. Don’t hesitate. I’d appreciate the reminder.

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About Jeffrey Overstreet

Jeffrey Overstreet is the author of a “memoir of dangerous moviegoing” called Through a Screen Darkly, and a four-volume series of fantasy novels called The Auralia Thread, which includes Auralia’s Colors, Cyndere’s Midnight, Raven’s Ladder, and The Ale Boy’s Feast. Jeffrey is a contributing editor for Seattle Pacific University’s Response magazine, and he writes about art, faith, and culture for Image, Filmwell, and his own website, LookingCloser.org. His work has also appeared in Paste, Relevant, Books and Culture, and Christianity Today (where he was a film columnist and critic for almost a decade). He lives in Shoreline, Washington. Visit him on Facebook at facebook.com/jeffreyoverstreethq.

  • Brett

    I’m on board with this as far as the artistic judgments a critic makes — those are, almost by definition, subjective. I wrote a few film reviews when I worked for a small-town daily and I had the Serious Young Writer chip on my shoulder as well. The 40+ me gets a big laugh at how seriously the 20-something me took Shag, for instance. Although he sympathizes with and continues the serious crushes on Phoebe Cates and Annabeth Gish.

    But when I say that something like Hostel or any of the Saw movies or Turistas or any of that death-p*rn ilk lack any merit whatsoever, I’m not making an artistic judgement, beyond saying that I won’t dignify them by considering their quality as films or their technical merits. They are less than worthless.

    And I can’t see myself qualifying that as “just my opinion” unless someone can convince me that being entertained by ever-more realistically-depicted sadistic torture and death isn’t one of the most deplorable characteristics human beings have developed since our knuckles left the ground.

    That may be beside your point, but I think it’s important to mention that not all judgments are created equal, in terms of their subjectivtity.

  • Anonymous

    Good point, but this is hardly limited to Christian film critics.


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