Picking on Critics and Critics’ Picks

On the upcoming Film Streams series and why you should read more


My unabashed, unapologetic love for Film Streams has been well documented over the years. You have to forgive me if I feel eternally grateful for them saving this fair city from remaining a barren wasteland devoid of any indie, foreign, or documentary films. Pre-Film Streams cinema in Omaha to me felt like the burning wastelands of Mad Max: Fury Road. And yes, their founder, Rachel Jacobson, is Imperator Furiosa in this metaphor. So when they ask me to do a thing, I do that thing. It’s the least I can do.

They asked me to participate in their “Critic’s Choice” series that started on October 24 and will run until December 23. We’ll get to what I chose, why I did that and what others picked in a bit. But first, let’s talk for just a moment about why I consider this to be one of the coolest, smartest things. The series itself, not them asking me in particular. I mean, they got A.O. Scott from “The New York” times to do it, and I’m pretty much the Jimmy Olsen to his Superman in this scenario.

A new book edited by Mattias Frey and Cecila Sayad called “Film Criticism in the Digital Age” is a series of essays by various scholars that engages the “crisis in film criticism.” That crisis is, essentially, that your mom’s movie blog is killing me. That is to say, with digital opportunities to share opinions in such outrageous supply, what use does anyone have for me? I remember turning on Roger Ebert to see what his judgmental thumb would tell me to do each week. Now? You just click on your Rotten Tomatoes app, if you even consider critical opinion a factor at all, which most don’t. In modern society, the film critic seems as useful as a town crier. Except, “hear ye, hear ye,” that’s not true.

I’ve never preferred the term “film critic.” For one, it sounds like the job description is to be a dick. Critic evokes “criticize,” even if that’s not the job description. But the distinct lack of alternatives has left us saddled with that yoke of a label, as calling yourself a “film writer” sounds like you spend your days at Starbucks pounding out a “groundbreaking original idea.” The film critic’s job isn’t to criticize, nor is it truly to tell you if you should go see a movie or not. Most of my favorite writers don’t give stars or grades for just that reason. They aren’t trying to be prescriptive and tell you what this means to you. I do use a letter grade system, but only because I think it’s only fair to stand behind my opinion with a declarative statement of some kind. Because, you see, that’s what we’re really doing.

Film criticism is supposed to deepen an understanding of a movie, to place it in societal context and in context with other films, to start a rolling dialogue, to provide insight casual viewers may have missed. Our job is to be experts at investigating and understanding meaning behind and within what I consider to be this era’s defining art form. It’s not about thumb’s up or thumb’s down. It never really was. That was an act, a clever ruse to keep drawing a paycheck. Our job is to engage the shit out of film, because if educated people don’t do that, then the truest potential of film remains inert. Yes, even for crap like Pixels.

The reason that my opinion matters more than your mom’s blog isn’t because my opinion is “better.” Your mom is a lovely lady, and although her review of The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel was a little too Richard Gere-heavy for my liking, she has some sound perspectives. The point is, unless she sees movies pretty much all the time, unless she has been trained and practiced in engaging that content, unless she constantly reads the work of other writers in an effort to improve, her opinion may not be “worse” than mine, but it is unquestionably less informed. The entirety of journalism is battling this right now, as people can’t understand why they need The New York Times when Twitter barfs information at them in real time. We have largely forgotten why we asked people to do the work of becoming experts in the first place.

Which is where Film Streams’ series comes in. Its very existence isn’t just a tip of the cap to those of us still doing this work. Although, boy howdy does that feel nice, as most of the feedback we get (especially on the Internet) begins with something like “Dear flaming poophead.” No, the series is an affirmation that certain perspectives are objectively something good, that when A.O. Scott says that Rocco and His Brothers is the reason he believes films can outachieve novels, you listen to him. And you see it. Not because he gave it a thumb’s up, but because his writing is so engaging that I want to be a part of whatever he’s engaging.

There are some great local critics in this Film Streams’ series and some nice national ones, but I always have to take time out to mention the two people I think are doing the best work in the field right now. Amy Nicholson at The LA Weekly is a word goddess whose every piece teaches me something. Even when I deeply, deeply disagree with her, I never question the soundness of her logic or fail to marvel at the quality of her observations. Alternatively, Film Crit Hulk (yes, that’s his name), a frequent contributor to BirthMoviesDeath.com but who has appeared in the New Yorker, is so profound I often take two passes at his commentaries. Some people are offput by his all-caps Hulk “schtick,” but in case you hadn’t noticed, it’s hard to get noticed. And his work is the only thing that matters. Seek them out.

But back to the series at hand. What a great, varied selection of movies were chosen! It’s almost like these people know what they’re doing! David Denby from the New Yorker chose the classic The Third Man, which runs Nov 7, 8 and 11. Micah Mertes, the man who stepped into Bob Fischbach’s shoes over at The Omaha World Herald, picked Rushmore, easily Wes Anderson’s finest film. That’s up on Nov 14, 15 and 18. Denis Lim over at the Film Society of Lincoln Center chose Blue Velvet, the hallucinatory masterpiece from David Lynch, which will run Dec 6, 7 and 9. Nick Pinkerton, a freelance critic, chose Terrence Malick’s Badlands, which is up on Dec 19, 20 and 23. Tasha Robinson of the A.V. Club picked Brazil, one of my favorites, and that shows Nov 22, 24 and 26. And Scott’s Rocco and His Brothers is up on Nov 28, 29 and Dec 1.

Me? I chose Pulp Fiction. Why? I mean, I want to just say “Have you seen Pulp Fiction?” But let’s go a bit further than that. It was the first movie that made me have to write about it. I had to. I had to talk about the interweaving structure, speculate as to what was in that suitcase, marvel at the music, talk about how great the dialogue was. I mean, Quentin Tarantino rewrote a bible quotation. Think about that for a moment. The man said “yeah, yeah, I know this is the alleged word of God, but here’s a second draft.” Doesn’t that show you everything you need to know about that man? Anyway, the movie is so rich and inspired so many other films that came after it that it had to be my choice. It simply had to. Unfortunately, our monthly printing means you missed your chance to see it. You even missed me! As on November 2, I will be introducing it in person. Except you’re reading it after I already did it…

The last thing I’ll say on this whole critical fiasco is that it’s even worse for us schmucks in the midwest;  our opinions are treated like farts on an elevator, in that everybody pretends they don’t hear them and think they stink. The Los Angeles and New York critics rightfully and understandably are more respected and catered to. But that’s the funny thing about movies: It doesn’t matter where you’re geographically located. That art travels. We can all engage it. I mean, now that there’s Film Streams. I’ve been slowly, very slowly, working towards building a Midwest Film Critic Society. I think it’s time our opinions get a bit more weight behind them. Hell, I’ve been reviewing movies professionally for 13 years and am syndicated in another state and I still can’t get on Rotten Tomatoes despite trying often. That’s a real thing.

Lest this whole thing sound like “look at me, I matter,” I want to tell you this: Each semester, I get a chance to sit next to Rachel Jacobson on a panel and discuss film criticism with college students at UNO. They are so energized, so passionate. They light up. At the end of the day, that’s what matters. I want to be some small part of what movies do to people, even if my part is incredibly small and well after the fact. If I can get one more person to engage A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night or The Babadook, if I can make someone go “huh, I didn’t think of it like that,” then I’m happy, regardless of how many “Dear flaming poophead” reactions I get.


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