Everyone’s a critic
A conversation with Kate Taylor, Katherine Monk and Eli Glasner
We are in the midst of a period of dramatic change in the film industry: how films are made, distributed, consumed—and, since the digital revolution takes no prisoners, even how films are reviewed. We spoke to three prominent Canadian film critics about the altered critical landscape, the tidal push for consensus, and what Canadian films are doing well—and could do better.
Let’s talk a bit about how you see your role as critic. How has it evolved from when you started your career, especially in light of sites like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic?
Kate Taylor: Well, everybody has become a critic. There are opinions expressed about film on social media and on blogs, and there has been this great democratization of opinion. There are positives and negatives to it, but the more negative aspect is that audiences lose sight of what criticism is. It’s not just that a film rocks or it sucks.
Katherine Monk: When Donald Trump got elected to the White House, all these bloggers got into the press room, and the DC press pool was shocked and appalled: “Who are all these bloggers coming into our official space?” And that’s the exact same shock that I experienced 15 years ago when bloggers started coming into the film criticism space. We had all been news reporters, and had been taught journalistic ethics, and suddenly it became a fanboy exercise.
For example, I was at the junket for the first Transformers movie, which was the first film that showed urban destruction after 9/11. At the press conference, all the questions off the floor were, “How many parts in a Transformer?” and things like that. I asked a question about 9/11, and was berated for it. It was clear that the level of reportage had changed.
KT: Something I was a bit shocked by, when I moved from theatre criticism into film criticism, was the pressure for consensus. There’s this huge array of opinions and possible opinions, but Rotten Tomatoes really encourages the public to think there is a correct opinion about a film. And I find if I am the one critic who stopped a film from getting a 100% “fresh” rating, I get hate mail.
Eli Glasner: Yeah, you get the backlash. With Rotten Tomatoes, it’s sort of like the best of times and the worst of times, because finally critics matter—but only as an aggregate. And I think we are losing the audience that actually wants to talk about a movie that isn’t the best or isn’t the worst.
Now the focus is on digital content and SEO and writing an article that is going to do well socially, and if you cook up
a good rant or you sing praises to the heavens, it’s easier to cultivate audience interest. But a lot of what I think we all enjoy writing about is often in the middle—something about a film that is just interesting. It’s difficult for nuanced criticism to gain traction in a digital world where you are competing against BuzzFeed’s “20 Things Wrong with the Newest Justice League Movie.”
KT: The way I always respond to that is, “Do you want to live in a world in which there is only one correct opinion about a movie?” I know I don’t.
Do you ever think, when you’re writing a review, about how it might be received by the filmmakers?
KT: One thing that’s interesting about being a Canadian film critic is that, for better or worse, the bulk of what you are reviewing is not a Canadian film. I have very little contact with the people who make films. Of course, it can become much more tense if you are reviewing a Canadian film—especially a Canadian film by a well-known, well-established Canadian director.
EG: It is great to be a bit removed from the human being that actually made the movie you are reviewing. However, when you do review a Canadian film, it’s a good reminder that there are real people who have made these movies, and often under trying circumstances. In terms of actual direct feedback from filmmakers, the most I’ve gotten is appreciation when we get a review on air. When I reviewed the WolfCop sequel—which was bloody good and
I quite enjoyed it—the filmmakers were ecstatic. I can’t sing the praises of every Canadian film, but I realize how important it is to cut through the noise and get that mention next to Tom Cruise and all the rest.
KM: Years ago, any time I’d go to a party, I’d end up with a producer or a director pointing their finger at my chest: “You got it wrong, you got it wrong.” And I always had the same reaction: you can’t pick a bone with a critic at a party and tell them they got your movie wrong! That just seemed so small town to me. But I think that’s changing. The production pool has deepened and broadened; it’s not just a handful of producers making movies with their friends.
What’s your take on the state of Canadian film, and how it stacks up globally right now?
KT: We’re in a real transitional moment. We have an older generation that really established Canadian films as strong art films—Cronenberg, Egoyan. And we’re seeing the move of Quebec directors into the English-language market in the US—Denis Villeneuve, Jean-Marc Vallée. In English-language cinema, there’s this new generation coming up, but I haven’t managed to get the pulse of it yet. It’s still developing, which is exciting.
EG: Certainly, the big legends of our industry are starting to recede into the background, and new faces are coming up. I think it’s good that Canadian filmmakers are not imitating their Hollywood cousins as much as they used to, and we have these visceral, quiet, powerful films—Sleeping Giant, Wexford Plaza, Werewolf. I’d like to see more of both: a movie that is radically entertaining but also intelligent. Something in the vein of Goon, where it’s definitely got a film personality but could also go toe to toe against American competitors.
KT: The Canadian films that we’re seeing are very intelligent small films—very smart, very interesting. But I feel that the missing piece is their ability to make the link with the broader audience. If you look at, say, Atom Egoyan’s career, you see that as filmmakers mature, they make those films that remain true to their art but have a wider reach. That’s what I’m waiting for.