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On Second Thought: Kenneth Turan on how a film critic can't go wrong

Second_thought_220_2 Everyone has had the experience of disagreeing with a critic, but do critics ever second-guess themselves? We asked Calendar's critics whether there were any reviews they regretted. First in a series.

I am not now nor have I ever been mistaken in my judgment about a film.

Now that I've gotten your attention with that bit of unwise bravado, let me explain why I feel that asking critics about what they got wrong, or for that matter what they got right, is to fundamentally misunderstand what it is we do and how we do it.

Let's start with some history. When Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo" came out in 1958, critics were almost unanimously dismissive, with the New Yorker speaking for the fraternity by saying "the director has never before indulged in such far-fetched nonsense."

Cut to 44 years later, to the prestigious poll of international critics that the British magazine Sight & Sound conducts every 10 years to determine the best film ever made. "Vertigo" not only finished second, it came within a hair of unseating the perennial champion, "Citizen Kane."

What happened? Were those critics back in 1958 hopeless fools? To say that would be to arrogantly assume that today's practitioners have reached some ultimate pinnacle of knowledge that neither past nor future generations can hope to equal.

The reality is that critics are creatures of their particular time and place, that even the most rarefied criticism is at its core opinion shaped by all the personal and societal forces that shape anyone's taste.

Just as you can't be wrong or right if you prefer Italian food to Chinese, it's hard to be right or wrong about what we like in a film, no matter how much we think we can.

What criticism offers, ideally, is informed, thoughtful, well-written opinion, an expression of personal taste based on knowledge, experience and insight that helps readers both decide what to see and understand what they have seen. And the closest I've come to making a mistake has been when I haven't trusted my own instincts about a film.

Amores500


That happened in 2000 with the Mexican film "Amores Perros." I saw this film later than did most critics, and by the time I did I was very much aware that this was one of the most praised films of recent years. My own reaction, or so I initially thought, was indifference, so much so that I passed on reviewing the picture.

But the more I thought about "Amores Perros," the more I remembered what I now tell my students when I teach reviewing at USC. If you come out of a film and aren't sure what your opinion is, it likely means you do know but are not comfortable with your thoughts. The truth was I'd been more or less bored by this widely lionized, would-be classic, and I'd allowed what I call the tyranny of the masterpiece to let me think this was an unworthy reaction.

Whenever I get to moments such as these, I reread, as I did then, a passage from "The Immediate Experience" by critic Robert Warshow. "A man goes to the movies," Warshow wrote. "The critic must be honest enough to admit that he is that man."

By reminding us that anyone who writes about film is a person with idiosyncratic tastes before he or she is a critic, Warshow underscores how human and personal a job criticism is when it's done right. If I didn't appreciate "Amores Perros," I had to say so (and in fact I did in a subsequent Sunday essay), even if it meant realizing sometime down the road that I'd missed the boat on the "Vertigo" of our time.

To pretend either to like it or that I didn't really have an opinion, to pretend in effect that I was someone else to save face and be one of the gang, was simply unacceptable. Criticism is a lonely job, and in the final analysis, either you're a gang of one or you're nothing at all.

-- Kenneth Turan

Photo: Gael García Bernal in “Amores Perros.” Credit: Lionsgate

 
Comments () | Archives (34)

Mm. It is funny, but I always felt about Mr. Turan's reviews what he felt about "Amores Perros". Sort of dull and listless. Some film critics don't seem to really love films even thought hey are paid to review them. I guess why they feel the need to be overly critical (or what I call 'bitchy') rather than constructively critical. There should be a saying like "Those that can't, teach; those that can't teach, criticize; and those that can't criticize, tecah criticism."

Well, I guess is a critic can never be "wrong" about a film, then he can never be "right." The notion that "everyone is entitled to an opinion so I can't be wrong" is silly, to me, because opinions can be stupid.

For the most part, film critics are becoming irrelevant. I and others I know will check rottentomatoes for an aggregate opinion, but what any one critic thinks doens't matter to me, because I've never encountered a critic whose tastes, as far as guiding what I will like, is better than a flip of the coin.

Re: Hey Frank Stanton

Please, in a world of shills, Turan has always been an honest & dependable critic. I thought Perros was great, and I use that word rarely. But, hey, if he didn't dig it, he didn't dig it. And here's a saying, those who lob half baked 'bitchy' (or what I call pissy) criticisms should really check their spelling first. Reellie, itz so embarussing.

I went to film school, and I've never believed in film reviews. For someone to tell you about something they have seen, and tell you whether it was good or sucked, is ludicrous.

There are so many movies that I liked, that the majority of critics didn't. (Like The Razor's Edge)

There are so many movies I disliked that the critics loved. (Like Dead Poet's Society)

(I know they're both TV comedian turned actor movies, but they were the only ones popping into my head. ..)

Anyways, film criticism is a sham. Film analysis, figuring in criteria such as genre, period, style, etc. are more pronounced.

But they don't pay the bills, do they?!!!

I am sorry, but am I the only person in the City of Los Angeles that has a problem with Mr. Turan not reviewing "Amores Perros" when it came out?? Hmm.

Let's see: You work for a paper that is meant for a metropolis with a population that is almost 50% Hispanic; you work for a publication that rarely, if ever, reviews films from south of the border; and one comes along that may be worth all of our time in hearing your opinion on, and you decide to sit it out, and warm the critic's bench of benches!!! Although I admire the fact that you feel able to justify your behavior, I must state that you are a great disappointment to the Times' readership community.

Critics have a responsibility to see beyond their own tastes and opinions. I don't care whether you liked it or not, but to not review a film that has had such an impact on today's youth is very irresponsible. It would be one thing for you to be the critic on the Anchorage Times, but LA Times? Really? Any diversity classes at those USC forums you teach at?

I wonder if there's something as stupid and useless, regarding movies, than check the 'aggregate opinion' on Rottentomatoes or similar places.
An opinion is worthwhile if it is personal, even if wrong. A statistic of opinion is nobody opinion, even less judgement or ideas.
To value a movie by considering a score on Rottentomatoes is the same as going only to see movies who made more than 100 millions at the box office - the same as not having personal tastes and opinion and be preoccupied only to be always with the majority...

It is really all about expectations and hype. Any movie you see after either knowing too much about its contents or about how utterly amazing and savvy it is, inevitably distorts the interpretation of the film, for better or for worse. I had a similar experience with the much-praised 6th Sense. By the time I saw it, it seemed an average film.

It is really all about expectations and hype. Any movie you see after either knowing too much about its contents or about how utterly amazing and savvy it is, inevitably distorts the interpretation of the film, for better or for worse. I had a similar experience with the much-praised 6th Sense. By the time I saw it, it seemed an average film.

half-baked has a hyphen...

Context Please,

Yours and other knee-jerk comments show what a need there is for informed, thoughtful criticism. And research.

When Turan said he "passed" on the film, it means he gave it to another critic to review--in this case the great Kevin Thomas. So the film was reviewed by the Times, something you could have easily found out if you went to metacritic which, I guess, has replaced interesting, textured writing with a scale of 1-100 (criticism for illiterates?) for many in this forum.

Mr. Turran is certainly correct in that critical judgments, at least as to film, aren't empirically based in any sense, and therefore cannot be "wrong." That's why his analogy regarding taste in food is apt: my preference for Northern Italian in no way trumps your preference for TexMex.

Also, if the function of film criticism is to simply give us a reasonable idea of what movies we might enjoy seeing (simply a predictor as to how best to spend our entertainment dollar), then as we learn the "fit" between a particular critic's taste and ours, we are better able to use his or her reviews, a very useful function, and probably why most people read reviews in the fiirst place.

But Mr. Turran's injunction to, in effect, trust his impressions and review accordingly (a worthy suggestion) misses the point.

If a critic is unable to reliably judge a film's long-term value, then the worth of their review is inherently less than it would be otherwise. After all, if Critic A hits the mark more often than Critic B, we all would think more highly of Critic A.

The appropriateness of that judgement is highlighted by the following thought experiment: Mr. Turran is an LA Times editor and is presented with two job applicants, each with 20 years exprience and who nearly always gets it right (viewed in retrospect) and another who generally does not. Assuming equal writing skills, etc., is there any question as to who should be hired?

A more useful article by Mr. Turran might have explored why (change in taste over time?) some misjudgments happen from time-to-time, without any expectation that anyone, in any field, will always get it right.

After reading these comments, I think Mr Turan needs a hug. First, I appreciate the article and only wish Mr Turan would have gone a little "deeper" into his thought process with critiquing film - but this is a series, so I will wait and see... Secondly, although I am a rotten tomatoes guy, I always refer to a shortlist of dependable critics and Mr Turan's name is at the top of that relatively short list. As he wrote, if the critic does her/his job well, then, "informed, thoughtful, well-written opinion, an expression of personal taste based on knowledge, experience and insight that helps readers both decide what to see and understand what they have seen," is what is offered. Few do this more consistantly and better than our own Times-staff of critics... But, hey. If you are in the wold of criticism. I suppose you better be able to take a litte, too, eh? Just thought I'd weigh in on the positive side.

Of all the reviews I have ever written the one I regret the most was for "Clara's Heart" in which I dismissed the performance of the young Neil Patrick Harris. Boy was I ever wrong. For as we all know by now, Neil Patrick Harris is God!

I am kind of stunned here. Having studied quite a bit of lit crit, it is strange to have a reviewer come out and say that the reviewer's job is to convey their subjective opinion honestly. In criticism, though it is acknowledged that the subjective drives much of our own opinion, the hard part, the part that is worth anything, is the reach to make the criticism objective: to connect the film on absolute terms to what has come before and to assess it on empirical terms. Much of these reviews follow a simple approach: the lead is a mini thumbs up or down, then a plot recap, then another thumbs up or down. This is the format of a child's book review--where opinion and plot recall are at a premium. What about thought or analysis? Certainly with film there are many aspects that can be measured on absolute terms: acting, cinematography, lighting, sound, and plot to name just a few (etc, etc..)

In October 1992, Siskel and Ebert gave Reservoir Dogs two thumbs down. They sure got that one wrong.

I never read or listen to any review before I see a film. Today's "reviews" are only about spoiling the best surprises within a film, be they cameo roles, camera angles or plot twists. Turan is no exception.

the art of critique is so subjective. take for instance the movie CRASH. it got a huge thumbs down from the NY TIMES and LA TIMES. my neighbor hated it, i loved it. knowing my neighbors background, his likes and dislikes, i understood why the movie bothered him. what do we know about any of the critics' backgrounds. usually not much until one day we read their obituary. this weekend i saw WALL E. 95 percent of the people i have spoken to were bored out of their minds, including myself. many critics thought the first half was great, does one half make a good movie. what i foresee is more and more of us going websites that are of like-minds as ourselves and find out what they think about particular movies. or of course our friends. i went to see AMORES PERROS because a good friend told me he thought it was amazing. lately i wait for my friends to see a film and then i decide whether to go or not see a film. in all fairness there are some good critics out there. but please stop trying being poetic in writing a critique, be more direct and don't tell me so much about the story and how it evolves. you spoil it for us. and i don't care what the director has done before or what movie they were in prior, focus on the movie at hand. the other option is to be more like David
Denby who i feel truly respects the audience more than the filmmakers. because isn't that who the critiques are really for, the audience?

What an interesting coincidence that this article comes so soon after Mr. Turan's review of "Hancock". I actually started reading it wondering if it could have been prompted by that angry and, in my opinion, completely off-base review. It wasn't, but it did help me understand something about the review. If criticism to Mr. Turan is solely about his subjective response to a film, without any attempt to get outside his own experience or to give the reading public the tools to make their own analysis, then the criticism is really as useless to me as it seemed. Mr. Turan didn't understand "Hancock," and therefore concluded that the public wouldn't --although there is a film and mythological tradition that would have made the movie very comprehensible to anyone who was confused. I wasn't, and neither was anyone who saw the movie with me. Mr. Turan wanted the movie to be one genre, and concluded that it was ruined, rather than deepened, when it turned out to be something else. (We were split 3 to 1 on whether the twist was successful or not--and it made for some good conversation.) Mr. Turan slammed the movie for it's language and it's "lack of common sense." The movie was hardly about common sense, and I rarely see movies that are, unless accompanied by my five year old. The language was necessary to the movie, and worked beautifully. The rating, not the movie, was wrong. All this is to say that if all Mr. Turan feels he owes me in a review is his subjective opinion, without an honest attempt to assess the movie's goals, its artistic context, and it's audience, I might as well get my analysis from my great aunt--who didn't like the dirty language either, and was thoroughly confused.

Not a huge surprise - critics can be subject to a herd mentality just like people in any other profession or area of interest. Crash is an awesome example of the herd proclaiming a masterpiece and authentic piece of blah blah. I'm pretty liberal but I would say that was authentic in a limousine liberals mind's eye. But I digress point is people get caught up in the herd tech stocks, housing bubble, occasional masterpiece blair witch etc that turn out in hind sight to be not the great. Amores Perros was pretty damn good minus the novela star scene and the fact that it totally ripped off Pulp Fiction

Mr. Turan fails to admit that film criticism these days has declined into mere commercial packaging of a set of familiar cheesy buzzwords. Gone are glory days of avant garde film writing of Chaiers du Cinema!

I've lived long enough to understand one basic thing, and that is, everyone has an opinion. And people develop opinions based on their likes and dislikes. Personally, I read reviews on films that I intend to watch and, sometimes, I agree with the critics and sometimes I don't. I never let someone else's review dictate my decision on what I want to watch. As for Amores Perros, my first reaction was tepid. It was not until the second time that I watched it that I recognized its talent and brilliance, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I had the same reaction with another movie, the goofy Nacho Libre with Jack Black. I now find myself having good 'ol fashioned belly-laughs when I see with my kids.

Over the years I have learned to ignore Turan's reviews of comedies and summer action flicks. He doesn't hate all of them, but he is hopelessly out of touch with what the average film fan wants.

I remember Kenneth Turan taking every opportunity to discourage people from seeing "Titanic", desperately clinging to his original (and as a critic, incontrovertible!) position that the movie sucked. It was so embarrassing, because the movie was in the theatres for almost a year, and $600 million dollars later I think we all can see who sucks. Every one of those entertainment writers has either tried and failed to make it in showbusiness, or wishes he/she could be in showbusiness. I hope Turan is one of the LAT layoffs as they shrink from 875 to 700!

Well, my day has been made! I did not see Mr. Turan's review of "Amores Perros" but certainly did not like the film--and I have considered myself a good film critic since I saw "Dumbo" when I was 4 years old and "It's a Wonderful Life"a few years at 9. (I loved them both.) Still my favorite for its humanity and glorious ship is "Amarcord." I am now 70 years old and hope, some day, to count all the films I have seen and enjoyed. If you focus on anything, whether it be films or books or paintings or cars, you ultimately become a connoisseur of the craft.

It's interesting that all who have written here criticizing film criticism and demonizing it are hypocritical by definition. All those who point out how needless criticism is have been so moved to write here that it's become important to them even as they declare that it isn't. Mr. Turan is by far one of the best film critics in the country. He is a measurer of an art form in this art form's capital city. By setting a certain standard, he is asking us to aspire to greater forms of art while he remains in constant assessment of what is by nature a business -- the business of film -- dollars and cents. Business and art are sometimes strange bedfellows that are out of sync with one another. True art transcends business. Art isn't a function of business by definition. That's why Mr. Turan and many of his peers LEAD us into learning more about our filmic art to take our society forward. Others at lesser newspapers only REFLECT what we see and pander to all of those of the lowest common denominator who hate film criticism. As a reader of criticism, it's equally important to know the audience at whom the criticism is directed!

 
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