Maybe I had it good going to CalArts, because when it came time for a critique of any work (whether it was a script, or a film, or a photograph), we were educated in a way to look at the work that is totally NOT what most people learn. In addition to style, form, and technique, we were taught to explore the intent of the creator, and to base our critique on how we felt that intent was communicated. Did the work communicate the intent clearly? Or was it confusing?
Most people grow up learning that to critique something means to only draw out the negative aspects of something. Or to talk about what’s missing. No one is ever taught to look at what’s actually there and critique what they see. Instead, most people use critique to talk about what they don’t see. This has spread to our entire culture. When someone says, “Sorry I’m being critical,” they mean they’re sorry because they are being negative. If you’re doing it correctly, critique isn’t something to apologize for. It can become very helpful and beneficial. But most often, people are bad critics.
Most people—professionals and amateur—have been taught that the best way to critique something is to discuss what is WRONG or what is MISSING. Or, in most cases, how they’d have done it better. That kind of criticism is useless because the truth is that if we look at anything long enough we can find what is wrong with it, and what is missing.
Let’s take Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, now listed by The British Film Institute’s Sight and Sound magazine as the greatest film of all time (replacing Citizen Kane. Someone could say that the sequences in the museum, or when Jimmy Stewart is following around Kim Novak, are boring and need work because there’s no dialogue. But to focus on the fact that there isn’t dialogue, and wrong, that critic fails to see what is there, and he misses the whole point.
The critique in that case might be a bit melodramatic, but I mean it to only illustrate a point. I’m sure there are people out there who watch VERTIGO and feel the exact same thing (it’s boring, it’s too quiet, there’s no talking; so it must be BAD), even though they are watching what is now considered the greatest film ever made.
When I get a review from a critic, I like to learn about how they SEE what I’ve shown them. I don’t particularly have an interest in what I haven’t shown them. If I made a heavy, dark character-study, I’d like to learn more about how they were impacted by that, or what was their insight into how I portrayed those elements. If I read a review that says it’s a bad movie because it’s not campy or funny, that doesn’t help me at all. Sure, it relays the message that particular individual is only interested in campy, funny movies, and if I want him to like something it should be campy and funny. But it doesn’t help me learn about multiple perspectives of the heavy, depressing, character-study.
Now, say my intent was to make a heavy, dark character-study and it ended up campy and funny, and the critic thought it was hilarious, well that would indicate that my execution was done poorly. And, in that case, the criticism would be very educational and helpful. But, helpful critique is very rare.
Another thing to remember about criticism is that it’s only about that person’s singular viewpoint and their tastes. If a critic doesn’t like westerns, he’s not going to like your western no matter how brilliant it is. Or, if he only likes westerns, he’s not going to be a fan of your Upper West Side romantic comedy. So when you read a review from a critic, remember that there will always be someone, somewhere, who’s experience watching it was the opposite.
I love reading reviews of my movies that are totally contradictory of each other. Take my film, THE CASSEROLE CLUB, which is out now on DVD/VOD. Some critics call it a “masterpiece,” an “emotional tour de force,” and we’ve even won awards for it: Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor (for Backstreet Boys crooner Kevin Richardson in his debut role) and Best Actress (for Susan Traylor). And then there are the reviews that say the acting is “horrible” and the movie a “waste of time.” And after reading the negative reviews, I received the news that the US Library of Congress selected THE CASSEROLE CLUB for their permanent collection.
It’s so fascinating to me to learn how differently people see the very same thing. I love stuff like that.
As you proceed in your filmmaking path, whether as a director, producer, writer or actor, you’ll find this truth across the board in all aspects of The Industry. One person will always love something another person hates. Yin/Yang. So enjoy it. If nothing else, it will teach you who are the intelligent people to surround yourself with, and who are the dumb shits to avoid.