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Critics and recommendations

A listener wrote in to Pauline Kael’s radio show (on KPFA) near the end of 1961 asking why her opinion on movies were inversely correlated to their popularity. She replied:

I try to direct you to films that, if you search them out, will give you something[…]. I try not to waste air time discussing obviously bad movies—popular though they may be; and I don’t discuss unpopular bad movies because you’re not going to see them anyway; and there wouldn’t be much point or sport in hitting people who are already down. I do think it’s important to take time on movies which are inflated by critical acclaim and which some of you might assume to be the film to see.

If a reviewer is a “recommendation helper” that helps me find stuff I like and avoid stuff I don’t like, if that’s the only criteria we’re looking at, the best reviewer of all time is the board game reviewer Tom Vasel. I have super different tastes than him but he is so clear on why he thinks the way he does, compares to other games etc, that I often get a bang-on-target feel for whether or not I would like the game, regardless of his own opinion. I watch other reviewers like SUSD and NPI and many, many more because I am interested in thoughts on games, but looking solely at the “does this review help me know whether or not I’ll love the game” criteria, most other reviewers are not good for me.

In the world of movies, I’ve never found any professional reviewer that’s even remotely helpful with that particular criteria. Like, my favorite film is Seven Times Lucky which was panned by critics and audiences. But it’s not as if my tastes are the complete opposite either, which would almost have been sorta helpful.

The “contrarian” critics like Kael and Ebert are certainly no help either, especially Ebert I found utterly useless when looking only as a “Will I like it” help. I’ve found that there’s just 100% random whether I’ll love a film he hates or the opposite. Just utter and total caprice. And, his reviews were too spoilerific to be read before I see the movie anyway. 🤷🏻‍♀️

But that’s not why I read them. I read them because what they have to say about the movies is interesting anyway, and how they tie their reviews into the larger cultural context of the era the review was written. Critics are more than just recommendation engines; they are analysis, they’re reflection, they’re society’s dialogue with the movie, our way to talk back and to try to understand what’s there and what’s not there. I’m not trying to elevate them beyond you and me, I’m not saying “them, the legendary critics”, I’m saying critics like us, like all viewers.