May 25, 2017
Sometimes it doesn’t pay to be a movie critic.
In saying this, I am not referring to salary, although a case could be made that movie critics, like songwriters and accountants, are likely to have a much harder time earning a living than they did just a decade ago. No, sometimes it just doesn’t pay to offer an opinion on a movie. Deep down, the majority of movie critics want to like the movies they see, they want them to be of the highest quality, and they like nothing more than writing or talking about a movie that excites them. Few movie critics – at least not ones worth reading – go into a movie hoping for a reason to pan it.
For most of us, there are obstacles to appreciating a movie. Sometimes understanding a film practically requires having seen and liked previous films by the same director. (Fellini and Godard immediately come to mind.) Others, such as Hell or High Water, have the advantages of telling an updated version of a familiar story; of course, they also have the disadvantage of following the genre so closely that viewers who are familiar with it can see events coming long before the characters in the movie do. And yes, sometimes a reviewer lacks the proper context to fully appreciate a film in the same way as someone from the culture or area depicted in a film. I remember a few people telling me that I couldn’t possibly “get” Te-sheng Wei’s Cape No. 7 simply because I didn’t speak Taiwanese. Therefore, the theory went, I couldn’t get the humor and double entendres. I have no doubt this is true, yet I thought a bigger obstacle for people not from Taiwan was their dearth of knowledge when it came to Taiwanese history.
For the past two weeks, a number of my students have been recommending I see an Indian film called Dangal. According to them, the film is playing to packed houses and is simply an amazing, heartwarming experience. A few even told me of tears that streamed down their cheeks as the film played. I admit to being more than a little intrigued.
Dangal is based on the true story of a father who trained his two daughters to be wrestlers. One of them eventually competed and won gold in the Commonwealth Games. The film currently has an 8.8 on IMDB and an 83 on Rotten Tomatoes, which would be good enough for it to be certified fresh were it not for the fact that not enough reviews have been written about it. Of the seven reviews linked to on RT, six of them are positive. The lone dissenter is Owen Gleiberman from Variety, a publication that does a great deal to publicize both local and international films.
Mr. Gleiberman faulted the film for several things. First, he was not sure what to make of the father figure, played by Aamir Khan. Was he supposed to be a feminist fighting against the barriers that have blocked progress toward women’s rights or an example of the kind of parent who sees in his children his last chance to accomplish his dreams? Gleiberman also took issue with the film’s formulaic structure and a few of what he considered to be inconsistencies in the plot. The review is thoughtful, his criticism never mean-spirited, and his spoilers not too revelatory. It is, in my opinion, a professional review. And people hated it.
By people, I am referring to the majority of the 107 comments left on Variety’s online page. Here are a few choice bits.
“Sir, I think that you should avoid reviewing Indian movies if you dont [sic] have any idea about the culture of the country.”
“My question is, “With this kind of incompetency how did he become the Chief Film Critic?’
“Clearly a myopic and an uneducated film critic.”
“So your point taken and flushed down the toilet!!!”
“firstly, it was not a “drag”. Indian audiences loved the movie because it had a relevant theme, which you would know if you had known anything about India.”
And my personal favorite:
“I suspect this will be the last review of a Hindu movie we see from Chief Film Critic Mr. Owen Gleiberman for a very long time. Or at least I hope so.”
I could go on, but I think you see the trend. In comment after comment, Mr. Gleiberman is excoriated for simply not liking a film that other people liked.
A few reflections: First, I highly doubt that Dangal will be the last film from India that Mr. Gleiberman reviews, nor should it be. After all, in the same review, he lavishes praise on Mansoor Khan’s 2001 film Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India, so to say he doesn’t “get” at least some Indian cinema is a bit hyperbolic. Still, readers are perfectly within their right to wonder if a critic whose only other reference to an Indian film is one made 16 years ago has seen a lot of Indian cinema. Second, let’s just say for argument’s sake that the commentators’ key argument, that Gleiberman does not have the necessary background to fully appreciate the film, is correct. He wouldn’t be alone. But would that mean he shouldn’t review it? If backgrounds were a pre-requisite for reviewing a film, would anyone outside of historians and Australians have been able to review Rabbit-Proof Fence? Should someone not familiar with New Zealand have given their two cents about Whale Rider? For that matter, should a reviewer outside the United States review American Hustle without a full understanding of 1970s America? Of course they should, and they should be honest if they were unable to appreciate a film because of their lack of knowledge. That is important.
Third, what responsibility do filmmakers have to anticipate an international audience’s difficulties with a film’s topic and to compensate for them? I’m reminded of the opening moments of The Kingdom, in which a scroll was used to give the audience the information about Saudi Arabia that it felt people needed in order to understand the full context of the film. Some reviewers faulted the film for this, as they themselves likely didn’t need it, but a number of audience members no doubt found it useful. While I have not seen Dangal, it does not appear that this tactic was used, and one could be forgiven for assuming that the film was intended primarily for an audience with that background already.
Fourth, and perhaps most exasperating of all, why all the anger? Are we living in an age when differing opinions are not allowed, when people assume that what they like should be liked by everyone? Such a place would not be much fun or educational, for much can be gained by reading opposing views, whether they are about movies, other forms of art, or politics. Democrats should be reading op-eds written by Republicans, Brexit supporters should brush up on the views of those who voted to remain, and people who love a movie should be curious as to why someone else would see the same movie and be underwhelmed by it. We are expanded by reading the opinions of those who disagree with us, but only if we are open to receiving these other perspectives and if we see the opposing view as being just as reasonable as ours.
So, Gleiberman didn’t like the movie. It’s not the end of the world. Yet maybe, just maybe it’s the beginning of a beautiful conversation, one in which we listen to and engage with someone with differing views, one in which we acknowledge that what speaks to one person does not necessarily speak to another. An opposing viewpoint doesn’t make someone a bad writer, an intellectual snob, or an uneducated hack. It just reminds us of our differences. And I, for one, am glad it does.