When You’re Wary o f Critics, Put a Little Faith in Yourself

Shapan: Critical acclaim. What does that mean, anyway? Subjectivity and objectivity are really dicey, especially in entertainment where there are always two sides of the coin. Word of mouth is one thing, but the word of critics? I have nothing against a friend telling me to catch a movie because he thought it was interesting, but he couldn’t possibly tell me how I’d feel about it. Doesn’t that take away the art of the entire thing?

Critics aren’t bad people; on the contrary they’re generally knowledgeable and well-read, but their job isn’t to tell you how to feel about a piece of art. It’s to give you an idea of what it felt like to them, and to give you some background on what the piece is about. You can never have an opinion on anything until you have experienced it first-hand. Peope are too quick to dismiss albums and movies based on what others have said. A piece of art is different to everyone.

Reviews are useful for their background and general information. It’s helpful to be given an idea about something, but there’s a point where a person needs to differentiate between how the critic feels and how the movie actually is. A Web site like RottenTomatoes.com has a great amount of information about movies, but some ratings can be tarnished by specific opinions that ruin a scale made for a general populace.

Leaks often ruin an artist’s vision of how something is released, but a positive aspect of leaks, particularly in music, is the fact that fans can get albums before lavish opinions affect how they feel about the work. Music journalism has been declining with the rise of easy access to music over the Internet. With leaks, listeners get albums weeks, or months, before release dates. Most reviews from heavy-hitting music journalistic outlets aren’t published until around release date, so listeners are free to listen to albums before being told how to feel about them. While leaks ruin the excitement of the release date, their occurrences help to form self-sufficient opinions, which are much better than the sheepish alternative.

After the initial glow of big-name stars or flashy teasers, general perception often dictates what entertainment people fall into. To a certain degree, that’s fine because that’s how things spread. But it’s one thing to tell a person how you felt as opposed to how they should feel. The best critics do well in giving you a feel of a product while leaving the intrigue out for you to figure yourself. So, if something interests you, go for it. Listen to it. Read it. Watch it. Play it. At the end of the day, you’re going to want to judge an entertainment product based on how you related to it, not based on how you related to its review.

Pat: Objectivity only goes so far in terms of how much one enjoys a product.

Of course, any book, movie, play or other narrative-driven work must meet some overall level of requisite cohesion for one to follow the piece. Plot holes will inevitably hamper a story, but artistic unity, to some degree, is relative.

To give an accessible, recent example: “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” was full of plot holes in the form of shoddy character development, but the story maintained its fidelity to Wolverine as an archetype, and to me as a fan, that was enough.

Of course, a movie like “The Dark Knight” satisfied objective standards of narrative cohesion and production quality while remaining true to Batman’s form. It is technically a better product. Still, in very few ways, I enjoyed “Wolverine” more, owing to a subjective connection to the character and the source material that made the flaws excusable. In that sense, perception is reality to a reviewer.

There are always other standards against which to check supposed levels of objectivity. One could argue, viably: Since “Wolverine” falls into the comic book movie genre, it must (objectively) portray hero/villain archetypes. It would, in such an argument, be a cohesive film as per comic books’ narrative standards; “The Dark Knight” might be a better film, but “Wolverine” could have theoretically received positive marks from critics analyzing it from that perspective, as opposed to the 30 percent or so it reached on Rotten Tomatoes.

Standards vary by medium. There is much more to be said about objectivity when reviewing a video game (as an interactive experience) than for a film. Poor design can actually prevent one from experiencing the game, whether it’s because of control flaws, game-freezing bugs or difficulty issues.

In the end, whether or not one enjoys a piece of entertainment is entirely dependent on the individual viewer. Trying to beat someone over the head with the Academy’s standards (or your own) is a pointless exercise. A tool like Rotten Tomatoes is useful only to see a variety of opinions and get a sense of the material, but nobody really has the answers as to whether a movie is good or bad, regardless of how many technical terms they can rattle off.