Of Critics and Fans

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Scratch a cynic, the old saying goes, and you’ll find a disgruntled optimist. Some years ago a friend and colleague of mine thought it even more apt if reformulated as, ‘scratch a critic and you’ll find a disgruntled fan.’

That was part of a longer conversation about the transformation and integration of fandom and criticism, specific to film but it’s certainly applicable to other art forms in our internet age. The democratization of distribution has created a platform for the fan at a level the ‘zine publishers of the 70s and 80s could never have dreamed, stretching beyond a given fanbase itself and out to the mainstream at the highest levels, giving the biggest and loudest a megaphone as influential as that which was once held by the Pauline Kael’s and Jan Wenner’s of the world. Which leads me to wonder what the fan replacing the critic means, and whether there is any difference between fans and critics at all.

Both approach new films/songs/books/what have you the same way and for the same reason, and to find out what that instinctive first reaction will be – ‘did I like it?’ (and usually hoping the answer will be yes). It’s from there the path in the wood diverges, with the fan starting at ‘I (dis-)liked it’ and bending all though afterwards to understanding/rationalizing while while the critic, starting at the same point, asks ‘should I have (dis-)liked it?’

The simplest version of that dichotomy is to say that the fan approaches form the heart and the critic from the brain. I’m not sure that’s entirely fair to either side, but there is some truth to it. The fan’s approach is one of the self – what is this to ME? – and the critic’s is more essentially external – what is this in context of other things like or unlike it?

The standard criticism of the critic is that his/her approach overly-intellectualizes everything and disconnects them from the true meaning of what they are examining. Or, in the words of the most common read comments I get:

“You just don’t know how to enjoy movies; not everything is supposed to be an Oscar winner!” This is usually followed by some comment about how unnecessary critics are and how they don’t like anything.

The problems with that sort of false dichotomy aside there is an inherent danger in taking the critical approach to the exclusion of all else. Artists respond to their audience and that sort of audience can and does produce interesting but sterile works with no grip or resonance. Films like Alejandro Inarritu’s Biutiful or last year’s Inside Llewyn Davis, both of which I highly appreciated and neither of which I have any desire to ever watch again. Art should provoke passion, or it’s going to die. Having a loud voice of fandom in the mix yelling ‘this is good because it makes me feel good’ keeps the sterile at bay.

But passion has its downside as well. Is eager and positive as fandom can be, as a force it also tends to be the first to cry ‘heretic’ and ‘blasphemy.’ Homogeneity becomes a plus because it ensures what was loved initially will not be distorted and erased. Fandom needs temperance, it needs a willingness to approach everything, regardless of whether it’s to your taste or not, on the off-chance of finding something you never realized you liked.

So what’s likely to come of this move in the world of opinions away from the brain and to the heart? If it is bringing passion and heart to art (and there’s every evidence it has) it means new material which can be fallen in love with, and that’s a good thing. It also opens the door to screaming and flame wars and the worst aspects of fandom becoming more and more public. Neither extreme is a certainty or even likely, life tends to be a bell curve, but there’s no reason all the passion of fandom can’t work in favor of art, as long we remember to use our heads a little.

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