Late in Birdman, one of this season’s surefire Oscar contenders, washed-up movie star Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) accosts Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan), the icy New York Times theater critic who has sworn to give his new play “the worst review anybody has ever read,” before even seeing it.
“Keep scribbling down your labels,” he sneers. “That’s what you do. You label things. You label people and you label art. … Nothing about technique or structure.” He plucks a daisy from a vase resting on the bar beside them and shoves it in her face. “Do you have any idea what this is? You can’t even see it if you don’t label it. The beauty and depth of this simple thing escapes you. You mistake those sounds in your head for true knowledge.”
I love this scene, and I don’t love Birdman. I don’t hate it, either — I am not eager to label it “a volcano of creative ideas in full eruption,” as Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers did, or “the nadir of Western civilization,” as Tabitha presumably might. I’m not too into the “label” thing anyway; I prefer the notes on “technique” and “structure” that Riggan laments are missing in Tabitha’s judgmental and influential prose. Ironically, I find little to say when I apply such rigor to Birdman, aside from the given “Look how much the camera moves!” bromide, but, well, that is a topic for another time.
The topic today is the job of the critic, or how the popularity of professional labelers like Tabitha distorts the public perception of that job and, in turn, of how art works. Most people assume a critic should stand in for the paying moviegoer, à la Consumer Reports, here to tell you whether a movie is good or bad so that you can make an informed decision about where you spend your money. This view of criticism has never held as much sway as it does now, with Rotten Tomatoes, Metacritic, IMDb and other aggregate services pulling in tremendous traffic and ad revenue.
These websites do away with the act of reading altogether, for they quantify a movie’s value by swirling around sometimes over a hundred reviews and arriving, somehow, at a numerical grade. One four-star review holds no weight: A buzzworthy movie needs dozens, to plaster over a full-page New York Times spread and to bump its Tomatometer rating close to triple digits. Individual opinions collapse into unqualified praise or else the most fiery invective, those binary verdicts fill into a consensus and that consensus cements as some objective truth, e.g. “Look, Birdman has a 94 percent, what do you mean you don’t like it?”
The words that survive in this ecosystem are, fittingly, the loudest. Critics like Tabitha know how to pen a line to hammer home the “freshness” or “rottenness” of the work they have deigned to review. Why bother reading the full piece, when it’s all there in one conclusive sentence? Blurb-masters like the aforementioned Travers reward no critical investment, since they often repeat themselves (seriously, search Travers’ name and the phrase “sneaks up and floors you”) and pay little attention to films as texts with nuanced structures that produce dense, vital images worth unpacking. No wonder Travers loves Birdman so much: The peddler of sound and fury without substance has met his cinematic match.
Perhaps I’m being too harsh. Professional criticism is a business, as hilarious that may be to put to print, and businesses stay alive by appealing to as many people as they can. The majority does not want to consider films as texts, and would likely sock me in the mouth for using either of those terms, and again for putting them in the same sentence. For some, movies really are an “escape” from the troubles of the world and not an investigation of them, and I consider it a privilege to so devotedly believe in the latter.
But let’s hesitate before we so blindly eat up all the “labels” shoveled our way. Labels — whether they be adjectives, qualitative nouns (“triumph,” “train wreck”), comparisons to other works (“Interstellar is so much better than The Dark Knight Rises”) or numerical grades — can only serve as conversation-starters. For labels to consume the whole conversation is to have no conversation at all — just modifiers, without an anchor, or any involvement, in the film itself. The act of interpretation can run parallel to a firm opinion or many conflicting ones, but the act can only enliven what is there, not desecrate it. “Doing justice,” or at least attempting to, is what we like to call it, except we sometimes may watch a film so esteemed and see no justice to be done at all.
This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location here.