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The Viewer-Critic

A little over two years ago, I remember standing in a Trader Joe’s, not really looking for anything. I had just had a semi-long conversation about what theatergoers want nowadays and maybe I was looking for the sustenance that the upsetting talk did not provide. It was a conversation about the relentless amounts of unqualified shit that viewers were seeming to heap on movies and TV at that moment. Good movies and TV. Somewhere in the produce aisle shuffling, I arranged a mental hierarchy of: viewer, artist, critic, viewer-critic— with just the widest of chasms between the last two—and yes, of course this has to do with social media and how we are shaped by the immediacy of the digital age. But it feels more complex than that.

Fortunately the wants of entertainment will always be malleable and multivarious. I clung to that fact hard and fast, although my preoccupation was not what viewers wanted from entertainment but rather what else. Else has always been a very big concept to me. Almost any satisfying or horrifying thing in life can be accompanied by the possibility of “else”. For instance, else wouldn’t just be a drama and a comedy. It wouldn’t be the three-sentence reaction you have with your friend when the movie concludes. I would consider this type of “else” as a sudden stirring you have one day, where you see the throughline between all of your favorite songs and books and movies, and realize what that says about you.

I guess what frustrates me is that the viewer-critic doesn’t independently consider the granules of movies, both great and bad. I doubt they even put much stock in the film’s intent. This sounds unbearably pretentious, but this isn’t to say that I or anyone else connect to movies on a higher plane or some stupid shit like that. It’s merely that, by giving up my delusions of being a viewer-critic, I am able to actually watch the movie. I’m not anticipating what my scathing tweet/fb post will say halfway through the first act. Hell, I’m not even considering what I want to say about the movie at all. Most of the movies I enjoy are like a mysterious liquid seeping into myself: it’s enticing to see what thrives or dies as a result of the soil seepage. And that has to be felt, often way down the road.

The viewer-critic wants to float above the provided perspective, and we are supposed to then be surprised when a movie collapses. To them the movies are an exercise in bean counting: tally enough errors across all the different facets of production and you get a bad movie. The movies are people-watching to me and nothing more. If the dialogue is obfuscated, I’m too far away to hear them. If it’s broad and insults my intelligence, I’m standing too close. At the right distance, it’s natural, forbidden, scintillating voyeurism. That should be the starting point to consider perspective. From there, one can determine if the characters are dynamic or boring or what have you. But this microanalyzing is for the birds.

Movies and TV are principally about rhythm. They are designed to immerse to the point of drowning. It’s plenty of fun to experience no immersion at all in an objectively bad movie – Street Fighter was one of my favorite moviegoing experiences – but the viewer-critic doesn’t make a distinction here. The viewer-critic fights immersion tooth-and-nail, most likely under the flimsy guise of “needing to have an objective opinion”. How can you have an objective opinion about something that is deliberately produced for a subjective feeling?

The Tree of Life is a perfect example to use here. A viewer-critic believes that his/her self-appointed duty is to tell the world if the two disparate storylines are worth seeing. But a real critic wouldn’t describe how the father-son relationship succeeded or failed. A real critic would first feel how the father-son relationship succeeded or failed. The beans become so much fewer when the movie does not depend upon some balancing act of box-checking realism—and I didn’t really even get The Tree of Life; I just understood that it was larger than one outsider looking in.

The viewer-critic believes that movies were made for us, in the same way we believe erecting a building means the ground upon it belongs to us; rather it exists in spite of us. David Foster Wallace had this astounding passage about an alcoholic salesman whose red, bloated face is blocking every frame of a film about God and the Devil playing poker for the fate of humanity. It is only when the camera films a 240-second shot of Bernini’s The Ecstasy of St. Theresa that his ugly head leaves the frame. That everything is finally about something beautiful. I like to think this poor schlub is the viewer-critic.

Why even write about this at all? Why risk being mistaken for a crotchety know-it-all? Because there is still something great in criticism for artists by non-artists. (And by no means do I qualify 2.5 unpurchased features as artistry.) An artist isn’t a genius, nor is s/he a vagabond with a paintbrush. S/he is someone who just wants to feel. Likely the artist is not tired of feeling superior to everyone else. Likely it is the opposite: that s/he is not secure enough in living day-to-day, that they will not feel like enough with a job and a family and hobbies. It is indeed very possible to mine from yourself out of a discontentment with yourself.

Which is why it’s important for viewer-critics to consider making a lifestyle change. The lucrative nature of entertainment can cause many misleading trains of thought: ‘This is a transaction. I paid $20 plus concessions to see good entertainment and I am entitled to flame it if it sucks.’ Yes, A-list artists can afford enough cocaine to outski the Snow Monster. That cannot change the reality of a highly personal medium. Approaching movies as a means of justifying the ticket price is to basically call them artistic advertising, something that flashes before you only as a lure for money. Hopefully viewer-critics everywhere can see that this is an extremely cynical perspective, especially considering there probably was an honest original motive behind The Bridge on the River Kia.

Ultimately I think why movies make us feel special is not the warm glow of a train explosion. It’s that, for a moment, our binary zombification goes away. It probably shouldn’t apply to politics or religion, but it does have its purpose there: unity. To what end does the viewer-critic convince his/her friends to like the same movies? To be known for ‘good taste’ or ‘unique opinions’? Movies serve a larger purpose than that. They step away from groupthink and incise the individual. They are becoming the last stand for private vulnerability.

Please: be a viewer, artist, and/or critic. Post your feedback online. Don’t be a viewer-critic.

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About the Author

Chris O'Toole (Colorado State '12, Chapman '15) recently finished a Screenwriting MFA. He has written for Livestrong, CBS, and other publications. Love, hate, and job offers can be sent to: otool102@mail.chapman.edu