In a recent Gawker article, staff writer Olivia Craighead takes aim at New Yorker film critic Richard Brody.
While drafting this response, I was reminded of a letter to the editor Martin Scorsese wrote to The New York Times in 1993. Scorsese had taken issue with a Times film critic’s labeling of Federico Fellini as inaccessible to general audiences. Scorsese’s problem wasn’t necessarily that Fellini was labeled inaccessible (to some extent, he even agrees); it was that this trait of the filmmaker’s work was framed as a negative quality.
Scorsese wrote, “It’s not the opinion I find distressing, but the underlying attitude toward artistic expression that is different, difficult or demanding.”
Similarly, my problem is not with Olivia Craighead’s opinion of Richard Brody. It is curious, and even funny, how Brody has a tendency to rebel against the critical consensus. My problem is with the attitude that lies beneath the piece; the thought that this alone is what makes Richard Brody not worth listening to. It’s the same self-defensive and insecure posturing that drives people to proclaim, “let people enjoy things,” under every Marvel-related film review. It’s a way of thinking that demands everyone agree on the same thing, lest the media we care for being labeled “bad.”
Craighead’s own piece strongly emphasizes the importance of the opinions of the masses, citing Amsterdam’s abysmal 32% and 59% on Rotten Tomatoes from critics and audiences, respectively, as a reason why Brody should not like the film. She continues, stating that what Brody sees is so different from what she and the reader see, assuming that the reader shares her opinion of Amsterdam and, worse, that we agree that this is a bad thing.
I don’t want anyone to misinterpret what I’m saying; people are entitled to their own opinions. I also don’t believe that critics should be free of criticism. Of course, they shouldn’t — that’s how we learn and grow as people. Craighead’s piece is not interested in interrogating Brody’s reasoning, though. It doesn’t call out any flawed logic or problematic readings of the films, instead choosing to focus on what it perceives to be Brody’s biggest flaw: that he doesn’t agree with everyone else.
Even the labeling of Brody as a “contrarian” feels wrong. A contrarian rejects the popular opinion for the sake of being different. There’s no logic, no sound reasoning behind it. While not always in line with other critics, Richard Brody lacks anything but intention. He does not think Lyle Lyle Crocodile is a good movie because others think it’s bad. He thinks it’s good because he finds some sort of aesthetic and artistic pleasure in it. There is a reason for Richard Brody’s madness; he sees what you and I don’t. He is not saying that you should enjoy Amsterdam or that you should hate Tár. He merely provides you with a new perspective, pointing out things you may not have thought about. Brody, unlike this piece, does not need (or want) you to agree with him. He wants you to think.
Now, this doesn’t mean you should start paying attention to every undergrad film bro that tries to explain to you how Quentin Tarantino’s use of the n-word is actually “subversive” and “definitely not racist.” But, in an age where most people can’t articulate why they do or don’t like things, we should feel grateful for and appreciate people like Brody. Critics like him give us the tools with which to work things out for ourselves. They’re not here for us to offload our critical thinking onto; we still have to do the work. They provide us with a roadmap, allowing us to orient ourselves within the vast hellscape of the modern film industry. Brody teaches us to express our opinions, not haphazardly or half-baked, but with real intention and thought behind them. Critics do not have the final say on what is good and bad art. None of us do. It’s a never-ending conversation between critic and reader, both in pursuit of the same thing: to better understand art, our relationship to it, and ultimately, ourselves.
The current trend of pushing critics aside is disheartening. Art has always been born from conversations between texts, people, critics, and artists. We may not always agree with Richard Brody, but critics like him enrich our understanding of film. They have a lot to say, and it might be in our best interest to pay attention to them every once in a while.
I have no problem with anyone talking about how passionate they are about something that other people don’t like, and why. The problem is when you don’t fully embrace subjectivity of art works, and respect towards such works that other people sincerely love. Open mind. He often writes in a way that feels like he is stating objective facts. And he often makes assumptions that seem to be clearly in bad faith. And arrogant. For example, his reviews and statements of Pixar movies as just a soulless corporate product are baffling. No one needs to love the films, but it’s mind-blowing to me how one can not see the genuine passion and care put into them even if you don’t love them. Learning behind scenes stuff only proves that.
By far the most serious accusation one can make against any artist is soullessness. Richard Brody doesn’t argue that for Pixar in any convincing way, it often feels like bad faith and prejudice, like an effort to twist everything to fit his agenda. He can make the most harmless thing suddenly be secretly harmful.