In Praise of Criticism

Critically Thinking

This year’s Oscar nominees are a controversial bunch, to say the least. “Zero Dark Thirty” prompted Congressional hearings about its depiction of torture; “Django Unchained” was certainly racially charged; and “Argo” fell victim to a much-discussed snub in the Best Director category.

Then there’s “Les Misérables.” The controversy there can be boiled down to one word: really?

An incredible amount of hay has been made as to whether “Les Misérables” deserves to be in competition for the lofty prize. First came glowing early reviews and predictions of Oscar gold that propelled the film forward, followed soon after by a major backlash. But the third and current phase has been somewhat unique, not only in character but in duration. Negative reviews of highly anticipated films inevitably evoke ire from fans, but rarely is the reaction so sustained—or so ad hominem towards dissenters. I have yet to see a justification of the film that actually argues for the movie’s merits; instead, the film’s defenders assert that those who dislike the movie are predisposed against it and are nitpicking problems just to be contradictory or, worse, to ruin the experience for those who did enjoy it.

This defense has yet to rest. On Jan. 28, New York Times critic Stanley Fish published a piece entitled “Les Misérables’ and Irony,” in which he declares that those who “trash” the film do so out of fear that applauding its unironic assault on the senses means being labeled a “bourgeois cheerleader.” Fish argues that critics who dislike the material or find director Tom Hooper’s in-your-face directorial style don’t appreciate the raw, unaffected emotions Hooper strives to create. The movie, Fish says, aims to disarm viewers of their ability to detach from the characters and “leaves critics with nothing to do except join the rhythms of rapt silence, crying and applause, and it is understandable that they want nothing to do with it.”

The flaw in this argument is that it is simply wrong. Rebuttals like Fish’s do nothing to debunk the criticisms of the film; claiming admiration of a movie solely for its director’s intentions ignores the multitude of problems that can arise in execution. It’s Hooper’s penchant for extreme close-ups and not his goal that has drawn so much ire. Few would argue that a bomb like “Movie 43” deserves praise just for trying to be funny, so why do proponents of “Les Misérables” claim the film’s intentions override its many blemishes?

Besides, talking about claustrophobia-inducing camera work and sappy material, as most of the film’s critics do, certainly isn’t nitpicking; it’s calling out factors perceived as major, in many ways damning, flaws. I have personally been very vocal about my negative feelings towards the film, most of which stem from the cinematography and performances. If I were to instead point out such mistakes as the presence of a modern-looking Santa Claus in the 1840s when his current depiction wasn’t codified until the 1930s, that would indeed warrant a severe finger-wagging. But I haven’t seen a single review that mentions this mistake, and indeed I only bring it up here to illustrate what could reasonably be described as an overly specific criticism.

More problematically, fans of the film outright disparage the intentions of moviegoers and critics who don’t enjoy the film. I have watched movies for the sole purpose of mockery, films including such “gems” as “The Star Wars Holiday Special.” But aside from such legendarily bad movies, I watch films with the sincere intention of enjoying them, even when I plan on writing a review or analysis. To argue that critics walk into a theater hoping to feel nothing for two or more hours is to suggest that they have a decidedly masochistic approach to their job.

A critic of any medium who only recommends works from which he felt fully detached does a disservice to his audience, and I have never seen a piece of criticism reflecting this predilection. The job by necessity requires a willingness to submit to emotional experiences for the sake of better being able to convey to readers a piece’s flaws or merits. And yet, proponents of “Les Misérables” ascribe detachment—even outright malice towards tear-jerking cinema—to those who scorn this particular adaptation, even when the same critics frequently praise other movies precisely for their emotional heft.

Most pressing is that this head-in-the-sand approach of deriding a film’s detractors undermines the very foundation of the critical community, the reason for existence of which is to engender thoughtful discussion and analysis of a work. Negative responses deserve to be entertained, even if only so that they may be disproved; very few films deserve to be considered entirely unimpeachable. I’m more than happy to hear out your praise; all I ask in return is my right to disagree.

—Columnist Jeremy Y. Venook can be reached at jvenook@college.harvard.edu.

Tags