The pleasure of criticizing robs us of the pleasure of being moved by some very fine things.” – Jean de la Bruyère
I haven’t watched a movie at a theater in months, and last week, I felt the urge for escapism. I opened a movie listings website to check movie times at my local theater and saw something that surprised me–just under each film title was one of three phrases: “skip it,” “see it,” and “maybe.” Perhaps ‘surprised’ is too nice a word– it actually disturbed me a little bit. As long as man has had action, man has had the critique; I get that. What I don’t get is this undeniable momentum that critique and criticism amass these days. Is it the internet that has turned many a man and woman into cynical sourpuss parrots lately, mimics who re-spew whatever vitriol some people unleash? Ahh, the sad, sad day that the people became sheeple…
I think of numerous conversations I’ve had with acquaintances during the last couple of years about movies, restaurants, books, or places. Me: “Have you seen this-and-such movie?” Acquaintance: “Nah, I heard it sucks.” Me: “Have you ever been to this-and-such place?” Acquaintance: “Nah, I heard it sucks.” Now really, is there a more pathetic response? Awaken the little gray cells and go find out for yourself whether or not it sucks. I don’t think I’m being nostalgic or revisionist when I say that I can think of a time when people tried to discover these things for themselves. People watched something or read something, and then discussed it; they didn’t “skip it” because some critic told them to and then spend their time discussing the critics’ opinions rather than their own. Today, the internet rips something apart before it’s hit the shelves. Today, when something is disliked by a popular critic or two, it’s disliked by all other critics, and then it’s disliked by everyone on Twitter, and then it’s disliked on messageboards and fora (okay, forums!), and then you can’t find one person willing to say one nice thing about it. The ‘something’ could be an unassuming mindless little pleasure, or it could be a masterpiece–should a critic so decide, the ‘something’ will be bullied and pulverized to shreds, the mob watching and waiting for a turn to do some pummeling of its own. (The madness is usually a mean, nasty, sharp snowball of negativity, but the pendulum does occasionally swing in the other direction in which case the critics, Twitter, messageboards and forums [ahem, fora] tell you that you’re supposed to love something.)
Think of your closest friend. He or she may have the same moral and ethical standards that you do, may enjoy the same wines that you do, may come from the same background. And yet the two of you may feel completely differently about one singular thing–an outfit, a song, or a TV program, for instance. And that’s the friend you’ve known, loved, and trusted for years. Now you’re going to read the opinion of some random faceless person you’ve never met, and you’re going to make that opinion your own without even experiencing what it is you’re talking about? How ludicrous!
In the end, I didn’t go to the movies that Sunday afternoon–I looked up synopses of the films that were playing and nothing interested me, but I based my decision on plot (or lack thereof), not on whether a critic enjoyed it. God knows I have found great enjoyment in things that many others disliked. I’m more choosy about certain experiences today–for example, I love films, but tickets are simply too expensive for me to go as often as I did ten or fifteen years ago when prices were such that I had the luxury of re-watching the ones that moved me. The same goes for books, restaurants, trips, wines, etc. My point is that I will decide for myself what I like and buy, and I’ll make that decision based on my own thoughts, my own desires, my own interests and dislikes, my own well rounded research–not media madness. If you have zero interest in something because you have a hunch that it holds little value, or because it’s unappealing, by all means leave it alone. But don’t shut the valves off, and allow someone else to do the thinking, loving, and hating for you. That’s a pointless, comatose form of vicarious living.
“For it is dangerous to attach one’s self to the crowd in front, and so long as each one of us is more willing to trust another than to judge for himself, we never show any judgement in the matter of living, but always a blind trust, and a mistake that has been passed on from hand to hand finally involves us and works our destruction.” – Lucius Annaeus Seneca