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Confessions of a critic: The three main blind spots and biases in movie reviewing

An image from “Titanic,” a film Rick Groen says he didn’t get right the first time he reviewed it.

Rick Lynch/AP

Do you have films that you have learned to love, or ones that you crowed about at the time, only to cringe later? Share your cinematic second thoughts here

Three movies: Titanic, Groundhog Day, Basquiat. Unlikely to appear together on anyone else's radar, they do on mine, and here's why: I reviewed them all and, in each case, I reviewed them badly. Not because I doled out too many stars, or too few, but for a far more damning reason. I missed what I'm paid to see: I missed the crucial "why" of the matter. Confession to follow.

But first, a lesser admission. This was supposed to be your basic sober-second-thought piece, yet only in really boozy cases of acute original drunkenness. Make a list of films I now love that I hated in my review, or hate that I once loved. In other words, a simple list of clear screw-ups, or clear about-faces anyway, since clarity is always compelling, especially in our binary culture of thumbs up or down. Today's critics are encouraged to write reviews at the extremes of love or hate – it doesn't matter which, but anything in between is perceived not as thoughtful qualification but as cowardly, indecisive and boring equivocation. Thus, the assignment: Find those occasions where your initial dramatic pronouncement would, upon further review, lead to an equally dramatic reversal.

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Well, assignment refused – can't do it. Not won't, can't. I've searched the archives, ransacked my conscience, yet nothing passes the "clarity" test. Of course, I know that readers, to the extent they care, could gladly do the work for me, supplying countless examples of my gross misjudgment. Some of them may even use my reviews as a reverse consumer's guide, avoiding like the plague anything I praise, rushing out eagerly to watch whatever I damn. In which case, you're welcome.

So a specific mea culpa is beyond me. But a general one is not only possible but, I think, a lot more interesting. A movie critic by profession, I'm a born critic by nature. We all are. The cliché is true: Everybody's a critic. However, the cliché's converse is clearly false: A critic isn't everybody. Hell, that's precisely what gives the breed a bad name – we're snooty elitists not plugged into the vox populi. Yet, ideally, there's something else that separates the critic from everybody: not merely liking or disliking but offering an informed explanation of why. Only informed explanations (grounded in evidence drawn from the movie or the director's canon or the broader culture) can lead to informed opinions. Yes, the "why" is crucial.

Okay, back to the general mea culpa. In the critical continuum – like, dislike, why – where are the potential blind spots and biases? There are three. The first two affect all of us and can be found on the easiest part of the spectrum – the visceral response to the movie, the basic like or dislike. Let's take a closer look.

#1: The genetic aversion

This is my credo: From rom-com to horror, I'm receptive to any genre. I don't believe in chick flicks and guy flicks, in entertaining flicks and depressing flicks, but only in good flicks and bad flicks, whose relative merit is determined by the answer to the "why" question. Problem is, that's easy to preach, but sometimes hard to practise. Permit me an anecdote. Long before I wore a critic's hat, I lined up with the opening-day throngs to see Star Wars. My sophisticated friends, Jean-Luc Godard and Ingmar Bergman fans all, adored Star Wars. I really wanted to, but the thing left me cold.

Although there are four-star exceptions (the original Batman, Terminator 2), I tend to suffer from a kind of genetic aversion that leaves me immune to the charms of Star Wars and its multitude of high-tech progeny. You may have a similar aversion to certain genres, and your solution is straightforward: Don't go. Since I'm paid to go, and since we don't yet match critics to flicks (women to Sex and The City, simians to Gorillas in the Mist), how do I be fair to the movie? Here, I try to trump my heart with my head, try intellectually to appreciate what I viscerally reject. The "why" question shifts to "C'mon, why shouldn't I like it?", and pondering that helps to temper my bias.

#2: The shifting emotional factor

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This too is personal, yet, unlike #1, it's not fixed but wavering and changeable, and, again, applies to everyone. If you are a new parent, or if your own parent has just died, you may well be more vulnerable to movies that deal in jeopardized babies or ailing geriatrics. Another anecdote: I saw Philadelphia shortly after my colleague, Jay Scott, succumbed to AIDS. At the end, I was a puddle in the seat. My heart's reaction: What a brilliant picture to have moved me so. My head's quandary: Can these tears be traced to the film's power or to Jay's absence? Here too, the "why" question – disassembling the engine to see if and how it works – is a useful balancing tool. But it's not a panacea. I still don't fully trust my take on Philadelphia, if only because every time I re-watch, it rekindles the same lachrymose memories.

#3: The "why" failure

I can forgive myself the first two blind spots – they're inevitable and come with a corrective lens. But this last is unforgivable. It's a case of the stupids, a failure of insight that smashes the lens itself. Back, then, to those three films on my radar. Although my reviews were all relatively positive, they were also absolutely flawed. In each case, I overlooked the motor that drives the picture, failing not only to disassemble the engine but even to see it.

Titanic: I missed James Cameron's very calculated identification of the ship with the Kate Winslet character – both females on their maiden voyage, both the conditioned products of male expectations and hubris, both innocents fated to run afoul on the hard rock of experience. That identification is precisely what elevates a big-budget melodrama into priceless myth.

Groundhog Day: I missed how the comedy's conceit of perpetual return swims so lightly in deeper existential waters, borrowing from absurdists like Samuel Beckett and daring to broach one of our last taboo topics – the malaise of boredom.

Basquiat: I missed, or blithely skipped over, the way this bio of the doomed painter deeply excavates a principal tension in our culture between art and commerce, identity and celebrity. Clearly, that tension abides, and to watch this picture now is to appreciate its large antennae. My review lopped them off.

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It's tempting to blame these failures on time constraints. Obviously, amid the speed and noise of the wired world, those pressures have intensified along with a huge attendant paradox: The constant clamour heightens the need for clear-headed analysis even as it deprives us of the very commodity essential to satisfying that need – time to think. Alas, that wasn't my problem here.

Typically (since movie criticism ain't string theory), I know immediately where I stand on the like/dislike/why continuum. For me, what's much harder, and more time-consuming, than what to say is how best to say it. So another hour wouldn't have redeemed my bad analysis, or another month. It took a few years of sober second thought to do the job.

Sure, I could list other such cases, but self-flagellation is itself a bore. Better to end on a note of snooty bravado. When I've applied the corrective lens and answered the why question to my satisfaction, I'm content, even when my review runs counter to the prevailing wisdom: when I diss what others enjoy (like The Kids Are All Right) or love what others disdain (like Bill Forsyth's Being Human, which even Forsyth disowned).

Those latter instances are a special delight. Contrary to popular opinion, critics are fuelled by the hope that the next movie will be a great movie. But if it is, and I fail to do that movie analytic justice, well ... whenever Basquiat pops up on TV, the few frames I intend to watch invariably stretch into the entire picture, and into the lingering guilt of another restless night.

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