Do Film Critics Have a Responsibility to Bolster “Important” Movies?

April 12, 2012 — 8 Comments

David Ehrlich’s opinion is a little more nuanced than his above tweet implies. Having read Roger Ebert’s review of the new Jafar Panahi documentary “non-film”, This Is Not a Film, Ehrlich finds it difficult to square that while Ebert offers extremely high praise for the film, highlights no flaws, but still only gives it a 3.5/4. It’s the incongruous gap that bothers Ehrlich. If Ebert agrees the film is amazing, and agrees that it’s socially important, why wouldn’t he give the film 4 stars to grab the attention of more readers and hopefully send more people to seek it out?

It’s an interesting question, and one which leads me to consider the retort: Does Ebert, as an important critical voice with a mass audience, have a responsibility to bolster a film even he might consider “important” in a context outside of cinema?

Roger Ebert has explained the difference between his own 3.5/4 and 4/4 ratings before. “I wish that I didn’t give star ratings at all and every review had to speak for itself. But 3½ is a very good rating, meaning all a movie lacked was an ineffable tingle at the base of my spine.” So it sounds like though he thought very highly of This Is Not a Film, it didn’t quite give him that “ineffable tingle” that, say, A Separation did earlier this year. That seems fair to me. These reviews articulate his own response to a film, and the rating is a part of that. He simply didn’t think This Is Not a Film was quite a 4-star film in his experience.

But that doesn’t get to the “importance” factor. Deciding what film has importance in a grander social or political context is tough. Many documentaries are potentially important but fail to find an audience and thus have no impact either way. Some films are viewed as so potentially important that they are deserving of added support in order to gain a wider audience. It’s must also be recognized that importance doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with quality. Bully, for example, is a documentary about bullying at school. The critical consensus seems to be that the documentary as a piece of filmmaking is decent, but hardly noteworthy. Instead, it’s the subject itself that has garnered the film an aura of importance. Even people who were annoyed by the hypocritical dealings of Harvey Weinstein with the MPAA of the film’s rating were glad that at least it got the film in the national conversation, meaning more people would see it and be exposed to this important subject.

In that context, maybe Ebert does have a responsibility. If he has no serious reason to dock This Is Not a Film by half a star, maybe he should have given it 4 stars in order to attract that audience. The question in such instances becomes one of duty to the film in the context of its medium vs. duty to the film in a larger context. Though Ebert may feel that his own writing is purely a personal reflection, that it is published and read in a newspaper means that it’s being consumed as a source of information. If the information that Ebert wants to convey is, “This Is Not a Film is an important film that everyone should see,” then it’s possible he does have a responsibility to rate the film accordingly rather than focus on his own lack of “ineffable tingle”.

Then again, maybe the critic has no responsibility at all. Maybe it’s truly up to the reader alone to decide through Ebert’s review, and others, whether a film is deserving of his time and attention for reasons artistic, import or whatever. That said, it’s all a personal decision. Ebert decided to prioritize his personal experience over the potential importance of the film. Other critics might decide otherwise. There are no rules, and I really think it’s up to the critic’s taste. But what do you think? Do critics have a responsibility to promote so-called “important” films?

8 responses to Do Film Critics Have a Responsibility to Bolster “Important” Movies?


    No, I don’t think critics has any responsability like that. They should remain true to their opinions and gut feelings. However I have a different gut feeling to him. I thought This is Not a Film is superior to A Separation. I think I gave it a 4,5/5 but the more I think about it, the more I think it should have been 5/5. It’s probably the movie of last year that I have thought and talked most about.


    An interesting piece, but I think your example has more to do with the arbitrary nature of ratings and less about the role of the critic. Still, a good question to ponder. I think the most interesting and useful critics to me are the one that bolster and champion those films that they think are important and underrated. They’re not always right, at least from my perspective, but sometimes they point you to a great film that deserves a greater audience (like last year and Nostalgia for the Light, an amazing documentary almost nobody saw).


    Ebert’s responsibility, like the responsibility of all critics, is to himself. I realize this could be taken as a controversial stand, but I hold to it. The job of good critics or reviewers (and Ebert is both critic and reviewer, and he’s better than good) is not to tell people if they will like a film, but to show why they like or dislike a film, give valid reasons for it, and allow the audience to decide whether or not a film is worth the time. In that respect, Ebert’s duty is to himself–to give an honest appraisal as he sees it–with enough information to allow a relatively intelligent member of his audience to determine the value of a film. In general, Ebert does this well. It allows him to give a poor review to a film (he gave The Usual Suspects 1.5 stars) in a way that lets me know I’ll probably like it. That’s his responsibility. It’s not the gut level thumbs-up/thumbs-down or even the star rating, but the reasons behind the rating that make the review and the criticism.

    In that, is there truly a huge difference between a 3.5 and a 4? Would you specifically avoid a 3.5 because it isn’t a 4?

    It’s reasons like this that stopped me from putting a rating system in place on my own site. I don’t have to determine what separates a 7 from an 8 or a 2.5 from a 3.


    I think the point is valid about critics supporting important films. However, this doesn’t connect to the act of rating a film. There are cases where a movie might be considered three stars in a critic’s mind, but it’s still an important topic. Other films might be more trivial, but they’re so well done that they deserve the highest rating. It’s basically a separate function between giving a subjective rating to a film and pointing out movies that deserve the public’s attention. The tricky part is when readers are just looking at the ratings to choose what to see and not the subject matter of the films themselves.


      Right. I think from Ehrlich’s perspective, though the rating is arbitrary from a critical perspective, much of the audience is too simple or lazy to actually read the reviews and end up relying on the ratings. They see “4 STARS!” and latch onto that. If the rating is arbitrary and the critic feels the film is important for people to see, maybe bumping it up to 4 stars would be the right way to help along that cause. Plus, wouldn’t that ultimately be a reflection of the critic’s value judgement on the film? Maybe on a visceral or emotional or intellectual level the film wasn’t quite stimulating enough to gain that coveted 4 star rating, but the sense of the film’s importance in a social context raises its value anyway. Then again, Ebert gave it a 3.5 and it’s hard to assume that’s how he’d feel anyway. Still an interesting thought to ponder.


        It’s definitely an interesting thought to consider, even if I’m not sure that I agree with the approach. I don’t rate movies on my blog, and it’s refreshing to not have to worry about that part of it while watching a film. Of course, I’m not reviewing new movies each week, so the role of a professional film critic is different. I know that Ebert has taken criticism when he gives a high rating to a shallow film. To him, it’s all about how well the movie succeeds in its particular genre. I do think he hasn’t been as tough on movies in recent years and gives a lot of four-star ratings, which minimizes its effect. But that’s a different discussion.


    I’m with Jessica on this–a critic’s responsibility is to him or herself. In fact, I’ll go so far as to suggest that a critic has no responsibility to his or her audience, the film, or anything else.

    A critic, or even a reviewer, isn’t there to tell us whether or not a film is good. Their job is to tell us what is there in the film and provide enough information, opinion, and insight to allow us to determine for ourselves if the film is worth our time.

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