The Artist and Critic Matters More Than Ever

Roger Ebert used to have an online blog where he'd discuss everything from movies to social issues to politics to parenting to whatever. There was one specific post that I do not remember the subject, but my guess is it was political, and there was a commenter who was clearly annoyed by what Ebert wrote, so he retorted with the irrefutable, 'You should stick with reviewing movies.'

The comment was seeping with raw ignorance. If the commenter had spent any time reading Ebert's movie reviews, then he'd know Ebert's reviews were packed with observations on social issues, politics, morality and his life. There was a reason his movie reviews earned him a Pulitzer Prize, because he used his analysis of movies to look at the important things in life. He wasn't just writing about movies every single day but rather using movies as the launching pad to reflect on his life and society.

Another influential and renowned film critic was Pauline Kael who was once asked if she planned to write an autobiography, and she responded that she had been doing it for years with her movie reviews. Kael often would add personal anecdotes in her reviews while also challenging social norms and perceptions. She was such an amazing writer because she offered thoughtful analysis of film while also offering a window into her soul and critiqued society along with films. To her, films and life were intertwined, and you could not discuss the one without the other.

A good film critic is never just writing about the specific movie they are reviewing. But that is because a movie is never just two hours of flickering lights that you gaze upon while shovelling popcorn. Ebert on several occasions said that movies are 'empathy machines.' They are a way to understand the life of someone that we'd never be and get a perspective that our life would never offer. Movies reflect our society, and even when a director may try to avoid it, they are also political, social, philosophical and personal. Yes, even an Adam Sandler movie is saying something and there are always things that can be unpacked.

Movies just like music and paintings and novels are art. Art always has so much more to say than just what appears on the surface, and if anything, the works that avoid being didactic have the most to say.

Stephen King has often commented on social issues and politics on his Twiterfeed, and just like what happened with Ebert, there is always an angry Tweeter saying King needs to stick with writing novels. Just like Ebert, King had been using his day job to talk about so much more in the world than some may assume. King is known as a horror writer, but he thoughtfully digs into civil rights, health insurance, feminism, relationships, parenting, substance abuse and almost anything you could think of in life through his fiction. He tells a suspenseful and engaging tale, but he feeds us so much more.

In a time where debates and discussions have become death matches where it is all about winning and destroying the person who has a differing opinion, there is a challenge for credibility where an opinion needs to be followed by a resume to prove you're worthy of having a dissenting viewpoint. But your career doesn't dictate the only things you can have an informed opinion because a firefighter can do thorough and extensive research on World War 2 to have valid views on it. A career is not an anchor but rather just one aspect that forms us as humans. There are a thousand things that modern internet culture drives me nuts about but one of the most irritating is how we've forgotten humans are complicated and multi-layered rather than just defined as being conservative or liberal or poor or rich or a novelist or a film critic.

Due to a world where newspapers and magazines have had to make extensive cuts, there has been a value judgement on each type of news or dialogue. This has also led to social media where some feel you are wasting time if posts aren't directly about politics, Covid-19, Ukraine or social justice. But that is ignoring the fact that discussion and articles can be about many different things. An entertainment reporter can look at the latest movies or albums or TV series but still blend that in with Black Lives Matter or transgender rights or an unjust invasion. We can deal in layers, and art is the best at that.

Art is one of the most important things in the world. It can be entertainment but it can also tackle major problems in unique, challenging and innovative ways. This is something that was accepted and known a century ago because not only did they allow art to help define a society, but the passing of stories was deemed sacred and crucial. An artist plunges through all the ills and sins of the world through painting or writing or singing or filming or strumming even if and maybe especially if the work isn't explicit in its exploration of those issues. The best works have fingerprints of the issues that inform and motivate them.

Turning Red is more than just a teenage girl who turns into a giant red panda. It is about puberty, immigration, friendship, family, regret, shame, diaspora and healing. My kids also loved it without really knowing any of those things were embedded into the text. This is why art is magical.

The Movie Breakdown is a movie review podcast and the title makes it clear that will always be our focus. But since we started in 2013, we've also through our movie reviews discussed police brutality, toxic masculinity, transgender rights, Trump's presidency, residential schools, free speech and so many other major and divisive things. And while I'm biased, I think we've done it without losing the focus on movies that our listeners are tuning in to hear and we've also been able to remain fun. Speaking about art and talking about art has never been and never will be just about the art. The labels we get, be it our job or our background doesn't force us down one road of opinions and views.

Considering that most of my writing over the years has leaned towards movies and that I've been working on novels and fiction that I will eventually publish, you could argue that this entire article is an attempt to validate and justify my own work. Except I think if you approach art and criticism honestly, it is self-evident rather than needing any defense. Art nurtures the soul and is a creative exploration of the things that matter most in our world. An honest criticism and reflection of art should be the exact same thing and when done well (and I'll leave it to the reader if I've ever done that) it also is its own form of art and expression.

A musician or a novelist or a filmmaker or photographer or critic is at least just as valuable as an accountant or marketing executive or politician. They just have different purposes and their unique ways of contributing to society. From my own biased stance, I'd say we need artists and writers more than ever to bring unique perspectives of the world to the forefront and allow new voices to be spotlighted.