film criticism

Nitpicking and Film Criticism


Film criticism is a tricky thing. Often, critics focus on a certain vantage point of a film. Rather than talking about every detail, they look at a highlight. Others will give an overall impression, providing a laundry list of pros and cons, but wrap it up to give a good sense of the finished product. But, some popular critics ask tons of questions, desperately poking holes in the plot, making the stack of cards come crumbling down.

I want to address the latter critic, the “nit-picking” critic if you will. Poking holes in a plot can be a powerful and useful way to approach a film. However, if this is their weapon of choice for critiquing a movie, then their arguments and perspective are fundamentally flawed. Everyone gets to have an opinion, but not everyone has to listen to it. Critics who use sound arguments, analyze the whole film, its goal, and context, and provide an honest approach to the movie should hold greater sway than a nit-picking critic.

First of all, the critical technique of poking holes in a film by asking critical questions is a good tool. Too often a movie’s narrative sucks you in, making it harder to ask the critical questions. So, every critic should ask questions and poke holes to test the narrative. At the same time, these nit-picking questions can become a potential fallacy.

Fictional narratives are more vulnerable to nit-picking questions than non-fiction because, of course, it’s not based on fact. If you used the same nit-picking questions toward a non-fictional narrative as a fictional one, you’ll discover these questions become fallacious.

For example, a common refrain is questioning a characters’ choices as a way to show the story as flawed. While sometimes it makes sense to question character choices and motives, sometimes they don’t have to be perfect. If a news story came out saying a thief broke into a bank without gloves, you could easily ask why that thief was so stupid to leave fingerprints everywhere. But, because it’s non-fiction you just throw up your hands and say, “Well, that’s how it happened.”

With fiction, critics presuppose that all critical questions are answerable. And that’s the fallacy. Many times there is no way of answering a critical question and sometimes the answer is “because the character was stupid.” Yet, that critical question, because it sounds critical, may make someone think the critic is providing sound reasoning. In reality, the question doesn’t matter and should be thrown out.

So, when is a question not a fallacy? Unfortunately, it’s very situational. If the critic is asking questions that take into account the context and goals of the movie, and if those questions have reasonable supporting evidence, then they’ll certainly be more valid than a question that’s out of left-field and won’t really solve or prove anything other than distracting from the real issues.

Often, the biggest problem with nit-picking questions is their fundamental rabbit-hole nature. Try talking to a three-year-old once they learned how to ask the question “Why?” and you’ll understand. Nit-picking questions are addictive, circular, and breed like rabbits.

As a result, questions are like black holes when there’s no apparent answer. If a critic asks non-answerable questions in succession, everything else becomes sucked up and ignored. Usually, it goes like this: question, question, question, and that’s why it’s a bad movie. Critics can’t only ask questions as if that’s actual evidence and then declare film victory. They should present arguments and use evidence to support those arguments.

So, when a film critic rapid-fires questions without evidence, put up a red flag and take their opinion with a grain of salt. Their nit-picking questions aren’t really getting to the heart of the film is like a dog chasing its tail.

Healthy film criticism uses an honest approach, taking in the whole film, what its genre is and what it set out to do. When a critic’s weapon of choice is lobbing nit-picking questions, they tend to ignore everything else. Ignoring the other parts of a movie make the criticism weak because that’s like throwing darts in the dark. If you aren’t fully trying to understand a movie, why toss lots of questions as a way to tear it down?

Everyone’s a critic. Everyone has an opinion about movies and whether or not they liked it. But, the best critics use sound arguments, evidence, and reasoning when approaching a film. They ask important questions and use them as a technique to lead to a valid and sound conclusion. They don’t ask pointless and wild-goose chase questions that sound valid but really doesn’t mean anything. So, whether you’re critiquing a film or listening to a popular critic, keep these things in mind. Nit-picking a movie doesn’t mean you’re a good critic. It’s quite the opposite.


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