"The film writing I have in mind would be essayistic, but it would have a solid understructure of evidence. It would be conceptually bold and bristling with subtly defended opinions. Its judgments would be nuanced in optimal awareness of the history of cinema, its economics and technology as well as its auteurs. Add a graceful writing style leavened with humour and purged of vainglorious anecdotes. We might then have criticism in a broader sense than we now usually find it, and something worthy of the art we love."
Against Insight by David Bordwell at cinema scope
Let's take a look at the logic flaws and other errors committed by critics who disregard the reality of the film reviewed or mock their readership for a good word or just to conceal the fact they didn't see/misunderstood the film. Sad is to find these errors in the print world, where the editor corrects and the standards of journalistic ethics should prevail. So that's why I wanted to dedicate this series of (objective) mistakes that are not due to divergence of opinions but caused by a conscious or unintentional corruption of content.
Critical Fallacy 1 : DECEPTION
The first one is an easy no-brainer. Plain deception by conscious or careless presentation of dubious facts. We're talking about blatant factual errors (mischaracterization, misrepresentation, unchecked facts...), half-truth (assumptions, speculation made evidence, partial memory...), exaggerations (slant, dramatization of the film flaws/merits...), anything that could be easily disproved by anyone watching the very film referred to in the review.
Andy Horbal called this flaw the "Cardinal Sin of Film Criticism" at No More Marriages! last month : "Thou shalt not make specific critiques based on erroneous information about the film in question."
And like him I'll rank it first on my list of fallacies. The critics gives their opinion on a film before any reader has seen it, so the least we can expect, aside from arguable taste compatibility, is to get a faithful description of the film and should they choose to base their judgment on factual evidences taken from the film, they'd better be accurate since we have to take everything written at face value. With first-hand access to unseen films, being paid to watch them carefully, critics have a duty to report accurately or not report at all. I think a good critic is one alert enough to realize when a blurry memory doesn't legitimize writing in one detail or even declining to comment on the entire film if viewing conditions obviously undermine the review's worth.
Andy cites Anthony Lane's liberties with the plot accounts in Inside Man and American Dreamz. I could cite Ebert on Altman's The Long Goodbye, distorting the succession of events. or Ray Bennett on Ferrara's Mary, mixing up 2 characters in one.
Andy Horbal says it better than me : "First, if there's really a problem with the film significant enough to warrant mention in a review, it's probably unnecessary to use an example that's less than 100% certain. (...) If there's any doubt about the veracity of the complaint it should be left out of the review."
"Critics traffic in opinions, and they are not beholden to anyone in this regard. But we do owe it to the filmmakers, to our readers, and to ourselves to make sure that our review is reconcilable with the film we're reviewing. (...) We put ourselves in a rhetorically indefensible position, and we undermine our credibility."
And whether the erroneous fact slipped in "by mistake" is irrelevant to this fallacy because a published critic is a journalist above all and bears a responsibility to everything is written in public and delivered to a large population as true fact. The writer, or the editor, or the publication owner are liable to deceptive content, shall double check their facts (like any good journalist should), proofread for approval and eventually are obligated to publish an erratum to correct a past mistake. So a misleading information is a deception whether the author is aware or not because the journalist is expected to specify truth as truth and guess as guess.
If a critic cannot even be trusted for basic reporting of facts, quoting reality, how could we trust judgments based on abstract evaluation like performances, aesthetics, politics...?
Did you read deceptive reviews recently? Please share with us.
Contributions, disputes, examples are encouraged as always.
- Coming up, Critical Fallacy 2 : Manipulation