Friday, April 19, 2024

Op-Ed: The Modern Snake Oil of Grifter Critics

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Everyone’s a critic, and with the internet, anyone can be a critic. The democratization and diversification of film criticism is necessary, even essential because I believe film criticism to be important. If for nothing else than I believe our movies are important.

Movies are the last of the mass arts that are still largely accessible to the public. Theatre has outpriced itself into elitism, and what we know of as television is morphing into something else altogether. Though it could be argued now that film and television are beginning to take up the same spaces. Consequently, many critics find themselves dealing with both sets of media, but ignoring the distinctions between the mediums.

A failure to notes this distinction is the mark of a bad critic. However, bad critics are important for they eventually grow into good critics given time and patience. I myself was a horrible critic when I started out and have steadily gotten better over the years to the point of almost good.

Now, more than ever, diverse criticism is critical if only to broaden our knowledge base and diversify our experiences. Not to mention the sheer abundance of new movies and television shows coming out now make the job too overwhelming for one person to cover everything. The more the merrier as they say; if only to just handle the load.

But with changing technology, criticism has entered a new era thanks to YouTube and live streaming. In the middle of all this growth is a pseudo-intellectual fungus which seems to be spreading rapidly. In my article about Box Office numbers I mentioned the phrase “grifter critic”. 

Admittedly, the phrase was meant as a catch-all term more than actual terminology. But after doing some research of my own and traveling down a dark and despairingly angry rabbit hole, I have come to some conclusions that may shock you. (They shocked me anyway.) Many of my assumptions proved to be wrong about these so-called critics, but in a way that left me unsettled.

First, it is important to understand that there is a difference between a bad critic, a critic you don’t agree with, and a Grifter Critic. It’s easy to shove people whom you simply view as wrong or stupid into the Grifter Critic category. Nobody likes it when other people don’t like what they enjoy, but honest critical analysis of film can also serve to shine a spotlight on our intrinsic biases and show us deeper aspects of a film we might not have considered (again, why diverse voices in criticism are so essential). That said, I won’t argue that the Venn diagram for critics who are just plain not good and Grifter Critics sometimes seems like a circle. 

A Grifter Critic is someone who talks at great lengths about separating the art from the artist but is utterly unable to do so themselves. In other words, when a problematic movie opens they preach the pseudo-intellectual “separate the art from the artist” philosophy. By problematic I, of course, mean movies with legitimately troubling aspects such as films written, directed, or starring rapists, pedophiles, bigots, or some other form of an abuser. Yet, a movie that has what a Grifter Critic deems an “SJW agenda” is the end seemingly the of the world and is yet another assailment on our existence by the ever-growing “thought police”.

To sum it up, they ignore politics when it suits them and laser in on the “politics” when it doesn’t suit them. This is because the Grifter Critic believes themself to be apolitical. They believe, fully and sincerely, they have a neutral view of the world, and consequently, this makes their views apolitical.

Apolitical simply means disinterested in politics. But, as I quoted in my last article, just because you have no interest in politics doesn’t mean politics doesn’t have an interest in you. Many Grifter Critics seem to have no real curiosity about politics or economics or, perhaps, a willful ignorance. The lack of this curiosity may be the singular defining trait of all Grifter Critics. All critics are curious, it’s in our nature. If a movie doesn’t work we want to know why it doesn’t. Is it because of something inside of us or does the fault lie in the art itself? As my wife can attest, these questions sometimes stay with me for days after I’ve seen a movie, and I often talk them out with her to try and find an answer.

For the Grifter Critic, a movie that they don’t like is usually always considered a “bomb”, even if some tinfoil hat conspiracy theories need to be pedaled to detract from potential success. And for these “bad” movies the fault always lies, not just with the art, but within the artist and everyone involved. The fault, it must be clear, never lies with the Grifter Critic. Sometimes we can watch a movie and realize that we just weren’t the target audience. That’s okay to admit, and I’ve done so in several reviews for films I didn’t personally connect with on an emotional level. A Grifter Critic, however, is not only the expert, but they are also the all-knowing, all-seeing, uber-rational God who claims to not bother with puny things such as emotions. Ironic, since the Grifter Critic is fueled by pure rage and half-truths to the point they speak in riddles and synonyms. They say much but ultimately say nothing at all. 

They coin words like “forced diversity” and terms such as “get woke, go broke” which, for the sake of honesty and clarity, we will call it what they really mean: integration. A Grifter Critic, it would seem, has a constant wish for the studios and we the audience to have women, PoC, LGBT, etc. characters exist silently and without remark or omit them entirely. Oh, the Grifter Critic will claim they aren’t sexist, racist, or homophobic. They just don’t want “those people” needlessly shoved into their potential box office juggernauts. They’d much rather have an endless chain of white, male heteros shoved down their throats.

Remember, they tout themselves as apolitical. So, therefore, any views they have obviously cannot be aligned with any form of politics or economics; systemic or otherwise. They don’t care because none of it “matters”. This is just common sense, so-called. Ironically, they do care, they care deeply. Trivial things such as opening box office weekend numbers mean so much to them that they will endlessly coo and bellow about how a movie has bombed-before the opening weekend is over. They will rip an actress, or any woman, to shreds, both for her looks and for her opinions, if she dares speak out against the status quo. Even sadder they will do the same to anyone who dares gives their opinion on any piece of art.

The Grifter Critic does this because they are either an idiot, ignorant, a liar; or all three. 

To research this article, I listened to a large swath of podcasts, streamers, and YouTubers. If the Grifter Critic has a home it’s YouTube and streaming. Podcasts require too much effort and organizing of thought for the Grifter Critic. And as for writing, it is an almost Herculean task, for the actual organization of ideas alone would send any Grifter Critic screaming in horror.

Yes, some streamers will have sessions that go on for 11 hours but I was surprised to find out that the time was not devoted solely to the title topic. Almost always those hours are not entirely devoted to one singular thing, though the title of the video or stream recording may lead you to believe otherwise.

Those hours are filled with ramblings, often rage-induced, or discussions about how some other personality is an idiot for “not getting” whatever they deem unassailable. For example, if they love the film Joker they will, instead of trying to figure out why someone doesn’t like the film, cue up a video or interview of someone who didn’t like the movie and proceed to mock their looks and pretend to be obtuse to what the dissenting opinion is saying. Nevermind that the person not liking Joker doesn’t affect whether or not the streamers themselves like the Joker, what matters is someone dares not love what they love and the Grifter Critic will tear them down in the name of a film that presented itself to be a champion of the forgotten and unloved.

Weird that a movie that made over a billion dollars and was nominated for countless awards would need such staunch defenders. But that’s the Grifter Critic for you, they defend the popular and criticize the failure. They take no risks. Attacking Star Wars is not brave considering the fans will do that themselves if given enough time (you can currently see a group of them on twitter angry about a certain character’s death in The Rise of Skywalker). But when a movie flops, ie bombs financially and critically, they will gather around and dogpile on it. 

The Grifter Critic will rarely defend a movie that bombed and was shunned by critics (though there are a few examples to the contrary, such as the impassioned defense of Alita: Battle Angel). Generally, they won’t because that would be taking a stand and admitting they loved something and that what other people thought didn’t matter. It would puncture the oh so thin armor they have shrouded themselves in. Plus they’d have to come up with an argument as to why they liked it when everyone else didn’t.

They’d much rather react and respond to other people having the courage to do what they themselves do not; give their honest unvarnished opinions and, in the process, give us some insight into who they are as a person. The Grifter Critic will not engage with arguments so much as abuse technology and the pause button.

Arguments don’t matter when you pause a video every time after a person has said a sentence and then spend the next few minutes trying to dissect what the person means. It never occurs to them to merely hit play and see if the following sentence might add some illumination. They are so desperate to appear smart and observant that they fail the very basic act of being a critic… listening.

Words have meaning, yes, but language as a means of communication requires more than just knowing what words mean. It requires things such as body language, tone, and context. Everyone has had the moment when they asked a teacher if they can use the bathroom, only to have the teacher ask, “I don’t know? Can you?” Your response was probably the same as everyone else’s, “You know what I mean.” And they did and the Grifter Critics knows as well.

Simply put, this type of “criticism” is pedantic jackassery. The Grifter Critic will dissect every word or sentence by the opposition while ignoring the broader context until eventually, they have abused language so horridly that argument, reason, and language itself, becomes roiling gibberish. In short, pausing a video or focusing on a line of the review and asking what the author means without entertaining the notion that they might explain themselves in the next paragraph or even in the next line is screechingly idiotic at best and at worst a sure sign of bad faith.

It is a willful obstinate use of language in which the object is not to communicate but to ridicule and obfuscate as opposed to finding understanding and empathy. They are not interested in what the person is actually saying, for if they were, they would allow the person to finish a thought. Funny enough you see the same sort of antics and grammatical purity in the Holocaust and climate change deniers.

But that would mean the Grifter Critic has a political viewpoint. In fact, if you remember, they do not. One YouTuber, in response to an earlier video in which he went on a short xenophobic rant, intentional or not, denied accusations that he was racist or even political. Incredibly he said, “politics doesn’t matter.” He continued by arguing that if Bernie Sanders won the presidential election, life would be the same as life under Donald Trump.

The Grifter Critic, aside from being angry and pedantic, is also deeply confused. I wish I could tell you all Grifter Critics were alt-right or conservative. But that’s just not the case. The Grifter Critic comes from all political spheres in varying, shapes, sizes, and ethnicities. For those of us who are political, it would be hard to deny that it is an odd crop of white supremacists that have grown up during these past few years. Looking at the modern Grifter Critic the odd crop reveals itself to be downright comically bizarre.

Believe it or not, I have even stumbled upon Leftist Grifter Critics, critics who are not outwardly bigoted but whose ire seems to be saved for movies in which diversity or politics is at the forefront. They are political-sort of. They tend to smuggle in their snake oil under the guise of analysis while again, ignoring the text of the film. One video I watched, claimed Charlie’s Angels’ main problem is the film’s obsession with genders and not that this YouTuber is apparently a bumbling idiot who has clearly never seen anything related to any other iteration of Charlie’s Angels.

By shrouding the critique in what sounds like a valid argument and speaking in a calm rational voice, the Leftist Grifter Critic can give the illusion of being objective and rational. Except, again, the movies he is dissecting, are the worst of the worst, as defined by box office failure and critical responses. Because if he was rational and objective he’d understand that a film’s success does not lie in the Rotten Tomatoes score, the Audience score, or even the box office receipts.

But again, that would require genuine curiosity as opposed to talking about the films using the largest amount of buzz words possible just as it comes out on DVD. Not to mention every film has its defenders, but they won’t be heard for the objective rational analysis because that would provide context.

Context is one of the great enemies of all Grifter Critics be they left, right, or “apolitical”. It would require trying to legitimately understand how a film was received despite your own personal biases. Moreover, it would demand a curiosity about what other people thought to help give a broader and more complete understanding of the film’s reception.

Again, a lack of curiosity is the Grifter Critic’s greatest ally.

Though the Leftist Grifter Critic will feign curiosity, it can easily be disproven by how, again, pedantic, they become in their analysis. Unlike most other Grifter Critics, the Leftists will attempt to feign ignorance on some aspects of filmmaking, a rarity among almost all other Grifter Critics.  But just because a broken clock is right twice a day does not mean the clock is still worth using.

Frequently in my research, I have also come across women bashing the “SJW agenda” usually with the lovely and sometimes disquieting phrase, “not my feminism” especially when discussing films such as Men In Black International, Charlie’s Angels, Captain Marvel, and/or Terminator: Dark Fate. I have seen PoC go after other PoC for complaining about racist caricatures or issues they see in a movie or industry overall. They usually will go after women, PoC, LGBT, etc. groups if they dare speak up, shrouding their personal attacks and sneering rage under the umbrella of “intellectual critiques”. 

The Grifter Critic will often employ buzz words like “cuck”, “triggered”, and “libt@rd”. Similarly to the term “snowflake”, these words are meant to show toughness but merely belie raging insecurity and a deep-seated self-hatred. It happens to be not just useless phraseology but also bad criticism. The Grifter Critic refuses to meet the art on its own ground. As I stated before, many critics review both film and television, and bad ones ignore the distinctions between the two. The Grifter Critic will watch a television show on the CW and wonder why it does not have the same look, budget, tone, or even logic of a Christopher Nolan movie. Instead of distinguishing between the two, they will go on to blame the closest minority that they can either identify or recognize.

If nothing else, the rise of the Grifter Critic demonstrates how “troll” culture can be used to weaponize opinions and art for the sole sake of making a buck. Let me be clear, this grift is not harmless. It dulls the critical faculties and warps our most precious assets; our ability to understand where another person is coming from and being able to empathize with them. Worse it makes us bullies and deaf to the pain of others. It is mean, plain and simple.

Art, and movies, in particular, are empathy windows. But the Grifter Critic recoils from anything remotely sincere, or at the very least, sincerity towards something they feel opposed to. The strangest thing I discovered is that some Grifter Critics do like some movies and tv shows, but they never talk about them. Instead, they almost uniformly choose to focus their energy on things they hate.

It is an infectious rage, I must admit. More than a few times I stopped a video or streaming session and found myself irritable and short-tempered, for they are unfathomably mean and, like a virus, this rage can’t help but infect the listener as well.

Moreover, it is important for the Grifter Critic that the art they don’t like be an “utter failure” or a “complete failure”. After all, it wouldn’t do, to be getting so upset over a movie that was just “okay”. The hilarious thing is that it is exactly what they are doing. Oftentimes watching a video of a Grifter Critic, you will find that the movie they are discussing has “no redeeming value whatsoever”. The lighting is bad, the camera work is bad, the acting is bad, the script is bad-nothing works. The sad truth about movies is that very few, believe it or not, are either “great” or “awful”. Most of them are just fine.

Mediocrity is more common in Hollywood than anything else. But for the Grifter Critic it must be absolute garbage or else they risk exposing a weakness such as kindness or a love for something imperfect. It would require them to take a stand and since the Grifter Critic is innately a coward, they cannot fathom such a bizarre notion as standing up for something when tearing it down is so much easier.

If I do not like a movie it does not mean I think less of people who like the movie. Lord knows I did not share my wife’s love of the 2017 Power Rangers movie, just like she doesn’t share my enthusiasm for A Star is Born. Rather, I am happy if someone likes a movie I didn’t like. If I did not like a movie, it means I did not have a good time. I never want someone else to have a bad time at the movies. Movies cost far too much and our time on this planet is far too brief for me to wish such banalities on anyone. I love movies too much for that kind of thinking to be any kind of ethos. But if by chance you do disagree with me, I would still never call you ugly, make fun of your skin, or attack you personally. It is the art we disagree on and that’s fine. Different strokes for different folks and if we do argue it is because we both believe we are right, but neither of us believes the other is less than for not agreeing with us.

Zack Snyder is a director who, it is safe to say, I am not a fan of, though I am a begrudging admirer at times. But even in my most anti-Snyder takes, I have never once insulted the man personally. One of the core tenets of being a movie critic is understanding that no one sets out to make a bad movie. The other is that the people on and behind the screen are real people and to insult them personally isn’t just mean, but the act of a bully.

Even if I don’t like Snyder’s films, I recognize the very real and deep tragedy he has suffered in his life. Movies are empathy windows, and we as humans are machines capable of generating empathy. No matter how much I hated a movie of his, I could never, would never, personally attack a man who has suffered a loss as he has just to score some cheap intellectual points.

But the Grifter Critic would. 

It saddens me to see so many YouTube channels and streamers practicing this grift, but not as much as the very real pain and anger some of these Grifter Critics seem to be processing. The most dastardly thing I learned was that it’s hard to tell if they really mean any of it. I got the terrifying feeling that they, in fact, were being sincere in their vitriol and rage.

It got to the point that I began to wonder if the term Grifter Critic was really that accurate. After all, can something really be a grift if the practitioner is being sincere? The majority of the people I listened to, while masters in the art of pedantic jackassery, seemed honest about their anger. 

Then again a grifter is someone who engages in petty and small scale swindling. In this particular grift, they risk little and in return gain clicks which translate into ad revenue. Swindlers masquerading as con artists who cower before big ideas and complicated discussions. For them, every grit of morality is grist for their mill. 

Lofty notions such as any kind of actual opinion about systemic oppression and what to do about it are beyond them. Even the very notion of artistic integrity, the understanding that a film has a text, and while all art is subjective it does not mean you can make up any random thing you feel like and blame it on the art.

So, yes Grifter Critic is accurate, if not too fine a point. What else do you call someone who posts countless videos predicting the downfall of a movie they haven’t seen but can “just tell” it’s going to flop. If they actually had this power every major studio would be scrambling to offer them jaw-dropping benefit packages with nine-figure salaries. Their only aim is to baffle and bamboozle, to infuriate and agitate. 

Not to mention, while some may be sincere others have openly and freely admitted to manufacturing outrage for their channels (which are, of course, monetized). So many are in fact, actual grifters. Like Rush Limbaugh, a conservative talk radio host who rose to fame during the Regan and Bush eras, who admitted freely, the point of his show was not the truth or even politics but to win the argument, to out-argue his caller. His anger was performative, though nowadays that can hardly be said as he seems to have bought into his own act. 

A symptom, by the way, which is a very real danger of any grift. Granted, many of these Grifter Critics do not have callers in the Limbaugh sense, but their goal is very much the same. It is not an actual criticism, or even making valid points, it is the manufacture of pure, unadulterated outrage. The real price, however, is either eventually believing in your own product, like Limbaugh, or having your audience turn on you once they find a flaw in you. 

“The SJW Agenda is a plague, and that starts with ‘P’ which rhymes with ‘T’ and that spells trouble! My friends, we’ve got trouble, trouble, trouble, right here in River City!”

To be fair to dear old Professor Harold Hill, he eventually bought his own con and somehow made it the genuine article. If we are not careful we run the risk of letting Grifter Critics, these prognosticators of hot air and venom, becoming legit. If that happens, what will become of the art, and what will become of us?

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures, Walt Disney Studios, Warner Bros., and Sony Pictures Releasing

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