On political film criticism

In my Avatar post below, a few commenters wondered about politicized film criticism.

My basic take is this: There’s nothing wrong with a critic discussing the political perspective or messages of a film, or talking about whether they make sense. When films demand that audiences consider their politics — as Avatar does, and as most of the recent string of Iraq war movies have — it’s only reasonable for critics to discuss them. Indeed, I think critics should consider the politics of any film they review.

The problem comes when critics declare a movie good or bad (or “brave” or “courageous” or “cowardly” or whatever) because of the political stands it represents — so, say, proclaiming Lions for Lambs brilliant because it stands up to some totalitarian, Republican blah blah blah. Now, that’s complicated somewhat by films in which the political message gets in the way of the artfulness (or spectacle, or entertainment value) of a movie, which is what I think happened with Avatar. But it’s not that I dislike Avatar because I have a problem with what it’s trying to say; I absolutely adore Cameron’s Aliens, for example, which features similar, if far more subtle and narratively interesting, displays of corporate maliciousness and misconduct. It’s because Avatar‘s political points are made so obviously and so artlessly, and the story, dialog, and characters are less interesting and entertaining than an afternoon spent shoveling snow from your front yard.