Our Experiment in Criticism
Read critics who do all of these things well. Lewis said that the best literary critics he knew did two things: set the work in its historical context, and imparted some of their enthusiasm for and excitement about the art they were writing about. Good critics aren't the snarkiest, wittiest ones with the best put-downs: they're the ones that want their audience to come along for the ride. I hope our critics are helpful here. And you should certainly read my friend Jeffrey Overstreet's "memoir of dangerous moviegoing," Through a Screen Darkly, if you haven't already.
(There's one more piece to this for the budding critic, of course—and that is to learn to write well. It's hard to find those who've put the hard work into learning what makes sentences and arguments tick. But it's something that only comes through time and practice, and through reading good writers and figuring out what makes their writing beautiful and effective.)
Here at Christianity Today Movies, I'd like to believe that thinking and writing about good movies is an inherently Christian enterprise, because it is one in which we seek to love our neighbors (both the ones we see on the pews and the ones we see at the water cooler or the park). Lewis described good stories as ones in which we
seek an enlargement of our being. … We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own. … Good reading [or watching], therefore, though it is not essentially an affectional or moral or intellectual activity, has something in common with all three. In love we escape from our self into one other.
Criticism, Lewis argues, ought to do more than simply evaluate the content of the movie: it should help its reader become a good watcher or reader. I often think of it in terms of the hallmark of culture-making that Andy Crouch talks about in his book Culture Making: good criticism expands the horizons of possibility for the reader, helping him see what a form might be, and helping him see beyond his own experience.
The good critic is not necessarily the one with the eagle eye for errors, nor the highly-developed palate that can detect the faintest misstep, nor the one who shows off with virtuosic turns of phrase or impeccable taste that's better than the average audience's. A good critic loves her work, loves her reader, and tries, in her criticism, to make a new, good addition to culture that expands her readers' horizons.
And so when the great critic approaches the work with openness, hoping to be invited in, and finds the work wanting, his "negative" review reflects not a need to lambaste the artist for his stupidity or malice, but a genuine lament that the work was not all it could be, coupled with a search for what might still be true and good in the work. He will once again expand his readers' horizons by showing them that more is possible, and will spur them on to seek it out.