Can a Critic be Too Biased?

15 09 2009

I really like A.O. Scott, the film critic for The New York Times. He’s smart, usually on target and manages to do it without picking up the obnoxious “I’m so much more sophisticated than you” tone that seems to creep into most of the Times writing. Probably comes from being a veteran of Newsday, the big Long Island newspaper. Speaking from experience, Long Islanders never quite get over their awe at being in “The City.” Here’s the thing, though. I’m about to accuse Mr. Scott of being biased — yes, a biased critic — because of his review of “The Baader-Meinhof Complex” on the latest episode of At The Movies.

According to Mr. Scott, this is a film that takes a middle road in its portrayal of the 1970s German terrorist organization. According to Mr Scott (and I’m paraphrasiong from memory here as the show’s not up on the offical site yet) the film doesn’t ask you to sympathize with them and doesn’t shy away from showing the consequences of their actions but also gives insight into their motivations as a bunch of idealistic kids trying to make a better world. While this already sounds like the words of an apologist for Baader-Meinhof excusing mayhem and murder because their motivations were pure, what really puts his comments beyond the line for me is when he later wonders why Hollywood can’t create political movies that portray controversial topics with the kind of passionate intesity on display in this film. He surmises that Hollywood is “so afraid of offending its audience that they won’t take a stand on issue.” (again paraphrasing)

Excuse me? Has he seen the output of Hollywood in recent years? Never mind the list of anti-Iraq war movies as long as your arm. There are liberal jibes, commentary and messages in virtually everything put out by Hollywood. And they’re often in the places where you’d least expect them and where they’re the least appropriate. Take Definitely, Maybe, a treacly little romantic comedy starring Ryan Reynolds and Abigail Breslin. This is a film where the main character is made a political consultant (a Democratic political consultant, natch) stricly for the purpose of becoming a mouthpiece for the director and writer’s liberal political views. In one scene for example, Reynolds expresses shock and outrage that a woman he’s interested in isn’t a Bill Clinton supporter (a man well known for how well he treats women) or at least a Democrat! There’s also one scene that has nothing whatsoever to do with the movie and exists solely to take a potshot at George W. Bush. The idea that Hollywood is somehow afraid to offend half it’s audience flies in the face of the reality that that’s exactly what Hollywood does — continually. To the point where they continued to make anti-Iraq war movies depite their box office failures and continued to come up with desperate rationalizations about why they kept failing.

Now I don’t expect critics to adhere to some sort of nonsense about being “objective.” They’re critics, after all. Their whole existence is based on them having opinions which are, of course influenced by their biases –including their political ones. This is not my objection. One of my favorite film critics, MaryAnn Johanson over at The Flick Filosopher is an outspoken liberal, something that comes across quite often in her film reviews. Roger Ebert, who I also enjoy, is the same way. I read them and I trust them because their biases are right out where everyone can see them and my judgment on their judgment can be filtered through my understanding of what colors their opinion.

What I object to is when a political bias becomes so strong that it distorts everything about a particular review including the reviewers judgment. Mr. Scott did this in his “Baader-Meinhof Complex” review. Is his political judgment so far to the left that he honestly thinks that Hollywood films are middle-of-the-road politically because they’re afraid of alienating the audience? What does that say about his judgment of “The Baader-Meinhof Complex?” Is he somehow so sympathetic to the aims if not the methods of the Red Army Faction that iT skews his judgment of the film’s quality? I don’t know. After that comment I can’t tell and as a result I can no longer trust Mr. Scott’s judgment.

Too bad. He’s a big improvement over Ben Lyons.

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