Communities Of Informed Judgment

0600706_Movies_piratesEX.jpgFor a year and a half now, I've been replaying a conversation I had with my friend's father at the friend's wedding. We (the wedding party) had been pressed into service to set up tables and chairs and place settings for the rehearsal dinner, and though I can speak for no one else, I did my level best to do as little as possible. Once we were done, though, the father chatted me up briefly about my career, knowing that I was a copy editor by day and a freelance film and TV critic on nights and weekends. He decided to ask me about the disparity between critical consensus and box-office tallies; basically, he wanted to know how I could presume to act as if I was in the know when I'd expressed displeasure for a movie that had grossed billions. I can't reconstruct the dialogue with much accuracy, but I do remember being surprised at his casual glee in asserting that I probably wasn't tuned into the right frequency if something I trashed could make so much money. I didn't know what to say just then, and honestly wasn't in any position to begin to wrap my mind around an actual discussion of the issue; I still had a full weekend ahead of me. But I've been thinking it about it ever since, and I finally figured out what I should have said to him: I know what I'm talking about. Does that mean, though, that I know all I need to know, or will ever know, or want to know? No. I am constantly trying to learn more, read more, understand more, etc. Does it mean that I was born with the ability to understand art in a way he never could? Of course not. That'd be ludicrous to suggest and against the whole idea of being a critic, which is to get people interested in and excited about movies they might not know about or might have dismissed the first time around. But I do know what I'm talking about, and it's falsely modest to pretend otherwise. If I'd had my wits about me then, I'd probably have talked to him about communities of informed judgment, the groups of educated doers in a given field that pass down knowledge and skill through generations. It's similar to an academic field, like mathematics: Every new student isn't reinventing formulas, but being ushered into the world of learning that's been there for thousands of years. Movies are the same way. You start out reaching for anything and everything, and you learn and read and study and analyze and eventually understand, and then that becomes the foundation for the next phase of your learning. The things I bring to the table now are things I wouldn't have known to do five years ago, and they'll seem childish in another five. You're constantly growing, but that doesn't make you ignorant. I'd also have liked to point out that he's the same, and everyone is. He's a minister, and if I asked him for his opinion on a spiritual matter or scriptural passage, one for which he'd be able to bring his life and study to bear to help me — if I asked him that, and then ignored him because five friends with no training said the opposite, he'd likely be frustrated with the fact that I chose to let a crowd dissuade me from something counseled by a more learned individual. I'd be right to want to get multiple opinions, but misguided to count his as less than or equal to that of someone who lacked the depth of understanding really required by the situation. That's one of the reasons why I trust some people's analysis of movies more than others. It has nothing to do with personal relationships and everything to do with the fact that they know more than most people (certainly more than me). Quality has nothing to do with reception. A good work of art is a good work of art, whether it's seen by millions of people or just a dozen. And because I trust people who have studied, who have clawed their way to a position of education and reason, and because I am on that path myself, I have to put more faith in their analyses than box-office returns. It's not because I discount the will of the people (at least, not wholly); it's because I know what I'm doing. I ask you to trust me, and see what you think.