I have so many thoughts about this topic- I wish we could talk in person about it, because the best I'll be able to do is a rambling post where I leave a lot out...
First of all, I appreciated both of your posts. The idea of standing on someone else's shoulders to see better (figuratively speaking, anyway- at 6'2" I usually have a pretty good view of whatever I need to :D) is not one that's foreign to me. I'm not trying to say that no one has anything to tell me about film. But in my little experience with academic-type film critics, I have encountered a lot of negativity and cynicism. I haven't yet checked out the link you shared, John, but I will.
You wondered what I meant when I made a statement about "why people go to films." Of course I don't know why everyone goes to films, but the basis for this statement has to do with Rotten Tomatoes. When I am interested in a film, I don't want to know a lot about it ahead of time, so rather than reading reviews, I will go to Rotten Tomatoes and look at the critic rating and the user rating. A film that has low critic ratings but high audience ratings I will still seriously consider paying money to see. It is fascinating to see how widely sometimes the two percentages diverge. And we're talking about people who are at least motivated enough and literate enough to be able to manage a user account on Rotten Tomatoes. I realize that encompasses a WIDE range of intellects, but I still have a hard time with the phrase "mindless hordes" and what that implies.
My son had a hard time with North Face. I'll admit it was my failing for not doing my homework. I'd read that there was some language and intense scenes, but I didn't see "everyone dies" in anything I read. Of course, I didn't bother to look into the actual history of it. Nevertheless, my son was pretty upset after having watched the film. I was trying to console him by reminding him that "in real life when you make dangerous decisions, sometimes these are the consequences." His response was something to the effect of "that's why I don't like watching movies about real life." I think that we can all agree that that's a fairly common sentiment when it comes to your average filmgoer. There are many times when that's why I myself go to the movies. I get to see the good guys win, the lovers reunite, and the villains get justice. And I LIKE it. Precisely because real life isn't like that. And sometimes I come out of a film like that with a renewed sense of idealism and purpose- that there still is that kind of goodness in the world and maybe I can be a part of making it happen. I also LOVE films about real life. Films that show me, as you said, truth and beauty despite tragedy. Or sometimes that just show me tragedy and ground me and give me purpose for a different reason. Sometimes I don't want a renewed sense of purpose; I just want to watch a good story. I thought Dogville was an excellent film, challenging and unique. But holy hell it was a LOT of work to watch. I can't do that all the time; in fact, more often that not I watch lighter fare because it's all my mind can handle after a tough day. I lament that I don't have more headspace to watch the half dozen French new wave films that are still sitting on my shelf at home, because I REALLY want to watch them, too.
I feel like hard-core critics don't give enough credit to mainstream fare. I know I'm lumping together a HUGE subculture and that my opinions to some degree represent misinformation and stereotypes (I can't help but think of Lady in the Water and how utterly thoroughly I enjoyed the critic's demise- this is one of the reasons I like M. Night so much. His movie making is so from-the-gut, so even when it's not masterful, it feels genuine somehow. He's telling a story that HE wants to tell). But when I think of a film like Gentlemen Broncos and read review after review about how Jared Hess is mean spirited and making fun of people who are like his characters and how terrible it is because the potty humor is so cheap and pedestrian, I think to myself, "You have NO IDEA what you just watched. Jared Hess IS his characters. His movies are love letters to misfits and social pariahs. How many of his films do you have to see before you realize that?" It's honestly really upsetting, especially when I think of how refreshing it is to see a movie where the idiot is the hero. How often does that happen?
One thing that I appreciate about your reviews, Brandon, is that they're precisely how you describe them- your opinion based upon your experience. I don't mind someone being critical if they're saying "I didn't like this"- but if they're saying "this is a worthless piece of trash", well, I don't think that anyone has the right to say that about anyone else's art. Period. I hear voice saying "Can you qualify mainstream film as art?" Maybe it doesn't fit some person's description of art (is Danielle Steel art?) but it is someone else's creation- something that (and I'm sure there are exceptions) someone put time and effort and energy into trying to make as good as possible. I will admit that studios that interfere endlessly with directors because they (studios) are trying to put out a money-maker to the detriment of a good film are VERY bad for the industry. But I've been hard pressed to find a director (remember I watch a lot of making-of special features :)) who doesn't give a crap's ass about the film he's making. SO, if I'm reading a critic who is saying "I didn't like this and this is why" I'm going to be a lot more interested in what he has to say than if he's trying to tell me that his vision and standards for film are absolute somehow because he studied it in college and writes about it in the newspaper.
All that to say that I will admit that my lack of knowledge and exposure to good film criticism leaves a gap in my undestanding of film and film history and I am interested in learning more about it (as long as it doesn't make me think too hard and use too many big words). But I also think that film speaks very capably for itself and that sometimes the best film education is watching a crapload of films. And then watching some more.
As a postscript, I will say that I appreciate film writing that synthesizes ideas and does compare/contrast with films on an objective level- that kind of analysis I find very useful.