Saturday, December 05, 2009

The Death of the Movie Critic is Greatly Exaggerated

A recent, widely-distributed Internet article by Tom Roston asks the not irrelevant question: "Do Movie Critics Still Matter?"

The piece reads, in part:

"It becomes more apparent with each passing year: When it comes to the box office returns for Hollywood movies, critics just don't matter much. Look at the top ten highest-grossing movies so far year [sic]. Did negative reviews deflate 'Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,' or 'The Proposal' or 'Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian'? Nope. On the other hand, did mostly positive reviews give a big boost to 'Up' or 'Star Trek'? Probably not.

It's often been said that mass audiences go to movies for a good time, and the finer points (i.e., quality) that matter to critics are just not that big a deal. But now film critics are not just being ignored; they're getting upstaged. In the age when reality television means that anyone can be a star, it's also true that the Internet and Twitter mean anyone can be a critic."

My response to this? We're all critics of food, TV, fashion, and movies on a daily basis, aren't we? Part of our human nature is, after all, to judge. So it probably is true...anyone can be a critic.

But not just anyone can be a good critic. Exhibit A: Ben Lyons.

Yet the Internet is a wonderful invention because many wonderful, highly-talented and formerly unknown writers have indeed stepped up and provided some damn superior movie criticism. I follow over a dozen blogs that I feel feature outstanding and thoughtful -- even funny -- reviews. But is every "critic" on the Inter Tubes a good writer? Are those short Twitter reviews...good? Heck, are all newspaper critics good?

No, not really. In regards to Twitter, the reviews are so short that they provide nothing beyond a pithy snapshot of a personal opinion. And there's no space for nuance. If you really, really trust MOVIE-LUVR9's opinion on what movie to go out and see, you may find a Twitter review helpful, I suppose. On the other hand, Twitter can quickly link you to excellent reviews in long-form, so it's undeniably useful in that regard. I like and enjoy Twitter, I just don't see it as the perfect vehicle for in-depth movie reviews.

But overall, I reject the premise stated in this article, that it "becomes more apparent with each passing year" that critics don't matter because of technological advances like Twitter.

As I see it, things in film criticism are pretty much the same as they were thirty years go, even with Twitter. (I mean, are we to assume that people didn't discuss opinions of movies on that quaint invention called the telephone in the 1970s? Was that antiquated thing called E-mail not used to discuss movies in the mid-1990s, either?)

In fact, if you go all the way back to 1973, you'll find that critics hated a little film called The Exorcist. And as we all know, absolutely nobody went to see that film because of the tidal wave of bad reviews, right? The Exorcist just disappeared into oblivion and was never heard from again because the vast majority of influential critics in the old days warned audiences to stay away.

Not!

Critics hated The Exorcist in 1973 and audiences still went....in droves. Just like critics hated Transformers in 2009 and people still went to see it...in droves. And honestly, I believe the overwhelmingly positive reviews for the new Star Trek did likely boost the box office totals, at least a little. It was as close to a critical consensus as I've seen in 30 years and overwhelming critical support probably did sway at least modest percentage of non-Trek fans.

And that brings to mind another example. Virtually every mainstream critic hated Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 1979...and yet it was the highest grossing Star Trek film until this year, 2009. So really, it's not so apparent after all that there's a greater divide in 2009 between critics and general audiences than there ever has been. It's....the same.

Here's how I see the matter: audiences already know very well whether they want to see a particular movie, probably before the first review is published. I knew I wanted to see Star Trek. I knew I wanted to see Casino Royale. I knew I wanted to see REC, Paranormal Activity, Drag Me To Hell and even Zombie's Halloween 2. Nobody is going to stop me from seeing those films...except, maybe, my wife. Some of these movies might suck, but I still want to see them and will see them.

What this article doesn't account for is the following data: how many movie-goers went to see Transformers 2 and felt exactly the same way as the critics did about it? Probably a pretty significant majority, based on the comments I've read. So audiences and critics were actually simpatico, but the critical opinion didn't affect profits.

But again, there's never been a one-for-one relationship between film criticism and the size of the profits a film generates. Criticism is merely one factor among many. Another factor may be nostalgia (especially as regards to Transformers or Star Trek). And people read film criticism for many reasons beyond deciding what movie to see. They may want to see a personal opinion either confirmed or disputed. People read film criticism to find a new insight or viewpoint about a film they appreciate. (Educated) people read film criticism to better understand the context (historical, cinematic) of a production they enjoyed, or that sparked their curiosity. Sometimes I read a review when I'm on the fence about a film, and a well-written review helps me better understand why I felt conflicted. Or it clears the air entirely.

That's why film criticism thrives and proliferates today. Because many smart writers have worthwhile things to say about the art form of film. Audiences aren't sheep who blindly follow critical guidance, and they never have been. It's not apparent to me that the divide between critics and audiences is getting wider, and -- on the contrary -- the Internet has done the great service of helping audiences connect with the critics that suit them.

And lastly, Hollywood certainly thinks critics matter: why else shield some films from critical screenings? What's to be afraid of in releasing a dog if the anticipated critical backlash doesn't matter a lick?

I'm not surprised that audiences don't follow my lead about which film they should go see. I'm not trying to influence your decision-making process in that regard. Audience members may have different interests than I do. What I hope a movie-goer will discover in my writing is a thoughtful opinion about why the film did or did not succeed on artistic terms; and what the film means, in terms of film grammar. I look at the history of film, the context around films, and the visualizations of film narratives.

But I don't expect my readers to be lemmings (or ditto-heads?) and say, "I refuse to see a movie because JKM didn't like it". I'd rather you see the film I reviewed, and then engage me on the subject; either disagree or agree with my reasons for disliking it. And I have to say, the commenters on this blog are pretty darn fantastic on that front. No lemmings here, thank you very much.

Do movie critics still matter? The good ones do.

2 comments:

  1. I like Harlan Ellison's motto: Everybody has an opinion, but not everyone has an informed opinion, and I only care about informed opinions.

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  2. I think that what you're seeing is more people are relying on the opinion of their friends - virtual or otherwise - to influence their tastes. If someone you know and share a common taste for films with hates the new TWILIGHT film, for example, might change your mind about paying $10+ and either wait for DVD or for it to show up on cable. Plus, there are only so many films you can go see so I know, personally (and this is just me), I do take opinions of those I respect (JKM included) into consideration before having to pay money to see something. Now, if it pops up on TV maybe you're more of a chance to try something you might not be interested in otherwise 'cos hey, it's there and free.

    There are a few pro. film critics whose opinions I do respect and read week after week (J. Hoberman for one) but they are dwindling.

    But you're right, there are some films that no matter what I will go see because the premise, stars in it or director are a large motivational factor. For example, even though it's gotten mixed reviews so far, nothing's gonna stop me from checking out the new Terry Gilliam film when it finally hits theaters if only because I love the majority of his films and will give him the benefit of the doubt.

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