Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Film Critics vs. Audiences; A New Series

What is the role of the Film Critic in a cinema landscape of comic books, sequels, cartoons, celebrations of stupidity, and CGI?
A lot has been written about the huge success of "The Hangover 2" over the Memorial Day Weekend.  There were tons of articles about a record-breaking box office, and even the meaningless assertion that it had the best 5-day opening of any R-rated movie in history.  (Since ticket prices are higher than ever, that assertion loses validity, not to mention the change in distribution patterns since the R-rating began in 1968.)
Most amusing (and troubling), to me, is the enormous gap between Critical and Popular opinions of this movie.  The on-line movie-review-and-rating site, Rotten Tomatoes, tallies the Critic's reviews and Audience ratings, assigns a Full Tomato (a good review) or a Splat (bad review), and gives the percentages for each.
For "The Hangover 2", the Critic's Rating (from 191 reviews) was a 35% (out of 100) "Fresh", or good reviews.
The Audience rating, out of an astounding 44,998 responses, was a 94%.
Audiences loved it, in spite of an almost universal scorn from professional filmgoers.
Does this mean critics are irrelevant?  Are critics unnecessary to the business of movies?  Are the critical criteria just too subjective, and maybe outdated? Does it mean that movie audiences (or only those that air their views on web sites) are uncultured, whose uneducated views are pandered to by movie businessmen to the ruin of Film? 
To me, it means none of the above.  After reading film reviews for  years, I know that this debate has raged since movies first got made and film criticism became its own industry.  Lots of movie fans think critics are out of touch and too highbrow.  Critics, thinking they are offering a public service, shake their heads when their warnings (or high recommendations) go unheeded.
It means that film criticism as an art form rises or falls with the state of moviemaking in general.  It means that movies are used by different people in different ways, and critics utilize a variety of criteria (descriptive, comparative, socio-political) to analyze them, enrich a viewer's appreciation of them, or judge their success.
It means that we need good writers to take movies seriously, and make people take notice.  It means that we need great thinkers to help us consider an otherwise unnoticed beauty, meaningful shot, significant cut, or aggregated meaning; and to point out when a movie is cheating us out of something more, something remarkable.
It means that the art of film criticism is still as young as the art of filmmaking, and that they evolve together.
I maintain that there is a growing fission between those who are concerned with the purely technical aspects of film, and those who regard film as an instrument of personal catharsis and social change.
It means that, more than ever, fans and critics alike are forming deep personal attachments to movie genres or specific films, with cults growing up around them. This is exacerbated by the validation of awards to assert one's personal power through association with a film (or films, or genres).  I believe that whenever this activity becomes a religion and not an amusement, when one's love for a movie or performance makes us snarky and aggressive rather than rationally enthusiastic, it's not healthy for moviegoers or for filmmaking in general.
I have many ideas stewing; and so I plan to create a series of occasional posts about my view of film criticism, with topics including:  Trash vs. Art (picking up Pauline Kael's mantle); what movies mean today; who is the unserved audience; why film criticism matters, as an art form; distinguishing between "critics", "reviewers", and "marketers"; how best to "see" a film; and the criteria most suited to assess a film's "worth" (whatever that is).
Hope you will join me.

1 comment:

  1. You bring up an interesting point, that film criticism is in itself an artform that exists symbiotically with film.

    The trouble is that all art is subjective, any two individuals - whether they are both as aware of the context of movie making or not - will have an individual response to a film. For instance I like to think you and I share similar tastes in movies, but we have disagreed on individual films in the past. As long as we both can argue coherently for our reasoning that the opinion is valid.

    As with the general audiences versus the critical community.

    I look forward to seeing more of these posts and getting involved in the discussion.