Critic on critics

A.O. Scott writes what is — until the last paragraph — a good column today on the critics vs. the box office (aka, the audience). He points to the RottenTomatoes and Metacritic ratings for the latest Pirates of the Caribbean — 54 and 52 out of 100. “Even in an era of rampant grade inflation, that’s a solid F.” But at the box office, of course, the movie is setting records: “Its $136 million first-weekend take was the highest three-day tally in history, building on a best-ever $55 million on that Friday, and it is cruising into blockbuster territory at a furious clip.” So…

For the second time this summer, then, my colleagues and I must face a frequently — and not always politely — asked question: What is wrong with you people? I will, for now, suppress the impulse to turn the question on the moviegoing public, which persists in paying good money to see bad movies that I see free. . . .

I don’t for a minute believe that financial success contradicts negative critical judgment; $500 million from now, “Dead Man’s Chest” will still be, in my estimation, occasionally amusing, frequently tedious and entirely too long. But the discrepancy between what critics think and how the public behaves is of perennial interest because it throws into relief some basic questions about taste, economics and the nature of popular entertainment, as well as the more vexing issue of what, exactly, critics are for.

Are we out of touch with the audience? Why do we go sniffing after art where everyone else is looking for fun, and spoiling everybody’s fun when it doesn’t live up to our notion or art? What gives us the right to yell “bomb” outside a crowded theater?

Scott is quite right that critical opinion and box office do not need to agree. A critic, after all, is just one among millions in the audience — the one who gets to see the movie earlier (well, not as often, these days) and who is paid to have and explain an opinion. But it’s wrong to think that critics should be predictors of commercial results. I remember years ago appearing on a TV news interview with an ad agency guy going over the fall schedule and he said I was “wrong” about some shows because some of those I liked would fail or vice versa. I said I wasn’t trying to predict their success — that’s his job. I was just trying to give my opinion. He didn’t get that.

Later, when I started Entertainment Weekly, I got into a huge fight — the last big one — over Pretty Woman. The magazine’s critic didn’t like it (neither did I). The top editors at Time Inc. all fussed and fumed and said that well, obviously, he was wrong and the box office proved it. Even they didn’t get it. Sadly.

Here’s where Scott ends his column. Get ready for a 200-pound lead weight dropping in that last sentence:

So why review them? Why not let the market do its work, let the audience have its fun and occupy ourselves with the arcana — the art — we critics ostensibly prefer? The obvious answer is that art, or at least the kind of pleasure, wonder and surprise we associate with art, often pops out of commerce, and we want to be around to celebrate when it does and to complain when it doesn’t. But the deeper answer is that our love of movies is sometimes expressed as a mistrust of the people who make and sell them, and even of the people who see them. We take entertainment very seriously, which is to say that we don’t go to the movies for fun. Or for money. We do it for you.

Oh, come now. That’s a bit too self-lionizing when the tongue appears to be nowhere near the cheek. You do do it for money. And you should do it for fun. And I don’t think criticism is like covering government; it is not and should not be informed by constant skepticism and distrust of artists and audience. At EW, I had one stopper criterion for potential critics: They had to love the area they criticized. I hate TV critics who hate TV; why bother? Now a critic who loves TV can be more righteously upset seeing bad TV but his or her attitude sitting down to watch something should be joyful anticipation.

The kicker notwithstanding, I think this is the first third of what could be a very interesting column. The last two-thirds are missing. I’ll reprise my questions from this post: What is the role of the “professional” critic in an age when everybody is a critic (well, everybody always was, it’s just that we can hear them now)? What is the role of the critic in the age of the — pardon me — long tail, when no critic can possibly pretend anymore to watch everything or cover every interest? What is the role of the former audience in art when it can become fluid? There is an opportunity — a need — to redefine criticism in a new media age. I wish Scott would tackle that.

  • http://www.filmbuffonline.com Rich Drees

    “At EW, I had one stopper criterion for potential critics: They had to love the area they criticized.”

    This calls to mind a discussion I had with the staff tv writer for the local newspaper I freelanced entertainment features for. He flat out told me that his hatred of tv makes him the perfect person to review it. I laughed in his face in disagreement and proceeded to ask him how he could judge current programming if he had no real knowledge base of what had come before.

    The guy was a real jerk, though, on many levels. This was the cherry on top of his sundae of jerkitude.

  • http://www.filmbuffonline.com Rich Drees

    “I remember years ago appearing on a TV news interview with an ad agency guy going over the fall schedule and he said I was “wrong” about some shows because some of those I liked would fail or vice versa.”

    Just out of curiosity Jeff, do you remember which shows you thought were going to succeed/fail? What was your success rate, as it were?

  • ronbo

    “What is the role of the “professional” critic in an age when everybody is a critic (well, everybody always was, it’s just that we can hear them now)?”

    The implication of your question seems to be that, to paraphrase Mr. Incredible, if everyone is a critic, no one is. But I am more concerned about the demand side of the equation: what does it mean to be a critic (professional or otherwise) when the notion of a “canon” no longer resonates? If box office mojo is the only standard that matters, not only can’t popular movies be bad, unpopular movies can’t be good.

  • http://www.filmbuffonline.com Rich Drees

    The way I see it ronbo, is that critics are a form of consumer advocate. They want you to know what films may be worth your seven, eight, ten bucks at the local multiplex and which may not be. While there’s hardly a movie that I’ve avoided based on reviews- I believe you need to see a few bad ones every now and then in order to be able to appreciate te good ones – I know that I’ve sought out films like THE STATION AGENT or VERSUS based on what I’d read about them.

  • http://www.tyndallreport.com Andrew Tyndall

    “…I had one stopper criterion for potential critics: They had to love the area they criticized.”

    Imagine a world where this criterion was extended to journalism. If one does not love news, there is no value in one’s opinion on the quality — positive or negative — of the coverage of a given story. Sometimes it feels that the majority of press criticism would be disqualified by such an extension to the Jarvis “stopper” rule.

  • j

    Girls like the pirate. He’s cute.

  • http://www.tyndallreport.com Andrew Tyndall

    “Girls like the pirate. He’s cute.” — and quite a few boys, too.

  • http://robertdfeinman.com/society Robert Feinman

    I never understood the purpose of music reviews in the NY Times of concerts that are over. If I heard it I’ve already made up my mind, if I missed then why would I want to know how it went?

    Sometimes people learn what a critic’s taste is like and then they can use that to decide on their own choices. This works best when a critic has likes similar to one’s own, but can also work when the opposite is true, if the person’s remarks are consistent.

    Some critics are just clever writers and one reads the reviews just to enjoy the literary posturing. Perhaps this went on more in previous eras. No one read Mencken or Woolcott to decide what to see or read, just for the vitriol.

  • http://chrisholland.blogspot.com/ chris holland

    I don’t believe critics should be right or wrong. I often use critics’ opinions to define my own scale relative to their scale. To me, it’s more important that they be somewhat consistent when it comes to the types of movies they like, and ones they do not like. It helps my relative scale.

    Once I’ve established where they stand on my taste scale, I can fairly accurately predict how much I’ll like a movie based on their opinion. For example, one criterion I have is this “artsy” vs “primal” scale. Most critics I’ve seen fall within the “artsy” scale. Based on where they fall on that scale and whether they liked a given movie, I’ll know whether or not I’ll like the movie. :)

    As far as Pirates is concerned, to me it’s all about Keira Knightley, and most especially in the second half of the movie when she’s all tanned, her hair’s unleashed, and she’s kickin’ass and taking names. *melt*.

  • Matt Safford

    “What is the role of the “professional” critic in an age when everybody is a critic (well, everybody always was, it’s just that we can hear them now)?”

    I think the short answer to this, Jeff, is that (like the blogger v professional journalist debate) a “professional” critic just holds more weight.

    I’d listen to a Times, EW, or Slate critic in a different way, because I know they have the history of their institutions behind them. Someone hired them (hopefully) based on some kind of sound judgement.

    Again, it’s the same as news, and it’s why while newspaper readership may freefall, the companies behind them will survive so long as their name and reputation continues to hold respect. I might read 10 myspace blogs about how Pirates 2 “Rockz!” But if one “professional” at a media company I have respect for says it “suckz,” then you can probably guess who I’ll believe.

    The real power of the internet, and where the everyman critic can carry more weight, however is on sites like rotten tomatoes or other places that gather statistics of reviews.

    The most respected of “pro” critics could tell me how great he things movie A is, but if 157 people who care enough to write reviews collectively give a movie a 53% rating (as RT did for Pirates 2), then at the very least, I’m digging in to find out what some of those 157 people have to say. And if they consistantly disagree with that well respected “pro,” and I agree, then that professional critic soon begins to lose respect.

  • adslfan

    i hate shakespeare and so do millions of kids reading that crap …and yet
    the school system teaches it and been doing that forever.
    nothing changes.

  • daudder

    Everyone has OPINIONS on what is great/good, bad, etc, but a good critic gives context, perspective and insight into why something is great/good/bad.
    In time, many films (and other “art”) get reconsidered and may “great” works were dismissed (by both the public and the “critics”…think Citizen Kane); this nmay be the ultimate role for the critic, then.

  • http://conservatism.crispynews.com/ ashok

    From above: What is the role of the “professional” critic in an age when everybody is a critic (well, everybody always was, it’s just that we can hear them now)? What is the role of the critic in the age of the — pardon me — long tail, when no critic can possibly pretend anymore to watch everything or cover every interest? What is the role of the former audience in art when it can become fluid?

    I think the role of the professional critic hasn’t changed. A good critic, like Dana Stevens or John Simon, informs through observation and a gigantic knowledge base, both of which an audience can’t be assumed to have. It doesn’t mean the audience is dumb, just that the critic is that much better. I like to think I know a lot, which is why I defer to those who know more.

    This age where everyone is a critic should really work as a threat to bad professional critics, and should work to keep the conversation about the arts on themes that are relevant. Everyone being a critic should work in tandem with the existence of professional critics, but it can never replace the professional – I don’t know and never will know all of Richard Linklater’s movies, and I’m happy there’s someone who does and can give me an opinion that is informed and that I can evaluate on my own later.

    The “long tail” probably means that a good critic should be solid on the basics, which are not as “basic” as many people think. It’s easy to watch old movies with Cary Grant and enjoy them; but for a good movie critic, the basics are Kurasawa and Hitchcock and Bergman. The “long tail” means they need to know the standards that were that much better; passing familiarity will not do. They probably also need to dig into older types of media and literature and art while keeping tabs on what might be good that’s coming out now.

    This is not antiquarianism I’m pushing – it’s something more like, “a critic’s basis of knowledge should be as stable as possible, before he attempts to address something ‘new.’” I don’t think that’s unreasonable, as the number of ‘fads’ increases with the emergence of newer and newer media and uses for that media.

    The final question raises the possibility of art as participatory. I think art has always been participatory. A painter that wanted the audience to be in stunned silence of his work did not do such a thing to make people dumber, but to inspire more in them. We’re more vocal in our participation now, and there are forms of art which utilize a more fluid notion of audience. But I think you’re hard pressed to say that art can wholly transcend the creator/witness divide. If it did transcend that dualism, there probably wouldn’t be any such thing as art.

  • W. James Au

    Scott’s thesis is totally botched from the get-go. Why is he scratching his head over the box office take of *Dead Man’s Chest*? It’s the sequel to a financially successful, and by his very own standard, good movie: Rotten Tomatoes has the first movie at 79%, a solid B+ on a sliding scale. (Very few movies on Tomatoes make it into the 90%+ range.) Can he blame the audience for wanting to see the story continued, when critics share the audience’s asessment of the first film?

    Box office performance often skews away from aggregate critical evaluation because the audience because critics and viewers are investing their time at the movies for totally different reasons: the mass audience just wants an enjoyable two hours of entertainment, while the critic wants to be paid for reviewing the product in a way that enhances his credibility as a knowledgeable evaluator. The paying audience therefore has a stake in overlooking a movie’s faults, while the critic has a stake in highlighting them.

    In the end, however, audience and critical views converge– check out the user-generated IMDB Top 100, which is really not that different from lists compiled by professional critics:

    http://www.imdb.com/chart/top

    There’s a few geek fanboy-oriented anamolies and it’s skewed to newer films, but both *Godfather* movies, *Casablanca*, and *Seven Samurai* are in the top 10. Not all that dissimilar to most critics’ lists, I’d think.

  • W. James Au

    (“Box office performance often skews away from aggregate critical evaluation because critics and viewers are investing their time at the movies for totally different reasons”, that should read.)

  • sam

    Robt Feinman, good point on concert reviews after the fact. About two weeks ago I caught one of the light summer concerts of the NY Philharmonic at Lincoln Center. The next day, I saw the NYTimes snarky review of same. I thoroughly enjoyed an entertaining evening of great music. It seemed to me that the Times writer was just looking for ways to belittle the conductor, one of the composers, and one of the guest performers just for the sake of it. Putz.

  • Paw

    To take your oft-repeated call for end-user control of media to its logical conclusion, the answer is that the “professional” critic, sitting on Olympus telling the unwashed hordes what’s art and what’s not, is effectively done. A.O. Scott is now simply one voice of many chiming in. It’s word of mouth multiplied many many times over.

    Critics never made or broke movies like PIRATES anyway. Familiar story with popular actors, well hyped by the studio, win out over original ideas every time.

  • chico haas

    I like reading the “unwashed’s” opinions of stuff. But just because we can easily access these opinions is not an indication that the value of those who seriously and thoughtfully study a discipline are somehow effectively done. My neighbor Mike’s interview with Vladimir Putin isn’t going to be as good as Oriana Fallaci’s. That’s not to say it might not be more entertaining.