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.