by David Appleford
In one of the many recent on-line reports prior to the June 2nd release of Wonder Woman, one article published on Yahoo’s entertainment tab stated how positively the film rated with the critics as collected and evaluated by RottenTomatoes.com, the home of the celebrated "Tomatometer". The article stated the Tomatometer showed a 98% positive result among the early film critic reviews. In fact, at the time of writing this article, the current percentage sits at a comfortable 92%. That’s nothing to sniff about. Except, many Yahoo readers did.
Everyone's a Critic.
It wasn’t the fact that Rotten Tomatoes had given the film a high grade, or that anything particularly negative had been expressed; it was this: not one of the contributors (a polite term for internet trolls) in the writer’s comments section could have cared less what a critic thought. None of them, and there were hundreds of comments. The first comment I read wrote, “I’ll judge for myself.” Another asked, “What would any of them know?” And then there was the eloquently phrased, “Who gives a flying F***K what those F******S think?”
And those were the polite ones.
Clearly, with regards to the number of on-line hits yours truly is fortunate enough to occasionally receive, there are some readers who actually do give a "flying F***K", but the point is a good one. As one who writes for both film and local valley theatre, I’ve realized something interesting that, on hindsight, should have always seemed obvious. When it comes to writing for live theatre, readers are genuinely interested in what the critic thinks, and either use the review as a guide when looking for a little insight if they have yet to see the show or play, or use it as a point of debate if they have seen the production in question and would like to engage in a little further discussion. When it comes to the movies, everyone’s a critic.
Who's to blame?
When the advance word, usually created by the studio itself, has created a must-see glow around an up-coming, potential blockbuster, the last thing those excited by the prospect of a Transformers 17 wants to read from a reviewer is what a piece of garbage Michael Bay has once again delivered. They don’t want the thrill of anticipation punctured. In fact, they resent it. So they ignore it. But oddly, what has now occurred, as evidenced with the response to the Wonder Woman reviews, even the good reviews are being ignored. (For the record, if there is ever a Transformers 17 at a time when real reviews are a thing of the past, it will still be garbage.) Important tip for critics: switch off the hype; difficult, but it can be done.
Actor Shia LaBeouf is credited for once saying, “Have you ever noticed how most critics disagree with the public? That should tell you a lot about critics.” Actually, that tells us more about Shia LeBeouf, but let’s keep calm and carry on.
So, who’s to blame? The critics? Believe it or not, sometimes. Writers should certainly refrain from sounding too lofty, writing in a way that makes them sound simply pretentious; using positive references to obscure movies that no one saw or ever liked; describing a movie as using "stereoscopy" when everyone else calls it "3D". It all turns the reader off. Younger writers who like to form overly complicated sentences while using words such as "existentialism" or "egalitarianism" are doing no one, including themselves, any favors. Such phrasing may sound significant when trying to impress a college professor, but when you’re supposed to be advising the movie-goer, it comes across as vomiting word salad. It gives critics a bad reputation. Plus no one knows what you mean. Besides, whom exactly are you writing for, anyway?
True, a critic of the critics could always say it’s just one person’s opinion, but if the critic is experienced and knows his or her stuff, it’s a qualified opinion, and that’s a major difference. Taste is one thing, opinion based on knowledge is another. My father used to say that the problem with critics is they see too many films. They know too much. That’s like saying a musician practices music too often. We don’t talk about the movies much anymore.
Here’s a brief look at certain types of film. Personally speaking, most modern comedies are the worst, and there’s nothing more satisfying than ranting about their overall decline and how they’ve slowly descended into potty-mouthed, witless trite aimed at an age group that (if the suggested American rating code was ever followed) shouldn’t even be in the theatre watching it in the first place.
But there are certain things a reviewer can’t say with certainty.
For instance, a critic can never account for a movie-goer’s individual taste or what will make them laugh. Laughter is personal. So a reviewer can’t say that the reader will definitely sit stoney-faced throughout Pineapple Express, when clearly many loved it and found the mix of bloodcurdling violence and murder coupled with moron humor hilarious. (There’s no accounting for the taste of another).
Neither can you say that a certain horror film has no scares when, again, many will cower in their seat. And you can use that for all genres. What didn’t thrill the reviewer in an adventure may well have the movie-goer on the edge of their seat. All the reviewer can do is offer insight based on their knowledge; write why the film is lazy or derivative, give examples to support your theories, and try to guide the reader into thinking about the subject in a way they may have never before considered. But never say a reader won’t laugh, won’t be scared, or won’t be thrilled, because many will.
My dad actually thought A Night at the Roxbury was a funny film. Again, we don’t talk movies much.
The Hollywood Studios?
Is the blame to be directed at the studios? To a degree, but not completely.
At a time when the Hollywood hype machine is in full gear -- when studios leak secrets well in advance of a release in order to start rumors, whet appetites, and get the conversation going, and when entertainment fluff is presented as news, including TV interviews and movie junkets that want all conversations with the press firmly positive -- does the average movie-goer even read a review?
Studios are certainly happy with a good review, but they’re equally annoyed by a negative one. That’s why not all new releases have screenings for the press. They know their product is bad, but they don’t want reviewers telling movie-goers the same thing. Let the Friday night crowd find out for themselves… after they’ve bought a ticket.
Over the years, that well-oiled hype machine has developed to the point where a reviewer isn’t really required to help get the word going, and it’s the word of mouth where the real promotion begins. Hype can now create the word itself in a way it never did. How often have you heard someone say, “It sounds great,” because they’ve seen the star of the film tell them how great it is on their promotional late night TV appearances such as Kimmel, Colbert, or that small-screen-hype-machine himself, Jimmy Fallon. Being told a film is great by someone you like on TV goes a long way. Celebrity endorsement has always been an effective source of advertising, but now it’s celebrities endorsing their own work, and viewers still buy it.
How About Those Trailers?
Here’s something to consider: the trailer is an advertisement -- a promotional tool. If the film is a large budget production, the studios will often leak a piece of info letting you know that the trailer of the blockbuster will soon be released on TV during a certain program, maybe a ball game or an awards presentation, and movie-goers should be ready for it. Then, when anticipation is at its highest and that allotted TV time finally arrives (after several reminders that the trailer is coming) before the promotion is even shown, there’s a regular product ad sponsoring the event. Think about it. The studios have created an atmosphere where you’re now excited not about seeing the film, but about seeing the trailer -- essentially a commercial -- and there’s even another commercial sponsoring the showing of that commercial. Don’t you find that bizarre? And with all that in mind, how about the trailer itself?
Let’s be honest, unlike earlier days, only occasionally does that trailer ever truly reflect the film. First, it’s not unusual that the music you liked in the promo is nowhere to be found on the soundtrack. It might be a current hit from a rock band not actually in the movie, but its current popularity due to repeated radio airplay draws attention. The marketing department is banking on you liking the song, so in turn you’ll probably believe you’ll like the film. By the way, whatever they’re using in the background to the TV trailer of the new remake to Murder on The Orient Express, I sincerely hope it’s not in the actual movie.
And then there’s the movie clips flashing before you. They might be edited in a way that one character makes a remark in one scene, only to receive a comical sounding response from a character in another. Yet when you finally see the film, those moments with action and reaction have no relation to each other. The quotes could be over an hour apart and the two characters are not even talking to each other. And in some cases, what you saw in the trailer wasn’t even in the film. Can marketeers be brought to trial for false advertising? Another important tip for critics: avoid all trailers.
So, What’s The Real Problem?
Here’s what I think, and many who have kept with this article thus far may not like it. The real reason why the average moviegoer neither respects nor cares what a reviewer thinks is because of the following: the average moviegoer does not know how to read a review.
I’m not referring to the quick paragraph in, say, People Magazine where you get a quick synopsis followed by how many stars out of five the film earns. I mean an essay, an analysis, a real critique -- the kind that you find in The New Yorker or the quality press where an experienced writer knows what he or she is writing about and has to assume that the reader knows, too. Like the story of the Texan art collector who admits he doesn’t know much about art but he knows what he likes, so it is with the average movie-goer. The average moviegoer doesn’t know the construct of what makes a film work. He’s never studied film or taken courses, and probably cares little for foreign films with subtitles. The average moviegoer simply knows what he likes, and doesn’t get it when reviewers write why he shouldn’t like it. He doesn’t understand what a critic is writing about, and it’s those movie-goers who’re writing those comments on Yahoo.
For reviewers who have another day job, ever noticed the look on the face of an office colleague who asks you what you a thought of a film, and what happens when you respond by basically paraphrasing your review? They glaze over; their eyes become their monitor desktop picture; they have the look of a George Romero zombie. They don’t care about the ins and outs of Kubrick’s mise-en-scene (another tip: avoid using "mise-en-scene") or the nuances of a foreign-language version that makes it better than the American remake -- especially if they never knew it was a remake in the first place. All they want to know is, did you like it. That’s it.
What's a Critic to do?
So the answer to the question, "is a publishing movie critic relevant in a world where everyone’s a critic?" Absolutely. But are they required for the average movie-goer who just wants to know whether you liked it or not? Clearly, no, especially when another Yahoo reader’s comment on the subject of Wonder Woman stated, “I’ll wait until the audience reviews come in.”
But that doesn’t mean to say it’s not worth doing, either. Like those who distrust the mainstream press when reporting politics, especially if the report doesn’t reflect their party in a positive light, they’re not thinking. A news reporter is the only buffer between the public and the politician. Without them, there’s no questioning authority, challenging obvious exaggerations, revealing falsehoods, and holding accountable those who should be held accountable. Without the press we’d eventually live in a world where political spokespeople experienced in avoiding the truth (think Presidential Counselor Kellyanne Conway) always had the final word, heaven help us. As it is with the mainstream press, so it is with the film critic. They have to exist.
Those Yahoo readers making their comments can say whatever they want, but without a knowledgeable film review keeping check and telling everyone where a film is not even trying, filmmakers would get away with murder. They often do. Laziness and taking the easy route to the box-office is par for the course. Look at the list of films you’ve seen in the last few years. On average, aren’t they mainly mediocre? But isn’t it great when you discover a small gem and have the forum to praise it and live in the hope that someone is going to take notice?
Keep writing, keep reviewing, keep taking notes at screenings, hold lazy writers and directors accountable, and don’t worry about the troll in his mom’s basement calling you a "F*****R".
Besides, for all we know, that might be my dad writing a personal note to me for seeing too many films. No kidding, he even said that La La Land was one of the worst movies he’d ever rented. For real. Nope. We won’t be talking movies again.