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Why Movie Critics Matter
One critic defends his profession
People always have to wring their hands over something, don’t they?
Last year the entertainment press bemoaned the fact that no one was going to the movies anymore. This year, now that people are apparently going to the movies again, it’s the fact that people are going to movies critics don’t like: Notably “Pirates of the Caribbean 2: Dead Man’s Chest,” which, at last count, has rung up a shade under $1 billion in international box office. If critics don’t know what’s popular, the argument goes, what good are they?
Of course the extent of this critical umbrage against “Pirates” has been greatly exaggerated. On rottentomatoes.com that quantification of critical taste, “Pirates” received a 54 percent on the tomatometer, which I believe — and math majors can back me up on this — is more than half. Meanwhile those critics who didn’t like the film never really hated it. A.O. Scott’s response in The New York Times was typical: “Although there are memorable bits and pieces,” he wrote, “the new ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ is a movie with no particular interest in coherence, economy or feeling.”
Even fans have to admit it’s hardly a coherent or economic film (except, of course, in the box office sense). Critics, far from being snooty, merely judged the film against the original “Pirates” film (tomatometer rating: 79 percent) and found it lacking.
Good ol’ Larry King
But the “Pirates”/critics hubbub is just one of many assaults on criticism these days. Studios are screening fewer movies for critics. Ads are carrying more blurbs from non-critics like Larry King and Earl Dittman. More media outlets are being consolidated into fewer hands, and these owners are guided by a bottom line which doesn’t know from quality, which only gauges quantities: circulation rates, ad rates, profits. Content is also being consolidated. If you own publications in 50 states, why bother with 50 critics? Why not just one? Hell, why not just one from India? At a fraction of the cost.
Then there’s this medium here and its supposed democratization of information dissemination. If a movie can get buzz on the Internet, through either a genuine bottom-up or a faux top-down campaign, why give critics their chance to buzz-kill on Friday morning?
More and more, studios are viewing critics the way the White House views the press corps. We’re “the filter” that is somehow getting between the natural love that exists between corporation and consumer. We’re a snooty elite with bow ties and ink-stained hands shaking our heads and dispensing bon mots about their beautifully created products. We’re the type of people who actually use words like bon mots. Ignore them, the studios say. Listen to Larry King instead. Ah, good ol’ Larry King.
All of this is taking place as our society moves from passive forms of entertainment and communication (movies, TV, newspapers) to interactive forms (video games, Internet polls, blogs). Here’s the latest crisis. Here’s the latest celebrity. Here’s the latest movie. What do you think? There you go: 62 percent. That’s what you think.
Who needs critics for this?
The origin of Jerry Lundegaard
I’m hardly unbiased in this debate. My father, Bob Lundegaard, was a movie critic in the 1970s and ’80s for The Minneapolis Star-Tribune. His critical tastes tended to reflect Joseph Pulitzer’s journalistic motto of afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted — that is, he tended to like little-seen foreign films more than your typical Hollywood thump-o-rama. Not always, of course. I remember “Splash” charmed him and Eddie Murphy impressed him. But he could always deliver a good bon mot against Hollywood when he needed to. In 1981, for example, a movie called “The Legend of the Lone Ranger” was released with an unknown in the title role. In his review my father quoted from the studio’s press kit, which trumpeted: “Klinton Spilsbury comes to the role with no acting experience whatsoever.” My father’s response: “And he leaves in the same pristine fashion.”
By the mid-1980s, the arguments swirling around today’s critics were swirling around my father. He was too irascible, some editors felt, too elitist. He wasn’t in tune with the average Star-Tribune reader. His reward included general assignment duties and an early retirement. Later there was an homage from two Star-Tribune readers in St. Louis Park, Mn., Joel and Ethan Coen, who named the William H. Macy character in “Fargo” after him.
Our family, in other words, has been dealing with the elitist/populist issue for a while. I tend to fall on both sides of the argument: I’m both elitist and populist. I’m populist in the sense that I believe critical and popular tastes aren’t that far apart. People like quality, they don’t like crap. Pretty simple.
Let’s take a look at the 2006 movies the studios didn’t want to screen for critics, and see how they fared with both the snooty set (on rottentomatoes.com) and salt-of-the-earth moviegoers (on IMDb.com). The rottentomatoes rating is on a scale from 0 to 100, while the IMDb rating is from 0 to 10:
Overall there’s not a lot of difference between popular and critical reaction. Crap is crap, no matter who’s watching it. And while it’s true that no film at IMDb.com gets the “0” rating the critics gave “Zoom,” it’s important to keep the following in mind: The 1.8 rating for “Phat Girlz” from IMDb users? That’s the lowest-rated movie on IMDb.com (minimum 650 votes). Meaning that, at least according to the users of IMDb.com, “Phat Girlz” is the worst movie ever made.
And you thought critics were tough.
That’s how I’m a populist. Here’s how I’m an elitist.
I’m an elitist in the sense that most people can’t do what most critics do: inform, entertain, and, at their best, articulate something about this movie, or movies in general, or life in general, that most of us have only felt but haven’t yet put into words.
Inform. When I reviewed movies for The Seattle Times, one of my favorite responses came from my neighbor, Geof, who complimented me on my review of Lars von Trier’s film “The Idiots,” adding that it made him want to see the film. “But I gave it a bad review,” I said. “I know,” he responded, “But it still sounded interesting.”
Which is pretty much what you want from a daily movie critic. Here’s the film and here’s what I think of it; and what I think of it doesn’t get in the way of informing you what it is.Entertain. Critics are writers, and writers are entertainers. I read Anthony Lane in “The New Yorker” less to be informed than to be entertained. I know our tastes don’t always match but that doesn’t matter. He makes me laugh, as when he slams Yoda in his “Revenge of the Sith” review, writing, “Also, while we’re here, what’s with the screwy syntax? Deepest mind in the galaxy, apparently, and you still express yourself like a day-tripper with a dog-eared phrase book. ‘I hope right you are.’ Break me a f---ing give.”
I remember how shocked I was when I found out Lane wasn’t old, gay, and British but young, straight, and American. And yet this bitchy? This funny? Incredible.
Articulate. This is hard to do with daily reviews, where the space allotted gets smaller and smaller, and where there’s only so much of the movie you can write about without revealing key plot points. It’s easier to do in magazines. Anthony Lane did it earlier this year with his review of “Inside Man” in which he posits Spike Lee as the anti-Renoir, writing, “‘Grand Illusion’ offered the ennobling suggestion that national divisions were delusory, and that our common humanity can throw bridges across any social gulf. To which Lee would reply, Nice idea. Go tell it to the guy who just had his turban pulled off by the cops.”
Similarly, my friend Craig Wright, a playwright and TV writer in Los Angeles, helped me appreciate Terrence Malick’s “The New World” over breakfast last February. He loved the movie, I didn’t, but then he began talking about one of the film’s final scenes, in which Pocahontas (Q’Orianka Kilcher) runs laughing from her toddler son among the manicured gardens of an English estate. He compared this finale with chases at the end of Malick's other films, and explained how the one being chased through the greenery moves — progresses — from unsympathetic killer (“Badlands”) to sympathetic everyman (“Days of Heaven”) to sacrificial overman — the man who’s better than we are (“The Thin Red Line”).
All of these previous chases occur in the wilds of nature and end with death for the protagonist. Pocahontas, however, is chased through a landscape of meticulously tended greenery — a perfect balance-point between civilization and nature, between the old and new world — and the chase seems to be a game. But it’s not. The point-of-view eventually shifts so the camera, rather than her son, is the one chasing her, while the narrator explains that she died several weeks afterwards. So what’s chasing her? The thing that’s chasing all of us — time. And where is it chasing her? Into death, and, through her son, into new life. It’s chasing her into the new world, where all of us eventually go.
This mix of complexity and clarity is exactly what you want as a reader or listener. I still don’t think “The New World” is a particularly good movie, but I’m open to seeing it again, to see what I’ve missed; to see if Malick can stun me, as he stunned me with “The Thin Red Line.”
What’s worthwhile in criticism isn’t the critic’s final judgment of the film — thumbs up or down — or how many stars they’ve given it. It’s their argument. Sure, I’m bummed that my favorite movie critic, David Edelstein, late of Slate and now with “New York” magazine, didn’t like “Superman Returns” (I did) and liked “V for Vendetta” (which I thought adolescent crap), but generally he made good arguments. It’s the chase that matters. No matter where we all end up.
A helluva hangover
A few weeks after his review of “Pirates 2,” A.O. Scott delivered his defense of criticism. Unfortunately he gave it a Hollywood ending. Here are his final three lines: “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.”
I disagree with almost all of this. I go to the movies for fun and work. I go to the movies for money and not-money. As for Scott’s third rationale? You is a broad category, encompassing, let’s face it, some people with pretty bad taste. So, as much as I like you (yes, you), I don’t do this for you. I do this for clarity — my own as much as anyone else’s.
I take the long view. Will this movie last as popular entertainment? Will we still talk about it in five or 10 or, God willing, 50 years? Box office, like critical acclaim, is no indication of longevity, particularly when it comes to sequels. In 1992, to choose just one year, the number one movie was “Aladdin,” but numbers 2 through 4 were all sequels: “Home Alone 2: Lost in New York,” “Batman Returns” and “Lethal Weapon 3.” Every other film in the top 10 (“A Few Good Men,” “Wayne’s World,” “A League of Their Own”) will last longer in the national consciousness than these forgettable sequels — none of which was particularly bad, just never particularly good. They lacked a few things: coherence or economy or feeling. But they were popular at the time.
This summer everyone’s getting drunk on Pirate rum, but, unless the third installment of “Pirates of the Caribbean” saves things in a big way, everyone will soon wake up with a helluva hangover and wonder, “Now what was that all about?”
—This article was originally published on 8/29/06 on MSNBC.com.)