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July 19, 2006

Pirates and Snakes and Critics

I've been thinking about A.O. Scott's New York Times article on the disparity between the tastes of film reviewers and film audiences, a distinction measurable in part by the box office success of The DaVinci Code and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, both of which were critically panned. Scott is picking up on a topic of much discussion in blogworld this summer, perhaps most notably in Andrew Horbal's Blogcritics essay, which also stands as a review of Philip Lopate's anthology of American film criticism since the silent era. Scott's essay has remained on my radar in part because it relies so heavily on an opposition between the "elite" professional reviewer and the "populist" film fan who celebrates the experience of going to the movies.

It's worth noting that Scott's reading of the disparity between the taste film reviewers and the average filmgoer is probably overstated. Pointing to the critics' grades for Pirates, Scott points out that Metacritics averages critics' grades at 52 (now 53) while Rotton Tomatoes averages out at 54, reading these scores as critics giving the film an F, even with "grade inflation." In fact, a quick glance at Metacritics' explanation of their scoring system would place Pirates' grade closer to C-level (pardon the truly awful pun). Further, while Scott acknowledges that box office success does not contradict "negative critical judgment," he doesn't extend the same logic to the average moviegoer. While Pirates has been filling theaters and selling popcorn, sheets, towels, and action figures, its IMDB users' grade is a relatively average 7.5 on a 10-point scale, hardly the territory of The Godfather or Citizen Kane, to name two IMDB faves.

I think Scott is right to note that film reviewers are sometimes precariously placed (or place themselves) between a Hollywood studio system that warrants suspicion and a "populist" desire among audiences to particpate in the "happy communal experience" of experiencing the latest summer blockbuster the weekend it debuts, but I also wonder if Scott is too quick to dismiss the pleasures of this form of participation. While I will admit to a degree of art house and indie snobbishness, I readily and enthusiastically participate in a smaller-scale version of this "happy communal experience" when I've attended the debuts of An Inconvenient Truth or Fahrenheit 9/11 or movie events such as Silverdocs or even MoveOn.org sponsored screenings of the latest Robert Greenwald doc. Scott argues that studios "spend tens of millions of dollars to persuade you that the opening of a movie is a public event, a cultural experience you will want to be part of." As my comments suggest, audiences have already accepted that movie openings are public events, something to be shared communally, which means that studios are doing something else when they spend those promotional dollars (in fact, I'd argue that Scott gets rather dangerously close to asserting that filmgoers are cultural dupes fooled into seeing a film because of a few flashy previews).

So, I think it's worth thinking more carefully about what precisely is being "bought" when moviegoers pay to see a film on opening night. To be fair, I do think that studio marketing efforts are far from benign, and to a great extent, these marketing efforts are designed to persuade audiences to commodify these public events, the "happy communal experiences" described by Scott. I don't think that makes someone who buys a Pirates t-shirt or DVD a cultural dupe. Instead, I would be interested in thinking about what kinds of public, communal experiences are being "sold" when we participate in these blockbuster events.

The elephant in the screening room that Scott fails to mention is Snakes on a Plane, and while not everything that's happened this summer can be tied back to Samuel L. Jackson, I think that the Snakes phenomenon is perhpas the best recent illustration of what I'm thinking about. While New Line has rather cleverly redirected its marketing campaign for Snakes, it has tapped into the alienation from the studio system that many audience memebers have felt recently, allowing film fans to feel like participants in the making of the film rather than mere passive viewers, a sensibility reflected in the Snakes parodies and trailer mashups that are already cropping up on YouTube (including this great send-up not only of Snakes but Bono of U2 as well). And I think that's an important part of the film, whether it's a "good" film or not. In fact, it's worth noting that New Line has decided not to screen Snakes for critics, taking the film "directly to audiences" and avioding the risk of negative reviews. In this sense, rather than reviewing films such as Pirates or Snakes or even An Inconvenient Truth as discrete objects that begin and end when the projector starts and stops, a film review methodology that takes into account these supplemental materials is what is needed.

Update: Check out Alex's response to my entry. Alex points out that audience members generally arrive at theaters with a set of expectations that may vary from film to film (and may be as minimal as central air conditioning (which was certainly an incentive for me last summer when I lived in DC) or the lesser expectations associated with sequels.

Related: The cinetrix mentions a Film Comment editorial by Gavin Smith that addresses the ongoing conversation about professional and amateur film critics (I can't find the actual editorial--maybe I'm missing something, but I was up awfully late last night).

Also related and just a little lame: Kevin Smith takes on the critics, booting Scott Foundas and David Poland out of critics' screenings of Clerks 2. Poland apparently inspired Smith's wrath because of an off-hand comment about the writer-director's calves he made six years ago. In the comments to Poland's entry, there is a good discussion of the ways in which blogs and gossip websites have made these kinds of scandals more public. But Smith's concern about the getting good buzz for Clerks 2 smells mildly desperate to me.

Update to End All Updates: Peet's not-so-subtle commentary on evaluative film criticism desrves the final word around here.

Posted by chuck at July 19, 2006 11:44 AM

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"a film review methodology that takes into account these supplemental materials is what is needed"

What do you mean by that? To me this is antinomic with criticism as is. What you suggest is to turn an aesthetic judgement on an artistic creation, into a journalistic reporting with socio-economics scope. This is probably a needed field of investigation but not the duty of a critic. This would only be a peripheral concern, providing an illustrative context.
What is the subject of study in a review? The film itself? Cinema? the industry? or the event around a movie?

I agree with you that the "happy communal experience" is already a social event : "going to the movies", any movie. I guess people agree to spend money to go out with friends, before they agree on which movie to see.
Although what I assumed Scott meant was that the marketing campaign seek to persuade us THEIR film is the next big thing to "have seen", or we will be left out of the latest fashionable pop culture references (lines, in-jokes, caricatures...)
Watching "blockbusters" is not a cultural dupery, but being influenced to watch this one rather than that one, under a marketing pressure is.

Frankly, Hollywood marketing goes far beyond pure information or promotion of a product to sell... it has become a skillfuly engineered inescapable propaganda (overwhelming, ubiquitous, conditioning, brainwashing)

So what should be emphasized clearly is that the motivation of the general audience to watch a movie (for fun, escapism, distraction, social event) will only meet by chance the concerns of critics unless "fun" becomes the new "greatness".

Posted by: HarryTuttle [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 19, 2006 3:01 PM

I'm probably overreacting a bit to what seems like a rather whiny tone in Scott's article (the IFC blog describes the article as "insufferable"). But I would argue that the film cannot be separated from the marketing and promotion. I don't think this means that reviews should take a merely "journalistic" turn, but reviews that emphasize that the meaning or significance of a film extends well beyond what appears on screen would be valuable.

Given that so many films are not being screened for critics, it makes me wonder how film reviews might change if movie critics regularly saw new films with paying audiences rather than indepedently. That shouldn't mean that reviewers will suddenly see the light on Pirates, a film I'm not that interested in seeing, quite frankly, but it might lead to reviews that avoid isolating the film away from these supplemental materials.

I probably understated the role of the Hollywood marketing machine (and pulled Scott's comments slightly out of context), but I think that last summer's box office slump illustrated that the studios are not always successful at attracting audiences to specific films.

And you're right to imply that my implied model risks equating "fun" with "greatness," which is something I'd want to avoid. I tried to address that by pointing out that even Pirates audience members recognize that the sequel isn't necessarily great, but that seems inadequate.

Perhaps it's the defensiveness of Scott's piece that set me off. I know that I would probably be even more impatient than Scott with most Hollywood films.

Posted by: Chuck at July 19, 2006 3:27 PM

Could you develop what a review should address to cover the "off-screen extension of a film"? You mean the social/cultural phenomenon surrounding an event? is that an added value or aggravated circumpstances to the opinion we should form on a film?

Your concern to link the movies to the industry is pertinent but has more to do with the nature of general journalism or social studies, if one wants to respect categories.
Paying attention to these factors is a conflict of interest that might corrupt the critical judgement IMHO.

You're right, Scott's tone and topic is not quite appropriate for the NYT... it sounds like our typical blog rant.
Serious newspapers shouldn't bother with this type of mail feedback. And critics don't have to justify their jobs, only their critical judgments.

Was the 2005 slump caused by bad movies only? Wouldn't there be other reasons why the audience didn't spend as much? If the defection was unanimous across the spectrum, the factor must be economical rather than cultural.

Posted by: HarryTuttle [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 19, 2006 4:19 PM

I'd like to believe that my reviews practice this kind of criticism, and perhaps implcit in my approach is an interest in bending or blurring the categories you describe. I don't think my reviews are particularly "journalistic," but I do try to take into consideration aspects of the film production, distribution, and reception processes (especially the latter, which most often gets overlooked). And certainly my interest in documentaries or docudramas that seek to make claims about the historical world compels me to see what others are saying about the accuracy of those truth claims (the reception of The Road to Guantanamo is an interesting case).

Scott's defensiveness is striking, and while I suggested that it's what prompted my blog entry (and now several comments), it's also interesting, especially given that many reviewers now feel somewhat imperiled by the proliferation of amateur critics (best illustrated, perhaps, by Jami Bernard losing her full-time gig). In retrospect, I wish I had been a little fairer to some of his comments.

Of course you're right that the 2005 slump was caused by more than bad (or at least unpopular) movies. I think economics, i.e. family entertainment budgets, were possibly a factor, but it may also have been Hollywood marketers adjusting to a new media ecosystem or any number of other factors.

Posted by: Chuck at July 19, 2006 4:54 PM

Just by the way, I LOVE that we're still talking about this...

Posted by: A. Horbal at July 19, 2006 5:06 PM

I wouldn't have brought it up again, but A.O. Scott mentioned it. I'm tempted to say that my entire blog is about this very question in more or less explicit ways.

When I started this entry, all I wanted to do was link to a couple of YouTube videos....

Posted by: Chuck at July 19, 2006 5:58 PM

Old school trackback :):


Posted by: Alex H. at July 20, 2006 11:05 AM

Thanks, Alex, I'm updating the entry to link directly to your comments.

Posted by: Chuck at July 20, 2006 11:54 AM

I didn't mean to exclude your concerns. Who am I to say what is ok or not?
The problem of the film criticism crisis largely debated this year is the loss of standards to anarchy. Print "critics" are quote whores without critical ethics. Bloggers are superficial. And that's because today everyone make up their own definition of "criticism". So it's not helping to blur the lines. I admit to be a little conservative there. I'm more worried about saving the aesthetic values of film criticism (priority) than to miss the rise of new forms of criticism (that will eventually define and establish themselves anyway).

When the general audience thinks criticism is "like/like not", we can't really push experimental forms of criticism (under the same unbrella name) without identifying the basics first.

Your approach is very interesting, and certainly lacking attention. But personally, I would restrict "film criticism" to the study of films as a visual dramaturgy, a finished artistic work.

The example of Snake on a Plane, marks another victory of Studios on directors, by placing more creative decisions into the (impersonal) market studies (or test audience), and less in the hands of actual artists (auteur, writer, actor, DP...). And I don't like the sound of it.

Posted by: HarryTuttle [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 20, 2006 2:21 PM

Don't worry, I'm really just throwing up some new ways of thinking about how film reviewers might operate, and my approach certainly has its limits. We do need good formal-aesthetic criticism, but I'd like to see other models flourish as well.

I didn't mention this before, but the anecdotes describing Kevin Smith's sometimes hostile relationship with film critics (cited in one of my "updates") illustrates the need for a relatively strong and vibrant colectivity of film critics who can criticize "bad" films and the industry in general.

In reviewing my entry and comments, I'm not sure if the politics of my approach are coming through. This is probably clear, but I don't want to be read as aligning myself with an apolitical populism that embraces audeince enthusiasm uncritically. But, as the Snakes and Pirates examples illustrate (to my mind at least), sometimes a film is more than just a movie.

Your observation about the Snakes re-edit are interesting. Of course studios constantly pressure directors to edit films to include or exclude certain materials (and I'm often frustrated when perceived profits trump good or interesting ideas), but I wonder how the writer and director of Snakes imagined their film before New Line realized that they might have a cult hit on their hands.

Posted by: Chuck at July 20, 2006 2:47 PM

I agree with you movies have become societal phenomena that go way beyond simple creation. They take on a life of their own once appropriated by the public. Probably more today in an age of mass communication and instantaneity of the internet (and worldwide-release).
I'm not saying it is less interesting than film criticism, but it's more of a global cultural analysis, an observation of our society, than a mere critical judgement on cinema. TV is more influencial than cinema. This is a critical approach, but more societal than strictly filmic.
If the scope/field expands then the discipline thinks outside the box of "film criticism". Film criticism has limits too.

Ok, Snakes on a Plane is a bad example. But by principle, it's not an improvement to leave the final cut in the audience's hands. Good for B.O., not good for cinema. All I'm saying.

Posted by: HarryTuttle [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 20, 2006 3:24 PM

I think you've more or less described where our goals for film criticism diverge slightly. While I admire a well-made film, I'm more interested what you're describing as "global cultural analysis."

You may be right that leaving final cut in the audience's hands may not be good for cinema (although some individual films may be improved), and it may not even be good for box office in the long run. If Snakes on a Plane takes off, we'll see how things play out. I'm still not convinced that studios will suddenly become more transparent in the making of their films (after all the mystery of the novelty is part of what they're marketing).

Posted by: Chuck at July 20, 2006 3:40 PM

Would your analysis of the reception of The Road to Guantanamo would be very different if the story had been conveyed to the public by a novel instead of a film? or on TV news, or in a newspaper.
The controversy is generated by the content, and only tangentially by its filmic existence.

Concerns for the industry and the marketing aren't totally new. The Hollywood Golden Age was bigger than today's market comparatively (I believe), and the fuss around film budget, production delays, stars conflicts, fandom were covered by the P.R. and the journalists.

I don't want to throw big words, but wouldn't our divergence have to do with an endogenic/exogenic aspects of cinema? The exogenic context isn't irrelevant, but shouldn't influence the aesthetics judgement.
That a question the roundtable published in Undercurrent #1 addressed (1st Audience member question, at the end). I think Adrian Martin (and others) incorporate endogenic elements (pertinent to creation) essentially, not so much the commercial environment.

The novelty might quickly be second guessed to other more profitable factors. The internet has popularized the pre-production leaks, which are even publicized by studios and stars now long in advance to foster anticipation (like you noted).

Posted by: HarryTuttle [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 21, 2006 8:01 AM

Harry, I think the status of Guantanamo as a film is part of what generates the controversy, although its content clearly matters. If it were just another episode of a TV show, it would be forgotten quickly, I'd imagine, but because film festivals and openings have a certain "event status," they typically generate more discussion. Of course Guantanamo was also controversial because of its use of docudrama elements, because of the focus on the Tipton Three, because the film does little to explore their politics, etc.

To answer your second (?) question, I think I'd even take things a half step further and suggest that "aesthetic judgement" is less crucial for me than the political or social, but to address the endogenic/exogenic question, I'd even suggest that aesthetic judgment is shaped by the framing materials, by our other experiences of what we regard (or have learned to regard) as aesthetically "good."

Posted by: Chuck at July 21, 2006 11:47 AM

What is controversial about docudrama? The issue is obviously about impossibility of recording real footage on site. I don't think the ontology of cinema documentary was really questionned there. To me it was poor use of technique, not a fundamental flaw. The post-68 Cahiers would disagree with me because politics is integer part of cinema, but I think was makes this docudrama controversial is its one-sidedness and it's lack of evidence... reminiscent of the absence of WMD evidences.

Ok, political, social, cultural are also endogenic, but only if part of the onscreen subtext. The commercial/social events surrounding the release is however exogenic.
Well I begin to see what you're up to. It's like a type of criticism with global hindsight, taking cinema as one specific catalyst. A study of cultural consequences in the film wake. More like a "post-criticism", a step further or wider, if it makes any sense.

You know I think of the popular reaction to certain films that caused controversy in the past, because they were misunderstood and didn't meet their audience. And a later re-evaluation sometimes contradicts the initial reception, and its contemporean interpretation. Because art is often ahead of its time. That's why exogenic causality is difficult to link directly to cinema.

Posted by: HarryTuttle [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 21, 2006 1:30 PM

Given that so many films are not being screened for critics, it makes me wonder how film reviews might change if movie critics regularly saw new films with paying audiences rather than indepedently.

I'm afraid that I pretty much missed this conversation, but this statement caught my eye. I expect that quite a few POTC: DMC reviews would have been considerably different had the critics in question seen the film with paying audiences on opening night.

The audience at the screening I attended was one of the most responsive I've ever been in. Their reactions were often much more interesting than whatever it was on the screen that they were reacting to. I wager that many critics would have found it more interesting to write about these reactions, about these audiences than the film itself.

So the question is, what do we do with this? I think that the lesson is, the critic is not necessarily best served by attending advanced, press screenings. If it's your mission (or your editor's mission for you, maybe) to write to a popular audience, maybe you should make a point of only watching films with that audience?

Posted by: A. Horbal at July 24, 2006 6:28 PM

I'm inclined to agree for the most part, but as Harry points out, there are good reasons to resist embracing that kind of (affirmative) reception. Alex's comments about audience expectations seem to echo what you're talking about. Thinking off the top of my head, some of what's going on here (in this discussion) may be my personal ambivalence about the function of evaluative criticism.

Posted by: Chuck at July 24, 2006 10:53 PM

What does it matter to Hitchcock's, Hawk's, Ford's, Welles' art if they were underrated by the audience or the critics of their time? What counts is posterity, to appraisal based on long term values, not on the (short-lived) dominant ideology or the current fad (incenditally) contemporean to their film's initial release.

The tricky job of a critic is precisely to see through the confusion to figure what is a mere conjuncture and what is there to last.

Posted by: HarryTuttle [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 25, 2006 11:29 AM

I would argue that Hitchcock, perhaps as much as any director in history, was interested in the audience's response to his film, so much so that some of the early audiences for Psycho were photographed in order to emphasize the "terror" provoked by the film's plot twists and violence. This is as much a part of the meaning of Psycho for me as Norman Bates' psychology.

I guess I'm also interested to see how a film is engaging with the contemporary situation (I'm resistant to using "dominant ideology" here) and that this engagement is what might provide a film with long-term value. To use Hitchcock again, his playful attempts to negotiate the gender and sexual politics of the 1950s and 60s, as well as his deliberate engagement with a number of accepted cinematic codes, illustrate for me why his films are so important both then and now.

Posted by: Chuck at July 25, 2006 12:47 PM

You're right, I mixed two types of "underrating" there, one of the audience and one of critics.
And I forgot the public flop of Rules of the Game.

I would argue that the fact Hitchcock played with the audience was not the essence of his artistic quality. His major value is a talent of mise-en-scene and the manipulation of subtext. The mastery of a genre is only a minor achievement (in my opinion) as far as cinema art is concerned.

I guess he was relatively popular, but wasn't he overlooked by critics of his time as a mere B-movie maker?

"some of the early audiences for Psycho were photographed in order to emphasize the "terror" provoked by the film's plot twists and violence"

This is a marketing argument, not a proof of its artisitc value. Get an impressionable crowd in a dark room and provided you take enough photographs, you can get a "sensational" shot for any horror movie. Hell, if you photograph the audience, they don't even have to be watching the film you want to promotion... (deception of the image)

An isolated audience (in time or in space) shouldn't stand as a proof of success/efficience/greatness of any film.

Posted by: HarryTuttle [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 25, 2006 1:37 PM

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