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.