Jul. 31st, 2012

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Something has come to my attention since the recent Dark Knight debacle on Rottentomatoes. It's something that I've seen before, but not something I've really bothered to consider. It was brought to light in spectacular fashion a few months ago when the final installment of a certain video game was released. Several years ago, in 2009, it also appeared, once again in cinema.

I am talking about the disparity between the attitudes of critics, and the rest of us.

It is the function of the critic to, well, criticize. At least, if function follows form, that should be the simple answer. The slightly more complicated answer is this: it is the function of the Critic to be consistent. Whereas the first implies a great deal of freedom on the part of the critic, the second adds a level of assurance for the critic’s main audience.

I don’t say this to disparage the profession, but simply to posit that, if the public is going to give weight to the critic’s opinion, there must be a level of trust established between the critic and the public. Giving the critic a title, a paycheck, and a platform implies that this trust should already exist. If a newspaper hires one, or a website pays for his reviews, the implication is that somebody values his service—which, in his case, is his opinion. From this implied trust, a general audience can infer that they, as well, should trust the critic’s opinion.

Really, the only thing that keeps it from being that simple is the nature of both the critic and the audience: that is, we are all human. We are all subject to our own likes and dislikes. This introduces a level of subjectivity to the profession of criticism that is simply impossible to eradicate completely. As a hypothetical example, sit an atheist and a devout Christian in a theater and show them both the movie Dogma. Chances are their opinions will differ. Unless you have seen the movie, the critic whose opinion holds more value to you will likely depend largely upon your initial predisposition—not to the film itself, but to something entirely arbitrary—in this case, religious affiliation (or lack thereof).

There is a conflict of interests between objective criticism and the nature of the machine (man) forming the criticism. And it is for this reason that I posit the most important aspect of any critic is consistency. At the risk (once again) of disparaging the profession, one does not need to have an intimate knowledge of the industry to be a successful or adequate critic. In 1975, Roger Ebert became the first movie critic to win a Pulitzer Prize. What’s important to note here is that the award is categorized under Journalism, and that every year it is awarded to a critic. The award is mostly notable because it suggests film criticism was finally becoming a recognized form of criticism. Due kudos go to Mr. Ebert, but the award was not given for the intelligence of his opinions: it was given for the way in which he expressed them.

As arguably the world’s foremost film critic, Ebert’s expressed opinions show a clear consistency from one film to the next. The quality of his writing is never questioned, and it shouldn’t be (with one notable exception). It is his opinions that matter, and for the most part, he is one of the most consistent film critics of the past 40 years. Someone else who belongs in the same league (with regards to consistency): Armond White.

Think about his reviews. Run them through a lens that filters consistency of opinion.

And it is with that idea—that the film Critic’s greatest asset is his consistency—that I watched the reviews for The Dark Knight Rises pour in.

Actually, it wasn’t simply the reviews that I found interesting. I had nearly dumped the film critics’ ideas into that file in my head that I never use, but keep around for just in case, when I ran across an article on the well-regarded film blog, /Film. There was one part in particular that stood out to me:

Between those of us at /Film, we’ve already seen The Dark Knight Rises several times and have found that many questions and problems still linger in our minds.... What’s consistently baffling about Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy is people’s willingness to forgive Nolan for extremely problematic staging and editing, and for screenwriting crimes that would put any other writer/director in "script jail."

The implication here is that there are rules that those in the know (read: involved at all with the film industry) believe must be followed in order to produce a good film. (I would take it easy painting the statements made in the article as dogmatic, but the title of the article is “15 Things That Bothered Us About ‘The Dark Knight Rises,’” which would undercut any attempt of mine to soften the words). The rest of the article continues in the same vein.

This is not an isolated opinion. The aggregator sites Metacritic and Rottentomatoes, which collect articles from published critics and assign them a numerical value based on objective (star-rating) or subjective (tone) information in the critics’ essays, show that overall, the critical reaction to The Dark Knight Rises is generally favorable: Metacritic gives it a score of 78 of 100, while Rottentomatoes shows that 77% of its “top critics” gave it a positive review. For comparison, Metacritic shows The Dark Knight at 82, while Rottentomatoes says 91% found it good.

These are not bad ratings, but in light of more objective data, they do seem to indicate a slight disconnect between what critics expect from a film, and what the rest of the audience expects.

On its opening weekend, The Dark Knight Rises made $160, 887, 295 domestically (BoxOfficeMojo). There are only two films in history that have grossed more money on their opening weekends: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part 2), which took in $169 million, and The Avengers, which netted $207 million. Whether or not this film has staying power is still, obviously, an unknown. But its predecessor certainly did.

This is hardly an isolated incident.

In 2009, several notable films were released, but three are of particular interest: Avatar, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. The latter is of particular interest. Its Metacritic score is 35, and its Rottentomatoes number is 15%. The other two films’ scores are considerably higher. The reason they are all interesting is they are the top three grossing films of 2009. Transformers took in $402 million, beating out Harry Potter by approximately $100 million. Yet, Transformers was one of the worst-reviewed movies of the year.

There is another example, though it is not film. In early 2012, Bioware released the third and final installment in a series of science fiction video games: Mass Effect 3. Upon its release, it had garnered nearly unanimous critical praise: Metacritic gives it an 89 to 93, depending on the platform (PC, Xbox360, PS3). The game was arguably the most anticipated game of the year, was the sequel to one of the best-selling video games in history.

Less than 48 hours after its release, customers were writing angry letters to the company demanding an apology for introducing an element that, they felt, ruined the final product. Within a week, people were threatening to boycott Bioware for ruining a product into which they had sunk many hours, and approximately four and a half years of anticipation. The backlash was aimed at the game’s ending, and was so vicious that Bioware released a free-to-download package that offered users additional options. In other words, they were compelled to pay a team of programmers and writers and producers to spend months redesigning part of a product that, were one to gauge its merits based on critical reception, was only a couple of steps shy of being a perfect game.

So what, exactly, were critics expecting when they walked into the theater? And what, exactly, did they not find?

I am going to use the preceding as a preamble to a hypothesis: As a group, professional critics have a tendency to judge a film based on a rubric defined less by a vested personal interest in a particular subject matter, and more on how well any given film follows the Established Rules of Filmmaking.

Let’s look at the quote from /Film in a different context. In screenwriting, there are several established rules that industry professionals will tell you are unbreakable. Let us dispel right now the erroneous notion that there are any similarities between screenwriting and writing, say, a novel, beyond the obvious fact that they both involve writing something. In fact, there are rules regarding screenwriting that are more or less unbreakable. But that’s only if you interpret the rules the way they are meant to be read: as rules governing a business, not an art. By its nature, /Film has a tendency to look at things from an industry perspective, as evidenced by the title of the site; it’s not a website dedicated to any one particular story or genre or artist, but to the medium of film itself. And as a medium, film is almost inextricably tied to the film industry by sheer cost. When seen that way, the article’s title is akin to one industry professional (in any industry) criticizing the methods of another professional in the same industry.

So /Film’s problem with the script should probably be taken as that: a handful of people who intimately know the rules of screenwriting criticizing someone else who breaks those rules with alarming regularity.

But then, as Terry Pratchett once wrote: “Look, that’s why there’s rules, understand? So that you think before you break ’em” (1).

Let’s go back to the job of the movie critics. In this instance, the critical response can be summed up by Roger Ebert in a few short sentences:

The film begins murky and with too many characters, but builds to a sensational climax.... The result, in Christopher Nolan’s conclusion to his Batman trilogy, is an ambitious superhero movie with two surprises: It isn’t very much fun, and it doesn’t have very much Batman. I’m thinking of the over-the-top action sequences of the earlier films that had a subcurrent of humor, and the exhilarating performance of Heath Ledger as the Joker.

A general feeling of being just barely underwhelmed seems to have followed this movie from review to review. Yet the film made more money in its opening weekend than all but two other movies in the history of movies made in that same time.

Being a professional film critic means a person gets paid to see movies and then write a readable, reasonable opinion, and support it in some way with more words than “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it.” The week The Dark Knight Rises was released, Ebert released 3 reviews. The previous week he released 5. If a movie critic sees so many movies, perhaps it is necessary that the critic be a fan of the medium itself. And if that is the case, perhaps their reviews are more in line with the opinions of the folks at /Film for that reason. The problem, of course, is the disconnect. In other words, the majority of movie critics’ opinions, when taken together, argue a particular film’s merits based more on how well that film was made within the perceived Rules of Filmmaking, and less on how the film as a standalone entity will affect someone who does not get a paycheck for watching it.

Perhaps that is simply the nature of the beast that is being a critic, in any medium. One would assume that to become a film critic a person would first display a love for film itself. But delving deeper into that medium is precisely what creates the disconnect. When someone like Christopher Nolan arrives on the scene, breaks the conventional rules of writing, directing, and editing, and creates films that people are still willing to pay around half a billion dollars to see, it affects the foundation of the medium, which ultimately affects exactly what enticed the critics to their jobs in the first place, even if they are not directly involved in making the product they end up reviewing.

It’s as if they know enough to know that something’s off about its construction, but they don’t know exactly why it’s not a problem.

1. Pratchett, Terry. Thief of Time. London: Doubleday, 2001. Print.


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