the critic, the people, and the blockbuster

July 17, 2006

There’s a fun article in the Times today discussing the pronounced gap between critical reception and popular success of various summer “blockbusters”, Pirates 2 and The Da Vinci Code being the most notable examples from this round, and asking why, given the discrepancy, critics continue to blather on and on to an audience that loves only to ignore them. While film critic and article author A. O. Scott takes great pains to avoid any semblance of a superiority complex–to do otherwise would be to alienate much of his audience–his formidable experience in the world of cinema, coupled with the writing talent that befits a professional journalist, does distinguish his opinions (and those of other critics) from those of the unwashed masses. In my view, critics opinions deserve if not deference then at least some measure of respect from the throngs that flock to theatres to see these bombastic summer spectacles; ascribing a measure of authority to them is not as “suspect” as Mr. Scott so modestly claims.

Then again, I realized long ago that my views are generally at odds with those held by the general public. As an aspiring critic of sorts myself–witness the blog and in particular this posting–I am perhaps predisposed to identify with and adore characters like Paul Giamatti’s Miles (a critic himself) in the 2004 film Sideways, which with a Metacritic score of 94 is to many of my friends and family a minor curiosity quite detached from the mainstream consciousness. In other words, I’m of the type who think 2001: A Space Odyssey‘s two hours of silence are actually interesting and even compelling, rather than insufferably boring in light of our modern sensibilities; I enjoy the film, and others like it, in spite of them (though I am not so foolish as to claim complete independence from them).

Mr. Scott arrives at an amusingly honest answer to his line of inquiry–answer: for love of the art (as in, “we do it for you”)–but at the end I was left pondering the more troubling and still unanswered question of why such maddeningly average films continue to generate obscene amounts of revenue, summer after summer. Is the “fun” of the blockbusters and all their accoutrements really enough to make seeing them a “forgone conclusion”? After countless summers with offerings that are just as depressingly ordinary as those that came before, I’m getting a more than a little tired of the whole thing. Studios, you must impress me, and not just with flashy effects and big names but with genuinely original ideas. Absent that, my DVD shelf of favorites is more than enough to see me safely into the indie-filled autumn.

–D. S. W.

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14 Responses to “the critic, the people, and the blockbuster”

  1. Chris Donovan said

    i like ao scott well enough, but his conclusion here is patronizing at best; and i don’t get a sense that his answer is truly ‘for love of the art.’ i’m all for critics taking the high road–it’s indeed their role to do so–but the answer to why people flock to mediocre films is blatantly obvious. people work or study long hours, struggle to raise their kids, and want to unwind for a few hours. they don’t want to be reminded of the harshness of the world, and they don’t want to spend time with people stuck in lives much like their own, or worse. they want larger than life escapism and romance, sexy stars, and startling images they haven’t seen before. film buffs look for more in their moviegoing, and, obviously, see more films, getting jaded with standardized product. that’s pretty much it.

    regarding the specific movies he discusses here, the explanations are equally obvious. people rushed to the da vinci code because they had read or at least heard of the book; like the critics, they didn’t like the film much, and box office fell off rapidly. people rushed to pirates because they had loved the first film –incidentally, scott’s co-critic at the time, elvis mitchell, picked the original as the best film of 2003.

  2. mrwiz said

    Wow, that’s a pretty bleak assessment. I’m not convinced about Scott being “patronizing” here. He has every reason to be honest in a piece like this and I don’t see any hints to suggest his view is anything other than what he claims it is.

    It would seem that with the stress of everyday life taking its toll, “escaping” to a movie theatre would be a much less attractive option than just popping in a DVD of some old favorite and relaxing at home while watching. Those “startling images” that we’ve all seen before must have some magnetism I’m missing.

    Internationally, Da Vinci made far more than at home, suggesting that at least some audiences found it compelling enough to tell their friends and relatives to go see it. It would be interesting to investigate differing audience expectations and attitudes here and abroad.

  3. mrwiz said

    What’s more, there’s always seems to be *something* that makes *this one* special (Code had the book, Pirates had the prequel). After a few decades of this, you’d think people would have noticed and started to protest.

  4. Chris Donovan said

    but people HAVE noticed, and are staying home and popping in a dvd. attendance has steadily declined over time, in part due to increased competition for our free minutes, of course, but also because movie-going just hasn’t as central a place as it used to in our national fabric. but still, sitting home isn’t going out– it isn’t a date, it isn’t a ‘leave the kids with the sitter’ situation, or ‘a check out the cute girls/guys in the lobby’ situation for the younger crowd. there’s still room for a social experience.

    in terms of startling visuals, i’m not sure what your argument is; you went on and on about superman hovering over the planet with his plastic-looking cape. i’m not sure many audience members were drawn to that image, given the tepid response to the film even out of the gate, but they do like bullet time in the matrix, or gollum, or davey jones and his squid face.

    scott’s assessment is born out of desperation. and i do feel for him. the role of the film critic is increasingly under siege, as internet pundits and ‘entertainment journalists’ take more central stage. in the last year a number of high profile critics have been forced out for fledgling but hipper reviewers without any background in film. scott is feeling the heat, as they all are–the current ew weekly features liza schwartzbaum trying to defend her negative pirates review. but his ‘we do it for you,’ is nonsense. he would be better off claiming that he does it for himself–for his own love of the art form. note that roger ebert, for all his faults, has the loftiest role among print critics, not only because of that darn tv show but because he has unbridled enthusiasm for film, whether or not he’s in tandem with public consensus or critical consensus. and readers respect that.

    and let’s face it–critics are apt to overpraise films simply because they are unconventional. every year it is easy to name ten films, at least, which are overhyped by the critics more on principle than merit. i think the reverence for sideways is a good case in point, though i do like the film; i would have loved to see giamatti win an oscar for it, but i certainly think the critical reverence was in great part because it dared center on an unattractive schlub–a very critic-like one at that. and let’s not get started on some of the unwatchable, unsatisfying films that a jonathan rosenbaum or scott foundas will single out, ridiculing the popular audience all the while.

  5. Chris Donovan said

    ps. I’m not sure what to make of the Da Vinci global numbers. Usually the pattern for international box office –for US films– is clear. Special effects and action sell, though american comic book heroes are not as popular abroad; comedies, and sports films obviously, do not translate so well. Best I can guess is that the religious scandal was too delicious to pass up.

  6. mrwiz said

    while the irrelevance of film critics to the general public is debatable, I really empathize with scott’s closing sentiments, including the “for you” comment. Scott and others believe that they have something valuable to contribute to us, and, considering their expertise and what can only be a genuine love of the artform, I think they really do. We may not appreciate it, turning to the “pundits” and other “journalists”, but the fact remains that film critics are uniquely qualified to provide precisely the sorts of observations that they do. And they want, even need, to believe that somewhere out there are people looking for their insights. Well, they’ve found one: me.

  7. mrwiz said

    Also, given the diminishing returns of “conventional” films, why shouldn’t critics glorify the odd ones above the rest, assuming (as is usually the case) that they have other distinguishing features. “Overhyped” is a terribly subjective adjective, after all. That isn’t to say that all the art films are excellent–some are, as you said, “unwatchable”, even proudly so–or that anyone who disagrees with prevailing critical opinion is wrong to do so (to each his own, of course). I would argue, though, that for every film overhyped by critics there exists at least one that has been overhyped by the public.

    When it comes to Superman, I have an honest admiration for what I see there as a use of visual effects that evokes a true sense of artistry, rather than just flashiness for flashiness’ sake. Davy Jones was cool, no doubt, and eerily realistic, but I wasn’t struck by the subtlety of the effects in Pirates so much as the talent that brought Jones and his crew to life; the actual design of the creatures was far stunningly original.

  8. mrwiz said

    On another note, I often wonder how the people who produce schlock like “Accepted” and “My Super Ex-Girlfriend” convince themselves that the whole enterprise is worthwhile. Our standards (theirs and mine) are obviously quite different.

  9. cd said

    I’m certainly not dismissing film criticism as an art form–it’s own art form, and one I value very highly. But…

    “Scott and others believe that they have something valuable to contribute to us, and, considering their expertise and what can only be a genuine love of the artform, I think they really do.” I would accept this sentiment if the tone of critics toward the public were not so often derision. A reader doesn’t need to be told they only like a film like Pirates because they are idiots, or because they have no attention span, or because they are shallow–but that’s VERY often the tone. Plus there are clearly other reasons why critics do what they do; Anthony Lane in the New Yorker, for example, obviously reviews films because he loves to craft precise observations, and often elegant insults. He’a brilliant writer, but the edification of his readers, and promoting a love of film, seem quite secondary to him. I’m not sure I actually believe he loves film; certainly I don’t believe someone like Rex Reed does.

    “but the fact remains that film critics are uniquely qualified to provide precisely the sorts of observations that they do.” This is only sometimes the case–I’ll grant that someone like Rosenbaum or Robin Wood–true scholars of film–possess a time-honed expertise that one must respect. But that’s hardly the case for many critics. In fact, when Janet Maslin was more or less coerced into retirement at the Times, the prevailing sentiment was that neither of her replacements, Scott and Mitchell (who turned out to be a bust) knew very much about film at all. Scott has certainly grown into the position, but I think the Times ultimately stole Manolia from the LA Times for increased credibility.

    “Also, given the diminishing returns of “conventional” films, why shouldn’t critics glorify the odd ones above the rest”? Because unusual does not mean good. One of the defining ironies that film critics and film lovers always gloss over is that the so-called “golden age” of Hollywood–mostly the forties–was when films were most generated by assembly line. Yet this is the period that is considered the ideal standard with which today’s works cannot hope to compete. Conventional filmmaking can be exquisite; filmmaking intoxicated with its own transgressive instincts is often a bore. And if critics are legitimately concerned about the public, they should keep in mind that their reader doesn’t see four hundred films a year, and is less likely to be wearied by convention and desperate for anything that breaks the mold.

    “I would argue, though, that for every film overhyped by critics there exists at least one that has been overhyped by the public.” Well, of course. That’s self-evident, even when you don’t make the mistake of equating media-created hype with audience-generated hype (obviously a film like Superman is a clear example of the first not truly coinciding with the second).

    Speaking of Supes. “I have an honest admiration for what I see there as a use of visual effects that evokes a true sense of artistry, rather than just flashiness for flashiness’ sake.” I would argue that the shot in Superman was a manifestation of the director’s soporific sense of self-importance, whereas the Jones work in Pirates was crucial to the generation of an engaging character. But let’s face it; audiences can’t get enough of Davey Jones’ look, and obviously Jurassic Park was a blockbuster because of the photo-realistic dinosaurs. An article similar to Scott’s about the success of JP would have been pointless, right?

    “I often wonder how the people who produce schlock like “Accepted” and “My Super Ex-Girlfriend” convince themselves that the whole enterprise is worthwhile.” The obvious answer is that it pays the bills. Or, certainly in the case of the latter, pays for a new mansion. But I’m not sure that’s entirely right in the case of Ivan Reitman, directing “Ex.” I remember seeing footage of him directing one of his early 80’s blockbusters– I think it was “Ghostbusters”–and laughing non-stop at/with his stars. So perhaps he just loves silly comedies, and that’s what he values. Have you ever seen “Sullivan’s Travels?”

  10. mrwiz said

    “I would accept this sentiment if the tone of critics toward the public were not so often derision. A reader doesn’t need to be told they only like a film like Pirates because they are idiots, or because they have no attention span, or because they are shallow–but that’s VERY often the tone.” I don’t see it that way. Critical reviews of summer films may be dismissive of the films’ purported merits but I can’t remember a recent review from a major publication that went after the public for liking the films rather than the films themselves for being so unoriginal. There are plenty of critics with whom I disagree, for reasons that may indeed involve what I see as pompous elitism, but I never feel bad for liking them; rather, it just makes me think about the films more carefully, trying to see if there is merit in the critic’s condemnations.

    “This is only sometimes the case–I’ll grant that someone like Rosenbaum or Robin Wood–true scholars of film–possess a time-honed expertise that one must respect. But that’s hardly the case for many critics.” But the fact that critics (all of them) take the time to produce more or less comprehensive reviews in which they present and defend their opinions in itself says something about their commitment to cinema. Sure, some have bad opinions–I can’t stand Joe Morgenstern, for instance–and some are better informed than others, but I respect the work of Morgenstern and others for what it is. I even learn something new from time to time.

    “Well, of course. That’s self-evident, even when you don’t make the mistake of equating media-created hype with audience-generated hype (obviously a film like Superman is a clear example of the first not truly coinciding with the second).” Sure, it’s self-evident to you and me, but hardly so for most summer audiences. How many people, in their haste to write of the critics as out of touch and elitist, think about their own love for films that, deep down, they probably recognize as unworthy of much enthusiasm?

    “An article similar to Scott’s about the success of JP would have been pointless, right?” It never would have been written, given JP’s rather positive reviews overall (Maslin, for instance, liked it at the time). Putting that aside, though, I respect JP for other reasons: the CGI was brand new at the time, offering visuals on a scale never seen before, plus Spielberg’s magic touch manages to make even cliche dino chases magical, even after all these years. Without Depp, Pirates is nothing; the effects (including Jones) are just window dressing.

    “The obvious answer is that it pays the bills. Or, certainly in the case of the latter, pays for a new mansion.” A sad statement, to be sure, but probably correct. I agree.

  11. mrwiz said

    “And if critics are legitimately concerned about the public, they should keep in mind that their reader doesn’t see four hundred films a year, and is less likely to be wearied by convention and desperate for anything that breaks the mold.” Indeed, but instead of scorning them, perhaps the public ought to cut them a little slack and at least consider what they have to say? After all, if a jaded movie critic finds a film worthwhile, ostensibly because it’s a break from convention in some way, surely the less overexposed public might also; they might even recognize the overall dreariness of the summer movie season for themselves.

  12. Chris Donovan said

    “I can’t remember a recent review from a major publication that went after the public for liking the films rather than the films themselves for being so unoriginal.” This one leaves me speechless. We must not read the same reviewers, or maybe you don’t believe in reading between the lines. Even Scott admits here that “our love of movies is sometimes expressed as a mistrust of the people who make and sell them, and EVEN OF THE PEOPLE WHO SEE THEM.”

    “the fact that critics (all of them) take the time to produce more or less comprehensive reviews in which they present and defend their opinions in itself says something about their commitment to cinema.” This statement is questionable on a number of levels– there are plenty of critics in major media outlets who end up in their job simply as a step up the journalism ladder, not because of a driving need to understand films–but even if we grant their commitment, so what? That doesn’t mean their ideas are worth digesting. Some are, some aren’t.

    “How many people, in their haste to write of the critics as out of touch and elitist, think about their own love for films that, deep down, they probably recognize as unworthy of much enthusiasm?” I don’t buy this on any level. Again, there’s such a patronizing tone here– “yes, you say you love the film, but deep down you know it’s trash. We know this to be true because I say the film is trash.” How many classic films were originally dismissed by critics under these very auspices? (Answer: MANY). Don’t get me wrong; I think most people have dreadful taste in movies. I say this all the time. I can barely get through an hour of conversation without saying it. But I’m not a critic, and even if I were, I wouldn’t pretend that I was doing so “for you”– I would do so because cinema is an art form and worthy of study, discussion and evaluation.

    “It never would have been written, given JP’s rather positive reviews overall (Maslin, for instance, liked it at the time).” My question was mischievous –because I can remember that EXACT article appearing in several publications in the summer of 93.

    “A sad statement, to be sure, but probably correct. I agree.” Film is a business. Always has been, always will be; it’s nothing to bother about. And you ignored the rest of what I said there…

    “Indeed, but instead of scorning them, perhaps the public ought to cut them a little slack and at least consider what they have to say?” But they do. Critics can’t hurt the summer behemoths, but they can and do certainly help smaller films. But, to go back to my original posting, many folks just want a good time, and if they end up being guilted into a film experience that’s indecipherable, interminable, repulsive, or dreary, they may hold it against the critic. So it goes.

    “they might even recognize the overall dreariness of the summer movie season for themselves.” The summer months are geared toward kids; this isn’t a secret. Many adults regularly bemoan summer films (and are happy to embrace any film with even marginal adult appeal, like Prada). But more importantly… don’t you see all the big summer films? As a ticket-paying customer, you’re part of the problem, no? You’ve seen most of the big hits, or wannabe hits this year, but did you see “United 93”? “Clean?” “Mr. Lazarescu”? “Water”? “L’Enfant?”

  13. mrwiz said

    [“Indeed, but instead of scorning them, perhaps the public ought to cut them a little slack and at least consider what they have to say?” But they do. Critics can’t hurt the summer behemoths, but they can and do certainly help smaller films. But, to go back to my original posting, many folks just want a good time, and if they end up being guilted into a film experience that’s indecipherable, interminable, repulsive, or dreary, they may hold it against the critic. So it goes.] So basically there’s nothing to do about it? It’s just too bad that people blame the critics when they don’t like a critically recommended film and hate them for not liking the popular ones? It’s not the critics’ faults! Of course, we must remember also that it isn’t the public’s fault that summer movies are what they are; critics may forget that at times.

    [“I can’t remember a recent review from a major publication that went after the public for liking the films rather than the films themselves for being so unoriginal.” This one leaves me speechless. We must not read the same reviewers, or maybe you don’t believe in reading between the lines. Even Scott admits here that “our love of movies is sometimes expressed as a mistrust of the people who make and sell them, and EVEN OF THE PEOPLE WHO SEE THEM.”]We must not, indeed. And “reading between the lines” is a practice that must be done VERY carefully. Maybe such veiled criticisms do exist, but I rarely, if ever, feel as if a critic is taking it out on the public; that’s an entirely subjective observation, of course. Also, I doubt that Scott really meant that he and his colleagues routinely express such views in their writing. It’s unsurprising that they may share those opinions in private, however, and even that they creep into articles at times; Scott was probably referring to this.

    “As a ticket-paying customer, you’re part of the problem, no? You’ve seen most of the big hits, or wannabe hits this year, but did you see “United 93″? “Clean?” “Mr. Lazarescu”? “Water”? “L’Enfant?”” Guilty as charged, unfortunately. I don’t suppose it matters that I would like to see those films in the future? Or that my reasons for seeing the blockbusters are quite different from most others (and I’m not recommending the film to dozens of others, either)?

    Didn’t mean to ignore the stuff about Reitman. “Girlfriend” just came to mind and I’m not familiar with his other work. You, the expert, are probably right.

    [“How many people, in their haste to write of the critics as out of touch and elitist, think about their own love for films that, deep down, they probably recognize as unworthy of much enthusiasm?” I don’t buy this on any level. Again, there’s such a patronizing tone here– “yes, you say you love the film, but deep down you know it’s trash. We know this to be true because I say the film is trash.”] My comments were meant to be a reminder of our unfortunate tendency to blame others for perceived flaws while leaving our own selves unexamined. “Might recognize” or “could possibly recognize”, as opposed to “probably recognize”, would have been better for me to have said. Scott was right to say that we can all be critics, but we must fulfill our obligations to self-criticism as well; it can only lead to greater understanding of films and their merits.

  14. Chris Donovan said

    I think most of these points have simply arrived at the stage where we see things (very) differently. And I don’t feel like typing anymore.

    Re Reitman: “Sullivan’s Travels” isn’t his. It’s a Preston Sturges classic comedy, but its themes about the role of humor, even low-brow humor, are very relevant to this conversation. I suggest you check it out at some point. http://imdb.com/title/tt0034240/

    In terms of the films I mentioned (just a random selection of the movies that critics HAVE been praising to high heaven all year), we’ll be screening United 93 and Water, at least, this fall. Maybe french house will do L’enfant.

    “So basically there’s nothing to do about it? It’s just too bad that people blame the critics when they don’t like a critically recommended film and hate them for not liking the popular ones?” YES.

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