The Great Divide

by Bill Gibron

19 September 2011

Gone are the days of Pauline Kael - writers who could actually alter the conversation on cinema. In its place is a great divide, one that continues to grow wider and wider.
cover art


Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Christina Hendricks, Ron Perlman, Oscar Isaac, Albert Brooks

US theatrical: 16 Sep 2011 (General release)
UK theatrical: 23 Sep 2011 (General release)

What is it with audiences and critics? Why do they agree on so very little and mean even less to each other? Some will argue that the universal soapbox that is the Internet changed the face of forming opinions forever. Like the old joke about a certain human body part, everybody has judgments and most of them stink. So naturally, when you overwhelm the marketplace of ideas with a combination of idiocy and grammatically suspect speculation, the result is more watered down than a dive bar martini. Everything from the exploitation of thumbs to the alphabetizing of validation has also contributed to the decline in the viewer/journalist ideal. After all, when given a couple hundred words and a goofy icon-based rating system to struggle through, worth weakens and then dies.

But there are other factors to consider as well, reasons for great and growing divide between what critics think is good/bad and what the box office - the ultimate barometer of public appreciation - indicates. Case in point - Drive, the recent Ryan Gosling thriller that is sitting at nearly 92% positive on that bane aggregate, Rotten Tomatoes. Of the 158 names on the site’s supposed honor roll (yours truly included), over 145 found it to be somewhere between ‘good’ and ‘great’ in the pantheon of September 2011 releases. Some have even gone so far as to reserve a spot on their end of year Best of list for this interesting deconstructed noir. Yet with over 2880 theater screens to draw from and relatively lax collection of titles around it, the best Drive could muster was a mere $11 million opening.
Before you wonder what all the complaining is about, realize this: for a relatively unknown title with a certifiably unfamiliar director (Nicolas Winding Refn, of Bronson and Valhalla Rising fame) and a commercially questionable cast, that’s a great number. Perhaps the best number any studio could have hoped for. Of course, the Summer sees $100 million openings all the time, so to merely do one tenth of said number appears pathetic. In truth, it’s merely anticlimactic. At the same time, given the positivity pouring out of the press, one could easily imagine/argue a much greater opening and a much bigger audience reaction. Sadly, said theory forgets on the biggest factors which creates such a divide - moviegoers are not movie experts.

Put another way, audiences are not critics. For the average moviegoer, a trip to the cinema is a question of relaxation and leisure. It’s a few hours away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, a pit stop along the regular rat race realities. While many may see several films in a month, the important distinction between a journalist (or blogger, or whatever) and a typical ‘fan’ remains one of perspective. Someone whose written about movies for, say, ten years, has probably seen, at a minimum, 1000 movies. In fact, most professionals view closer to 300+ titles a year, pushing the total dramatically higher. Such overload creates what we critics like to call “a malaise of mediocrity,” a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy within which almost every movie can be measured and remanded.

Here’s an better explanation: when you see dozens of dull, derivative titles every month, the surprises really stand out. It’s the legitimate law of cinematic averages. Comedies which aren’t particularly funny are easily dismissed when a real laughter comes around. Similarly, a scary movie that actually delivers on the shocks suddenly becomes “the most frightening film since The Exorcist” among the belligerent. In fact, a truism of the profession remains that something slightly above average will cause just as much commotion as something superior or horribly inferior. Since most movies moderate around the ‘C-’ level of likability, anything unusual, pro or con, is worth celebrating.

Of course, none of that applies to the typical audience. They don’t have dozens of dramas to use as a guide-posting frame of reference, or hundreds of half-baked actioners as a means of making their decision. They have their favorite actors, their recognizable tropes, and flock to them in a fever when the right creative (and commercial) combination come together. Every season, critics are shocked by the swill embraced by the populace. What the supposedly smarter-thans forget is that, to the general viewer, this isn’t the fourth Jason Statham film of the year, just his latest. If they like what they see, they’ll show up. If not, it can wait for the weekly trip to the Red Box.

Home video is probably the biggest deciding factor in the constant partition between the audience and the aesthetic. Critics don’t usually wait until a DVD or On Demand release to rate a title. They see it in a sneak or press preview, in advance of much except possible festival buzz. As a result of their jaded job description, they typically can’t wait until a consensus has been reached and a reaction determined and dissected. So they go with their gut as much as their gathered years of experience. The audience, on the other hand, can sit back over a bevy of blurbs and recently released Red Band trailers and gauge how badly they want to see something. If it’s worth the cost, the battle over technology vs. etiquette, and the inevitable realization that, sans a smash, it really wasn’t worth it, then they will leave the comfort of their living room for some similarly situated R&R. If not, a rental is just as good.

Of course, the court of public opinion often gets it right. Bucky Larson was lambasted by those critics who chose to see it, while the world saw a stinker and decided to wait for a date with Netflix. But in the case of Drive, a decidedly different and engaging view of the typical crime thriller, the lack of support may be shocking, but it’s not surprising. As the split continues to grow between the two distinct dynamics, what’s becoming clearer and clearer is how Hollywood manipulates and micromanages the artform. Kiddie films will always do gangbusters (just look at the “King” of this weekend’s b.o. returns) while certain subgenres which cater to a specific demographic always provide a profit. Gone are the days of Pauline Kael - writers who could actually alter the conversation on cinema. In its place is a great divide, one that continues to grow wider and wider.

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