[17 December 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It stands as one of the big debates among critics. It surpasses annual best of lists and arguments over overrated/underrated directors/writers/actors. For purists, the answer is obvious. Film is meant to be an isolated and individual experience, especially for someone given the charge of examining it for consideration and comment. On the other hand, the post-modern movie scribe believes that as populist entertainment, a film should only be considered as part of a group dynamic. Only with an audience can a comedy’s humor be judged correctly. Only with a crowd can a fright fest’s shivers be accurately gauged.
Of course, as we’ve come to discover over the last two pieces in this prolonged Fourth Estate examination, viewers and reviewers don’t mix. Even worse, many publications and their editorial staff are not looking for the mob mentality - at least, they didn’t used to. To say that an audience’s reaction SHOULD be important to a critic is like suggesting that they can’t do their job without it. And yet they are asked to all the time. Naturally, if you visualize your aesthetic purpose as playing reporter, delivering plot and how the reader might react to it, the forced guffaws and freely shed tears are your basic bread and butter. But if your job is more in line with classic criticism - viewing each movie as it applies to the overall artform - some complimentary ticket holder’s take means very little.
Let’s face it - your typical critic is not out to pander. Pauline Kael didn’t establish her legacy by listening to the amplified ‘ohs’ and ‘ahs’ of a packed Cineplex. Roger Ebert didn’t win his Pulitzer by gauging the number of shrieks a Poltergeist play date received. A reviewer takes the job because they love the medium, and their approach to same and how they view it is intensely private…until made public. While it’s nice to hear an audience sigh in appreciation of a motion picture job well done, it’s never mandatory. Even worse, some suggest that hearing crowds crow over an obviously hackneyed effort actually amplifies their contempt. It can be confusing at best.
Perhaps, by example, the problems in both approaches can be better highlighted. Let’s take a crass, horribly unfunny comedy like Rush Hour 3. Screened for the press in a preview audience-only offering, fans of both Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker lined up hours before hand to support their favorite onscreen action duo. So when they finally find a seat, complain about the critic’s row, and settle down for some cost-free entertainment, they’re ready to react. All throughout the lame, nonsensical 90 minutes of movie, the crowd cheered. They literally rolled in the aisles as obvious jokes limped by, and they rallied like less than sober sports fans when the finale unfolded. Praise poured out of the mouths of all but the critics. They were too stunned to speak.
Then there’s Sweeny Todd. The Sondheim musical, brought to wondrous life by director Tim Burton, was a terrific tour de force, the kind of operatic experience that allows a viewer to escape and explore. Though the songs can be difficult and the amount of blood overpowering, the film is a literal work of art - and yet, in the half-full preview screening it played in, the crowd was subdued to the point of possible boredom. There was a smattering of applause as the credits rolled, and the comments given to the studio representatives suggested an alarming level of discontent. Of course, most of the critics found it masterful.
So, which reaction is valid, and which one is not. From a professional perspective, Todd is the clear winner. It has a 90% positive rating vs. Rush Hour 3‘s 20%. Yet box office is usually the final word, and in the case of the tired tre-quel, Chan and Tucker are destined to come out ahead. So what is the audience reaction actually predicting? If not artistry, than mere appreciation? And is that really a critic’s job - to determine what’s saleable vs. what’s skillful? Under a traditional career definition, that goes against everything a journalist represents.
But what about the private screening? Does the lack of an audience matter there? It’s clear that, in the case of movies like No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, the added involvement of a crowd would not matter. In fact, their presence could have cancelled out the magical spell being weaved by the able bodied auteurs behind the lens. On the other hand, the odd family film fragmentation of something like The Water Horse, or the quirky indie issues at the heart of Wristcutters: A Love Story might have actually benefited from an audience’s input. Not every movie announces its intentions in obvious ways. If a viewer can offer up some insight, igniting a reaction in a critic’s head, then it’s a clear case of win/win.
This almost never happens, however. Instead, inappropriate laughter and unnecessary communal commentary are the norm. At a screening of Elizabeth: The Golden Age, a man was so amazed by the fate of Mary, Queen of Scots, that he reacted to her dramatic execution by shouting “DAAAAMN! They cut her head off!” In another case, while a character in Feast of Love (and otherwise awful film) was dying, snickers could be heard from various members of the movie going multitude. The misplaced giggle is probably the most blatant audience offense. Just because you’re not frightened by a scary movie doesn’t mean some other member of the attending throng isn’t. Your disrespectful defense mechanism is not really appreciated.
Still, it’s hard to argue with this core concept of the theatrical experience. All three Apatow efforts this year - Knocked Up, Superbad, and Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story played so well with an audience that it’s hard to imagine experiencing each without them. Similarly, I Am Legend needed its fan-base support, if only to help keep viewers awake during the dull third act build up. The audible gasps during The Kingdom and The Bourne Ultimatum did argue for both film’s action acumen, and genre workouts like Rob Zombie’s Halloween and The Mist played much better with an exponential level of fear.
It really doesn’t answer or even address the question, however - and drama remains the twisted trump card. Serious films play on so many differing levels and emotions that they can quickly bifurcate a crowd. Reactions to something like Rendition were all over the map, while American Gangster fell across clear actor/demographic lines. Michael Clayton and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford didn’t play like end of the year candidates in their private morning screenings, but when shown with a crowd, both received realistic, indirect boosts.
Just like judging movies for a living, prognostication by popularity is a horribly incomplete science. Evan Almighty flopped, yet the audience who attended the preview lapped up every uneven minute. Bee Movie made viewers buzz, yet it looks to be one of the least successful CGI efforts ever. On the other hand, Stardust and Sunshine had strong critical approval and yet turnstiles remained relatively still. It’s been said that if one could predict - within an acceptable frequency - what will work and what will fail, they’d be the richest man or woman in Tinsel Town. It’s just not that easy.
And audiences aren’t the answer. While the clash over private vs. public will probably end up remaining a matter of personal preference, the conversation will continue. As stated in other installments of these ‘confessions’, there is an automatic bias from the professional community against being herded and harassed. Major markets probably never even consider the issue while smaller regions wrestle with it week in and week out. Obviously, the studios think that some films play better with more people present. Others are for media minds only. Perhaps it’s not a matter of right and wrong after all. It may not even be an issue at all. But in light of the way criticism is marginalized nowadays, one thing is obvious - all reaction is taken with a huge grain of cinematic salt, both inside and outside celluloid.