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Film

The Front Page: Critical Mess

That’s it. Mark it on a calendar. 2007 is the year where we officially no longer matter. Film critics, that is. Where once we set the standard for discussion on film, we’ve been marginalized by a medium that believes us to be out of touch, self important and far too fanatical in our devotion to quality over quantity. Newspapers are dropping us for generalized wire service hype. Messageboards are alight with conversations and condemnations of our efforts. Even fellow members of the Fourth Estate are tearing us a new class hole. David Poland, former film festival director and currently owner of industry information source Movie City News recently ripped into reviewers who loved Judd Apatow’s latest comedy classic Knocked Up. He did so with a joke that marginalized anyone adoring the film into a “middle-aged person who is so tired of studio movies that you will desperately overpraise a so-so film”. As Allison Porchnik once said, you gotta love being reduced to a cultural stereotype.

This is what film criticism has been condensed into -- personal attacks/obsessions passing as viable cinematic analysis. It’s prevalent. Someone hates Mel Gibson for the horrendously racist things he said last August, and said writer translates that anger into a complete dismissal of the actor/director’s inventive action film Apocalypto. Then there are those so-called journalists who can’t make up their own minds. These supposed writers scan fan forums and other analytic websites to get ‘impressions’ of what the average man and/or woman is thinking about a specific film. They then roll all those thoughts into pure populist pap and pawn it off as well considered conclusions. Perhaps the worse example of this trend remains the film fetishists. To them, everything they love is legitimate, from the best example of Hollywood’s Golden era to a wonky little horror film that no one has ever heard of. In both cases, however, their overdone praise moves from meaningful to sickeningly sexual in its depth of desire.

Part of this is in response to the new found community of self-described know-it-alls called the Internet. In a realm where everyone has a forum, it logically figures that everything would be legitimized. There are six billion potential pundits in this world, meaning that all entertainment genres, from mystery to science fiction, action to heartbreaking drama will definitely find their champions. Taking it even further, within each subset will be people who love/hate a particular product with as much sense/insanity as they enjoy/despise something else. It’s an inferred universe without consensus, a place where even a one time motion picture masterpiece -- say Citizen Kane -- will eventually find an entire website devoted to how overrated and unremarkable it really is. And since there is no true guiding aesthetic (this is everyone out for themselves, remember), nothing is held in particular esteem. That means everyone is right. It also means that everyone is wrong. It’s merely a matter of perspective.

Take last year’s amazing movie The Fountain. Critics couldn’t handle its intertwining storylines and emotional reach. So instead of meeting it somewhere around the middle, they declared Darren Aronofsky the latest Emperor auteur and helped the viewing public rent his brand new cinematic skivvies. Similarly, Zak Snyder’s 300 burst onto movie screens back in March with a wave of invention that few films in the last few decades have managed to muster. But since the narrative was mired in old world machismo and dotted with homoerotic leanings, the proud carriers of the pro-PC banner took the movie to task. Some even disregarded it as being too action/aggression oriented. Last time anyone looked, the movie was about a battle between badly outnumbered Spartans and invading Persian hordes. So where, exactly, is the subtlety supposed to go? There are weekly examples of this kind of critical contradiction. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End will be both vilified as an overstuffed example of Hollywood hubris while simultaneously being celebrated by those who believe it to be a throwback to the original ‘70s blockbuster.

Because of the number of outlets for so-called legitimate cinematic reportage, because of the lack of an ongoing critical accord on what constitutes art and what equals artifice, because we can no longer sit idly by and watch geeks give us the metaphysical finger, we’ve decided to bite back. And the wound is now fully festering and gone gangrenous. We currently exist in a freakish film industry time when Grindhouse, a well received revamp of the exploitation film earning an 81% overview rating on Rotten Tomatoes (a database for storing critic scores), is considered a massive flop, while two atrocious titles from the same time -- Norbit and Wild Hogs can earn a 9% and 16% rating respectively and still be massive mainstream hits. Some would call such movies ‘critic proof’, but there’s more to it than that. Bad is bad, but somehow, that message is not translating to the public.

And those who argue that it shouldn’t matter do indeed have a point. Movie reviewers, by their very nature, are product testers. They sample the motion picture wares coming out each and every week and let you know how their particular tastes reacted to it. From then on, the next step is wholly your own move. You don’t have to agree, and you may go into a screening and have the exact opposite reaction. But in the end, all the writer is providing you is an opinion. Sure, it may be steeped in a great knowledge of the medium or a singular joy for cinema, but these are not Gospel conclusions. They are -- for the most part -- the genuine reactions of a film fan. So Norbit should not live or die by what 123 critics from around the globe say it is. If you go to the theater and enjoy it, more power to you. And it’s that previous statement that sets up a potentially dangerous precedent.

While it may have at one time been about creativity, 2007 Tinsel Town is definitely a cash and carry conglomerate, period. Dollars are the determinative factor in why many films are made. Sure, we can see occasional gambles (the aforementioned 300, Apatow’s previous hit The 40 Year Old Virgin), but the major motion picture studios have the profit margin down to a slick hard sell science. They don’t go into a Little Man believing in failure. Indeed, they view certain production plans (horror sequels/prequels, comic book characters franchising) as money making its way to the bank. So when Disney greenlights two more Pirates movies on the back of the first one’s success, they are counting on a pair of separate yet simultaneous situations: (1) that the eventual release on home theater will continue to whet your appetite for more and (2) that their experience in repeated past successes is astute enough to get them through this risk.

Thus a critic proof film is not really able to avoid a journalistic smear campaign. No, what the film is truly protected from is any negative impact from the audience. What Hollywood has gotten dead brilliant at is marketing movies in such a way that, even if your best friends told you it was the biggest stinker this side of Waterworld, you’d still get in line on opening weekend to see for yourself. And this of course ties in directly to the Internet ideal. Since the number of websites catering to criticism have skyrocketed in the last few years, as well as the availability of high profile portals (blogs, myspace pages, YouTube) for opinion placement, the mainstream media no longer holds any sway. Norbit may hold a less than 10% approval rating from regular reviewers, but on a place like The Internet Movie Database, the score goes up to over 30. Such a strident difference empowers the audience and leads them to believe that their own conclusions are valid -- even more so – than the person who makes viewing film their career.

Are there pompous scribes who ruin it for everyone? Absolutely. Are there people in the film fussing trade so out of touch that they can actually champion something like Are We Done Yet? over David Fincher’s fabulous Zodiac. Definitely. Is there someone already chomping at the bit, ready to scream that both films deserve to be dumped in the nearest cesspool as examples of cinema at its most stagnant? You know it. But something odd has happened over the last couple of months. The loudest voices are not only being heard, they are drowning each other out, creating a weird wall of sound that turns off everyone who comes in contact with it. Mr. Poland himself is one of those individuals who likes to say “it sucks, because I said so” and then tosses in a few rationales for his rejection before moving on to his next insider tip about the future of film.

Again, what’s missing is context, the notion that cinema is not a disposable commodity easily interchangeable with any other kind of pulp product. Disregarding critics is similar to stating that superficial summer paperbacks represent literature as its most artful. Popularity does not equal perspective. Instead it’s a sign of mere mass acceptance. Independence Day is not a great science fiction film, just a well liked one. Similarly, 2001: A Space Odyssey remains a fixture on Best Of lists because individuals with a wealth of experience in the medium recognize its inherent value. Sometimes, a movie can combine the two (Pulp Fiction, for example). But without a voice outside the din discussing the difference between the two, the result is a watered down aesthetic -- and the current state of mainstream moviemaking.

You think endless sequels and slight summer blockbusters are seen as proud accomplishments by the studios? No, they represent the fast food of the business, the guaranteed dosh makers that allow them the luxury of jeopardizing their revenue on a few prestige pictures come Awards season. They want you to believe a critic doesn’t know what he or she is talking about because it protects their investment and leads to greater returns come opening weekend. Thus the continuing decline in preview press screenings. Of course, they don’t mind turning around and using contextually suspect blurbs to support their hype machine, and they love to tout the number of Year End lists their movies appear on. Talk about your hate/tolerate kind of relationship.

When you boil it down to its basics, criticism is suffering because, in general, it’s poorly thought out and equally illiterate. Scan the web for other reviews of Knocked Up and you will find people actually using the attractiveness of actor Seth Rogen (or repugnant lack thereof) as a means of rating the film’s comedic viability. Talk about using high school standards as a means of making adult decisions. Why not just have Paris Hilton tell the moviegoing public what’s “hot” and what’s “not”. From poor sentence structure and a self-determined desire to be cleverer than what you’re reviewing, the critical community continually shoots itself in the foot. But instead of being merely hobbled, it looks like, this time, the damage may be permanent.

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