McWeeny on film critics who want you off their lawn

Posted by · 8:10 am · August 12th, 2009

Peter O'Toole (voice) in RatatouilleBoy I really need to get on the  ball when an idea crosses my mind these days.  Earlier in the week, Guardian writer Paul Harris beat me to the punch on an article I was spinning around concerning Hollywood’s attraction to post-apocalyptic narratives as of late.  Now HitFix’s Drew McWeeny has penned exactly the same kind of curious exploration of mainstream media critics’ views of the American film-going public that I was hoping to get to this week.

McWeeny nails it.  In a nutshell, what the hell is it with the amount of hot air being blown by the self-important film criticism and journalism establishment toward audiences that have a right to go see what the hell they want lately?  Roger Ebert, Jeffrey Wells (no surprise there), A.O. Scott and Patrick Goldstein have all recently tossed around the idea of a coming “dark age” of movie intelligentsia, arrogantly dismissed the preferences of American audiences, bemoaned an overall lack of interest in what critics have to say and, effectively, as McWeeny puts it, declared that you all get off their lawn.

I think there is a conversation to be had about American distaste in quality cinematic entertainment.  I don’t think it begins with insulting working people with higher concerns than what to see on a Friday night, however.  And I think the entire situation has pushed me that much further into an opinion I’ve held for a long time but never really had the guts to say in a public forum: Film criticism does not matter.  Yours, mine, the next guy’s.  It’s not precious, it’s not a commodity and it has slowly ruined the art of filmmaking by establishing a criteria of sorts and a hierarchy of perceived quality, boxing in what it sets out to celebrate.

I know, I know.  “But you write about movies, Kris.”  Yeah, that’s right, but I certainly don’t hold my own opinion so far above the next guy’s that I think you owe it to yourself to read my thoughts.  I understand the critical fraternity is terrified as of late as entertainment bureaus become easy targets for corporations looking to save money with cut-backs.  But I also don’t think there are many out there offering the same kind of valued film “analysis” (rather than the more facile “criticism”) that made a name for the profession.

Some will find that opinion incredibly reckless.  But I’ve been around for long enough to recognize that film critics no longer move the needle.  Maybe it’s because there hasn’t been a fresh cinematic boom in this country in such a long time, but this old-timer complaining smacks of the same sort of nostalgic “back in my day” negative attitudes about the media (warranted in many cases, mind you) that couldn’t be contained by a handful of my journalism professors who got into the game because of the rush of Woodstein in the 1970s.

But I digress.  McWeeny’s thesis:

Film critics hate you.

You. Whoever you are, sitting wherever you’re sitting, reading these words… chances are, film critics hate you right now.

Seems unfair, doesn’t it? After all, what did you do?

You committed the greatest sin against a critic’s work that is possible: you did not listen.

If you had listened, then “Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen” would have had a $3 million opening weekend, while “In The Loop” would be racing towards the “Titanic” record right now.

So obviously, whoever you are, it’s all your fault. All those remakes, all those sequels, all those amazing opening weekends for truly terrilbe films… you did that. And so you shouldn’t be remotely surprised to learn that film critics hate you.

Is there any other way to put it at this point?  Most of this, of course, stems from the overall critical vitriol spewed toward two films the public embraced: “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” and “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra.”  Sure, perhaps many are missing the boat on a stealthy release pattern for “The Hurt Locker,” but we live in an age of noise.  It takes either savvy or, the usual winner, intrusive marketing to get people’s attention these days.  And I’m sorry, but perhaps a word-of-mouth-dependent strategy for an Iraq War film isn’t the most recognizable among the chatter.

But then again, Summit has been quite successful with its release pattern for Kathryn Bigelow’s film, claiming small victories here and there.  So what if the numbers aren’t where a few aging critics and journalists (and even I) would like them to be?  To expect the film to compete with heavily marketed brands like the two Paramount pictures is absolute naivete.  McWeeny again puts it succinctly:

First, who out there seriously expected “The Hurt Locker” to be a major crossover hit with young audiences? The film is rated R, so anyone under 17 has to go with a parent, meaning it’s not the choice when kids are out in groups on the weekend. And is there anything in any of the marketing or the publicity around the film that would indicate that Summit thought they were chasing the teenaged dollar with the film?  No?  Then what the hell are we talking about?

Now obviously I hold a slightly different view of the value of film criticism than McWeeny, but when he comes around to his core beliefs on the matter, I find myself curiously in-step.  This entire post represents a difficult viewpoint to put forth because I don’t want to sound unappreciative and because I love a good, humble, personal assessment of a film’s artistic or entertainment quality as much as the next guy.  But I like the way McWeeny sees things:

I don’t think the job of a critic is to tell people what they have to go see.  I don’t think the job of a critic is to rail against what is popular, or to insult the taste of the viewing public, or even to question it.  It’s my belief that the job of a film critic is to offer up a perspective on films that is tempered by experience and by a broader film knowledge.  A film critic can describe their own experience, and hopefully place a film into context, whether social or artistic or historic, and if the film critic commits to a real body of work, hopefully the critic over time manages to leave behind a sort of emotional biography, using the films they’ve covered as touchstones along their own personal journey.

If more critics took up this philosophy of film writing, I think their work would steer a hard left out of the pompous, self-righteous place it finds itself in now and into the realm of actual art itself.  I won’t hold my breath, however.

There’s a lot to get to in McWeeny’s piece.  He eventually brings up Glenn Kenny’s recent rebuttal to all of this malarky and offers a necessary defense against Ebert’s insinuation that the select online press who saw “G.I. Joe” early on were somehow doing some dark bidding for Paramount.  But read the rest of his thorough examination for yourself here.

What are your thoughts?  Do film critics really matter, even as it pertains to their stated mission?  Have your say in the comments section below!




→ 32 Comments Tags: , , , , | Filed in: Daily

32 responses so far

  • 1 8-12-2009 at 8:46 am

    Brian said...

    For my money, McWeeny might be the critic whose opinion I trust the most. That and the series of him watching Trek with his son are solid gold.

  • 2 8-12-2009 at 8:49 am

    AmericanRequiem said...

    This article pissed me off. Enough of this young people ruining movies bullshit. At exit polls half the audioence of transformers was above 25 and half was below. Quality movies very often make good money. Lord of the Rings, Slumdob, Benjamin Button, Gladiator, Forrest Gump, King Kong, The Departed, Juno, Gangs of New York, on and on and on. I saw the hurt locker, i thought it was great, but its not the kind of movie I ever want to see again and what does that mean for box office?

    How much money do you expect movies to make really? is 150 million for slumdog not enough? DId Frost/Nixon deserve a 100 million opening weekend, no! If a movie can not attract the populcae while at the same time being a quality movie it will not make money. Look at this years release slate so far, UP was great, made lots of money, star trek had great reviews, good box office, and the dark knight and wall e last year. How can we say we are a dumb movie going audience when Pixar continues to topple Dreamworks animation? The fact of the matter is who really cares about box office? A movie like Transformers makes a bunch of money, how does that affect an indivigual, it means it gets a sequel, but people we have the option not to see said sequel. Look at the two highest grossing movies of all time. That would be Titanic and Return of the King, two movies that swept the guilds and the oscars alike. So are we really out of touch? When awards and the public seem to be going the same way, except maybe when a movie is only in limited theatres with very little publicity outside of the film world? Whos fault is it really, the studios? The critics? Us? No one, because there is nothing wrong here, it is people going to movies, just like they always have, good and bad.

    Movies like Avatar, The Lovely Bones, and Where the Wild Things are will most likely do good buisness this year. Its not because of huge market campaigns but quality movies(slumdog) The movie industry is fine, those who make bad movies will continue to make bad movies and those who make good movies will continue with that. Its up to us what we chose to see, so chose wisely people.

    I apologize for this post.

  • 3 8-12-2009 at 9:04 am

    entertainmenttoday.. said...

    Of course studios would love to see 95% positive reviews on Rottentomatoes. At worst they probably hope for at least a 50/50 split.
    I really believe the problem overall is that movies made today aren’t as good as they were in the 70’s and 80’s. When looking at popcorn films take 1984- Gremlins, Ghostbusters, Temple of Doom, The Karate Kid and Beverly Hills Cop. Is any popcorn film this year anywhere near as good as those movies? NO WAY not even close. Movies like The Dark Knight don’t come along that often. Its pop art in its highest form. I would argue a film like Jaws 2 is superior to most of what were seeing this year as far as mass entertainment is concerned. Character development is becoming a scarce commodity in movies today and thats a bad trend. Studios are trying to recreate video games and turn many movies into a visual attraction leaving story behind. Believe it or not my favorite summer film so far this year is probably The Taking of Pelham 123 because it had good character interaction and it totally kept me involved, yet that was dismised by many critics. I think many critics are very fair and some are not. I love the summer movie season but feel the industry as a whole is going in the wrong direction and the talent behind the camera isn’t as good as decades past so overall quality in tentpole films has somewhat declined.
    Jurassic Park, Back to the Future, The Karate Kid, Ghostbusters. If only summer films now were that good.

    chuck

  • 4 8-12-2009 at 9:10 am

    AmericanRequiem said...

    @chuck

    I think that is an unfair statement. I completely agree those movies were great (and almost all had speilberg involvement) but those movies are from over two decades of time. If we get one dark knight a year were lucky. 2

  • 5 8-12-2009 at 9:12 am

    AmericanRequiem said...

    sorry, 2o years from now people will look back and say o the 2000’s had movies like Lord of the rings, the dark knight, wall e, star trek (didnt love it as much as the populace though) The reality is for every good movie there are 10 bad ones, for every amazing movie, 100 flops, its just the reality and its what makes a great movie so special

  • 6 8-12-2009 at 9:12 am

    Adam Smith said...

    AmericanRequiem: the two highest-grossing films (not adjusted for inflation) are Titanic and The Dark Knight (at least in the U.S.)

  • 7 8-12-2009 at 9:14 am

    AmericanRequiem said...

    @Adam Smith

    those are domestic numbers, world wide return of the king still wins, but either way the dark knight certainly shows that the movie goers did get it right, all great movies

  • 8 8-12-2009 at 9:18 am

    Jonathan Spuij said...

    I think the fear of critics comes from the fact that people go see only stupid blockbusters and not movies that are “better”. This way the audience does eventually dumb down, Joe Popcorn doesn’t demand anything beyond simple pleasure from a film and gets frustrated from being challenged into having to switch their brains on. It would then become a downward spiral where movies only become more simplictic and stupid superficial as to where the “better” films can’t get made anymore because even fewer people go and see them.

  • 9 8-12-2009 at 9:21 am

    AmericanRequiem said...

    Dont forget these last two summers have shown that quality does matter. The Hangover proved that with comedy and now studios are going crazy for them. This is a summer where Land of the Lost, Terminator Salvation, X Men Orgins (to a lesser extent), Funny People(wish it were better) all flopped or didnt make as much money as expected, lets be thankful for that

  • 10 8-12-2009 at 9:29 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    I think the idea that popular cinema represents a “dumbing down of America” is asinine. Some of the world’s top minds probably view cinema as a frivolous diversion, after all. I think the overall culture nurtured by critics, that “good” films make the world a better place because they provoke thought, is ultimately a bit overstated.

  • 11 8-12-2009 at 9:40 am

    rafa said...

    First –

    I think Roger Ebert apply for the position in the last statement about putting film criticism in context and creating an emotional journey. specially in his books. I cant think of any other critic with his level and experience.

    Second –

    I do agree that critics are a bit angry, and most times arrogant. And agree that your, mine, or the other guy’s opinion is not less valuable then a newspaper writer.
    But what I see, and Ebert puts so poignantly in his essay, is that mine, yours, or my friends opinion DOES NOT MATTER this days, compared to any grand marketing strategy. And that sucks. If I go see “The Hurt Locker” or “The Cove” and talk about it raving to any less film loving friend, and even to my parents, there is a 95% chance that they wont see it, and will choose “Transformers” or “Time Traveler’s Wive” instead. I am not making this up, i am talking for personal experience.
    And I am not putting myself in a higher standard, because I love and appreciate films that challenge me. But if a friend who is better equipped in understanding music, theater or literature raved about some new piece I’d be excited and go see it.

    So what makes me different? I have a critical view and am not totally taken away by the dumbing down of marketing intense visibility, although I sure am more than previous generations.

    So what makes film different from other arts? They are more heavily marketed and controlled, and payed for by, fewer members, who choose what, when and how many times in average we should see things.

    And that Kris, is what I think the critics are pissed of about. And I am. So, as I see it, is not only the importance of reading a critic that is being beaten down these days, and this guys are on the edge of loosing their relevance, jobs and life long works, but the very importance a common guy gives to any other’s point of view.

    It sucks. and that you cannot put the other way around, I guess.

  • 12 8-12-2009 at 9:42 am

    entertainmenttoday.. said...

    I think the idea that popular cinema represents a “dumbing down of America” is asinine. Some of the world’s top minds probably view cinema as a frivolous diversion,

    I TOTALLY agree with that.
    Take TV for example I love Lost and Dexter but I also watch shows like Raising the Bar. I enjoy it. Will it win an Emmy-No but it works for me on a Monday Night.

    chuck

  • 13 8-12-2009 at 10:07 am

    James D. said...

    Here is what I don’t understand about their anger.

    Indie cinema has been flourishing for several years, and there have been many great small films. While you could make the argument that a studio’s focus on Transformers 2 keeps it from making big-budget “smart” films, there are still many good films being made.

    My question is this: Does the existence of G.I. Joe hamper people’s experience with arty film? It didn’t make Julie and Julia any better or worse than it was when I saw it on Monday. For smaller markets, you could argue that the G.I. Joe’s of the world keep out indie films because of limited space, but they made the bigger multiplexes because of these blockbusters. So it does limit art film for cinephiles in smaller markets, but who are we to demand that theaters show movies people don’t want to see?

    Maybe it is just me, but I like it that when I go to see The Class there are only me and a few scattered cinephiles. Let the masses have their Transformers, I don’t care what they watch.

  • 14 8-12-2009 at 10:09 am

    Neel Mehta said...

    My problem with film critics, as a generalized group, is not that they rail in unison against mass-marketed toy tie-in movies like TRANSFORMERS 2 that were never made for them. For such films, critics relish the role of the contrarian, the social outcast, the know-it-all purist.

    No, my problem is on the other end of the critical spectrum: when critics chime in unison for an emotionally inert film like ADVENTURELAND, because they all fall for the bait. That film is okay, but nowhere near deserving of the lavish praise it received. Again, they play a role: fiercely protective supporters of the personal and untidy, standard levels of enjoyment be damned. (You may not agree with this particular example, but I’m sure you can think of a recent film whose critical consensus completely befuddled you.)

    McWeeny’s last quoted paragraph nails it. It places the ideal critic as the individual, capable of independent thought, with tastes subject to change, and brave enough to remain above the critical party line.

  • 15 8-12-2009 at 10:25 am

    Jonathan Spuij said...

    This just occured to me:

    Could it also be that critics and scholars (students too) like to give thought about the film they’ve seen? Analyse it, dissect it, deduct meaning from it.
    Joe Popcorn never does that, in fact he won’t go beyond saying “ooh she has nice boobs” or ” the action was good” or “I liked that actor”.
    Critics like to explore movies much further and as such come out frustratingly empty with GI Joe, Transformers and the like because they are empty vessels.

    So what I am trying to say is, and this is also a personal note, are critics not in a way frustrated at the fact that Joe Popcorn can “switch of his brain” to enjoy a film and knowledgable critics can not?

  • 16 8-12-2009 at 10:26 am

    Chad Hartigan said...

    James D- Indie cinema has not been flourishing, unless you think (500) Days of Summer is an indie film.

  • 17 8-12-2009 at 10:39 am

    James D. said...

    Sorry Chad, by flourishing I meant creatively, not financially.

  • 18 8-12-2009 at 10:39 am

    Devany said...

    Kris, thanks for this. It reflected alot of thoughts I’d been having after reading Ebert’s piece. Personally, I believe that survival of the fittest applies to the movies as well as to anything else. If a film clicks with the public, they have every right to enjoy it and it will make money. If not, it falls by the wayside. I think critics need to come to an acceptance of that and not be so darned angry about the public going against their wishes.

  • 19 8-12-2009 at 11:04 am

    /3rtfu11 said...

    Critics aren’t irrelevant. The problem they face is print media in general is being phased out for electronic forms of communication. With the popularity of Twitter – those non sentences – and incomplete thoughts – people only want to know did Terminator Salvation rock or did it suck. No one but us chickens care if the new picture hurts the overall franchise. Don’t forget that a lot of people don’t read anything – so they’re ignoring critics by default.

    If not for critics I wouldn’t have taken a chance on watching a Pedro Almodovar film – I’ve loved all of his films that I’ve seen except “Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down” – not that it was a bad movie or anything it just wasn’t up to where he is now as an artist.

  • 20 8-12-2009 at 11:06 am

    Chris said...

    I always thought that being a professional film critic was sort of a bullshit job. Not saying that I enjoyed Transformers 2 and I haven’t seen the G.I. Joe movie, but it’s no surprise that these critics hate them both. Of course this is the case, the movies are made for the (mostly) teenage and younger demographic. Obviously people seeing these movies are going for pure entertainment, not any thought-provoking experience that most critics feel they should be having.

  • 21 8-12-2009 at 11:33 am

    red_wine said...

    This divide is nothing new. It has been around ever since film criticism exploded in the 60’s I think. Film critics have always held popular opinion in disdain whereas the general audiences have always thought critics are kill-joys. Its nothing.

    But film criticism is undeniably important just like criticism in an any art-form is essential. Film criticism is not criticizing movies(as I think many people believe), it is dissecting, analyzing, appraising movies for their artistic value. Art (if we consider films as such) has to discussed and talked about. The very fact that such large resources are devoted to appraising films, the fact that films are worthy of such discussion increases their weight and importance, rather than diminish it.

    There will always be such a thing as opinion and informed opinion. Is it perhaps presumptious to think that the majority of the population or much of the population does not indulge in much thought?

    The articles in question err in timing, not content. Written 30 years ago, they might sound new. Today it just seem like recounting obvious facts. We KNOW there is a divide between critics and general audiences(save for some regions of Europe).

    The diminishing effect of film critics is apparent. But critics can take solace in the fact that they have the last laugh, it is their choices which last & become classics and are seen generations later, not the audience’s choice.

    Or atleast that used to be the case when home video was not around uptil like the 70’s. Until then only films with a reputation could hope to survive the deluge of years. Today in the age of digital content, pretty much everything made today is going to last forever, Bride Wars too. It will be left to a significant minority to hanker after classics & ‘great’ films anymore.

  • 22 8-12-2009 at 8:03 pm

    Matthew Starr said...

    This is a tough story to discuss. Every person has the right to see whatever they like and really film critics have no right to call the American people stupid (at least not publicly).

    I think this whole debate came about right now because summer is the worst time of year for film critics and adults who like thought provoking films. The summer is for kids, tweens, teens and young adults and film critics are just starving for the types of films they enjoy.

    My favorite time of the year is Sept-Dec because I know I will be seeing one good movie after the next. But while us movie snobs are watching Lovely Bones, Shutter Island, Nine and Invictus kids will have to wait for Alvin and the Chipmunks 2. They don’t have much to see from Sept-Dec, but thats ok they are in school.

    So let the kids enjoy their summer and we will enjoy our awards season. It has always been like this and will always be like this.

    If film critics really want to complain they should complain to the film studios for releasing all the quality films within the same three month span every year.

    But then again who am I to tell you what’s a quality film?

  • 23 8-12-2009 at 8:13 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    “it is dissecting, analyzing, appraising movies for their artistic value”

    This is what I recoil at. Seems incredibly solipsistic to me.

  • 24 8-12-2009 at 10:39 pm

    Robert Hamer said...

    “This is what I recoil at. Seems incredibly solipsistic to me.”

    He’s basically right, though.

  • 25 8-12-2009 at 11:08 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Who gets to decide what “artistic value” means, though?

  • 26 8-12-2009 at 11:25 pm

    Marshall said...

    I just took up film reviewing recently. I wanted to put my thoughts on the web, so I decided to start a blog. I could only think about one thing worth writing about: movies. So I sat down, wrote a little about myself, and I reviewed. As a 16 year old who has been mainly concerned with seeing movies from this decade, I don’t have much prior experience. I can’t put many things into historical perspective. I haven’t seen many of the classic films to draw comparisons to modern ones. But from McWeeny’s definition, I am either not a film critic at all or, at the very least, one that no one should give a damn about. What I try to do is write what I liked, what worked, and what didn’t work. I think part of the reason that people have turned away from film critics is that they dissect a movie so thoroughly that it comes off as self-righteous and pretentious to a reader.

    I figure at this point, if you read my whole rant, you have at least a vague interest in what I have to say. If you want my elaboration on the topic, please check out my blog (and COMMENT):
    http://marshallandthemovies.wordpress.com/2009/08/11/mindlessmoviegoing/

    Warmest regards,
    Marshall
    marshallandthemovies.wordpress.com

  • 27 8-12-2009 at 11:49 pm

    red_wine said...

    Kris you have asked a priceless question. This was the subject of Orson Welles’ ‘F For Fake’ which I saw recently in which he asked the same question, albeit from the perspective of paintings.

    See there is only 1 group of people who even consider films as art, and those are the critics, so it does rest upon them to decide or give an opinion or atleast formulate which films are artistically accomplished and which films are not. The majority of audience watch a movie and then forget about it.

    There is no alternative opinion here. There is only 1 group which is actually discussing artistic merit, there may be division amongst the critics themselves but by and large they are the only body which has devoted such time and effort in the study of cinema, so it automatically qualifies their opinion more than than people who don’t even give much thought to the subject of films.

    You can take their opinion and leave it. And I can say this about the great classics of cinema that when I saw them, I most of the time found them genuinely superb movies and quite loved them.

  • 28 8-13-2009 at 12:08 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    But even with their informed opinions, does it move the needle? Ultimately, is a discussion about a film’s artistic merit not just as pointless as a discussion about its entertainment value? Is there a “greater good” underneath or is it not all just, ultimately, a distraction?

    In a nutshell, how does arguing artistic merit or anything really, truly affect the course of things? I’m not convinced that it does.

  • 29 8-13-2009 at 12:30 am

    red_wine said...

    Well if you want to go down that route, all art in actuality is pointless and an indulgence. It has no bearing upon our lives, it only exists in thought.

    Art is just supposed to make us think more, see more, feel more, perceive more, and nothing else. Art truly and rarely does anything at all as far as our physical actions and physical lives go and I’m saying this without sarcasm.

    It all comes down to individual standards, we decide if we want to heed these indulgences and create this illusion about things that MATTER.

    We might say that Culture is a self-aggrandizing exercise, who’s to say what’s wrong in living like savages in the jungle. Nothing and I again say this without any sarcasm. Art itself is a voluntary proposition, you either accept it or leave it. There is no compulsion or obligation. There’s no 1 correct way of living or established stream of thought.

  • 30 8-13-2009 at 12:50 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    I think the problem is most critics wouldn’t agree with you there.

  • 31 8-13-2009 at 10:56 am

    Stephen said...

    Film Critics don’t matter? Really? Hmmm……. AO Scott, Manohla Dargis, David Denby, Anthony Lane, Philip French or Peter Bradshaw………Anyone?…Anyone?….. Get real. Quality matters. End of.

    Go see Transformers on opening weekend, great, just dont pretend its anything other than what it is. Junk consumed because of no will power or intelligence to make another choice. Which is fine in and of itself. But expect not to be criticsed for it? Bogus.

    http://movies.nytimes.com/2009/08/07/movies/07perfect.html

  • 32 8-18-2009 at 1:54 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    No one pretended Transformers was anything more than mindless fun, Stephen. Though the rest of what you wrote is incredibly insulting to people who have no need to answer to you or anyone else. Not everyone wants a film decision to be a world-changing moment. Your thoughts reek of the same self-importance McWeeny and others are railing against here. Get over it.

    I see a bright future as a pompous film critic in your future, my friend.

    (Sorry to get to this so late, but I just saw it.)