A story about the relationship between film critic and audience.
“I liked it, but I know that’s not a popular opinion so I’ve been keeping quiet.”
This is the response I received from an acquaintance the other day at the onset of a conversation about Suicide Squad, the latest critically divisive film to hit theaters. There was a real sense of shame emanating from the person delivering such an opinion, as if there was some sense of guilt in telling me – someone who roundly panned the film in his review – that they liked it.
At this point, I halted the conversation to make one thing clear: there’s no need to feel shame or feel as if you are somehow wrong because you’ve landed on an opposing viewpoint. Whether you’ve enjoyed a movie that received a low score from critics on Rotten Tomatoes or you find yourself at odds with the opinion of a critic you enjoy reading, you should never feel bad or shameful or even angry. This conversation – combined with another in which another acquaintance admitted to thinking that Rotten Tomatoes was all scored by a single person – have given me an opportunity to reflect on what it is that criticism means to people and what it probably should mean.
The first thing to acknowledge is that fandom continues to be increasingly protective of its favorite things. We’ve seen this with Star Wars, the DC Cinematic Universe, Steven Universe, and even Harry Potter. This is where things often become ugly. A criticism of a property – like those leveled against DC and Suicide Squad over the last two weeks – are seen as attacks. A review that conveys disappointment in adaptation choices or execution are scene as large-scale attacks for nefarious reasons (“You’re all shills for Marvel!”). For many a fan, this is personal. I get that. I had a similarly ugly response to Scott Derrickson’s remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still in 2008. My hope is that I’ve matured quite a bit since then.
Why Rotten Tomatoes is Bad for Film Criticism
So while it’s understandable that fandom can be very protective of its beloved properties – the Ghostbusters of the world – it also misses the point of criticism to consider a negative (or less than favorable review) an attack. Just as it’s a misunderstanding of criticism to feel ashamed to like a movie that is panned by the critical establishment. None of that is the intent or point of what we do – at least not the way I try to do it.
All of this also coincided with two emails I received from readers last week. The first of which was from Daniel in Canada, a clearly aggrieved fan who saw Suicide Squad despite the tenor of the reviews and seemed to enjoy it quite a bit. Among his numerous questions was this one:
Being a critic, watching so many movies, more than the average person, do you find it more difficult now to enjoy a movie. Meaning, you’ve been eating so much cake, that cake in general now tastes bland. Your taste buds are used to it. Now, you need specialty cakes. Cakes that taste stronger, more bold, more foreign. You need that dopamine to be released, and the brain stopped releasing that dopamine for the average movie a long time ago. Just like food, you’ve had enough. You forgot all those cakes you ate as a kid. Even the grocery stores cakes, or the cheap cakes, they were still so damn good. Now, you wouldn’t even touch them.
Guys, do you ever think that you lost your inner child? Do you ever think that you’re exposed to so many movies, it has a psychological effect? And I don’t say this in a rude way. I’m serious. It has to have implications. We are all cut from a similar movie background. That’s why i’ve listened to you guys for so many years, yet here we are.
Nonetheless, you guys still rock. Keep it up. You’re doing good things for all of us. But seriously, sometimes it’s important to pause, reflect, analyze and discuss.
This is a really interesting perspective – and not just because I love cake and have not eaten it in weeks thanks to my quest to go from “chubby and bearded” to simply “bearded” – the notion that perhaps we see movies differently because we (critics) see so many movies. Or perhaps we’ve lost the ability to switch off that part of our brains that sees flaws and “simply enjoy the movie.” While I can appreciate the attempt to dig into the psyche of critics and engage thoughtfully, I have to disagree to an extent. What I will say is that I’ve noticed there can be a difference in the way we watch movies. It takes us back to that original acquaintance, the one who felt shame because he enjoyed Suicide Squad. After I explained that he shouldn’t feel bad about his opinion and that I really did want to know what he thought, he began to explain briefly what he liked. In that moment, I was struck by one overwhelming thought: we clearly watched the movie differently. And while there’s no right or wrong way to engage with a piece of art, it was clear that he wasn’t paying close attention to the finer details.
As critics, we attempt to engage more deeply with every film. What is it trying to say? Is it executing on the many basic technical elements of cinema (editing, cinematography, narrative rhythm)? What’s it trying to say thematically? Where does it fit in the larger context of its own universe, historical context, etc.?
Why do we engage on this level when so many “normal moviegoers” can simply sit back and have a good time? Because no matter how often it is watered down to appear that way, our job isn’t just to watch the movie and give a thumbs up or thumbs down. Which brings me to reader email number two from an aspiring film journalist named Jack. His email asked a number of questions about criticism in the Rotten Tomatoes age. Whether I think the Fresh/Rotten scale is too restrictive (it can be), whether I feel as if the best of what I write gets lost in the shuffle (it sometimes does), and finally, what future do I see for film criticism if everything is being boiled down to a contentious binary? How will film criticism exist going forward?
That last part is very interesting. We’re living in contentious, often binary times, so it’s not a stretch to think that criticism might not survive too many more DC Films or Ghostbusters reboots. How will the “critical establishment” survive when there are movements among the masses of “real people” that outweigh them? Does that sound like anything else happening in our world?
I’m of the opinion – one that is self-serving to a great extent – that film criticism will continue to exist as it has always existed, just as movies opening in theaters will continue to exist. What will ebb and flow is the perception of the readers. My hope is that readers/fans/the “average moviegoers” will seek to understand what criticism really is. It’s not an “us vs. them” proposition. The work of good criticism is to act as a conduit for those who seek a higher plane of engagement with the movies they see. Critics try to engage on this level because it helps understand and describe our own experiences. I once had a conversation with David Denby, film critic at The New Yorker, who said that he often likes to sleep on a film before writing a review, so that he can wake up the next morning and see “how it tastes the next day.”
That’s what we’re really doing – we’re describing our own experience. This includes dealing with our own baggage, biases, tastes, etc. It’s about providing insight into our own experience to hopefully enable our readers to similarly engage with a movie. It doesn’t mean that we have to all agree. Nor does it mean that anyone who enjoys my writing should feel bad or angry if I land on a different conclusion. All I care about is that people read, think, and engage with both the movie and the words I write about it. If we accomplish that much, film criticism will continue to thrive.
We have to accept that we’re not always going to agree. And that agreeing or disagreeing is not the point. We all have different experiences with every film. We all bring our own unique life experiences into the theater with us and the best films speak to all of us, often in different meaningful ways. It’s also important to understand that we may be looking for different things in a particular film. Take Suicide Squad as a further-tortured example. While I may go into it looking for signs that Warner Bros. and DC have a firm grasp on the story they’d like to tell (something that wasn’t proven in previous efforts), it’s possible that there are fans who are simply happy to see some of these characters take center stage after years of relegation to comics and cartoons. Neither of us is wrong to engage this way. But we can still have a conversation and work toward understanding each other’s perspective. It’s when we build walls, allow tribalism to take hold, and refuse to have these conversations that things get ugly.
In the end, I’d like you to know that I place equal value on the conversations I have with people whose experiences with a movie differed from my own. It’s great to find common ground, to explore a movie with someone who also loved it, but seeking to understand the experience of those who saw it differently is often more interesting. As someone who writes about movies for a living, my sincere hope is that you simply engage. Read about my experiences, share your own, and maybe try to engage a little more deeply with every movie you see. That’s where the real magic of film criticism exists. And it has nothing to do with a score.