Wednesday, December 29, 2004

It stinks!

Normally I'd post something like this to my film blog, but since I have this page for more personal observations I figured I'd put it here instead.

Is film criticism becoming irrelevant? It's a question that bears asking, not so much for serious film-nerd types, but because of more mainstream moviegoers. My job in a multiplex brings me face to face with these people every day, people who don't necessarily espouse the same ideas on film as an art form as I do, people who still see movies as a tool to unwind and relax after a stressful day. I'm not one of these folks, although I can kind of sympathize with where they're coming from- sometimes you just need something to take your mind off your troubles. And when you have to spend $8.50, you'd like to pick a winner.

Now, sometimes this means seeing a movie like THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW, a silly but highly diverting disaster movie that sells itself on effects and spectacle. But, as the old saying goes, you can't eat burgers everyday. Sometimes you crave something a little different, although with some grounding in the familiar, usually a recognizable cast. How, then, can one choose between the various offerings out there that don't have a $30 million ad campaign or a pre-sold franchise name? That's where the critics come in.

In the past year, the critics have given their seal of approval (more or less) to a number of just-outside-the-mainstream titles as BEFORE SUNSET, ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND, I HEART HUCKABEES, THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU, BIRTH, SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW, and CLOSER, all of which have played at my (mainstream) multiplex. These positive ratings have (to a certain extent) encouraged a number of people to see these films, and when I've had the chance to observe the audiences exiting after these films, more often than not I've heard a distinct amount of grumbling. Random comments I've heard have included "well, THAT sucked," "I didn't get it," or the old favorite "what the hell was that about?"

None of the aforementioned titles are outside my cinematic comfort zone, so I can't exactly empathize with people who don't receive these films on their respective wavelengths. Still, I can see where they're coming from. When one is used to viewing a certain kind of film (e.g. Hollywood) in a certain way (e.g. "turning the brain off"), watching something in a non-commercial style that requires active engagement in the story can cause uneasiness and discomfort in an audience caught unawares.

I suppose the mainstream critics are at least partly to blame for this. One major reason is the ratings shorthand that has pervaded contemporary movie reviews, providing an at-a-glance assessment of a film's quality, or lack thereof. Taken in the context of a full review, a critic's rating can provide a relative measure of his feelings, but more and more newspapers and magazines have taken the ratings out of their natural context. Nearly every (mainstream-oriented) publication I read nowadays has a page devoted to "capsule" reviews and ratings, with little more than a sentence or two to back up the rating. So when one picks up a newspaper with the intent of finding something to see, there's a list of movies, star ratings, and maybe a bit of synopsis or a pithy observation.

The problem comes from taking the star ratings at face value- i.e. to assume that every film listed under a given rating is equal. To name one ready example, Roger Ebert gave both VAN HELSING and THE BROWN BUNNY 3 stars. Having seen both films I can attest to the fact that assuming one film is equal to the other is, quite frankly, laughable. And yes, I realize that the example is a bit extreme- after all, they were never meant for the same audience, they were never booked at the same theatre in Columbus. However, if two different films at the same multiplex are rated similarly by critics (for example, BIRTH and FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS), there's a temptation to think both films to be equally-suitable choices for a casual weekend viewing, when that's clearly not the case.

It's this conundrum, and the bad feelings it stirs up among some viewers, that brings me back to my original question. Is film criticism becoming irrelevant? I don't think so, although the discontent many people feel for critics would imply otherwise. If people are going to put stock in the opinions of critics, these people need to learn to actually read the reviews, instead of just going by the critic's grade. A good critic will, in the process of expressing his own opinions on a film, provide enough information on the film's style and substance for a reader to gauge whether or not he's interested in the film in question. If you trust a critic, you should be able to read a review and know whether you want to see the film, provided you hadn't already decided.

I think it also helps to know one's own tastes. If you don't like a certain kind of movie, that's OK. As with anything in life, when it comes to cinema we all have a comfort zone (mine includes violent Asian revenge flicks and long-ass French movies about nothing, but does not include Garry Marshall movies). If you want to try something new, that's fine, but if you don't like it, don't blame someone else. But at the same time, don't let that discourage you from trying something else that's new in the future. After all, do you think I've been watching Claire Denis movies all my life?

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