Thursday, September 30, 2004

Movie Reviews, Part II

In the first installment of the Buck Grand Unified Theory of Movie Reviews© (BGUTMR©, pronounced "Be-gut-mer"), I theorized that movie reviewers might consistently underestimate how funny movies are if they watch movies alone. Why? Because psychological research finds that people find movies much funnier when they watch as part of a group of friends. (In point of fact, I am reliably informed that, for this very reason, film companies try to get reviewers to screen comedies as part of a crowd of viewers.)

Here is the second installment: You can't tell anything about a movie's quality by the mere fact that critics unanimously like it.

Why do I say this? Experience. Consider the film Morvern Callar. As you can see here, 84% of critics liked it. But when I recently rented it, I found it unwatchable. The movie starts out with the lead female character lying on an apartment floor next to her dead boyfriend. This sounds like the beginning of an interesting movie. But it's not. After about 40 minutes, I had had enough of watching the lead character and her friend stumble in and out of meanless scenarios randomly stitched together with no coherent plot or storyline in view. Or take the movie Pi. 86% of critics raved over that one. But while it was more coherent than Morvern Kallar by a long shot, it was still a spastic and unbelievable film that would only appeal to weird tastes.

On the other hand, sometimes all the critics like a movie that really is good -- the superb Rabbit-Proof Fence, for example, or Stevie, or Dirty Pretty Things. That's why I'm not claiming that critical acclaim is proof that a movie is bad. It's just that critical acclaim isn't informative one way or the other.

Why do critics all seem to fall for movies that are so bizarre? This is another aspect of BGUTMR©: It's precisely because they are movie reviewers. As movie reviewers, what do they do for a living? They watch movies day in, day out. They become so cynical towards the average movie that they become suckers for anything that is off-beat, far-out, odd, quirky, etc. (They seem to be impressed if a movie's awfulness is somehow rumored to be "artistic" or "edgy.") And they become especially sensitive towards anything that seems "cliched," even though the rest of us might not have watched enough movies to be bothered by (or even to recognize) a particular "cliche."

This aspect of my theory has empirical confirmation: I asked my good friend Rod Dreher of the Dallas Morning News, and he said that this was absolutely true. When he moved on from his job as a movie reviewer for the New York Post -- and stopped watching at least one movie per day -- he found that his attitude towards movies became fresher, less cynical, more sensitive, and so forth. He recalled having attended a film festival where a short film realistically depicted a child rape for several minutes on end. He found it unbearable to watch, and yet the audience of reviewers loved it. Why? Because they had seen so many movies that they were inured to the sorts of things that would make most people shudder.

Now that said, if 90+ percent of reviewers hate a movie, it probably isn't worth watching. This was true in the case of Godsend, a movie that made absolutely no sense in several different ways, and The Order, a screamingly awful attempt at a religious horror movie.

So there you go: The second installment of BGUTMR©.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Critics watch a lot more films than you do and as a result--I'm just saying it's possible!--they know more than you. I know nothing about woodworking or carpentry, as a result a carpenter may be a lot more (or lot less) impressed with a certain kind of crown moulding over my windows than me. He knows the stuff, he's run his hands over these things, he knows how different techniques or materials produce different results, he's tried to design them and has a deeper understanding than I about what it takes to create a truly beautiful bookshelf, whereas all I need is something to put my books on.

Different people like different things for different reasons. You may think 'Citizen Kane' is the greatest movie ever made for a dozen reasons; I may think the exact same thing for a dozen completely seperate reasons. We can agree that Kane is the best ever based completely on aesthetic tastes that are entirely incongruous.

I work in a video store and people ask me all day long 'what's a good movie' or 'what's funny'. I haven't the slightest clue what these people will think is funny or good. They're asking me because they're too ignorant/lazy to make their own decisions or maybe they just assume that I will make excellent suggestions. Frankly I hate telling people what I think they'll like--its incredibly presumptious on my part in a way that I have no interest in.

Also you have to factor in that film critics nowadays are like baseball pitchers: they are way too many jobs for way too little talent. And these guys got to fight for their jobs by being in line with what people want. I think you'll find if you really watch closely lots of critics are really just cherry-picking the films they think will be successful and shunning the ones they think their constituency won't like. Point being: most critics don't really even care about their own opinions.

Then there's also the consideration that people often see only the films that correspond to their socio-economic level, they will only participate in the art (or woodworking or bookshelves for that matter) they think they're supposed to like. But that's a whole 'nother can of worms.

12:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've never thought about this in terms of movies, but I think your analysis is right because I've often thought the same thing in terms of theatre criticism. When the American Rep Theatre first opened in Cambridge I subscribed for a couple of years. In a season of five plays, 2 or 3 would be "experimental," 2 or so of the remaining with creative staging--traditional play, but performed with characters leaving the stage talking to the audience, etc. etc. I'd leave thinking "this was shit" and go home and read glowing reviews the next morning. I finally decided that if you see three plays a week, the fare was a welcome and refreshing change, but if you see six plays a year, you welcome something with more conventional theatrical values. I've seen some very fine plays at ART, but now I pick my spots.

7:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Stuart --

Humor and insight aside, don't use a circle "c" if you mean a "tm." Some of us IP folks may start laughing at you, rather than with you. (And don't use the circle "r" in any event, 'cause it's actually illegal to do so unless you've actually registered the mark.) has a pretty good FAQ.

6:38 PM  

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