The internet continues to be the ultimate explanation for why unchecked democracy is a disaster. Rotten Tomatoes has given users the ability to critique the reviews of critics; the basic idea seems kind of redundant – why not us then critique the critique of the critique? – but it has quickly passed from being a lame feature into one of the most truly hilarious things that has happened online recently. And it really illustrates the massive lack of understanding of just what film criticism is.
Like any other internet feature that seeks feedback, most of the comments seem nasty. It’s like people online can’t be bothered to react unless it’s negative (although, in all fairness, I did get some very wonderful comments and ratings on my blurb for The Fountain. That seems to have been a movie that galvanized those who liked it to reach out to others who liked it – in a lot of ways that’s a beautiful thing). Recently my friend and colleague Ed Douglas from Coming Soon found himself at the receiving end of a comment gangbang when he gave Borat a rotten rating. A quick perusal of the comments shows at least two different people who call Ed a douche, simply because he didn’t like a movie!
Most telling is when the negative comments show up before a movie has been released, meaning people are slamming critics for disliking a movie that they themselves haven’t seen yet. And of course nothing beats a recent comment on J Hoberman’s review of Apocalypto. User Ignite Ice, surely a film scholar of the highest magnitude, disagreed with Hoberman’s negative take on the film and said, “This critic is an amateur writer and amateur film reviewer. He shows no attempt to have understood the film. Terrible critic.” I imagine Hoberman must be quite depressed to learn that reviewing for the Village Voice for decades (with almost 20 years spent as the head critic) and writing a number of books on film still doesn’t qualify him, in Ignite Ice’s eyes, as a professional.
The problem here isn’t that Ignite Ice thinks Hoberman is a poor critic (and the problem also isn’t that Ignite Ice is apparently retarded in some fundamental way), the problem is that Ignite Ice sees Hoberman’s review as an attack on himself. You see this attitude on most internet forums where movies are discussed, including our own – there’s serious venom for a critic who slams a movie that is loved. Roger Ebert may never get enough cancer to satiate the people who despise him for his review of Fellowship of the Ring – a movie that went on to fantastic success no matter what problems Ebert had with it.
I disagreed with Ebert’s review. And I disagree with Ed Douglas’ and, to some extent, J Hoberman’s. I often find myself disagreeing with reviews I read from writers I like, but I almost never get mad at them. I hated Inland Empire, but Manohla Dargis loved it; I don’t feel that her review fully sold me on why she liked it so much, but she was able to get across a sense of how it worked for her. That’s more exciting to me than reading a review that totally is in lock step with my own opinion.
Of course I sometimes do get mad at film critics, but it’s not for their opinions. Recently I called out Leslie Felperin at Variety for a completely daft review of The Fountain, a movie I obviously loved. In the weeks leading up to the movie’s release many poisonous reviews showed up, but I didn’t go after them, as most of them were at least well-written and decently reasoned. Felperin, however, spent an inordinate amount of what small space she had critiquing people’s hair, a sure sign that she never engaged the movie on any level of meaning. That’s inexcusable on the part of a film critic, to not even give a decent argument for a point of view.
But why do so many people take movie reviews so personally? It’s a weird phenomenon, and it’s not one I encountered much before the internet. Back when I was growing up you could quite possibly get into a fight telling a metal head that Motley Crue was a joke, but it’s hard to imagine much heated rhetoric being exchanged about even the most beloved movies of my youth, like the Indiana Jones films. I suspect that the hate for contrary criticism comes from a double-edged feeling about critics – people hate “snobby” film critics but also want to feel validated in their opinions. Honestly, there’s no other answer I can come up with to explain why I get so many angry emails about my opinion on a film. By having a different opinion about a movie, the critic is threatening the reader’s own opinion – at least in the reader’s head. Maybe there’s another reason behind it, but sheer insecurity seems the only answer that works.
Film critics are not above reproach, and many of them have become lazy and thoughtless when approaching movies, which is something I had hoped the internet, with it’s unlimited word counts, would change. There are bad critics out there, truly terrible critics who can’t write and have no knowledge of film history or filmmaking. Far too many of them are online critics, and they seem to get away with being bad writers and bad thinkers because of a surplus of enthusiasm or creative swearing. But the problem with them is almost never their opinion – it’s the way they form it or the way they express it. In the meantime I will continue to gleefully check the Rotten Tomatoes comments, seeing which lover of great cinema is telling Richard Schickel that he knows nothing about the medium.