Over the last couple of days, web pundits have been all atwitter about the growing divide between critics and audiences. This makes me think that web pundits and goldfish must share some essential brain matter, since these people are treating this like it’s a new phenomenon and not something gets discussed to death every year between the end of awards season and the opening bell of the summer blockbuster months.
The latest round of ‘is criticism irrelevant?’ bullshit comes out of the fact that both Disney and Fox have slammed critics for taking big huge dumps on Norbit and Wild Hogs, both of which made roughly one metric ton of cash. Norbit director Brian Robbins came out with this question: "The only films that get good reviews are the ones that nobody sees. I just don’t think you can make movies for critics. How do you figure that? Is the audience that stupid? Is America’s taste that bad? I don’t think so."
Of course the audience is that stupid. Of course America’s taste is that bad. Just look around us – look at what the most popular shows on television are – more often than not crap like Two and a Half Men and the latest mindless installment of the CSI franchise. Go to any town in this country and see the same shitty chain restaurants. Look at the music charts and see the utter nonsense that Americans listen to. This isn’t something we’re supposed to admit to, though. We’re supposed to make up excuses for why Americans would rather see Wild Hogs than Zodiac, but the real, basic reason is that so many of us are fucking idiots.
Before you get all up in arms about me calling out Americans, the truth is that most people are stupid in general, regardless of in what country they live, but Americans have refined tastelessness and idiocy to a fine art. Remember, Mike Judge’s Idiocracy is going to be looked back at as Nostradamus-type predictions one day (which only goes to show how stupid we’re getting, as you have to be sort of dim to really buy into the Nostradamus thing in the first place).
As for critics being irrelevant – well, they always have been, to an extent. Star Wars didn’t get across the board great reviews when it came out. And no matter what the reviews of Wild Hogs were, the audience reacts to crap the way it usually does, by eating it up. But what’s annoying is the way studios treat critics like shameful one night stands. All winter the studios are on the critical jock, hoping to get their little prestige pictures noticed, raved about and awarded. Then when the big money season rolls around, they won’t even look the critical establishment in the eyes. In the fall and winter not only was I deluged with screening opportunities for the films the studios hoped would get awards consideration, I even got many of them sent to me on DVD while they were still in theaters. Next month I’ll have one, maybe two opportunities to see Spider-Man 3 or Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, and I will probably have to be pro-active about securing those screening opportunities. They simply don’t need me or the other critics, so now is when it’s safe to bitch about us. But wait until the Toronto Film Festival rolls around again and they want the coverage on those prestige pictures…
This, by the way, is the only part of the critic/studio/audience relationship that’s new. Critics have always been stuffy, audiences have always been stupid and the studios have always held both in a certain kind of contempt (seriously, how could a studio that puts out Norbit have anything less than contempt for the people seeing it? There’s no thought that this will be a good movie, just one that will get people in the door. To me that’s the worst kind of condescension), but the last couple of years has seen the rise of film critics in terms of just sheer numbers. This has been harder for the studios to deal with because on the one hand it gives them more schlocky Pete Hammond-types from whom to solicit quotes for bad films (and by the way, the fact that studios still run quotes on movie ads is a good sign that critics are not quite as irrelevant as Brian Robbins would like you to think), but on the other it makes the bad buzz so much louder. In the end I think it evens out, especially because of us ‘New Media’ types – today’s Variety has dementia-addled Peter Bart rambling about critics hating 300, but a look at Rotten Tomatoes shows that the film is actually fresh ranked (if barely) thanks to the internet critics. And word has been getting around that Warner Bros polling shows that it was, for maybe the first time in history, the internet and not TV commercials that got people into theaters for this one.
But in the end it’s all the same-old same-old – the mass audience likes the most bafflingly bad things. The critics, especially the old guard print people, remain steadfastly against anything that doesn’t fit their own narrow definitions of quality. And the studios will keep up their hot and cold running relationship with film critics. Still, each of these groups will sometimes surprise the hell out of you. The mainstream will occasionally do the right thing and embrace a really great and unusual movie, like The 40-Year Old Virgin. The studios will occasionally make a movie that won’t appeal to critics or audiences because they think it could be good, like The Fountain. And the critics will keep on being out there on the front line, taking the hits and once in a while passing on a recommendation that you would never have otherwise gotten.