Sitting here, staring at my computer screen while not really watching—off to the side— a movie even I don’t recognize on TCM, I find my mind wandering into the realm of considering the state of film criticism in our media-saturated world—and I’m not all that happy by what I see. But it’s less the criticism that bothers me than the way the moviegoing public seems to be taking it.
I was appalled by a lot of what I read from online posters when Roger Ebert died. What appalled me were the people thanking him for preventing them from seeing “all those bad movies.” I suspect it would have appalled Ebert just as much. I seriously doubt that Ebert was wanting to leave that mindset as his legacy. Rather, I think he’d prefer to be remembered for all the great films he turned people onto, not the films he’d turned them away from. Really, if these folks never saw these pictures for themselves, they don’t actually know they were bad—only that Ebert thought they were. (Reading reviews is not the same as seeing the movie.) And whatever else Ebert was or wasn’t, he wasn’t infallible. No one is or ever was. Not Ebert. Not Andrew Sarris. Not Pauline Kael. And certainly not me.
I’m not attacking Ebert. I probably agreed with him on more movies than not—though often not for the same reasons. What I’m attacking is the idea that a critic—even an intelligent one who can write (the two are not interchangeable)—should actually keep you from seeing a movie. (If you go back far enough, Ebert would have kept you from seeing A Clockwork Orange.) No, I’m not talking about the more obvious movies. You really don’t need an Ebert to make you skeptical of The Country Bears, The Host (the recent one), or White Chicks. I’m talking about movies of some potential worth. If there is a movie you’re interested in seeing, for goodness sake, see it—don’t let a critic or even a group of critics keep you from it. That’s just foolish. I’ve seen a lot of great movies I wouldn’t have otherwise seen because of reviews—sometimes because of bad reviews—but I’ve never let a critic talk me out of seeing one I wanted to see. Neither should you.
That brings me to my main reason for writing this column—the growing reliance of moviegoers on movie review aggregation sites. I’ve been bothered by this for some considerable time—despite the fact that I am on one of those sites (Rotten Tomatoes) myself. My original trepidations were grounded in the inane pursuit by fanboys (there’s really no other term for this group) to see their favorites get 100 percent approval ratings—a childish game at best. It’s also a preoccupation that suggests a basic insecurity in one’s own opinion—“Oh, my God, someone doesn’t like what I like—maybe I’m wrong.” I like to believe this is the exclusive province of adolescents, but I fear it isn’t. What does it even mean? That every critic gave the movie a great review? No, it only means that every critic (and I use the term loosely here) out of a group of varying size didn’t dislike it enough to give it a bad review.
The hundred-percenter nonsense was—and is—just that: nonsense. But there’s something far more troubling I see at work in this aggregation business—people making their viewing choices based entirely on these percentages. It wasn’t as if star ratings (which, by the way, Ebert deplored) and thumbs-up-thumbs-down (which, ironically, Ebert brought into being) weren’t imbecilic enough, now we get this. And this strikes me as the nadir. I guess I knew it was happening, but seeing post after post where people are opting either to “wait for the DVD,” or simply not see The Great Gatsby all because it “only has a 51 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes” really brought this into focus. Folks, this is art, not mathematics.
With this, we have arrived at a point where the moviegoer is deciding on seeing or not seeing a film based on a collection of reviews without even looking at the sources of those reviews. This, to my mind, is as low as it goes. Even if you were making a decision based on somebody’s star rating or somebody’s thumb, at least you knew whose rating or thumb was involved. It was a foolish approach since it didn’t tell you why in either case, but at least some human agency was involved. Now, it’s a faceless number and maybe a condensed blurb from a nameless member of the Rotten Tomato staff that tries to sound decisive, i.e., this is what the movie is. In fact, it is only what one person extrapolated out of a concensus of sometimes dubious opinions. But what it really isn’t is fact. It’s only a distillation of opinions—and though the internet might believe otherwise, not all opinions are created equal.
Sticking with Gatsby we have 185 reviews at this moment—94 of them are positive and 91 are negative. Now, Rotten Tomatoes has arbitrarily set 60 percent as the threshold for a recommendation, so that means that Gatsby is not recommended—or in their terminology, it isn’t “fresh.” I’m not about to get into my opinions of individual reviewers, but I don’t rate them all the same—and some of them (on both sides of the Gatsby argument) I just plain don’t consider credible on any level (and some of those I would name if I thought it germane to my point). But that’s only partly the issue.
It’s not simply the (to me) demonstrable fact that averaging a bunch of unweighted, unassesed reviews is of little more than curio value. No. It’s that it has encouraged a seemingly increasing number of the moviegoing public to lazily accept a percentage as a barometer for seeing a movie. I suppose in a world where the attention span has been reduced to what can be assessed in 140 characters, it’s reasonable to suspect that this shorthand would become acceptable. But—just as I remain of the opinion that nothing typed with your thumbs is that important—I’m not buying it. (And if you’ve read this far, you probably aren’t.) I mean, how can you not be curious about those 94 reviewers who didn’t give the film a bad review? And don’t you want to know why on both sides? I do.