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Tuesday, July 18, 2006

A.O. Scott on the Edge

In May guest Prawf Scott Moss was set off by an A.O. Scott review which attacked Hollywood's current remake infatuation.  Disturbed by his preception of Scott's elitism, Moss wrote:

At some point, A.O. Snottypants, when you have such disdain for 99% of the movies that your readers actually go see, shouldn't you just stop being a movie reviewer?  If everything my multiplex is showing is lowbrow crapola, aren't you uniquely unqualified to write about what movies I should see?

Now, two months later, Moss has gotten his reply.  In a brief article that is one part schrei, one part shrug, and one part challenge, Scott takes on the moviegoing public that, apparently, is happy to ignore his directives.  Citing to the box-office success of The Da Vinci Code and the latest Pirates of the Caribbean installment, Scott notes his disdain for these movies and then asks this question:

For the second time this summer, then, my colleagues and I must face a frequently — and not always politely — asked question: What is wrong with you people?

Ultimately, Scott fails to arrive at an answer.  His initial question leads him to wonder, "what, exactly, critics are for."  After wandering through some interesting eddies of ambiguity, Scott arrives at this rather smug answer: "We take entertainment very seriously, which is to say that we don’t go to the movies for fun. Or for money. We do it for you."

C'mon.  The conversation in the discussion following Scott Moss's post was a much more nuanced approach to this issue.  On one side, some commenters agreed with Moss that a critic too out of touch with popular tastes was not doing her or his job properly.  On the other side, some folks defended Scott's reviews as well as the notion that a critic can stand outside the tastes of the masses and apply a more informed, intelligent, and, indeed, critical perspective to film.

So while you at Prawfsblawg tackled the issues, Scott ultimately is content to stick with his weeping and gnashing of teeth.  And that's a shame.  Because if he is true to himself, he shouldn't worry what the masses do in response to his (and others') critiques.  I admire Scott's willingness to display a little existential angst.  But I wish he didn't reach such a contrived and happy ending.

A couple more thoughts after the jump.

Scott rests his empirical case against Pirates on the following analysis:

Let’s start with a few numbers. At Rottentomatoes.com, a Web site that quantifies movie reviews on a 100-point scale, the aggregate score for “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” stands at a sodden 54. Metacritic.com, a similar site, crunches the critical prose of the nation’s reviewers and comes up with a numerical grade of 52 out of 100. Even in an era of rampant grade inflation, that’s a solid F.

What Scott doesn't tell you is that the Rotten Tomatoes score is actually a percentage -- the percentage of critics who liked the movie.  So the Rotten Tomatoes "score" actually shows that more than half of the critics counted by RT liked the movie.  (See here.)  The "Cream of the Crop" score -- namely, the percentage of big-name critics who liked the movie -- is lower at 42%.  But still, it's not as if every critic disliked the movie.  If you're looking for a poorly received movie, check out this RT meter, for example.

Another thought: both movies singled out by Scott had a huge group of people eager to see the movie.  The Code had all of the readers of the book, and Pirates had all those who saw and liked the first movie.  Such films are more likely to be resistant to criticism.  Witness the last three Star Wars movies -- I'd reckon that they would have been far less successful without the good will built up from the first three (two?) films.  When the audience has established some grounds for trust in a film -- because they liked the first one, they like an actor in the film, they read the book -- critics will be less influential on a moviegoer's decision.

Posted by Matt Bodie on July 18, 2006 at 02:37 PM in Culture | Permalink

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Comments

Most movies today are crap. I think the real problem with reviewers like Scott is that they have a hard time appreciating a good genre picture. Like, Speed--fantastic action movie, almost perfect. Ditto Die Hard. Bad Boys? Crap. (The scariest words in the English language are "directed by Michael Bay.") So it's valid to criticize a superhero movie, say, for being a crappy superhero movie. But it's not valid to criticize it for not being Gosford Park. I think movie reviewers often suffer from what Clifford Geertz, writing about the professoriate, called the "exit from eden" complex. One moment you're at Harvard, Yale, surrounded by brilliant people, chatting about great, interesting stuff. The next minute you're at East Louisiana Tech with a bunch of yahoos. What a bummer! Same for these guys. I'm sure that going from dissecting The Seventh Seal to reviewing X-Men 3 is a major blow. Also, the game has changed. Who cares what A.O. Scott says? Go to rottentomatoes.com and pick any review you like. My favorite: The Filthy Critic. He has a five finger rating system. Truly wretched movies get the middle finger. Check him out: http://www.bigempire.com/filthy/

Posted by: Bart Motes | Jul 20, 2006 12:40:16 AM

Interesting, and thanks for calling this to my attention, Matt! I have no reason to believe that my one guest-blogged post was one of the ones A.O. mentioned having seen -- it's far more likley, I'd guess, that he's seen movie/entertainment-focused blogs than law-ish blogs like Prawfs -- but it's heartening to hear that I'm not the only one who felt this way.

My view remains that the gold standard for a newspaper would be to have two reviewers: one "vox populi" sort (someone like Gene Shalit, but less weird?) and one "vox artsy" sort (like A.O.). Ultimately, maybe we have that -- just with the two sorts split among different newspapers. That is, the NY Times has vox artsy (A.O.) using fancy terms while the NY Post has vox populi talking about the pretty colors and loud explosions.

Posted by: Scott Moss | Jul 19, 2006 9:36:47 PM

Your opinion is irrelevant to the fact that most people who saw Pirates II enjoyed it. A cultural critic who does not understand cultural phenomena is a bad cultural critic; a movie critic who does not understand how moviegoers respond to movies is a bad movie critic.

Posted by: Speaking Truth To Power | Jul 19, 2006 6:09:05 PM

Scott was exactly right about Pirates II, though- occassionally amusing, often tedious, and way too long. (With many sections that added absoutely nothing to the story, I might add.)

Posted by: Matt | Jul 19, 2006 2:01:32 PM

If I may paraphrase you, Frank, I think you make this claim about Scott's answer: people go to bad movies because the studios are adept at herding everyone into them through advertising and hype. But Scott also seems to acknowledge that, to some extent, people do enjoy going to these successful blockbuster movies. And as I said in the post, I think people are more likely to be "suckered" into a bad film if they have some level of trust in the film to begin with. It's not all in the advertising.

Posted by: Matt Bodie | Jul 19, 2006 11:29:26 AM

I stopped paying attention to A.O. Scott since his glowing 2001 review of Spielberg's horrendous film, A.I. Opinions may differ. But I don't see how he could find so much value in such a patently bad film. Or perhaps he was just being a contrarian for the sake of being a contrarian.

(http://movies2.nytimes.com/mem/movies/review.html?_r=1&title1=Ai%20%28Movie%29%20%20&title2=&reviewer=A%2e%20O%2e%20Scott&pdate=&v_id=246161)

Posted by: Josh Bowers | Jul 19, 2006 10:38:23 AM

I think Scott did provide an answer, which I discuss here:
http://madisonian.net/archives/2006/07/18/critics-vs-moviegoers-how-marketing-can-trump-quality/

Posted by: Frank | Jul 19, 2006 10:20:34 AM

Scott also rigs his argument. Da Vinci was terrible (and got terrible word of mouth) but managed to make moolah because of its built-in audience. Pirates 2 was fun and word of mouth was strong, i.e., it made money because it had a built-in audience AND it was fun. Superman Returns, which had a much more sizeable built-in audience than Pirates 2, did not do as well as Pirates 2, because word-of-mouth was not as strong, i.e., it was not much fun. Scott is looking to the box office returns and to the size of the built-in audience, which has some correlation, but ignoring that causation is key: the cause of Pirates 2's success is that it is fun. How can pleasure play no role in your estimation of artistic value? That's like saying good cuisine tastes bad. Scott is not just a bad critic, he's a bad arguer, too.

Posted by: Speaking Truth To Power | Jul 18, 2006 10:06:49 PM

The relevant question for whether A.O. Scott is out of touch is how many *New York Times readers* went to see Pirates 2. Sure, the movie made money, but maybe those are all People magazine readers; hard to tell.

On the flip side, Scott was *way* too lenient for my taste when he reviewed Episode 3. I went to see it against my better judgement and partly on the basis of his comment that "This is by far the best film in the more recent trilogy, and also the best of the four episodes Mr. Lucas has directed. That's right (and my inner 11-year-old shudders as I type this): it's better than 'Star Wars.'"

What was he smoking?? Episode 3 sucked, just not as bad as Episodes 1 and 2. In my book, Scott could have standed to get *more* out of touch on that one.

Posted by: Bruce Boyden | Jul 18, 2006 6:04:49 PM

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