You are likely aware that reviews of The Dark Knight Rises have finally been getting posted to Rotten Tomatoes this week, and the general consensus is that it is a pretty great flick; currently, Christopher Nolan’s trilogy-capper is boasting an enviable 86% Tomatometer rating. Of course, that is not nearly enough for the many, many die-hard Batman fans out there; once the first few pans trickled out, critics like Christy Lemire and Marshall Fine were subjected in their reviews’ comments forums to a reaction that was – to put it mildly – a toxic and distressing microcosm of our cynical, misanthropic media age. Matt Atchity, Editor-in-Chief of Rotten Tomatoes, went so far as to disable comments for every single Rises review, hinting either at a possible overhaul of their forums, or even a straight-up removal of commenting functionality.
For anybody who has been paying attention for the past few years, an occurrence like this should be no surprise; negative reviews of popular movies have been garnering this kind of attention for years now, perhaps even before Rises‘ 2008 predecessor, The Dark Knight. Now, I’m not actually here to extol to you some righteous, rousing appeal for sanity (Film Misery’s intelligent, discerning community of readers don’t need it). Plenty of other folks have made appeals of far greater elegance than I could muster (including Atchity himself). But this re-re-resurfaced conversation of Internet discourse has finally prompted me to take the time to reflect on what kind of arguments I feel actually hinder the discussion of art in a democratized medium.
Using Rotten Tomatoes as my petri dish, I have perused the comments that actually made it on to the Dark Knight Rises forums*, taken a look at the most chronically frustrating arguments being made out there, and will now attempt to explain why such arguments serve only to hurt a cultural conversation around film that I – along with many others – cherish and take quite seriously (albeit not without a grain of salt). Hopefully you will agree and, should you ever choose to comment on RT over a review you disagree with, you will sidestep the pratfalls below.
*NOTE: Every image I have used as examples for this post is a screen-grab of actual comments that can currently be read in the comments forums at Rotten Tomatoes. Most of them come from the negative reviews from The Dark Knight Rises, but some of the juicier ones were scrubbed from the site before I could grab them, and so I used some samples from other popular movies like The Social Network and The Avengers as well.
What The Argument Implies: A critique of a film has lost credibility because its writer has little to no (apparent) affection for a particular genre.
What is Wrong With That: We all come from very different perspectives in life, all on the basis of personal interests, biases, and identities. The best critics – and really, anybody who consumes art in a meaningful way – will invariably be informed by that unique life story. As hokey as that may sound, it’s true; the best critics I read are unafraid to let their perspectives be seep into their writing. Such honesty, admittedly, will precipitate in a writer’s chronic favor (or disfavor) of certain genre, filmmakers, or styles of filmmaking.
Does that mean those critics are without credibility? Of course not, and certainly not if the critic is being honest about their personal reactions and are able to back up their arguments as to why a film did or did not work. To imply that a non-aficionado is incapable of speaking to a genre film or a filmmaker’s strengths and weaknesses is more than intellectual laziness – it is depriving oneself access to a unique, potentially insightful perspective.
What The Argument Implies: A critique of a film has lost credibility because the writer’s gender identity inherently obscures their capacity for perspective.
What is Wrong With That: Aside from how shamelessly it supports the arcane notion that the sexes have their own sensibilities without overlap, this argument also promotes a goofy, exclusionary worldview where guys and gals just don’t get each other – end of story. But like gender, that argument is not all that clean-cut. As was the case with my “Fanboy Credentials” argument, hearing a perspective from a person to whose gender a film might not have been directly marketed can bring a sense of new insight. A film discussion should be centered not around “credibility,” but around “perspective.”
*Incidentally, this rule applies to all sorts of different identities as well: as race, creed, sexuality, marital status, et cetera…
What The Argument Implies: A critique is turned around by a commenter, almost verbatim, to accuse the critic of being guilty of whatever crime they say the criticized film commits.
What is Wrong With That: Hopefully I don’t need to tell you how childish this kind of approach to engaging film criticism can be. In the sample above, our dear friend Darwin L. might as well have said “I know you are, but what am I?” or “BLAH BLAH BLAH I’M NOT LISTENING!!!” The only reason I am even bothering with this style of argument is because of its ubiquity; the number of times I have seen the “Rubber & Glue” argument is truly depressing.
What The Argument Implies: The masses find value in the movie (either creatively or commercially) and the critic is in the vast minority. Thus, dissenting opinions are bunk.
What is Wrong With That: The argument above is from a review of David Fincher’s The Social Network. It was a very popular movie and, yes, is also a great one. You know what other movies were popular? Twilight, Shrek 3, Transformers 2, and The Da Vinci Code. Would you argue those are great movies? I know I wouldn’t. Do you know what movies did not do nearly as well? The Hurt Locker, Blade Runner, Citizen Kane and Children of Men.
It is important to distinguish a film’s commercial success from its success as a piece of storytelling. More often than we would like to believe, a movie’s popularity – particularly mainstream efforts – is less the result of its empirical greatness than the result of its marketing team’s blood and sweat. This same logic applies to reviews, as they can only ever be – even when aggregated onto a popular website – a grouping of unique, personalized thoughts on a film. Just because 96% of critics loved The Social Network doesn’t mean there aren’t valid criticisms to be made, and are therefore not worth discussing.
What The Argument Implies: The critic has given passes to other films generally considered to be of lower caliber. That they would dare speak highly of those over a movie of higher pedigree is illogical.
What is Wrong With That: When you hear folks complain about the arbitrary and reductive nature of star ratings, grades, fresh/rotten ratings and the like, this is why. As many of you likely understand first-hand, the writing process of a film review must take into account numerous (potentially infinite) criteria. This includes quality of acting and storytelling, personal biases toward a genre or filmmaker, cinematic choices and flourishes made, and so on. Necessarily, a well-done review needs to be mindful of its makers’ aspirations and objectives: is the movie an ambitious failure? A success of meager ambitions? A work of originality? A work that refers to numerous outside texts?
Ratings systems, while admittedly useful shortcuts to get one’s overall opinion made in a clear and spoiler-free manner, nonetheless serve to undercut the inherently subjective nature of cinema. They shorthand a work’s value into something quantifiable, something empirical. When a critic gives Think Like a Man a “Fresh” rating before giving The Dark Knight Rises a “Rotten” rating, you are only exposing yourself to a fraction (if even that) of the thought process that went in to those ultimate verdicts.
But then again, who knows? Think Like A Man could very well be a better movie than The Dark Knight Rises. I’ve not seen either yet.
What The Argument Implies: The dissenting critic’s arguments are invalid because, knowing a minority opinion is sure to garner more hits for their site, they have published insincere thoughts about a film.
What is Wrong With That: If you want to be cynical (an emotion I welcome), I am sure there are plenty of bloggers and film writers out there who troll for hits by writing opinions sure to light a fire underneath the angry masses’ collective ass. Even if that is the case, I personally question to what effect such an accusation truly serves. If the ultimate goal is to refute what you perceive are a critic’s spurious claims, would it not be more effective to dedicate the space given to you in the commenting forum by engaging the specific points being made, to highlight logical inconsistencies and to counter-argue in favor of your (more correct) opinion? If your suspicions are correct, and the critic is indeed trolling (a fact you’re likely never to know for certain), then you will have defended your opinion with reason and logic.
But if the critic truly believes what they have written, and is willing to double down on their arguments in the comments section of their blog (or even RT), then you have the opportunity to engage them in a potentially great debate. Either way, you win.
What The Argument Implies: Your review offends me so greatly, that your right to exist on this planet has been as good as forfeited.
What is Wrong With That: Do I actually need to tell you why? Just don’t threaten people.