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Critics Vs. Audiences: Whom Shall We Trust?

Critics Vs. Audiences: Whom Shall We Trust? August 25, 2014

Sin City 2
Who should you trust? The critics’ score? Or the audience score? Which is more reliable? Tricky question.

When I shared some reviews that question the quality of a faith-based film, I received a scornful comment. 

So far, I’ve only received one. I anticipate more, based on experience. But if I only get one, I’ll be just fine with that.

The commenter — “M Didaskalos” — read my previous post: “Looking Closer at When the Game Stands Tall.”

And here’s his response, which I will answer point by point:

Didaskalos:

Gotta love the haughty disdain that pervades so many critics’ reviews of When The Game Stands Tall.

Overstreet:

It looks to me like the critics were doing their job: critiquing artistry with skill and professionalism. They pointed out strengths, and they pointed out weaknesses.

If they have some “disdain” for poor artistry, well, isn’t that their job?

Our call as reviewers… as audiences… is to push back against sentimentality and mediocrity and propaganda, for the sake of excellence in art — just as doctors are charged with pushing back against cancer for the sake of a healthy human being.

As the sometimes-snarky Flannery O’Connor wrote:

“The fact is that if the writer’s attention is on producing a work of art, a work that is good in itself, he is going to take great pains to control every excess, everything that does not contribute to this central meaning and design. He cannot indulge in sentimentality, in propagandizing, or in pornography and create a work of art, for all these things are excesses. They call attention to themselves and distract from the work as a whole.”

As reviewers, then, it is our job to expose anything that weakens the work, and praise anything that strengthens it.

But do go on.

Didaskalos:

On the exalted-arbiter-of-movies website, RottenTomatoes, a scant 18 percent of critics nod approval to [When the Game Stands Tall]. Seventy-seven percent of audience reviews (almost 10,000 vs. the 56 critics’ reviews) are approving. http://www.rottentomatoes.com/…

Overstreet:

I may be wrong, but your tone here sounds a little “haughty” and “disdaining.” I suppose I could be misreading it.

I’m curious: Do you think that the difference between the critics’ rating and the audience rating automatically means the audience is the side that shows integrity?

Food critics tend to have problems with fast-food fare like McDonald’s hamburgers. But people love those hamburgers and consume them in mass quantities! To whom should we give the benefit of the doubt? Who is more likely to help us understand whether that meal is good for us?

By the way, a “scant” 20% of critics “nod approval” to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on Rotten Tomatoes. But 60% of audience reviews (more than 93,000 vs. the 99 critics reviews) are approving. Should I thus assume that the critics are wrong, and that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is an admirable work of art?

The comedy Let’s Be Cops has an even lower critical rating: 16% positive. Audiences are 64% positive. Again, are the critics clearly off base?

Let’s see what happens when the big-screen adaptation of the famously trashy sex thriller 50 Shades of Gray arrives. Rotten Tomatoes will show you that no critics have reviewed yet… but the film has a 96% enthusiasm rating (“Can’t wait to see it!”) from audiences. Are you ready to tell me that “audiences” will be more reliable than critics when it comes to that one?

I’m not saying that a critical majority is always right, but it’s certainly not as simple as saying, “Well, yeah, but normal moviegoers love it!”

What are critics, by the way?

In my experience, they are the “audience” that is so devoted to the art of cinema that they study it, write about it, and hold artists to a high standard. Their opinions may differ, but they aren’t a different species than “audiences.” They are just more inclined to distrust a simple, immediate, emotional response. They look closer.

If you’re going to go in for surgery, would you entrust yourself to the general public that has some familiarity with the human body, but not a lot of experience in studying and working with the body? Or would you rather entrust yourself to a trained surgeon: someone whose primary focus is the study of, and salvation of, the body?

Didaskalos:

When ordinary (especially Christian ordinary) people do noble things, mundane as their words and acts often are in real life, critics fairly elbow each other out of the way to dismiss another box-office success as “platitudinous,” “threadbare,” “cliched” or [fill in your own pejorative adjective here].

Overstreet:

I would love to see some examples of what you’re saying. I often see critics use those terms… but they’re not describing the subject itself. They’re describing the way in which the subject is portrayed. I can’t remember the last time I saw a critic slam a movie because a character was being noble. No, I see them commenting on the way that it’s portrayed. Big difference.

I’ve seen films about Jesus that deserve to be written off as “platitudinous,” “threadbare,” and “cliched” … but that’s not a criticism of Jesus. It’s a criticism of screenwriting that would earn a B- in a decent screenwriting class, or unimaginative camerawork, or scenes that oversimplify what the Scriptures portray.

Sophie Scholl was a movie about a Christian who stands up for faith and truth — and that film was praised to high heaven by critics. But because it was in a foreign language, and it wasn’t given the usual, flashy, entertaining treatment, audiences weren’t interested. My favorite film of 2013 — the highly acclaimed independent drama This is Martin Bonner — was about ordinary people wrestling with questions of faith and trying to behave decently toward one another. That, too, was celebrated by almost all reviewers who saw it, but because it didn’t look like a flashy Hollywood production, and it didn’t have a big-name movie star, it didn’t get distributed.

I could list other examples. The point is this: It’s not what the characters believe in or do that aggravates critics, usually. It’s the artfulness (or lack of it) with which they are portrayed that makes a difference to critics.

Didaskalos:

The real-life coaches whose lives are portrayed in the film seem to be not altogether displeased about WTGST.

[Didaskalos included a long excerpt from this article by Debbie Elias. If you follow the link, you can read the whole thing.]

Overstreet:

No surprise there. People tend to be pleased when the media portrays them in a positive light.

By the way, I looked at the other reviews written by Debbie Elias, who wrote that review of When the Game Stands Tall for The Examiner. I can’t say I’m impressed with her discernment about films. Look at her track record. She seems similarly enthusiastic about Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (she gets the title wrong) and The Expendables 3, and, well, almost everything she’s reviewed there. That Expendables review doesn’t appear to have any actual criticism in it. It sounds more like she asked the film studio, “What would you like me to say?”

Anyway, regarding how the coaches respond to the movie: If I’m looking for insight into the excellence of a portrait, I’m not going to ask the person who posed for it. If I want to understand why Picasso’s Blue Guitar is a masterpiece, I’m not going to ask guitarist Jimmy Page. I’m going to ask someone who is gifted in looking closely and interpreting how a work of art means.

I’m only mildly curious about whether people feel like they’ve been portrayed accurately onscreen. When a great portrait is made of a person, that portrait is just as likely (if not more so) to disturb the subject as please him. I’m suspicious of artists who are concerned about whether or not their subject likes the result.

There’s a great story about this told in the lyrics of Bob Dylan’s song “Highlands” … but that’s a story for another post.

Didaskalos:

Love, humility, self-effacement, altruism? Well, no wonder so many critics are harrumphing at the movie.

Overstreet:

So, now you’re saying that critics, in general, disapprove of virtue.

In my experience, love, humility, self-effacement, and altruism are often celebrated by critics. In fact, the reasons they have such high, demanding standards about artistry is that they believe such things deserve to be portrayed with surpassing excellence, not shoddy craftsmanship.

Critics are, in a way, like car mechanics who examine automobiles for the sake of ensuring excellence, integrity, and safety. That car may be used to transport relief to suffering populations. It might be used to chauffeur the President of the United States. It might belong to a saint or a drug dealer. That doesn’t matter. What matters, to the mechanic, is whether or not that car is in excellent working order.

Where the Game Stands Tall may be about fantastic people. All the more reason for critics to care passionately about the quality of the movie that celebrates them. A film that preaches, that sentimentalizes, that oversimplifies… those things deserve to be criticized, no matter the subject, because they harm a work of art.

I haven’t read any reviews that condemn the people who inspired the film. I’ve read reviews by critics who question the artistry of the movie that celebrates them.

You say “haughty disdain.” I call it discernment.


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3 responses to “Critics Vs. Audiences: Whom Shall We Trust?”

  1. Jeffrey, I love your reivews even when I disagree with them, but can I ask a favor? Please stop using the fast food example. You said, “Food critics tend to have problems with fast-food fare like McDonald’s hamburgers. But people love those hamburgers and consume them in mass quantities! To whom should we give the benefit of the doubt? Who is more likely to help us understand whether that meal is good for us?” Food critics don’t care about what food is good for us. They care about taste. That is very different than being good for us. I think you need a better analogy.
    Or maybe it’s a great analogy as movie critics tend to prefer films that have greater aesthetic qualities but typically are not any better for us.

    • Perhaps “nutritionists” would be a better analogy than “food critics.”

      But I believe that a good food critic cares about ingredients, about quality, about nutrition, and about taste (the importance of which should not be underestimated). Remember that when Christ’s wine was served at the wedding, it was the very best wine that was served that day… and that wasn’t just about nutrition. It was about taste. It was about quality. God cares about that stuff more than we think, I believe.

      I have to disagree with you to some extent: Films that have “greater aesthetic qualities” are better for us. This is one of the most important lessons I’ve come to learn about film… and art in general. Beauty is one of the most powerful languages of God. It communicates something more profound than a mere “message.” When someone does something that reflects attention to composition and beauty, they are conveying more than they know; they are reflecting the Word of the Lord, the creation he spoke into being, the standards by which he creates, the glory that he reveals in every human being, in everything he has made.

      Most of the critics I read — and I read reviews every single day from all over the world — show me viewers who are paying attention to more than just the “message” of the narrative. They are picking up on ways in which art communicates with us beyond easily paraphrased “messages.” I’ve seen films in which the story didn’t do much for me, but the aesthetic qualities of the film have had a greater influence, moving me to consider the suggestive qualities of a performance, of an environment, of sights and sounds and rhythms and relationships. And that has opened up the world of art to me so that I perceive God’s glory in so many new ways.

      • As I see it, in my rather neophyte way, is that beauty is one of the three transcendentals, along with truth and goodness. They are transcendentals because they are of and from God Himself. God is the source of all the is good, all that is true, and all that is beautiful. Like being itself, God is goodness itself, truth itself, and beauty itself. Fundamentally this means beauty is a great and profound mystery that comes from God and points back to God – and is at play in the Universe. Therefore, given that we are made in the image of God, we are made for beauty. If all this is so, then beauty (along with truth and goodness) makes us more human. It is good for a Christian (and anyone) to raise concerns if a work of art seems to have a “truth message” but lacks beauty, or has great beauty but lacks truth, etc. A so-called Christian film should, as much as is possible, be a work of great beauty just as much as it is trying to explore and/or convey Christian truth. Truth without beauty is suspect. Critics should call this out.

        anyway, that seems true to me