Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Reviewing the reviewers

Mark Lawson, professional reviewer and pundit, has a piece in today's Guardian about criticism and the rise of critic-proof movies such as "The Da Vinci Code" which despite a pretty uniform savaging by critics world-wide has proved highly successful at the box office. Lawson's thesis is that such movies or books are immune to the critic because they have a star the audience wishes to sleep with, (Tom Hanks? Really? Are we sure?) are developed from an already massively popular cultural phenomenon, or because whilst critics are delicate aesthetes, the public is seeking escapism and therefore their requirements are different.

The question the piece raises therefore is what function do mainstream media critics serve now? In the past they served as a filter to assist the rest of us who cannot spend all day in the cinema to choose what to go and see with the limited time at our disposal. Today we have internet trailers, we have innumerable websites all proffering opinion, amateur and professional alike, so any review we read is tempered by a greater knowledge of the film being reviewed, if only in a distorted trailer-edited version. Audiences no longer have to take the views of a very small minority as their sole source of information and this I would argue is an advance.

I gave up reading film-reviewers long ago simply because I cannot find one with whom I agree on any kind of regular basis, and as someone whose job is to recommend (or not) something for me to see at the flicks, that is his or her sole function. I should draw the distinction here between "ahead of time reviewers", like Lawson, and the critics who write essays and treatises on films as a critical study for those who have seen the film, like David Thomson for example. And this lack of agreement between me and every film reviewer I've consistently read goes for the arty films Lawson lauds as well as block-buster schlock. An example occurs to me. "City of God" was hailed as a gritty, yet stylish piece of film-making about growing up in a Sao Paulo street gang. I found it trite, insultingly simplistic, pornographically violent and the only character ever to show any emotion at all is thereafter written out of the story. But it was from a non-Hollywood director, it was in a foreign language and allegedly dealt with "issues". Lawson says that the general public seeks escapism, I would argue most critics seek something that they can write an article about that chimes with the rest of their paper's content. This has no bearing on the actual quality of the film. Yes, there is a problem with street crime amongst young gangs in Brazil. Yes, the liberal media are highly agitated about it. Yes, it is good that the hegemony of Hollywood is challenged. None of these points, however important as issues in their own right are, makes "City of God" a good film. All it provides is a useful framework on which to hang a load of other issues that raise the ire of the reviewer and his or her employer, and to demonstrate that the reviewer has the right set of political and cultural attitudes to fit in with his or her contemporaries.

Lawson argues that just because the public has flocked to see The Da Vinci Code does not render reviewers useless :

"If The Da Vinci Code had been an unknown novel, media indifference could have killed the film. The same would have been true if [Mel] Gibson had made a Latin-language movie about Catullus rather than Christ, or Cruise were a novice actor appearing in a movie called Shanghai Tower rather than Mission: Impossible III. The reason all of these movies could bypass the thoughts of the arts pages is that at least one name - Da Vinci, Christ, Cruise, Mission: Impossible - brought in a pre-sold audience...

In the area of fiction - on factual subjects, there is a greater crossover of taste between punters and pundits - the books pages and the bookshops are separate states, with almost no travel between them. Which is perhaps the place to say that my review of The Da Vinci Code as a book was not "wrong", at least in my opinion; it simply applied values - of literacy, plausibility and characterisation - that are clearly not significant in the choices of beach and plane readers."

This I do not agree with. There are plenty of shoddily written books, and badly made films which do not become successful and to suggest that willful philistinism on the part of the public explains the success of The Da Vinci Code in whatever medium is simplistic. Much can be made of successful advertising, hype (of which the critics are a part) and indeed people's pre-disposition to the current fashionable sensibilities. "Citizen Kane" was lauded upon it's release, derided as being an essay in style over content in the late '40s and was then resurrected to its current status by a new band of critics in the 1950s. The film had not changed, it was merely a different audience with a different perspective. There is a far more complex interplay between the makers of art, the work that results and the audience who consume it than Lawson's aesthetes versus escapists argument suggests and this is fluid both geographically, socially and through time.

A final word from John Lasseter, a maker of very fine films in my opinion, "I believe in the nobility of entertaining people, and I take great, great pride that people are willing to give me two or three hours out of their busy lives." Amen to that.



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