Transformers shooting down movie critics

Transformers 2PARIS – When I argued, a few months ago, against using popularity rankings to judge the quality of a film, I did so out of a love for film. Today, the emblem of the popularity vs quality debate is Transformers 2 (which I have not seen). What makes this particular film more interesting than others like it, is that there is a near unanimity about its lack of merits. But people still go to see it, presumably thinking that with more robots and more of Megan Fox and it being a success – it can not be too bad. And then, inevitably, the audience is surprised to find that the film is actually bad! But so many people went, in fact, that the film has already hit the 9th place of top grossing films of all times in the USA! You can not help but wonder: Why?

It is hard to quantify how determined people must be to go in, despite having heard and read things like Roger Ebert’s a “horrible experience of unbearable length”; or Quinn from The Independent resorting to “boring, preposterous nonsense”. It would seem that the audience has shut itself off from all criticism. We could also turn to Ebert and Quinn and ask them why they bothered to review such a film at all? The audience obviously does not care, in this case at least, what the critics think. The divide between the critics and the audience has never seemed so wide, with people already proclaiming the death of movie reviewing.

Let us go back in time to look at the development of the interplay of critic and audience to see what is happening and how we got here. The two camps were once clearly marked, with newspapers hiring educated people with insight and writing skills to come up with critical reviews. The critics were in competition amongst each other, being judged by other film fans. Over the last decade, the internet gained so much ground that it is becoming a universal medium. The internet offers everyone the possibility to voice their opinion on a film, competing with the paid reviewers of the newspapers. Now that you can put the two groups side by side, what do we see happen?

The audience accuses the critics of forgoing the pleasure of movie-watching in exchange for pretentious analysis. The critics, in the their turn, feel that if you are not going to “really watch” the film, what is the point in writing about it? It might be added that the critics have seen too many films to be able to rave about a copy-paste production, making them pretentious in the eyes of the more indulgent young cinema-goer. This feeds the separation of critic and audience which has become so wide that we have reached this point where the press is clearly irrelevant to the success of this film Transformers 2. This is not a co-incidence. I think the critics misunderstand the films they are reviewing, at least they misunderstand their role.

People do not go to see the film because it is any good (the critics are not wrong). People go to see the film because it is the “hype” of the moment, it gives them something to discuss in a world where television is losing ground through over-production. There is no specific channel airing programmes everybody will have seen the following day, TV viewers can have been watching anything. Similarly with music – there is so much choice, what should you be listening to? Transformers 2, and other such commercial splash-outs, are the common culture. They give you not only something to discuss, unpretentiously, but it is also a guide in music choice, fashion and even political ideology. And they are international. In a globalized world, these films offer “something” in common between people. Whining about how bad the latest commercial film is, is a shared pastime. It is a pleasant and easy subject of conversation between people of different (sub)cultures.

Even besides actually discussing a film, one can say “Optimus Prime” or “Voldemort” in conversation and get away with it. It creates a shared global culture out of nothingness – “agile like a Jedi, but tall as a Hobbit”, without risking the embarrassment of ignorance on a reference to Mr Darcy’s fate. Of course film references in conversation are often silly, but then that is part of the appeal. Calling Human Resources the “Dementor of the office”, or referring to the consultants as the “Men in Black” will be understood.

It is also about what constitutes “public knowledge”. It would be a stretch to assume, even in France, that people know what is in the old French national library now, but you can easily presume that everyone knows that people speak “Chti” up north (thanks to Bienvennue chez les Chti’s).

For a film to be able to take on these roles, as leaders in conversation fluff or assessments of public knowledge or opinion, a film must be a huge success. But not only that, but advertised as such. These are commercial films we are talking about. Audiences will still want to read reviews on Sin Nombre (Mexican gangstar love story) but critics can perhaps give Lucky Luke a miss – although a lot of fun, it is the audience which will decide whether or not they go, irrespective of any critic’s vision.

It would make sense for movie reviews of commercial films to be replaced by press releases, advertisements and the audience’s comments (“It was like awesome”), as they are consumer goods which fit a product launch and life cycle. This sounds somewhat depressing, but it is actually just a more realistic approach then writing crushing reviews for films (such as Transformers 2) which lack the pretension of quality. Someday movie reviewing may even become the distinguishing criterion – if it is taken seriously by the critics (positively or negatively) the film belongs in the category of art and culture rather than in commerce. And that would not be such a bad thing.

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