Thursday, May 19, 2016

Film Reviews Are Subjective


Assigning numbers to creative works, even factory assembled ones like movies, is stupid. Reviews of cultural products like movies should be subjective and qualitative. They should tell you stuff ABOUT the movie, not try to force a meaningless number on it.

This is the main reason why I despise and refuse to use or endorse the Rotten Tomatoes website or its ridiculous Tomatometer.* The Tomatometer is a big-picture aggregator of reviews, which is not the same as an individual review assigning a numerical score. But it still attaches numbers (and its too-broad "Fresh" and "Rotten" labels) to something that (in my view) cannot be quantified -- not without losing its nuance and hence its utility.

Numerical ratings have no place in reviews of individual movies. As Gamasutra's video game reviewer Katherine Cross writes:
What may be an 8.5 to me is very different from what merits an 8.5 to another critic. And what’s worth marking down three tenths of a point? Is my site’s 6.75 different from another’s? What is the difference between a 9.0 soundtrack and a 9.5? Critics give scores on the basis of rubrics provided by their publications, often as not, but even there the score is still the product of a gut reaction; it is a melange of values, emphasis, and personal judgement. It can never be objective.
Yes, exactly that. We might as well embrace our fandoms and biases and just admit that film criticism is a subjective art. There is no point in pretend-quantifying the process.

I've been recently pondering an illustrative case. Reading fellow film blogger Sal Alonci's review of Captain America: Civil War, I noticed the superlatives he uses to describe what is, for him, a genre-pushing, evolutionary superhero movie:
"with Captain America: Civil War, Marvel Studios has once again redefined the superhero genre"

"Putting it simply, Captain America: Civil War is one of the smartest and best superhero films ever made"
I totally get where he is coming from -- this sounds like fandom and I definitely have my fandoms.** I love the excitement of Alonci's review. Furthermore, there are legitimate interpretive angles that a true fan with background knowledge of the comics can bring to bear on a genre film like this, as Alonci does in his sharp overview of the Marvel Universe films so far.

Darth Vader sez: "I am your father!" NOBODY fuckin' knew if THAT was true 
ahead of seeing Return of the Jedi in 1983.

Similarly, The Mary Sue's Christy Admiraal points out that foreknowledge often enhances a fan's viewing experience: "Knowing the identity of a previously unseen character can make it much more exciting when they finally make an entrance, and knowing what’s coming next before it happens can feel like keeping a secret; the informed viewer and the creators are in on it, while the general public will have to wait and see what happens." Alonci clearly possesses this kind of knowledge so his experience of the MCU movies is heightened relative to mine.

There is a lot of subjective fandom in Alonci's Civil War review, especially in passages like: "It's my favorite movie of the year so far, and will probably be my favorite movie of the whole summer." I mean, Alonci isn't hiding anything here. He is admirably up-front about his status as a fan: "I've already seen it three times and I'm going to see it again soon."

What this exemplifies is that ALL of us who write film criticism do so subjectively, at least in part because we are fans of the medium (and of specific genres, films, directors, stars, periods, etc.). This is as it should be. For while there are technical and numerical things we can learn about a movie -- its all-time grosses, for example, or its average shot length -- holistic film criticism is always colored by the history, tastes, predilections, hatreds, and fandoms of the individual reviewer.

For example, I have no interest in, and no intention of seeing, Captain America: Civil War. I never even really considered seeing it, but if I had, that consideration would've ended once I saw this review, in which Mike -- Mike! -- finally says (around the 26:28 mark) that "I got tired of all the punching. I think I'm done with superhero movies. It's no longer exciting to me. It's just punching."

Mike sez: "I think I'm done with superhero movies. It's no longer exciting to me. It's just punching." This is an example of a reviewer's film tastes changing over time. 

I felt like Mike does now a whole MCU Phase ago -- I quit after the first Avengers (2012). So for me, the whole MCU phenomenon is a thing happening to other people -- albeit LOTS of other people, if worldwide grosses are any indicator.

I keep my finger vaguely on the MCU's pulse, reading review articles and the like, and based on what I've read and heard, I may yet watch Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) one of these days. But as I have written before, I am not all that "on board" with the Marvel films in general. I am a superhero movie burnout case.

What, then, do we make of my recent defense of Escape from New York (1981)? Escape is a dystopian, science-fiction-y action film whose dark tone and "all-time icy badass" protagonist, Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell), make it an obvious cinematic precursor to the post-2000 superhero film. So why do I defend Snake Plissken yet show such callous lack of interest in Steve Rodgers and Bucky Barnes as they enjoy their moment of massive worldwide fame?

Part of it is the passage of time and the transmogrification of my film tastes. In the 1980s, I was a big action-movie fan. Action films (including James Bond) and Star Wars-esque science-fantasy were my go-to genres in those early years. That and comedy.

Nowadays I can hardly be bothered to write seriously about a superhero film or a Transformers film because I just don't care all that much about them. My tastes have grown up and changed, and if I pen anything as gushy as Alonci's Civil War review, it's going to be about something a bit less mainstream like Belle or Snowpiercer or Mad Max: Fury Road.

It is now the superhero fans' moment in the sun, and I do not begrudge them it, even if I have reservations about the dangerous cultural messages geek-centered power-fantasy films typically convey to their target audience. I am not alone in this concern. But hey, there is a time and a place for fantasy, and I grew up on Snake Plissken and James Bond movies and I turned out okay.

In any case I better get used to it. Disney has Marvel movies planned out until 2020. Those super-profitable motherfuckers aren't going anywhere.

Meanwhile, in my own musty corner of the blogosphere, I pen defenses of science-fiction movies nobody else likeslow-budget 1970s horror films, and offbeat directors of whom most people have never heard. Long live fandom.

Werner Herzog sez: "Go for the ecstatic truth, man."

UPDATE 8/5/2016:'s Matthew Dessem agrees with my view, opening his smart piece saying that "If your opinion about a work of art can be expressed as a number, it’s not a very interesting opinion." He contends that "there’s little value in assigning a number to how much we liked [movies]. The interesting questions are 'Why?' and 'How?,' not 'How much?'"
There’s nothing wrong with the question “Should I see this movie?,” and criticism can definitely help answer it. But the right way to find an answer is to consult one or two critics whose taste you trust, not a thousand critics you don’t know.
My sentiments exactly -- well said Mr. Dessem.

* As Kevin P. Sullivan reminds us, the Tomatometer "doesn’t measure film’s quality in the eyes of critics" but is rather "a record of critical agreement." Possibly so, though the value of even that aspect of the Rotten Tomatoes site has been called into question by Film School Rejects' Landon Palmer: "the numbers featured on Rotten Tomatoes provide some notion of a critical response ('critical consensus,' by comparison, is something that can only be argued, not tabulated) conveniently devoid of substance and content. Thus, Rotten Tomatoes can serve a purpose as an initial point of access, but never as a substitute for criticism itself." 
** Even beyond my love of Bond, rekindled embers of my ancient Star Wars fandom surely account for some of my warmth toward The Force Awakens.

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