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Uncritical Critics

Most movies are terrible, but you wouldn’t know it from the reviews. Why?

Warner Bros. took the unprecedented step last week of refusing to let reviewers see The Avengers before it was released. The widespread assumption was that the studio knew the movie was a dog but was hoping to salvage a good opening weekend before people found out. But by locking the critics out, knowing this would be widely publicized, Warner Bros. was essentially announcing to the world that The Avengers was a dog. It’s as futile as a restaurant publicly refusing to allow a health department inspection.

Maybe it was a big bluff. Maybe Warner Bros. was trying to propitiate the film critics–a largely disgruntled and demoralized bunch. By publicly sacrificing The Avengers, a sure flop in any case, studio executives flattered the critics by pretending to be deeply afraid of them. They also bolstered an important delusion: that a movie as awful as The Avengers is the exception and not the rule. Singling out The Avengers as terrible implies that the other current Warner Bros. releases–Lethal Weapon 4, The Negotiator, and A Perfect Murder–are not equally worthless. Reviewers too have a stake in keeping up the pretense that most films are worth reviewing. Were they to acknowledge that 95 percent of what comes out of Hollywood is eyewash, there wouldn’t be much left for most of them to do.

You might argue that movies aren’t so bad nowadays. But that would only prove that you haven’t spent much time at the multiplex this summer. Here are the big summer releases from the other major studios: The X-Files; Small Soldiers; Armageddon; Six Days, Seven Nights; Something About Mary; Ever After; The Mask of Zorro; Dr. Dolittle; Mulan; Jane Austen’s Mafia; BASEketball; Disturbing Behavior; Madeline; Out of Sight; Halloween: H20; Saving Private Ryan; The Parent Trap; and Snake Eyes. Subtract Saving Private Ryan, which was a virtuoso piece of moviemaking despite its hack storytelling, and subtract one or two others that qualify as harmless fun. What you have left is a run of formula films and glorified video games pitched to the adolescent audience. It’s not necessary to see these films to know how dismal they are, because they are reiterations of other bad films. To be sure, there were plenty of crummy genre films in the golden age of cinema. And good ones still break through from time to time. But it would be seriously perverse to maintain that mainstream film is a robust popular art form.

The sorry condition of popular cinema leaves film critics in a quandary. David Denby argued in a New Yorker article earlier this year that they face a choice of being either hucksters or cranks. Either they declare that pablum is delicious, or they sink into chronic dyspepsia. I think Denby is right in saying that these are the twin poles, but most critics actually fall somewhere on the continuum between them. Relatively few reviewers are either blurb-whores or kvetching sourpusses. Most are simply battle-fatigued and judgment-impaired, trapped in what has become a journalistic dead end, an untenable profession. (My colleague, Slate’s own David Edelstein, is a thinker and writer whose oeuvre rises to a level beyond all pigeonholing, and he is therefore omitted from the following analysis.)

L et’s consider the fringes first. In addition to Denby at New York magazine, the legion of honorable cranks includes Anthony Lane of The New Yorker and Stanley Kauffmann of the New Republic. These are writers of widely divergent disposition. Denby is high-minded and dour, Lane biting, Kauffmann gentle and wise. But all take basically the same approach to their job. As far as possible, they ignore brain-rot movies and focus on independent and foreign films. At the uncompromising extreme are J. Hoberman of the Village Voice and Jonathan Rosenbaum of the Chicago Reader, who ignore the Hollywood wasteland almost entirely. They concentrate on obscure films, which may be wonderful but which hardly anyone has an opportunity to see.

Reviewing only A Taste of Cherry and Pi is not a viable alternative for most critics. Even relatively successful independent films have no distribution beyond big cities, and if you want to see foreign films nowadays, you have to go to festivals. Most newspaper arts editors, not to mention TV and radio producers, understandably want their critics to write about movies advertised in their pages, movies that also happen to be the only ones average people are likely to see. The worst hucksters are the reviewers who spend their weekends on previewing junkets in New York and Los Angeles. They fly first class, stay at the Four Seasons, and get $100 a day for incidentals. In return, they provide the blurbs quoted in advance newspaper ads (“An ending that will knock your socks off”–Tucson Gazette). The junketeers deliver these squibs, which seldom appear in actual reviews, to the studio publicists. In some cases, publicists write the blurbs themselves and find “critics” to accept attribution.

Most movie reviewers occupy a middle ground between Don Quixote and the Yellow Kid. Typically, they fell in love with movies when movies were better and are trying not to notice that their love object has shriveled into hagdom. They’re not overtly corrupt, but their standards are in a condition of collapse. They appraise poor films as good and fair films as great. When something flawed but interesting such as Bulworth or The Truman Show breaks through, they overpraise it in an cringe-making way. Into this category go Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune, who recently gave a rave to Armageddon; his Sneak Previews buddy Roger Ebert (who calls The Negotiator “a thriller that really hums along”); David Ansen of Newsweek; and Richard Schickel of Time. Even Janet Maslin of the New York Times, intelligent though she is, seems headed down this slope when she enthuses about Lethal Weapon 4 or prostrates herself before the latest Spielberg.

I have two theories about why movie critics are so uncritical–one aesthetic, the other economic. The aesthetic explanation is that critics see so many bad movies that their taste deteriorates. If you are forced to spend your afternoon sitting through Godzilla, Armageddon comes as a relief. The economic explanation is that movie reviewers are really part of the movie industry. They exist to encourage people to see movies in general, even if they must discourage them from seeing some in particular. In all but a few places, a reviewer who consistently pans blockbusters is likely to run into trouble with his superiors. Movie ads are a major source of revenue for papers and magazines and TV stations, and editors and publishers don’t want some “elitist” reviewer threatening that money. Most critics can tell you stories about the pressure on them to be upbeat and populist.

A couple of years ago, Susan Sontag argued in an article in the New York Times Magazine that the decline of film quality is a demand-driven problem. What’s killing cinema as an art form is the demise of the audience with a taste for serious and challenging films. If she’s right, there may not be much reviewers can do. But it would be nice to see them rage a little against the degradation of the medium they’re supposed to love. One way to protest would be to follow the “crank” critics in acknowledging that movies such as Deep Impact and Small Soldiers don’t require evaluation. A newspaper that wants to serve its readers well can provide a paragraph-long capsule and a Zagat-style reader rating instead. Critics should address the larger question of why Hollywood thinks so little of today’s film audience. And if Warner Bros. doesn’t want The Avengers reviewed, reviewers should be only too happy to oblige.