A Critique of the Critics: Aggregated Assault

When it came to films, 2017 seemed to have little middle ground between the critically beloved gems and the turkeys. Nonetheless, I could consider it one of the medium’s better years within the 2010s if for no other reason than because the critically acclaimed films had little trouble living up to the hype. It was to the point where I would argue nine nominations weren’t enough to do the year justice – especially when one considers quality works such as Good Time and Blade Runner 2049 failed to gain recognition.

My primary means of determining what film to watch would be Rotten Tomatoes. Launched in 1998, Rotten Tomatoes would appear to be a hopeful filmgoer’s best friend. Why wouldn’t it be? It aggregates what critics have to say about the film. If it gets a high score, you can safely bet you’re seeing something special. Meanwhile, if Hollywood extensively markets a film only for it to receive 20% or less, you can bet it’s the product of a particularly cynical cabal of boardroom executives attempting to appeal to the lowest common denominator. It was to the point where Brett Ratner, known for having directed the Rush Hour series and X-Men: The Last Stand, felt it to be the “destruction of [their] business”.

In other words, when Rotten Tomatoes became the go-to source for filmgoers, the industry had to deal with a problem they hadn’t experienced since the last days of New Hollywood: consumers who had no tolerance for shoddy products. While they could put no effort into their work and promote the creation extensively, customers were beginning to catch on to these marketing tactics. If such a film had a strong opening, you could count on a severe drop-off to occur the following week almost every time.

How drastic was this shift in expectations? The people behind the Transformers films eventually had no choice but to step up their game.

Despite arguably being a great resource for filmgoers, many within and outside of the industry have criticized the site. The chairman of the New York Film Critics Circle, Armond White, argued that it was an example of “the Internet [taking] revenge on individual expression” while “[offering] consensus as a substitute for assessment”. Meanwhile, Max Landis, who wrote Victor Frankenstein, a 2015 film that received 24% on Rotten Tomatoes, felt the website oversimplified the art of criticism to a binary yes/no dichotomy, feeling it to be “arbitrarily destructive”.

However, the purpose of this editorial is not to argue for or against the validity of aggregated websites such as Rotten Tomatoes or IMDb. My opinion of them is that, like every other commonly used system, they have their strengths and weaknesses. The important thing to take away from them is that they only truly capture how the critics felt about the work in question when it debuted. This proposition only works in the long term if it’s a highly regarded film with the power to stand the test of time. If, for instance, a film was released to a lukewarm or even negative reception only for it to be reevaluated years down the line, it would still be saddled with its less-than-impressive score. On the other hand, if a film with no staying power manages to impress critics upon release, future generations are going to actively wonder what they were thinking when the ostensibly highly regarded work fails to impress.

Instead, the true purpose of this editorial is to highlight one of the more negative impacts Rotten Tomatoes have had on the critics themselves. To fully illustrate my point, we need to go back to 2017. While I learned about many good films throughout that year, one in particular caught my attention immediately.

That would be Greta Gerwig’s solo directorial debut: Lady Bird. This comedy-drama was simply impossible for cinephiles to ignore. If you had even a passing interest in the medium, there was little chance you would pass up a film that amassed an impressive 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. Sure, other films such as M, The Terminator, and The Third Man had unanimous praise on that website, but they were considered exemplary works long before 1998. Lady Bird, on the other hand, was an effort from 2017 that managed to get every single critic on its side. Over 150 experts agreed it to be one of the year’s greatest efforts. In the process, it broke the record previously held by Toy Story 2 and became the best-reviewed film on the site.

After seeing Lady Bird for myself, I think there is only one word that can truly sum up the experience: adequate. It was passable, yet ultimately didn’t cover any new ground The Edge of Seventeen hadn’t sufficiently explored the previous year.

Shortly after I saw Lady Bird, the score dropped to 99%. Being the calm, collected, mature professionals that they were, film journalists let the first negative review of Lady Bird slide right off their backs, having confidence in their opinions while nurturing the growth of new ideas and perspectives.

“Okay, which one of you worthless drones had the audacity to speak your mind?”

Sorry, I accidently typed what should have happened rather than what actually happened. Instead of accepting that there might be a professional critic somewhere out there in the world who simply won’t care for the film, the internet exploded with outrage and sought out the individual responsible for penning the offending review. The first Tweet in particular was written by an associate editor at Vulture at the time, so this backlash did not entirely consist of random fans blowing their stack. In fact, quite a few journalists took to their respective websites to comment on the perceived slight.

Though many of them made for dire reads, this one in particular stuck out.

According to Zack Sharf writing for IndieWire, nobody is happy about Lady Bird no longer having 100% on Rotten Tomatoes – not even the people who hated the film, were indifferent to it, or never saw it. To be fair, Mr. Sharf does backpedal a bit in the article proper by saying that “a lot of people aren’t happy about it”, but it’s still a foolhardy statement any way you slice it. It’s true that moviegoers weren’t united in their love for this film, but critics made it clear over the years they didn’t really care about their opinions.

“Impossible, I tells ya! Impossible!”

Now, to play the devil’s advocate for a brief moment, having read the negative review in question, I concluded that it lacked insight and the critic’s reasoning for condemning it came across as extremely petty. Despite mostly enjoying it, he felt the film didn’t deserve a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. In other words, he wrote a negative review with the express purpose of ruining its perfect score. Nonetheless, this reaction is problematic in a number of ways, but I think the best subject I can use to make my case is Pauline Kael. She was considered one of the greatest critics of all time, with the equally esteemed Roger Ebert arguing that she “had a more positive influence on the climate for film in America than any other single person over the last three decades”. Similarly, Owen Gleiberman, the chief film critic for Variety starting in 2016, expressed admiration for the woman, believing she reinvented the form.

The reason I choose to mention her is because I can’t envision someone like her thriving in the current critical environment. She was a person who condemned films considered classics such as It’s a Wonderful Life, Shoah, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Though she’s highly respected now, I know it’s far more likely that if anyone expressed opinions similar to hers, they would be lambasted. Indeed, I certainly couldn’t picture Mr. Gleiberman having any respect for anyone else who did so. Instead of actually considering what they have to say, these critics and journalists would look for the quickest way to discredit them. From there, their peers would do everything in their power to ensure they never live down their alleged mistake, compelling their readers to consider the person in question a hack.

The Lady Bird incident is, in a lot of ways, similar to how journalists handled the viral marketing campaign for Ex Machina. However, there is a subtle distinction between the two incidents. While the Tinder catfishing ploy for Ex Machina saw journalists throw their audience under a bus for the sake of promoting a film they enjoyed, how they handled the first negative review of Lady Bird demonstrated they have little loyalty to each other.

The reason any of this matters is that a healthy critical circle is one open to trading different ideas. They don’t necessarily have to agree with the people they speak with, but if all parties are allowed to say their piece, they get to walk away with new opinions that wouldn’t have existed otherwise. On the other hand, by deciding that Lady Bird is a perfect film and impossible to hate, it casts the 100% it initially received in a darker light. What if there were some critics out there who disliked or even outright hated the film, yet wrote a positive review so they could avoid a backlash like this? If that was indeed the case, their fears were entirely valid, and they abandoned every single one of their nuanced thoughts in favor of appeasing their peers.

The modern film critic’s weapon of choice.

Ultimately, I think the critical circle’s reaction to the first negative review of Lady Bird demonstrates a problem fatal for anyone in the profession. They were so livid over somebody disagreeing with the consensus that they had to do everything in their power to ensure the audience felt the offending critic was beneath consideration. In doing so, it speaks to their overall lack of conviction. A critic who has no conviction in their opinions is like a professional chef who burns down a kitchen every time they attempt to cook. While many of the same journalists have openly wondered over the years why their audience doesn’t listen to them, I feel the answer is much closer than they want to admit. After all, if they don’t take themselves seriously, how can they expect anyone else to take them seriously?

13 thoughts on “A Critique of the Critics: Aggregated Assault

    • Thanks! I was going to go for a longer title like I did when I commented on the Ex Machina debacle, but when I formed that pun in my head, I knew I couldn’t call it anything else.

      What are your thoughts on how the critics/journalists reacted to Lady Bird’s first negative review? Maybe it’s just me, but I feel there’s something about A24 that seems to bring out the worst in them. It’s almost like the film equivalent of console fanboyism/fangirlism.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I thought it was a strange hill for them to die on. But it’s also a sad indication of the climate we live in where a difference of opinion is met with strong arm tactics to prove everyone else wrong. This behavior is alarmingly common nowadays, especially in the fanboy arenas and probably culminating in nerddom eating itself alive over whether or not The Last Jedi was the best or the worst (and it can’t possibly sit anywhere in between).

        I don’t follow Rotten Tomatoes very much so wasn’t aware of the Lady Bird controversy until your post. If review rage has reached the professional critics/journalists, that’s worrying and sad. The negative review itself did seem more concerned with being the outlier and breaking against the current than being an actual critique.

        Ultimately, I don’t care as much since I don’t rely on an aggregated review system. I’ll go more off of trusted friends’ reviews, but even then you have to realize that everyone’s opinions are their own. Which again, is frustrating that you can’t express your thoughts these days without extremist backlash.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Yeah, you get all these pieces about how filmgoers and gamers hate critics, and while I think there’s far more to the art of criticism than they give it credit for, I find I can’t blame the general population at all for bashing critics when, at the worst of times, they’ve proven to be no different than the fanboys/fangirls they condemn. The only real difference is that they get a paycheck to fanboy/fangirl (or Stan, if you will). I can imagine there are quite a few pieces out there penned by these people, lamenting that their audience doesn’t listen to them, but they’ve done such a good job destroying their own credibility, and their lack of self-awareness mixed with a dangerous amount of ego prevents them from realizing this. If we’re not supposed to take this critic seriously, why take any critic seriously? Confirmation bias can only get you so far.

          As it stands, the current critical circle is pretty dire; they really need to reinvent themselves. If they don’t, they risk total irrelevancy somewhere down the line.

          Also, I feel The Last Jedi was indeed neither the best, nor the worst Star Wars film; it had many good ideas, but the execution wasn’t always so great. I also feel it falls in the same trap as Ex Machina in that it was subversive, but it wasn’t skillfully subversive. It was better than the first two prequel films, but not as good as the third, I feel.

          Liked by 1 person

  1. This was a great piece! I love using Rotten Tomatoes to have an idea of what I’m getting into before a film, but this is a good reminder for people to not put stock solely in aggregate sites like this and instead form their own opinion about what is “good” or “bad” to them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, those critics and journalists should have stuck to their guns instead of trying to call out the first person who didn’t like it. What does it matter? Does this one person hating Lady Bird somehow reduce their own enjoyment of the film? If so, why bother liking anything at all? It’s a very wishy-washy approach to the craft.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Agreed totally. While I appreciate the good that Rotten Tomatoes has done, it’s created a weird kind of internet hivemind. You can probably find similar issues with game reviews on Metacritic.

    Sincerity is the key to being a good critic, I think. If you’re always sincere about your views and communicate them well (and have good insights, that too) I’ll follow you. And I always strive for that when I review a game or an album or anything else.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I definitely appreciate Rotten Tomatoes insofar that it eventually shut down Hollywood’s cynical “Let’s pile on the garbage” approach to blockbusters. Certain critics love to complain about the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but I remember back when you’d only get a film of that quality once per summer (if you were lucky) – I do not miss those days. Now, summer blockbusters seem to be just as good as the ones released in the autumn (a.k.a. award season).

      Honestly, this lack of sincerity is part of what caused me to become a game critic myself (that and 2013 being a year where many lauded games failed to live up to the hype). I wanted to introduce a professional ethos to the art of games criticism, which I felt was severely lacking. It’s interesting because I wanted games critics to take cues from their film-loving counterparts, but after observing the latter’s behavior throughout the 2010s, I think they’re pretty dire too; they’re just a lot better at hiding their immature tendencies. That rampant console fanboyism/fangirlism, contempt for their audience, and general cynical attitude towards their own subject of interest is all there if you know what to look for.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Good post!

    This is why I don’t give as fig what IMDb or Rotten Tomatoes think about a film – they love films I don’t and hate films I like. That people seem to think somebody’s opinion – professional or otherwise – is gospel whilst the writer’s themselves present their opinion as fact is a serious issue with critics and the Internet in general, The aggregate ratings on the abovementioned sites might be a loose barometer as a starting point in learning about a film but isn’t a conclusive one. Opinions and tastes will always differ, a unanimous verdict will never exist.

    I personally try to be as fair as possible – if I didn’t like something i’ll explain why and not just tear it apart; if I didn’t understand it, I’ll admit it. In only one instance have I ever gone lower than 2 stars in a review but that was for very good reason, otherwise I’ve think I’ve been fairly consistent in my personal ratings.

    Ultimately, the only opinion that should matter is your own. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you!

      I have to admit I put a bit of stock in Rotten Tomatoes if for no other reason than convenience. By using it, I get to see what’s critically acclaimed quickly. However, in 2018 I ended up seeing films with more modest scores such as A Simple Favor and the 2018 Halloween and I wound up liking them more than certain critical darlings. And I do agree that people, whether they’re fans or critics, need to stop treating the meter as the be-all, end-all objective truth. Sometimes that critical darling won’t resonate with certain individuals, and there’s nothing wrong with that (despite some critics believing that to be the case).

      And I think that’s the problem with the dissenting opinion expressed in that critic’s negative Lady Bird review; he wasn’t the least bit civil, choosing to apply ad hominem in his critique, which good critics recognize as a cardinal sin. In other words, he was exceedingly obnoxious about being the one to ruin Lady Bird’s perfect score. However, the backlash was problematic itself because they were angry well before they learned of that critic’s tenuous reasoning. Owen Gleiberman, the man who wrote that article in the above link, lamented how audiences didn’t like Hereditary, but I honestly can’t blame the masses for mocking their favorites; the critical circle has done a remarkable job discrediting itself over the years. It’s another case where a critic felt threatened because people had that audacity to not like what he liked; it’s a shockingly puerile attitude for someone who was 59 at the time – one that’s sadly shared with a lot of people in the field.

      Liked by 1 person

      • It’s an interesting read that article, as the author admits “Hereditary” isn’t flawless and that he doesn’t give much stock to other sites’ ratings so on the whole this reads as a spurious and rather petty whinge. I also looked at the Cinemascore site and looking at its remit to get consumer feedback and not critical feedback it doesn’t surprise me that there would be a huge discrepancy between what Mr. Critic thought and what Mr. Joe Public thought.

        Had his article been more objective and probing rather than a rant it would have stirred a debate for the ages; instead it comes across as someone who thinks, by virtue of his paid position to air his views, that his mindset and opinion is the only one of merit. He’s not the first and he won’t be the last sadly. 😦

        Liked by 1 person

  4. “A critic who has no conviction in their opinions is like a professional chef who burns down a kitchen every time they attempt to cook.”

    That really resonates with me. I don’t have much else to add, you were really thorough here, but that statement really resonates with me.

    Liked by 1 person

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