Saturday, November 14, 2009

A powerful responsibility

I don't read other people's reviews very often. I think I may have mentioned this before.

It seems like an odd thing for a person involved in a creative endeavor to say. Novelists get better by reading other novelists, filmmakers get better by watching other filmmakers.

But there are several reasons I abstain from reading the work of other critics: 1) If I one day review this film, I don't want to be subconsciously influenced by their perspective; 2) I don't want them to give away things about the film before I've seen it (most critics are good about not revealing spoilers, but not all); 3) I don't want to have my excitement about seeing a particular film destroyed by a negative review.

However, once I do see the film, and I know I'm not going to be reviewing it, then I'm really eager to hear what other critics have to say. That's when I learn from other writers and apply it to my own work. I have a post-viewing ritual of always reading the review on the website I write for, and I also try to go back and find the issue of Entertainment Weekly that carried that particular review, since I have a subscription. There are other critics I read, but not as regularly.

One thing I haven't been able to wean myself off of, though, is checking EW to see the letter grades given out each week. In fact, I have a ritual each Friday of opening directly to the reviews, and scanning the single-letter summations either Owen Gleiberman or Lisa Schwarzbaum has given, with a + or - sometimes affixed for good measure. This saves me from the first two issues listed above, but not the third. A bad letter grade could still cause me to drop a film from my list of weekend priorities.

Case in point: The Men Who Stare at Goats. The second-most surprising letter grade in last week's EW, after the A grade given to Disney's A Christmas Carol, was the grade Owen Gleiberman gave The Men Who Stare at Goats:


That's right, F. F as in Failure. F as in Fuggedaboutit. F as in worst Fucking movie you've ever seen.

Needless to say, this left me slightly less enthused for the military satire starring George Clooney and Ewan McGregor, directed by Clooney's good buddy, Grant Heslov.

But the choice was taken out of my hands by circumstance. My wife's sister and mother have been in town for the past week, and it had always been the plan to kill an evening with them at the movies. My wife decided that The Men Who Stare at Goats represented the best compromise between a film we wanted to see, a film she thought they would enjoy, and a film that would be light and fun. So we scheduled it for last night. And I prepared myself for a little experiment: To boldly go to the theater, even though one of my most frequently read critics reserved the worst rating in his arsenal for this movie.

As I was watching, I kept waiting for that F to materialize. Even realizing I was enjoying it quite a bit, I figured the other shoe was about to drop. Something big would have to happen to turn this movie into a train wreck. To give something an F, a critic should walk away feeling actually offended by the movie in question. At the very least it should be shoddily made and almost totally without merit. And even as we had made it through 80 of the 90 minutes in good shape, I was half expecting someone to drop their pants and defecate on a corpse in the final scene.

Simply put, the F never materialized. I laughed many times and found the film incredibly entertaining. I currently have it ranked 11th out of the 54 movies I've seen this year. The others in my party felt as positively as I did, if not more so.


It's a flabbergasting indictment. I was eager to read Gleiberman's vitriol the moment I got home, but had left the issue on my desk at work. So I read it first thing this morning when I got in. And even though he quite obviously did not like the film, it did not read like an F review.

Granted, different people may define an F rating in different ways. My wife thinks that it has to be the worst movie you've ever seen. My guess is, the critics at EW don't want to give out only a handful of Fs in their entire professional careers, so to them, an F rating is not quite that extreme. But it does mean that you should not, under any circumstances, even to save your life, see this movie.

And it's not the first time that Gleiberman has written an F review with which we completed disagreed. In fact, any time I apprise my wife of a letter grade given in EW, and she disagrees with it even slightly, she cites the example of Timur Bekmambetov's Night Watch. We loved this film; Owen Gleiberman did not. To my wife, his F review of Night Watch, by itself, undermines the very credibility of Entertainment Weekly.

Which gets at the larger issue that goes well beyond The Men Who Stare at Goats and Night Watch, the one I teased in the title for this post, and am finally getting to now: Just how much power a prominent critic can wield. Damning or praising a film is not a responsibility to be taken lightly. Just think of how many people did not see The Men Who Stare at Goats as a result of Gleiberman's excoriation of it. The film made $12.7 million in the U.S. last weekend. But with even a C from Gleiberman, could that have ticked up as high as $14 million?

The answer is, probably not. The answer is, most viewers probably care a lot more about the stars and the snippets they see in ads (Clooney makes that goat fall over -- with his mind!!) than they do about what over-educated film snobs have to say about it. (We're not all film snobs -- but most of us are probably over-educated). But I clearly can't believe that reviews hold no sway at all, otherwise, what am I even doing here?

The old saying is that there's no accounting for taste, and it's true, any one person can hate a film that any other person loves. The difference between critics and other people is that we have been trusted with the sacred task of being correct. What we say is supposed to have actual validity, and not be unduly influenced by an idiosyncratic world view. It's implied in the very job description that we should be able to put ourselves in the shoes of the average viewer, to help that viewer make practical determinations about what they will actually like and actually not like.

In fact, I sometimes wonder whether I have excelled as a film critic merely because I am a good writer (if I do say so myself), or because I am uniquely qualified to decide whether a film is good or not. It's a gray area to be sure. Let's just say I take the responsibility seriously, and if I guess that my own opinion of a film may diverge from the mainstream, I will be careful in what I write. I will really only let loose on a film if I am pretty sure most other people agree with me, which is why I wonder how I would have reviewed a film like Burn After Reading, which I hated, but which is directed by the Coen brothers, and which many people loved. It would have killed me to say anything nice about that film, so I'm glad I never had to make the choice.

The larger issue is not the credibility of the critic, but the credibility of the institution that employs the critic. If Owen Gleiberman (or myself, or any other critic) were just a blogger, he would not have to feel accountable to anybody but himself. He could hate The Men Who Stare at Goats all he wanted without worrying about how it reflected on anyone but him. And I'm sure he and Lisa do have that agreement with Entertainment Weekly. If they had to worry about censoring themselves toward the mainstream, they'd probably quit, and I'd certainly support that decision. The only reason I censor myself even slightly is that I am still paranoid that someone will finally decide that I suck, and cut me off. And also because my reviews have a slightly different purpose, which is somewhere between my own views of a film and the critical consensus on it. When you review a film that came out several years ago, you know what you're up against with the rest of the critical community.

But that raises another interesting point. Because they are reviewing these films without the benefit of any other reviews, letter grades or star ratings currently in existence, critics who write real-time reviews really have no idea how the film will be received. Maybe Gleiberman did indeed think that most other critics would consider The Men Who Stare at Goats an utter piece of crap, and that his hatred of it would seem all the more enlightened. Instead, he backed the wrong horse -- most other critics have been charmed by it. That's why critics, like second-guessed athletes, must stop worrying what other people think. Unless, that is, you start to find yourself consistently out of step with the mainstream, which can be a warning sign for any critic, regardless of how much autonomy he or she has.

But back to that little matter of the credibility of the institution. Gleiberman's F review for Night Watch caused my wife to cast a permanent skeptical eye toward Entertainment Weekly, and his review of Goats is sure to compound that further. For all the staffers at EW who liked Goats, it's got to be hard to stomach the fact that Gleiberman's F grade is the magazine's official stance on the film. That F grade won't die when all the subscribers throw out their physical copies of that issue. No, it'll be preserved for eternity on the web, available to any future surfer who searches the title. After all, that's how I confirmed that it was, indeed, Owen who wrote the Night Watch F review.

And that's where a writer's full body of work comes in. Owen Gleiberman has been working at Entertainment Weekly for decades, and the lion's share of the time, what he says about a film is spot-on. Quibbling over one F grade is not going to be worth it, as each new week features an onslaught of six or more new titles. Onward and upward. In Owen We Trust.

Because it is all about trust. You have to trust a critic to speak for you, to mold your official opinions about pop culture, official opinions that could/will be shared with the entire world. You have to trust this person to wield the F grade only when necessary, even if you disagree with his/her usage of it. You have to trust this person with his/her influence over box office, over the careers of stars and directors, over the future of studios.

Quite a powerful responsibility indeed.

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