Commenting on the Critics with Simon Columb….
Will Self took it upon himself to answer back to the core argument of Mark Kermode’s recent book, Hatchet Job, and amongst a thoroughly impressive use of language, he made the following observation…
“Now we have instant access to an unparalleled library of films, books and recordings, we are wallowing about, really, in an atemporal zone of cultural production: none of us have the time – unless, like Kermode, we wish to spend the greater part of our adult life at it – to view all the films, read all the texts, and listen to all the music that we can access, wholly gratis and right away. Under such conditions the role of the critic becomes not to help us to discriminate between “better” and “worse” or “higher” and “lower” monetised cultural forms, but only to tell us if our precious time will be wasted – and for this task the group amateur mind is indeed far more effective than the unitary perception of an individual critic.”
The full review of Kermode’s third book is on The Guardian website here.
This truly is a pickle we find ourselves in. And Self is right in many respects as many judge what to watch on aggregate scores from websites such as Rotten Tomatoes and IMDb. Netflix, LoveFilm and Amazon all use the general audience’s ratings to place films higher up on a queue of recommendations. If critics were once scared of scoring a film a number of stars – and potentially voiding the written review of the film itself – the worry now is that audiences will merely compare star ratings and, from a combined score, mathematically choose what to watch. Statistically speaking, it is a flawless method, no?
A passionate film viewer himself, my brother has often praised the blind-viewing process. His argument harks back to a time whereby he joined a friend to the cinema and, almost randomly, selected Paul Haggis’ Crash. The film became an instant favourite of his and, soon after, he “randomly” paid full price to see The Last Samurai – this too became a personal favourite of his. I would repeat how advertising surely influenced his decision – but his response was always the same. He believed that the lack of influence from reviewers and advertising (apparently the advertising of the Tom Cruise epic did not reach him pre-viewing) meant he would immerse himself more in the film. A mere, simple expectation that most people “like the film” or friends who enjoy action films “like the film” is enough to help him decide on a viewing. To him, a critic was dead ever since he realised that his experienced was enhanced through knowing substantially less before watching.
At this stage, we have to consider the power of advertising and the decision cinemas have when they screen films. Critics can often herald a great film and get word of mouth out much sooner than expected through festival screenings – this is then capitalised on by the studios as they advertise it knowing the positive press will keep the film in conversation. We all see how much awards can influence the box-office too – whereby everybody is singing the praises of a film helping smaller films to reach a considerably larger audience. If, like my brother, audiences refuse to acknowledge another opinion, then they are choosing films at the mercy of the studios advertising and the star power of the lead actors. These critics need their arts pages to spread the word early – so that studios will jump on the word-of-mouth and advertise them moreso prior to the theatrical release. It is worth noting that the brother in question is a fan of Wes Anderson – a filmmaker who has courted critics and awards, ensuring a huge box-office pull when released theatrically.
But maybe, in the age of ‘spoilers’ and a culture where many will turn to Wikipedia to research films, art and literature immediately after experiencing the art form, critics need to change. Maybe turning their attention to insights after the reader has seen the film. On one page, a small set of short reviews recommending what should be watched (with star ratings) to clarify the opinions – and the lead article providing a spoiler-heavy insight on the opposite page. Maybe for a film released the previous week – or, in the rare occasion that a film has managed to stay in the the cinema after a month…
Many podcasts tag their audio with a ‘this podcasts contains spoilers for…’ introduction, and many bloggers and writers enjoy a large audience by extrapolating further on the topics raised within the film – prefacing the article with a note of caution for spoilers. Indeed, combining Self’s pessimistic opinion and Nick James article Goodbye Mr French: Fleet Street cuts back its film critics in Sight & Sound, change is in the air and the new wave of film bloggers are surely doing something right. The freedom to discuss anything whatsoever, with such speed after a film’s release is something the online community have over the press. Maybe online versions of newspapers will support their articles with further reading, but to use the precious column-inches in the weekly newspapers “review” section to reflect on films rather than tactfully inform without ruining the virgin-viewing, is a change I know I would welcome. And maybe, the coverage would also garner further ticket sales weeks after the films initial release, giving films a second chance to take a small sum before leaving the cinema and only appearing on the 4* film list in your Netflix queue.