The problem with taste

It Stinks

Wall Street Journal writer Charles Passy recently wrote a piece describing “10 Things Movie Critics Won’t Tell You.” Some of those things were certainly true: “We’re not as powerful as we once were;” “My Top 10 List is Full of Movies Nobody’s Seen.” But one of his observations made me cringe: “We’re Not in Tune with the Public’s Taste.”

To ordinary moviegoers, critics seem often to project a snobbish attitude to movies the ticket-buyers most enjoy. Critics love to dump on Michael Bay, for instance, even as theater lines extend around the block. The public (or at least the part of the public that is the demographic for most current blockbuster movies) loves to see things blow up real good. The critics? Not so much. It seems they would much rather see a film in Hungarian shot on poorly lit video in which a lonely widow starves slowly to death in real time.

Passy is not a film critic, and he cannot possibly understand one of the basic dynamics of the career he criticizes. But I’ve seen it in action.

He complains: “How to explain this gap between critics and the public? Some filmgoers see it as elitism at its worst: ‘Most critics are trying to impress the public (and other critics) by flaunting their perceived affluent taste and intelligence,’ one movie fan wrote on a Yahoo message board about the issue.”

He points out that Rotten Tomatoes, a film website that gives scores to movies based on a survey of reviews from as many as 200 critics, gives Tyler Perry’s Diary of a Mad Black Woman a 15 percent approval rating, while in the audience rating section of the website, Diary received an 88 percent approval. How can critics and audiences be at such odds?

Passy quotes Leslie Gray Streeter, a film writer with The Palm Beach Post, who observed: “The most objectionable reviews are disturbingly dismissive of the movie’s audience and its presumably simplistic religious or cultural attitudes. They read like ‘Who is this Tyler Perry fellow and who does he think he is?’”

Surely, the movie audience reacts, the critics must be snobs, showing off their “superior” taste and cinematic knowledge. Cries of elitism abound.

Yet, as I say, I have seen the true dynamic at work. It has nothing to do with showing off, or any feeling of cultural superiority (except perhaps for John Simon: There is no excuse for John Simon).

When I wrote for The Arizona Republic in Phoenix, Ariz., the old movie critic moved on to greener pastures, and the paper’s management decided to replace him with an “Everyman” reviewer. Exactly the kind of critic who would see movies through the eyes of the ordinary film goer. They fixed on  Bill Muller, an award-winning former investigative and political reporter, full of extroverted bonhomie and a regular guy if ever there was one. Not only was he someone you would like to have a beer with, he was someone you, in fact, did have a beer with.

Muller

When Muller arrived in the Features department, he professed to having no knowledge of movies at all. He didn’t know a DP from a grip from a Foley artist. It wasn’t that he was proud of his ignorance; in fact, he immediately set to learning his new field. He asked questions constantly of those around him who were movie buffs. Muller was ignorant of movies, but he was incredibly intelligent. Hungrily curious.

His first reviews were just what his bosses were looking for: true appreciation of movies in which things blew up real good. For the first year of his tenure, he continued to be the voice of the common man.

The problem is, that if you see one movie where things blow up real good, you can really enjoy the fireworks. If you see 10 such movies, you begin to rate which of them does the blowing up better than the others. If you see 100 of them, you really cannot avoid developing what can only be called “taste.” The more movies you see, the higher rises your taste level. It is inevitable. Critics see a lot of movies.

The monotony of fireballs and car crashes eventually become wearing. At some point, you have simply seen enough.

When Muller first began writing about movies, he avoided Foreign Films. Like most Americans, he hated subtitles. I was the beneficiary of his aversion: He passed on most foreign language films to me to review. I got to see scores of great films that he just wasn’t interested in. I was in pig heaven.

The result, for me, was that seeing so many French films, made me realize that not all foreign films are masterpieces. I began to recognize the dross (at a lower percentage than Muller and Hollywood: Americans get to see only a preselected group of foreign films. Most French films never see the light of Dayton, Ohio).

But, as I say, Muller’s taste level unavoidably began to rise as he realized one blowing-up movie was pretty much like another. And after a few years, he began looking forward to the so-called “art films” he had once tossed aside.

He never became a hoity-toity snob. There was nothing preventing him from enjoying a popular movie that was well made and original. It wasn’t a movie’s popularity that interested him. But having seen thousands of movies over that time made him able to distinguish between movies that tackled something real and worthy, and those that just fed fodder into the studio machine and spit out unimaginative clones.

And so, some readers began to complain about Muller, calling him an elitist and a snob. It was unfortunate. If you see only a few movies a year, like most people, most of them seem exciting; if you see hundreds, like a professional movie critic, the dreck stands out by contrast. I’m talking to you, Michael Bay.

By the time of his untimely death, in 2007, Bill Muller had become one of the best movie critics in the country. Nobody was less elitist than Muller, but he could never be less than honest about his judgement.

This is an affliction that visits anyone, like Muller, who sees that many films.

The solution, obviously, is for newspapers to change film critics at least once a year. That way, the critic is always in the unlearned state of the beginner. We should pluck him out of his desk the moment he begins to say nice things about Pedro Almodovar or has his first qualms about “Spiderman 5: The Regurgitation.”

Of course, this has already happened, in its way. As newspapers spiral down the drain of historical insignificance, their place is taken by an infinite number of bloggers (mea culpa) who cannot afford to see a film a day, sometimes two, and have their tastes involuntarily elevated.

These happy many, writing online, can pour forth panegyrics about the latest Adam Sandler film, or find the virtues in Tyler Perry, or conversely, complain about the casting of the latest Star Trek feature.

Every man his own critic. And nothing rises to converge.

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1 comment
  1. Richard,

    I learn you are now retired but fortunately still writing in a post-literate age.

    We once discussed the 10 Commandments by the director of the trilogy Blue, White and Red. Forgot his name. You wrote the article on me about 15 years ago before light rail helped Alcuin Books move to Scottsdale. Also you might google an interview with me where I allude to you but not your name You Tube Richard Murian

    Still alive and trying to see foreign films while they last at Camelview 5. If you are over this way in Scottsdale Old Town, drop by the store except lunch hour when I to home for an hour nap–the mark of civility

    Cordially, Richard

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