I noted just now, as we were debating the virtues of “Deadpool 2” in this post, that the New York Times savaged “Aquaman,” though it is shaping up as a huge hit with audiences. Earlier this week, the Times reprinted excerpts from the original reviews of classic Christmas movies in its pages, showing how the Times’ arbiters of film quality had originally given a “thumbs down” to “It’s A Wonderful Life,” “White Christmas,” “A Christmas Story,” “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” and “Scrooged,” as well as some theoretical Christmas fare as “Die Hard,” and a personal favorite, the Christmas horror movie “Black Christmas.” (Pop Quiz: One director was responsible of two of the films mentioned above. Which two, and who?)
This raises an issue—again—that I have thought about often. Why should anyone pay attention to what a movie critic thinks? They are so far from typical viewers it’s ridiculous. They see too many movies; they see the same plots and devices over and over again. They develop powerful biases against performers, directors and whole genres. To take an example from the Christmas list: “Black Christmas” pioneered the mysterious serial killer movie, well before “Halloween,” and added some important tricks to the genre to come. Most reviewers dismissed it as “too violent.” In other words, they would never see such a picture if they weren’t paid to do it. Slasher films, however, are not made for such individuals.
What movie is made for the people who hate that kind of movie? I’m pretty literate in film history, technique and direction, but I have no more business reviewing a super-hero film like “Aquaman” than a fish. Why should my opinion of a movie that I would never buy a ticket from dissuade someone who likes such films from buying one?
Film reviewers, with very rare exceptions, are inherently conflicted, biased, and incompetent—incompetent, because they cannot possibly watch a movie like a typical viewer watches one. The web is beginning to fix this problem, because on-line reviews even out the pollution by jaded reviewers. On sites like Rotten Tomato, Amazon and the Internet Movie Data Base, normal, intelligent non-professional reviewers offer their reviews, and often have reactions strikingly different from those of the “pros.”
After she had retired from reviewing films for The New Yorker, legendary reviewer Paline Kael wrote in one of her books that she had only recently realized that film she regarded as hackneyed and boring might be seen completely differently by a 20-year-old whose cinema experiences up to that point were very different from hers.
The real problem is that almost everyone’s tastes, perspectives and experiences were different from hers. So why was her opinion so influential?