The Inherently Incompetent Profession: Film Reviewer

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?


21 thoughts on “The Inherently Incompetent Profession: Film Reviewer

  1. As someone who does not watch many films because I am often too critical of them, when I do recommend one to friends usually they disagree with my take for the same reasons you outline here. Therefore, I have learned to just keep my faves to myself.

  2. Just here for the quiz:. Answer is Bob Clark (Black Christmas, A Christmas Story). Extra credit fact: he was killed about 15 years ago in a motor vehicle accident by a drunk illegal alie….I mean, undocumented immigrant.

    • …by a drunk illegal alie….I mean, undocumented immigrant.

      You obviously meant to say: …by Jesus & Mary attempting to escape persecution and arrive to a safe place with the Baby Jesus.

      As Slick would say: “Fixed that for ya.” 🙂

      • Here’s another “oops” for you:
        Mary & Joseph were travelling to their hometown for a census as required by the Roman emperor. They were running late and found all the lodgings taken, hence the stable. No seeking a “safe space” or asylum mentioned; they were citizens obeying the government’s orders.

          • No. Its your creche and you can adorn it as you please. I would say that the electrified razor is over-kill; either would probably work fine. If you were protecting it *from* the caravan, maybe doubling-up is a good idea.

        • No, they were citizens neither of Rome nor of any of Rome’s subject/tributary cities, they were subjects of a client king, Herod the Great (we know that because he was the one calling the shots locally).

          Citizenship of Rome was a special status that only a few had, and which typically got mentioned (e.g. St. Paul). For a few centuries either side of that time, Roman citizens were exempt from direct, personal taxes apart from a small one in support of those temples that were part of the Roman established religion, which required a personal connection for theological/devotional reasons (I wonder how Saul/St. Paul squared that with being a devout Jew or a devout Christian?). Anyway, Roman citizens of that time would never have had to be assessed for taxes as they were exempt; they would only have had to show that they were citizens. I have actually seen a bronze diploma in an English local museum that attested to the tax exempt status of a veteran, from some decades later, which would have been nailed up and on display at his home/place of work; I think that may even have been the original meaning of the term “diploma”.

          Often, citizens of a subject/tributary city or even subjects of a client king would only be indirect taxpayers of Rome too, paying via their own city’s or king’s tribute even if that was supported by their paying their own city’s or king’s direct taxes. Sometimes the tribute deal was that Rome’s own tax farmers would be turned loose on the people, though; that seems to have been how it worked under the Herodians, which we see from Gospel mentions of tax farmers (“publicans”), and which would explain why the Roman government apparatus wanted a general assessment in the first place. By the Byzantine period, when it was more convenient to levy a land based tax called the kapnikon, there were regular assessments of potential land productivity instead, called cadastres; but I digress.

  3. I agree that most reviewers are jaded and reflect whatever the current elite likes and wants. (how else to expect the SJW Last Jedi has almost diametrically opposed ratings between the mass audience and pro reviewers on Tomatoes?) BUT some reviewers are better and it’s not fair to blanket condemn them all. Even if you know a reviewer doesn’t agree with your taste, they can still act as a canary for things you don’t like. A few have been witty and can be entertaining in their own right, but that is becoming a rarity with the recurring bought review problem. The bulk of reviewers have a lesser version of the bias problem journalism has as a whole, and I would not condemn their iconoclasts.

  4. I am lucky, there is a web cartoonist who is basically the same age. He goes to movies and reviews them as a nerd, artist, and father. His opinions have been reasonably consistent with mine over the span of 15? years.

    • Howard Taylor I’m guessing? I disagree somewhat, mostly between relative rankings for movies above his threshold of disappointment, but he’s still a more accurate reviewer than most for me. OTOH, I rarely pay attention to reviews anyways, and don’t let them stop me from going.

  5. Why are there film reviewers? Because experts are placed on a pedestal and deferred to.

    TIME Magazine arrived my childhood house every Tuesday as if it had been handed down directly to us from on high, bearing the revealed TRUTH, about everything.

    • Yes, I remember TIME’s critic condemning “Bonnie and Clyde” as junk, and then when it was a sensation, writing a second review opining that now that he had thought about it, it was a brilliant classic.

  6. I doubt that I’ll ever see “Aquaman” but I’ve learned to distrust most of the critics on Rotten Tomatoes. In general, they detest faith based films and fawn over junk like “Black Panther” which I was unfortunate enough to watch.

  7. I continue to see this completely opposite of the way you see it.

    Professional critics should be the hardest to please, that way when they are pleased you know you’re going to see a pretty decent movie. Although, they definitely get things wrong both ways (WTF was up with that movie where the lady had sex with a fish man?)

    I think you’re a movie connoisseur. I rarely watch movies, so when I do, I want to make sure they are worth the time investment. Critics help me know which ones are worth the investment (although sometimes they get it wrong-see fishy sex lady) in a way that easily pleased fans just cannot.

    • But they can’t, and don’t. What good is the taste of someone whose taste is completely different from yours? So what if a gourmet restaurant critic says, “Ugh! That Big Mac is SWILL! Not fit for pigs!” Funny, I like one now and then. He’s incapable of enjoying it because he only has fillets cooked by 5 star chefs. I really don’t care what he thinks. It’s like an alien saying Earth women are hideous.

      • No, but they might be able to lead you to the 12 best filets (picked 12 because that’s the approximate number of movies I see per year).

  8. There was a reviewer once, can’t remember his name. Wife and I watched him religiously. We knew, if he didn’t like it, we’d love it. 100%, across the board, never wrong.

    • Growing up in poor rural Texas, we learned that if the newspaper critics hated a movie, we would like it. If they liked it, we probably would not.

      They were worthwhile barometers on how to spend our (few) movie dollars.

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