Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Critics Are All Wrong, pt. 2: critics vs. audiences vs. filmmakers

Today, the Best Picture Academy Award winner The King's Speech comes out on DVD and Blu-ray. It was a very deserving winner of course, but looking back at the outrage two months ago you wouldn't have known it. Many critics and bloggers strongly preferred The Social Network and it won an overwhelming number of Critics' Awards including the Golden Globe Awards. Then The King's Speech started winning the industry awards which culminated in their victory at the Oscars.

As a critic/blogger myself, but one who much preferred The King's Speech to The Social Network, I watched the awards season unfold with bemused astonishment. I chronicled the unfolding events in the articles The rise of The King’s Speech and defriending of The Social Network and The Critics Are All Wrong: Oscar, The Social Network & The King's Speech. Many critics simply went out of their skulls with the results and smeared the Oscars as outdated and irrelevant. They said that history would judge their decision harshly and that The Social Network would prove to be the greater movie.

But how can they be sure? Do critics really have greater insight than people who make films themselves?

It's usually the general public that is on the outside looking in. The public doesn't generally see as many movies and so they tend to look for easy entertainment. Casual viewers often consider critics and filmmakers themselves to be too highbrow or fussy with their thinking and have no problem going to a big, dumb blockbuster no matter how badly reviewed. Critics and filmmakers are usually united in preferring weightier films to dumb blockbusters.

But in this battle, the public is on the side of the industry and the Academy. It's the critics that are the odd ones out. The King's Speech won many Audience Awards starting with the Toronto International Film Festival. Although rottentomatoes.com gives The Social Network a 96% from the critics and 95% to The King's Speech, their audience ratings give The King's Speech a 94% vs 89% advantage. metacritic.com gives The Social Network a bigger edge from the critics, 95 vs. 88, but the users again preferred The King's Speech, 8.5 to 8.2. On imdb.com both films are in the users' top 250, but The King's Speech is ranked 107 whereas The Social Network is ranked 189. On cinemaclock.com the user rating for The Social Network is 7.9/10 compared to 9/10 for The King's Speech.

In terms of the box office, The King's Speech is king: the $40 million studio film The Social Network maxed out at $96.9 million in the domestic market even though it was re-released into theatres for a second run after getting all those critics' awards. Meanwhile, the low-budget indie The King's Speech cost $15 million and has made $137.5 million and counting.

So it's not the guilds and the Academy that are out of touch. Frankly, it's the critics. This is a really unique instance where many critics were in lockstep with each other and got it all wrong. Many of them went completely overboard for a middling talking heads movie, while being unmoved by the greater artistry, skill, emotion and yes, intelligence of an exceptional, multi-layered film. They seem to have judged them based on their "type" -- they saw The Social Network as smart and relevant because the characters were smart, it was about a trendy topic and it was written and directed by heavyweights; and The King's Speech was dismissed as stuffy, Oscar-baiting, feel-good, formulaic, middlebrow pap just because it was a British period film.

Around the time of the Oscars, many critics started shilling for their preferred movie. Many analyses came out to bolster the idea that The Social Network was a well-rounded film with lots going for it. I didn't find any of them convincing. The usually insightful David Bordwell posted a long piece THE SOCIAL NETWORK: Faces behind facebook about how great the acting was in the movie, especially with the eyes. He uses a trick to make it seem like more is happening than actual fact by isolating the eyes and over-analyzing the close-up before slowly pulling back to reveal the full face. You can do that with any frame-grab, even with bad acting, and with the power of suggestion you make it seem like a lot is going on. In one of Bordwell's examples, I thought the close-up on Jesse Eisenberg looked more anguished and emotional than the final reveal turned out to be, with him just being smugly satisfied at inventing the relationship status.

Jim Emerson posted a long, breathless piece Let's get social: Networking frames which praised every aspect of the film as if it were never-before-seen. Of the long dialogue-driven opening scene of the film, he lauds the complexities of the verbal exchange and glosses over the fact that it's supposed to be a date, not a debate, and that she wouldn't talk that way even if he always did. Emerson extols the camera work, saying "the scene offers just a few variations on some simple camera set-ups, deployed at high speed. Erica (Rooney Mara) is always on the left, Mark on the right (even in their individual close-ups they're slightly shifted to those positions in the frame)" and suggests this is somehow innovative and that early audiences "in the 1950s and 1960s probably would have thrown up."

But anyone who pays attention knows that this is very common film language. In a conversation where to people face each other, they're almost always framed on opposite sides. Any camera movement generally brings us closer to and more squarely in front of the actors.

I'd use pictures of the closing of Casablanca with Rick and Ilsa at the airplane, but haven't found any good photos from that scene. Nonetheless, if you watch it again you'll see exactly that type of camerawork.

After the Academy Awards, many argued that history sides with the critics and pulled out random instances where the Academy got it "wrong." The spoke of how Citizen Kane was "snubbed" by the Academy with only one Oscar without mentioning that it got nine nominations - an awful lot for a movie that's being snubbed. Sure, the New York Film Critics Circle Awards got it "right" by naming Citizen Kane as Best Picture, but they also gave Best Director to John Ford just like the Academy did for directing the Oscar Best Picture winner How Green Was My Valley. They've also agreed with some of the Academy's later supposed dubious choices such as Around the World in 80 Days and Ben-Hur for Best Picture.

As Citizen Kane was being forgotten in North America, it's true that it was French critics such as André Bazin, François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard who praised it as a masterpiece. This gradually led to its reappraisal by American critics including Pauline Kael who helped cement its status as a classic. But let's not forget that Pauline Kael was dismissive of the much-loved Casablanca, saying "it's far from a great film, but it has a special appealingly schlocky romanticism, and you're never really pressed to take its melodramatic twists and turns seriously."

It would seem that critics have as dubious a track record as anyone. The Guardian addressed this just the other day with an interesting piece entitled Peeping Tom was not the first cinematic masterpiece to get a critical slating. It looks at a good number of films that are now considered classics but were mauled by critics when they were first released including not just Peeping Tom but Metropolis, The General, Rashomon, Vertigo, Apocalypse Now and The Shining. Many of them didn't do well at the box office either, but it's the critics that are supposed to know better.

Regarding Kubrick, Rolling Stone Magazine recently reprinted an interview with him. Here's what he had to say about his critics.
Initial reviews of most of your films are sometimes inexplicably hostile. Then there's a reevaluation. Critics seem to like you better in retrospect.
That's true. The first reviews of 2001 were insulting, let alone bad. An important Los Angeles critic faulted Paths of Glory because the actors didn't speak with French accents. When Dr. Strangelove came out, a New York paper ran a review under the head Moscow could not buy more harm to America. Something like that. But critical opinion on my films has always been salvaged by what I would call subsequent critical opinion. Which is why I think audiences are more reliable than critics, at least initially. Audiences tend not to bring all that critical baggage with them to each film.
And I really think that a few critics come to my films expecting to see the last film. They're waiting to see something that never happens. I imagine it must be something like standing in the batter's box waiting for a fast ball, and the pitcher throws a change-up. The batter swings and misses. He thinks, "Shit, he threw me the wrong pitch." I think this accounts for some of the initial hostility.
Well, you don't make it easy on viewers or critics. You've said you want an audience to react emotionally. You create strong feelings, but you won't give us any easy answers.
That's because I don't have any easy answers.

The Rolling Stone Interview: Stanley Kubrick in 1987
As I've said before, the critics may be right and history might just turn out to be on their side. Certainly if they keep up their spin campaign it could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. But just as likely if not more so is the possibility that they'll be the one's looking foolish years from now. I've seen both The Social Network and The King's Speech a few times now and I can tell you that if I had to pick one to watch again right now, it wouldn't be the one that's all talk and not much else. It would be the one that works on a number of different levels and can be appreciated in many different ways. That would be The King's Speech.

1 comment:

  1. Very true. The Kings Speech was a timeless story with humor everyone could relate to. The Social Network on the other hand, involved a little prior knowledge to fully enjoy it. As far as the dialogue, it reminded me a lot of Juno. Entertaining, yes. Realistic? No way.