Thursday, March 23, 2017

Brett Ratner v RottenTomatoBot: Dawn of Consensus

I always feel a little better about myself when I learn that a rich and powerful bigshot (especially a Hollywood bigshot) shares my opinion on an important topic. So I’m delighted to see that Brett Ratner loathes the pestilential Rotten Tomatoes film criticism aggregation site, perhaps even more than I do. In a speech at a film festival, Ratner said that Rotten Tomatoes was “the worst thing we have in today’s movie culture.”

When I was growing up film criticism was a real art. And there was intellect that went into that. And you would read Pauline Kael’s reviews, or some others, and that doesn’t exist anymore. Now it’s about a number. A compounded number of how many positives vs. negatives. Now it’s about, ‘What’s your Rotten Tomatoes score?’ And that’s sad, because the Rotten Tomatoes score was so low on Batman v Superman I think it put a cloud over a movie that was incredibly successful.”

Okay hold on a second. I thought I was agreeing with Ratner. Wait. I am agreeing with him, about some of this.

I should point out that Ratner is idealizing the past here, somewhat. Film criticism, like everything, is 90% crap. And always has been. Kael stands out in our memory because she was so exceptional. You can add Peter Bogdanovich, Andrew Sarris, Rex Reed, John Simon and Armond White to that list—people with uncompromising vision and critical skills, and the talent to express their insights in an entertaining, thought-provoking way.

Film criticism might be worse lately, but at least part of the reason for that is that it’s so ubiquitous. Today there are hundreds, thousands of internet-based outlets where multiple movie reviewers, whose main influences run the gamut from Owen Gleiberman to A.O. Scott, offering bandwagon-jumping opinions in dull prose. Many of those reviewers contribute to the Rotten Tomatoes aggregate number.

The tomatometer is by definition faulty. Because art can’t be quantified. There are too many variables that go into the creation of art, including all the experiences and expertise and agendas of those involved in its creation, to allow for the possibility of assigning it a “score.” Then there are all the variables at play in the reaction to that art, including all the experiences and expertise and agendas of those assessing it. Saying the reaction to a movie is X% positive is useless. Except to promote groupthink.

That is the true purpose of Rotten Tomatoes—at least among its adherents.

The tomatometer is like a sort of magical talisman to the RottenTomatoBots. Look at their reactions to film critic Armond White’s negative reviews of “Up” and, more recently, “Get Out.” The RottenTomatoBots say that he “ruined” the scores for those movies. As if those movies, because a majority of the surveyed film critics liked them, somehow deserves a high tomatometer score.

The tomatometer gets even more corrupt when you examine just how corrupt and mediocre the mainstream film criticism culture has become. Film critics go to press junkets and agree to “review embargoes” and do interviews and press conferences with those whose work they’re supposed to examine. How can the critic do the work of placing art in its cultural context if they’re working as the promotional arm of the megacorporation that’s producing that art?

Speaking of which, Ratner also says “People don’t realize what goes into making a movie like [Batman V Superman].” He’s right about that. When massively valuable Intellectual Property is involved, there are sometimes dozens of people from various studio departments and “strategic partners” who are adding their opinions and insisting that this or that concept or piece of IP also be included. The fact that Batman V Superman was even made at all, and ended up being at least semi-coherent is a minor miracle. But I’m not sure that consumers of art should take that into account. And certainly film critics shouldn’t.

It’s difficult for me, as someone who has disliked every Marvel Studios movie with the exception of The Incredible Hulk, to understand how the critical response to the DC movies could be worse than that of the Marvel movies. But that’s my opinion. It’s no more right or wrong than that of someone who loves the Marvel Studios movies and hates the DC movies. Unfortunately the RottenTomatoBots don’t feel that way. They use the tomatometer as a bludgeon to attack—sometimes in the most vitriolic and personal ways—those who disagree with the consensus.

Rather also can’t help himself, taking a gratuitous swipe at that horrifying, confusing swatch of dullards that constitute “Middle America”:

In Middle America it’s, ‘Oh, it’s a low Rotten Tomatoes score so I’m not going to go see it because it must suck.’ But that number is an aggregate and one that nobody can figure out exactly what it means, and it’s not always correct.

“Middle America” isn’t the only place where the tomatometer is consulted. It’s also used by the ultra-sophisticated, urbane, liberal people in urban areas.

So, yes, Ratner is right that Rotten Tomatoes is terrible. He's right that it's destroying film culture. But it’s at least partly the fault of movie producers and marketers, and the venal film critics they've co-opted.

Oh and by the way, not that it means anything, but get a load of this: Rotten Tomatoes is owned by NBCUniversal and Warner Bros.  It's almost as if Rotten Tomatoes is just another corporate media promotional arm. If Ratner's so troubled by the negative effects of Rotten Tomatoes on the film industry and film criticism, maybe he should make his concerns known to his corporate co-workers?