Columns / Discourse / February 22, 2012

Check the Reel: Life beyond Rotten Tomatoes

Forty years ago, I bet most people’s idea of a film critic was whoever reviewed movies in their local newspaper. Those who read The New Yorker may have been exposed to the critical tour de force Pauline Kael, and if you were savvy enough to read Screen, Sight & Sound or Cahiers du Cinéma, you had the whole landscape of film analysis at your doorstep — but for the most part people worked off a limited palette. If you wanted to see a movie, word of mouth and a gut feeling were your main resources.

Today, we live in the shadow of Rotten Tomatoes, that endlessly helpful and annoying force of statistics. You want to know which movie to watch? Go online and check its Tomatometer. Anything below a 60 percent? Not worth it.

If you’re interested in what only the most renowned film critics think, click “Top Critics” and you’ve got a more specialized statistic. Same for audiences. Everything is a number where you need it to be, allowing for a quick, expedient judgment of which movies are good and which belong to the junk heap.

We’ve gone from isolation to complete marginalization, a homogeneous culture where it doesn’t matter what an individual film critic says. Her opinion only feeds into the larger consensus we base all of our decisions on. And frankly, that sucks, not because I’m a would-be critic with some stake in this, but because specific opinions in anything — literary criticism, music criticism — matter.

Who do we think of today when someone says “film critic?” Roger Ebert, definitely, and perhaps Siskel and Roeper by extension. Maybe Michael Phillips, Peter Travers and Richard Corliss as well. Then who else? Is it really that much more than 40 years ago?

With the Internet at our disposal, film criticism becomes a brave new world. It’s not the domain of stuffy, armchair scholars, as some might think, but a vibrant, diverse group that continues to expand as more people take interest in movies.

It deserves attention because these people have an active interest in the film industry and how it develops. They admire movies endlessly and want to express that to others, but they also present cautionary tales, in hopes of setting a litmus test for which films we value down the road. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they make mistakes. It’s the process that’s worth paying attention to.

“But I don’t want to be told what to like,” you might say. Nobody does! Film criticism is not a matter of coercion or agreement. Great critics make sure to illustrate and unfold the film for the reader instead of enforcing their ego. “But I’m content with looking just at the Tomatometer!”

Perhaps, but you’re still playing with matches. The Rotten Tomatoes ranking — if a film’s 80 percent or 60 percent or 5 percent or whatever — cannot convey an impression of a movie. It simply indicates the general trend of how critics are responding. If you want to understand what you’ll be getting with this film or that one, it’s important to read individual reviews.

Next time you check Rotten Tomatoes, don’t just peek at the Tomatometer or skim through the critical soundbites. Read random reviews in their entirety, taking note of repeating phrases and details. Search Google for online critics — the new breed of film buffs — who might interest you.

I’ve got a few: Bob “Moviebob” Chipman, a blogger and a great source for movie news and impressions, presented through rapid-fire video clips with an emphasis on nerd culture; James Berardinelli, the only RT critic to have gotten his start entirely online, a little dry for my taste but the man who opened the Internet floodgates so certainly deserving of respect; and the Film Critic Hulk, a writer whose gimmick — he writes in the voice of the Incredible Hulk — never detracts from his main appeal, which is a vast knowledge of industry workings and a friendly, yet insatiably ponderous writing style.

Most of all, regardless if you’re a journalist, artist or neither, think about your own recommendations. You like it if people consider your actual words when making a decision, even if it plays a small part. You don’t want them to say, “Yeah, I added your opinion together with my other friends, multiplied them by ten, and then divided them by the number of people I talked to and that’s why I’m seeing this movie.”

Ivan Keta
Ivan Keta is a weekly film columnist for The Knox Student. In 2013, he won first place in Critical Film Review from the Illinois College Press Association, competing in the open division against dozens of other Illinois college newspapers.

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