Saturday, June 6, 2009

Beware the Tomatometer

Look out, critics! There's a new game in town. Individually, your voices are meaningless; mere 'opinions' on works of art, culled from world-view and experience. But together, something real, something powerful, something fruity can be created. You can create a Freshness score on the blessed Tom-a-Tometer, a number many Internet-era movie fans worship like it was Mecca or The Wailing Wall.

Before I go any further I will confess that I do use Rotten Tomatoes, even while realizing it should be taken with a grain of salt. Sometimes I'll use it to browse reviews quickly; I've discovered some under-sung writers on RT that I quite like--- and sometimes I'll just try to get a feel for the consensus of the film. What is the general sentiment surrounding the latest new releases--- golden eggs or stinkers?

But this is where the dubiousness (is that a word?) of Rotten Tomatoes comes into play--- it gives the impression of the consensus when it's no more the authority on that than myself or anyone else. It gives the impression that film critics are a united force instead of individuals. (which is, admittedly, a long standing impression--- how many times do they say of a movie "The critics loved it!" or "Forget that movie, man, it was panned", as though every critic feels the same way about a film?) . It's part of the desire for everything in this world to be tied up nicely and neatly, with no acknowledgment paid to the gray area in-between. Rotten Tomatoes just gives the illusion of a 'consensus'.

But those of us who love to discuss film know that virtually all interesting discourse about film lies in that gray area. The older I get, the less interested I become in qualifying terms--- "good", "bad", "masterpiece", "garbage"--- and the more interested I become in the emotions and ideas that the work itself brings up. In other words, what I love about my favorite critics is the way they express what the experience of watching the film meant to them, as opposed to the opinion itself. Much as I love Roger Ebert, he truly is among the most eloquent writers to have written about film, didn't his and Siskel's systems of "Thumbs Up" and "Thumbs Down" really pave the way for this ADD wave of film criticism? It's simply a quick verdict so teenage boys know what to see on a Saturday night. The difference between the "Thumbs" system and the "Fresh" system was that at least Siskel & Ebert's Thumb system acknowledged its own inherent subjectivity--- part of the essence of criticism. Rotten Tomatoes eschews that notion of subjectivity in favor of a false sense of objectivity. In the world of the Tomatoes, you either like something or you don't. Degrees mean nothing.

It's ironic that, in the digital age where personal expression is literally as easy as the click of a button, a fair amount of Rotten Tomatoes' users would move towards a unification of thought. Maybe I'm just the disagreeable type--- but I hardly agree with anyone on a lot of movies, even good friends of mine. Why would I expect to agree with all major critics all the time? Why are critics expected to be spokesmen of the 'average moviegoer'? And isn't the concept of the 'average moviegoer' condescending in and of itself?

Take the RT page of Up--- and you'll see that, for the most part, the only reviews with comments threads on them are the negative ones. This isn't because Tomato-users are using it to build discourse and an exchange of ideas around a dissenting view--- it's just basically a forum with which to bash the reviewer, regardless of the strength of their arguments. Most of the cries more or less amount to "Boo! Dissenting opinion!" and little else. Some even go so far as to suggest that these snarky 'contrarians' (bastards!) be ejected from the Rotten Tomatoes system all together! How fucked up is that?

Off with their heads!

Just check out Mahnola Dargis' typically eloquent review in The New York Times, which was mostly positive, if also somewhat critical of what she deems Pixar's mechanical nature. I haven't seen Up yet, but this trite banality and smug condescension was certainly presented in Wall-E's second half, so I certainly understand where Dargis is coming from. Naturally, the comment section says things like "Up with the movie, down with the critic!", "Why do you hate children?", and so on. Because, naturally, we should hold children's films to a lower standard than we hold more 'sophisticated' films to.

Is that one of the side-effects of having communication on such a mass-level, the desire on the part of some to squash opposing view points? With the exception of Obamania, no fervor swept the country last year quite like The Dark Knight, and it inspired the most militant fanboyism I've ever seen in my life (no small feat). For what I feel is the most frightening example of this, check out the comment thread from Keith Uhlich's review from The House Next Door way back when the movie came out, where Nolan-ites descended on his website like flies on shit, saying all kinds of terrible things (from death threats to grotesque sexual imagery) because he didn't like a movie most of them hadn't even seen yet. In the case of these two reviews, the outrage had nothing to do with discussing the merits (or lack thereof) of the films themselves--- it all revolved around the utterly inconsequential number score on the tomatometer. How dare those bastard critics lower a movie's score? How dare they have an opinion? How dare they speak for themselves, and not the people?

My point with all this is that in an age where an exchange of ideas is more accessible than ever before, it also gives the herd mentality a forum with which to be that much more aggressive with their suffocation of dissent. What these people attempt to do is to shut down discourse so their shallow world-view can be the only one that is endorsed. This is willful ignorance at its worst, masquerading as populist anti-intellectualism. Of course, the trolls will never succeed in silencing those who don't agree--- the pen has always been mightier than the sword, and it always will be.


Kevin J. Olson said...


Bravo. I avoid RT at all costs now because of the scene you mentioned last Summer with The Dark Knight vs. The House Next Door. It never fails to amaze me the things people will say hiding behind a username and a keyboard. I'm glad you take the website to task.

The site does have a utilitarian purpose. Like you I often use it (like I do Ebert's star system) as a quick gauge of well received a film is, but in now way is it a definitive marker of how good a film is, or how it will be remembered. The sad thing is I think it shows a growing population of filmgoers who can't differentiate people's opinioons about a film. All three star reviews or "recommended" films get lumped into one gionat percentile. That's not fair to the people who actually spend the time writing a review and articulating their reasoning behind not liking something at all, very much, or a lot. There are varying degrees of how a critic thinks something works or doesn't work and it always exists in those gray areas that are two - three star reviews.

It reminds me of the silly IMDB 250 where the same fanboys get up in arms when people have the never to rank a foreign film over something like The Dark Knight. Snobs we're labeled...snobs who don't know how to have fun at the movies and who should be killed for not liking something that the masses like.

I mentioned in my blog entry the other day about getting disillusioned with people in college who kept trying to get me to admit that dorm room staples that were arty commercial films were the greatest thing ever. I was often called pretentious, and maybe I was, but at least I could give a reason why I hated those movies, all they could say was that I only hated them because they were popular...blah blah blah.

Ah college life.

I remember when The Blair Witch project came out and I had a great debate with someone at my high school about the merits of box office numbers. I told him that he shouldn't see the movie just because everyone is paying money to see it. I liked the movie, but I knew he wouldn't so I told him to save him money. He didn't, and then proceeded to get mad at me the next time I saw him for telling that movie was so great. We then got off on the topic of movies he really likes and he was trying to convince me that Armageddon and was a great movie. I told him I thought it sucked, and his retort was that if it sucked so badly why did it make so much money. So I fired back...The Blair Witch Project has made over 100 million! By your definition it's a great movie. That shut him up.

Casual filmgoers are not the issue or the's the fact that they think because of some numbers next to the film after its opening weekend, or a percentage that's attached to a bunch of reviews, that's the measure of a films greatness.

I like rankning films on my blog at the end of the year, even if I do find the whole practice's still fun. But a lot of people don't take it as lightly and take very seriously why you would place THAT movie over THIS dare I!

Never mind the fact that they both exist in the top 10...that simple fact always seems to elude them.

Anyway...sorry for the rant. Great post.

Ryan Kelly said...

I don't lay down many rules here, Kevin, but if I was gonna make one it would be lengh of comments is never an issue. The second one would be never apologize for leaving an insightful comment. =)

That's part of my problem--- the site forges no distinction between a 'glowing' review or a 'ho-hum' review, or a slightly critical review versus a complete trashing. Everything is either 'liked it' 'didn't like it', which seems counter-intuitive AND counter-productive.

The only thing worth getting up in arms about with respect to the top 250 is how utterly useless it is. I haven't looked at it in a while, but I am genuinely amazed that generally whichever movie is number 1 at the B.O. tends to at least have a temporary home in the top 250, even something like Star Trek.

Yeah, being disillusioned from our peers' taste in movies seems to come with the territory. I thought it was bad in high school but it's only gotten worse in college, honestly, because college pretends to be more sophisticated. But my school screens nothing but garbage, and I wasn't allowed to write reviews for my college paper after my friend stepped down as Editor in Chief because they wanted to run poorly written reviews that pandered to bad taste.

You're dead on, Kevin, these things like Box Office intake and Rotten Tomatoes' percentages are just distractions--- every movie, one week or another, wins that battle. What bothers me about the more vitriolic RT-users is that they pretend that the website is simultaneously an authority (ridiculous), fair (insane), and objective (insulting).

And I don't think there's anything wrong with top ten lists--- so long as their subjectivity and whimsy is acknowledged. They're fun, and in some ways they say as much about the person as any elongated-essay could. It's when people get hung up on the arbitrary semantics (like the example you give, of people whining about one movie being ahead of the other) that they become problematic.

Anonymous said...

When the mass acts on its own, it does so only in one way, for it has no other: it lynches. And it will cause no surprise, nowadays, when the masses triumph and be made the one ratio, the one doctrine. It is now some time since I called attention to this advance of violence as a normal condition. Today it has reached it's full development, and this is a good symptom, because it means that automatically the descent is about to begin. Today violence is the rhetoric of the period, the empty rhetorician has made it his own.

Ryan Kelly said...

Why hello there, nice to meet you.

For what it's worth, I don't think the aggressive herd mentality has won or ever will win. But people who think for themselves need to continue to fight the good fight against uniformity and suffocation of individuality.

rob humanick said...

I think this speaks to the tendency of people to simplify things in all aspects of life. Politicians. Lawyers. Movie critics. Black people. These varying kinds of classification are all rooted in simplistic association, which can prove as evil as xenophobia and as annoying as adherence to percentages.

Dargis' review is quite good, and speaks to my problems with the film (though I'm more willing to give it a pass in the end than she is; the opening half, in particular, is magnificent). But some people will always reach for the low jab. They won't read what's there, only what their tiny minds need to find reinforcement.

Homiebrain said...

Great post, Ryan. This is exactly why I'm so averse to the site and don't bother with a rating system. I think it's more important to communicate what kind of feelings and emotions a film evokes, and is something I strive for in my own reviews.

Ryan Kelly said...

@ Robert: Welcome! So nice of you to drop by my corner of the Internet.

You're right, labels tend to be counter-productive. It's all about separating the 'them' from the 'us'--- a form of xenophobia, you're right.

But don't a lot of film critics use labels, too? "This was a bomb", or "A masterpiece", etc... And isn't it just as counter-productive when you apply these labels to a movie as it is when you apply them to groups of people?

I thought Dargis' review was about the most gentle criticism I've ever seen--- which isn't to say it's not piercing, because it certainly is. But she managed to do it in such a way that I felt she was being totally fair. Probably gave Pixar too much credit, if anything.

Don't be a stranger, Rob!

@ Brian: I'm really glad you don't use a rating system at your site--- so many people use that as a crutch (*ahem*), and it's probably about the least interesting thing about film criticism. I just want to read a communication of the journey the movie sent you on--- the thoughts, emotions, and feelings that the work itself arises.

And in keeping with that notion, one thing I despise more than a rating system with some critics is them telling their readers "You should see this one this weekend!" or "Don't miss it!", like they fucking know me and understand me tastes? When a critic pretends to be a spokesman for the masses, it just comes off as smug and disingenuous. Rotten Tomatoes does pretty much exactly that--- come to us, we know how you should spend your money.

Marilyn said...

I haven't used Rotten Tomatoes in years. I have much better ways of deciding whether to see a movie or not. Even though I'm a film critic, I don't give ratings. I can't quantify my experience that way; really, I'm incapable of ranking films, and I don't make lists for the same reasons.

Ryan Kelly said...

No, quantifying a film's quality is pretty useless. And, to me, the beauty of blogs is that they can move away from the consumer culture of film and actually say a thing or two about movies. Whenever I see a ratings scale on a blog, I tend to get irritated at the laziness of the writer more than anything.

Lists, on the other hand, I am a sucker for. Yes, I hate them, because ultimately they're pretty useles--- but I love them too! I love the whimsical nature of them, I love the way lists are part preference, part objectivity, and partly spontaneity. What I don't like is lists made by a committee-- to me, the best thing about a list is its highly personal nature.

What I plan on doing for the customary year end wrap-up is just listing the movies I really liked chronologically--- and no adherence to numbers. No "Top 5s" or "Top 10s"; those lists imply that, in a given year, there can be no less than 10 great films, and no more than 10. Which is insane--- there can be one, or there can be one hundred.

Marilyn said...

A subjective list without rankings would be about the only one I would consider, and your idea, Ryan, has a lot of merit. I do sum up my festival experiences, so maybe a year end would be all right, too. I'll think about it.

Greg said...

Ryan, why do hate people who hate people who hate children? We should kick you off of Blogger. It's people like you with dissenting opinions of the overall warmfullyness (pretty good word huh?) of RT that really work my last nerve. Boo! Hiss! Up with the movie, down with the blogger.

Sorry, I got carried away. Anyway, to reiterate what everyone else has said, but take it a bitter resentful step further, I hate the masses. I find the IMDB 250 that Kevin mentions to be horrible stinking garbage as far as a canon goes. Fox finds my anti-pop culture rants humorous and I can't blame him because it does get me P-O'd. I won't bother going through all of it again. Suffice it to say, I find well over 95 percent of the people I meet to be one big stinking intellectually deficient disappointment so I'm not surprised as to the reaction of the masses against a dissenting voice. They're all a bunch of idiots anyway.

Adam Zanzie said...

I refer to Rotten Tomatoes when I want to check up reviews for films that go back beyond the 1990's- for anything more recent, I use metacritic. This is because I'm picky enough to want to know HOW MUCH a critic liked or disliked a film, not just if they liked it or not. You can get that from metacritic, not RT.

Oftentimes, the comments that users leave on RT are ridiculous, although they have come to the rescue occasionally. On the "Munich" page, for example, these critics from Spiritualisty & Practice (or whatever the name of the magazine is) slammed the film because they claimed that an anti-violence film can't be effective if it contains scenes of violence. Total BS, right?

As it deserved, that review got punished with dozens of hateful comments.

Ryan Kelly said...

Marilyn, if I could contribute an idea to the esteemed "Ferdy on Films", that would just about make me the happiest boy in the blogosphere. Plus, it would make Greg green with envy.

Ryan Kelly said...

Damn, Greg, please don't hold back. You're amongst friends and you shouldn't be afraid to speak your mind.

I don't know how much we can contempt the 'masses'. Yes, I despise the consumer culture and the equally manufactured response to it. But microcosmically speaking I feel the opposite--- the more people I meet (both in my day to day life and online) the more I find people are mostly good, hard-working, engaging. But yeah, as a whole, I hate the world.

Also, I make no bones about the fact that the people I'm referring to are a small overall percentage of the website in question.

Ryan Kelly said...

Adam, you're right, Metacritic is definitely better because there are at least degrees. But as Marilyn was saying, quantifying a review kind of cheapens it. But yeah, in the sense of providing an accurate 'consensus' Metacritic is definitely more fair and probably more accurate.

With respect to the Munich review, if they didn't actually make points as to why the review was wrong then the comments are useless. If they were just flinging shit, then they're no better than the others. Which isn't to say that can't be entertaining!