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Critics and Audiences Often Disagree. It’s Not a Big Deal.
Plus: Todd Field, assigned.
Of all the things to get sucked into the vortex of never-ending culture war, one of the oddest is the insistence that the gap between critics scores and audience scores on Rotten Tomatoes is either a vast conspiracy or a sign of just how out of touch the so-called elites are from the salt-o’-the-Earth masses.
Sometimes this is couched as a political or ideological conspiracy; in this reading, Todd Phillips’s Joker, a movie championed by more conservative audiences, was hammered by Rotten Tomatoes’s “Top Critics” for a weak 49 percent fresh, while audiences heaped praise upon it with an 88 percent fresh score. How this effect is supposed to explain the strikingly similar scores for global warming parable Don’t Look Up (46 percent fresh from top critics and 78 percent from audiences) is unclear.
Sometimes this is couched as a conspiracy of fandoms, that critics are harder on a movie like, say, Black Adam because it is a DC Comics movie and not a Marvel Cinematic Universe movie and critics have been paid off by the Mouse House to give Marvel movies better scores than DC movies. Hence the 59-point gap between Black Adam’s score with top critics and audiences. As a critic who routinely finds himself in the minority on both DC and Marvel movies, I can assure you that this is not the case; Marvel simply makes movies that are more conducive to Rotten Tomatoes’s binary thumbs up/thumbs down system.
Sometimes this is couched as an international conspiracy, as when Rian Johnson suggested Russian bots had gone to war with The Last Jedi, helping secure that film’s disastrous 42 percent fresh rating from audiences. (Spoiler: that’s not really what happened at all.)
And sometimes this is couched as … whatever this is. To suggest that “Rotten Tomatoes is actually manufacturing fake reviews for the Woman King movie to give it a higher rating” makes very little sense; RT gets no benefit either way from a movie’s audience score. Now, maybe the studio was astroturfing the audience score, but even then I’d be kind of surprised: to manipulate the verified audience score, you’d have to a.) buy at least 2,500 tickets and then b.) pay 2,500 people to fill in fresh reviews. Possible, I guess — and, frankly, not a terrible expenditure of advertising dollars — but it seems more likely that a film that received a rare A-plus CinemaScore simply performed well with opening-weekend audiences. (I could venture a guess as to why the author of that thread believes Top Gun: Maverick secured a 99 percent fresh from audiences and doubts The Woman King could possibly have accomplished the same thing and why that thread went viral with conservative readers, but I wouldn’t want to toss around reckless allegations without proof.)
So what’s the actual reason for the gap between audiences and critics? Simply put, it’s that audiences tend to be easier to please because they’re merely looking for movies to be entertainment while critics are trying to judge them artistically. In his new book, Status and Culture, one of the things W. David Marx discusses is how art receives acclaim as art. “Invention requires ‘answering’ the works of previous artists,” Marx writes. So the creation of photography led to artists trying to “solve” the problem of a new form capable of capturing perfect representations of reality; hence the rise of cubism and abstract art. “There are perhaps an infinite number of potential problems in art, but to gain artist status, artists must solve the agreed-upon problems of the current moment,” he writes.
Another way to put this is that critics are looking for something “interesting”; audiences are merely looking to be “entertained.” Sometimes these ideals converge, as they did with Top Gun: Maverick, a movie that solves the problem of flat, weightless CGI action by reminding people of what it looks like to really pull gees and also entertained the hell out of audiences. Most times, they don’t.
And that’s fine! Not everything needs to be part of the kulturkampf.
Thanks for reading this newsletter, even if it is coming to you a day late. If you aren’t yet a paying member of Bulwark+, make sure to sign up so you can get access to bonus episodes of Across the Movie Aisle. This week we discussed Netflix original Athena, one of the best movies of the year.
For what it’s worth, I’m in the critical minority insofar as I found Black Adam both interesting and entertaining. The politics of the movie are fascinatingly slippery, which is not something you usually see from a film of this sort.
Speaking of politics, Dwayne Johnson told Jake Tapper he hasn’t ruled out a run for political office in the future. I still am not quite sure the Reagan/Schwarzenegger path for him is there—Reagan had been the head of SAG in his 30s and was a columnist and traveling speaker in his 40s; Schwarzenegger married into a political family and was frequently involved in non-partisan political programs like the presidential physical fitness program—but I don’t think it’d be crazy to see him run for governor one day.
At the Washington Post this week, I wrote about the tendency of modern horror movies to be focused on the idea of “trauma.” That horror movies are about trauma is kind of a joke at this point, but I do think the new Halloween movies and Smile have kind of interesting things to say on the subject! (That link should get you past the WaPo’s paywall.)
On Across the Movie Aisle, we discussed Kanye West’s desire to buy Parler and reviewed Lena Dunham’s Catherine, Called Birdy.
CNN’s Frank Pallotta returned to The Bulwark Goes to Hollywood to discuss the last few months in the business of showbiz.
One thing Frank and I discussed was the fact that horror continues to perform better than just about everything else, at least in terms of ROI, and Terrifier 2 continues its terrific box office run this week with a nearly $2.3 million weekend. That is more than double what the picture made last weekend. It’s a genuine indie hit of the sort we don’t see too often.
Assigned Viewing: In the Bedroom (Showtime)
Director Todd Field is back for the first time in 16 years with his new movie Tár; to prepare for it, I’d suggest you check out his critically acclaimed 2001 film, In the Bedroom. It is a film that is both interesting and entertaining, to borrow a phrase from above. Though undoubtedly a bit dark for some.