“No filmmaker likes critics, no matter how nice they are to him.”
In an exclusive interview Monday, August 5, 2013 with Yahoo! Movies UK, stars of the box-office fiasco The Lone Ranger shared their thoughts on why the film failed to interest audiences. In no subtle way, Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer laid the blame at the feet of the critics:
“I think the reviews were written seven-to-eight months before we released the film,” said Johnny Depp. “I think the reviews were written when they heard Gore [Verbinksi] and Jerry [Bruckheimer] and me were going to do ‘The Lone Ranger’. They had expectations that it must be a blockbuster. I didn’t have any expectations of that. I never do.”
Not only do I want to consider whether their accusations bear any merit, I also want to examine the impact of this particular brand of film criticism on the art of cinema, one that seems more about raising the state of the publication’s view count than it does raising the state of viewership.
Perhaps Depp’s impulse to ignore the chatter is one which artists invariably adopt to better serve their creative output. The incomparable French New Wave director Francois Truffaut once suspected as much when accounting for the brilliance of crime novelists like David Goodis and William Irish. “[B]ecause so many books appear each year in the States,” he explained, “these detective story writers are usually ignored. Ironically, this liberates them. Made humble by their neglect, they are free to experiment because they think no one is paying attention anyway. Not expecting to be analyzed, they put into their books anything they choose.” Truffaut’s words, spoken more than forty years ago in an interview with Charles Thomas Samuels, illuminate a crucial concern for criticism of any kind. Namely: its ability to stifle creativity. The concern is not without merit; nobody enjoys taking a creative leap if they are convinced there’s no one waiting to catch them on the other side.
As a result, a valid review becomes as much a matter of catching artists as it is causing them to reflect on the leap they’ve made. That said, there’s no point in critiquing anything based on pre-conceived notions, or indeed before the leap has even been made, as Depp and his co-star Hammer suspect. “If you go back and read the negative reviews,” Hammer suggests, “most of them aren’t about the content of the movie, but more what’s behind it.” It want to consider the value in this impulse to criticize beyond the scope of the work (in this case, The Lone Ranger), especially when it comes at the expense of any serious investigation of the work.
In order to investigate this claim further then, I decided to examine a review of the movie taken at random from the Rotten Tomatoes list of quote-unquote Top Critics for the film (so as to avoid the accusation that my argument was concerned only with the low hanging fruit, such as lowly internet bloggers). I tend to avoid reading reviews, not simply because I want to avoid having my first encounter with a film spoiled (not that they have much chance of managing that), but because I simply cringe at the amount of unsubstantiated opinion passing for valid argumentation (as a former instructor in the art of writing university essays, I find this practice especially heinous and lazy). My assessment was corroborated by what I found in this vociferous collection masquerading as film criticism. The authors may be film reviewers, but they are certainly not critics (at least, not in any useful definition of the term). My cursor landed on none other than the highly respected Peter Travers of Rolling Stone magazine, and though I would prefer you didn’t dignify the review with a view count, I acknowledge for the purposes of my argument such evils are necessary:
I begin my criticism of a criticism by stating I have not seen The Lone Ranger. The reason is to avoid any overriding bias in protecting the film. I have no vested interest in the film’s success or its reception. My argument does not rest on the laurels of the film in question. My argument is not that modern film critics got it wrong by calling a great movie bad (nevermind that I am fundamentally opposed to labeling any film by a qualifier as semantically null as “bad”, or “good” for that matter). Instead, my conjecture is that modern film critics are getting film criticism wrong.
Travers begins his barbed criticism of the movie by explaining the movie ‘sucks’, how and why it sucks is only ever briefly alluded to in the scant review that barely manages to crack 450 words. But rest assured, dear reader, that Travers’ judgement is sound, for as proof of his assertion, consider the irrefutable argument that the movie sucks “[b]ecause the movie sucks, that’s why.” Is suckage a relative scale? Is there an accepted standard for sucking? What is the established benchmark, Ishtar? Moreover, how can this be considered a valid introduction to a review of any film?
By way of comparison, I refer once again to Truffaut, who established himself as a film critic in the vaulted pages of Les Cahiers du Cinema before he grabbed his own camera and revolutionized cinema forever. In that same 1970 interview with Charles Thomas Samuels mentioned above, Truffaut distinguished the difference between the film spectator and the film critic:
Behaving like the ordinary spectator, one uses a film as if it were a drug; he is dazed by the motion and doesn’t try to analyze. A critic, on the other hand (particularly one who works for a weekly, as I did), is forced to write summaries of films in fifteen lines. That forces one to apprehend the structure of a film and to rationalize his liking for it.
Nevermind that Truffaut was being modest when he described his work as fifteen line summaries (let’s chalk it up to a mistranslation), the feature I wish to draw attention to is Truffaut’s insistence on rationalization. Film criticism, whether we want to admit it or not, is implicitly a study of value judgments; the documentation of one’s visceral response to a movie. It simply gets tarted up with appeals to reason, for only when these judgments are shored up by reason and evidence do they approach something resembling an argument. Otherwise the response is that of the ordinary spectator, one who views the film “as if it were a drug […] dazed by the motion and [who] doesn’t try to analyze”. To return to the circular reasoning of Travers’ rhetoric, offering that the film “sucks” because it sucks and “that’s why” falls more in line with the non-analytical ravings of the confounded film goer, grasping for words to describe his experience. Travers caustic remarks crucially neglect to demonstrate any awareness that a valid film review (if we take Truffaut’s measured logic) is in no small way an argument over a film’s merits (or lack thereof).
…the least contested of Renoir’s films, [the film] is built on the idea that the world is divided horizontally by similarities, not vertically by frontiers. If World War II and especially the horrors of the concentration camps seem to have weakened Renoir’s ennobling thesis, the present attempts at “Europeanization” show that the strength of his idea was ahead of the spirit of Munich. But La Grande Illusion is nonetheless a film of its own time, as La Marseillaise was, because in it men fought a war based on fair play, a war without atom bombs or torture.
Granted, Truffaut was writing for a 1967 Renoir Festival—a certain modicum of reflection on the work was to be expected—but he nonetheless demonstrates how to adequately begin a review. The rhetorical impetus for the rest of his review is to demonstrate the validity of his claim about “Renoir’s ennobling thesis”, not simply arguing whether or not the film “sucks”. Let that task fall to the internet polls, for whose view-mongering creators such thought-deprived binaries are their vital stock and trade. So too notice how Truffaut avoids any rootless qualifiers like “good” or “bad”. The point of the review is not to offer whether it is good or bad (nevermind these terms are arbitrary descriptors of nothing), but to offer an interpretation of the experience. If the reader decides, based on the interpretation, that the subject matter in question does not interest them, then the decision rests with the spectator whether to go see the movie.
“Aha!” cries the defence, won’t then curious filmgoers simply seek out other sources of reviews? The simple fact is that they are doing just that, in droves, and in no small part because film criticism is quickly becoming the playground of snobbish elitism (more on that below). Film criticism is being entirely supplanted by the quick-click score of Metacritic, Rotten Tomatoes, IMDB and the like, and for good reason. Why would anyone subject themselves to a vapid review that simultaneously panders and derides as it pejoratively comments on a film? The solution is to provide content, not simply reduce each film into the simplest LCD review for easy tweeting. Leave that to the spectators, who are all too happy to share their thoughts in that way. The solution is trickle-down film criticism, not a level playing field.
Consider that in just 60 years film criticism has devolved from the Elysian wit of Truffaut to the hyperbolic pedantry of Travers et al.
Speaking of which, Travers’ review quickly becomes an extended diatribe presumably as dreary as the film it disparagingly describes. I have no issue with a review that negatively criticises the problems with a film; it would be hypocrisy for me to suggest otherwise, given that I hold no film as perfect. I take issue, however, with a writer who is two times too clever to care about commenting on the film, and who applies his critical gaze at everyone except himself. For example, he describes the film as a “two-and-a-half hour obstacle course of cinematic horse turds [that] resists redemption even from Depp”. A clever image, sure, but what evidence qualifies any of these statements? Furthermore, how do these statements contribute to the film’s “suck” factor, a proposition teased by the review’s introduction. That the film is an obstacle course was surely no impediment to the critical perception of the twisting narrative of say Mulholland Drive. Does he mean then that the film is stylistically inept? That the film throws too much at the viewer in an awkward fashion? He never specifies. And what, pray tell, is the literal equivalent of a “cinematic horse turd”? Notice how the ambiguity removes the onus from the review to actually offering any valid criticism and instead invites the reader to insert one’s own interpretation of what these statements might entail. It’s paint by numbers then, fill in each number with the negative opinion of your choice. Travers repeats this tactic again in the very next sentence when he explains that “[y]our expectations of how bad The Lone Ranger is can’t trump the reality”. The rhetorical strategy, in essence, requires the reader to fulfill Travers’ job and judge the film based on a review he’s only five sentences into. What should my expectations for this film be? I haven’t seen it yet, how can I judge that which I haven’t seen?
Rather than elaborating on any of his points, Travers loads his review with the gamut of exaggerated puns, calling it a “monumentally monotonous production” about “a pacifist lawyer who learns to grow a pair”, without ever addressing or explicating any of his claims. In what way is the production monotonous, no less monumentally so? Is that a quip about the film’s oversized budget? The review makes some truncated reference to the film involving two train chases and a “ton” of exposition, but fails to distinguish in what way these constitute monotony.
By the time Travers goes so far as to compare another of Johnny Depp’s roles to his portrayal of Tonto, it slips into the unsettling tone of thinly-veiled racism: “Captain Jack Sparrow would have swanned away from this dullness the first chance he got. But Tonto, the noble savage, has to stay and represent.” Nevermind that the reference to the stock character of the noble savage is more groan-inducing and clichéd than any film using the character itself, I’m at a loss to derive any meaning from the statement as it pertains to film criticism. I challenge anyone to do otherwise—especially considering how the review cultivates that pat manner of ending each paragraph with a sentence fragment. The point supposedly made. (Convincing, isn’t it?)
Travers finally begins to circle a relevant topic of inquiry, and one worthy of further investigation, when he insists the film “forgets it’s [sic] duty to entertain”. Nevermind he (and presumably his editor) failed to catch the wayward apostrophe, Travers is also aggressively glib on the precise nature of what this duty entails. Does he mean the film is designed to cater to his expectations, is that why he begins this paragraph with that note? (Maybe Depp and Hammer were on to something…) Or is he simply deferring to our expertise on the matter to supply the relevant criteria for entertainment. If the review depends solely on the reader supplying their own interpretations of what the film is and isn’t, what do we need this piece for?
One similarly has to wonder whom Travers is intending this review for, especially when he concludes his abbreviated points with such hackneyed idioms as “Here they’re just putting Pirates of the Caribbean in a saddle and pretending we won’t notice. Burn.” Those nine-year-olds he mentions just a few sentences earlier? (That same group he sarcastically asks us to imagine “bitching about ‘tonal shifts’” just to prove he’s got this movie figured out better than the rest of those critics he disparages with his comment?) When did the business of film criticism become the challenge of out-sassing even the most cynical?
You may notice that I conflate my criticism between the two subjects, between Travers and his review. My argument borders on ad hominem not because I’m especially rancorous towards Travers, but instead it’s precisely because Travers seems to invite the conflation. Why else pen a review which seems intended as a vehicle for showing off his ability for wit and flair for vitriol, more than it does for actually discussing the movie, except to say it’s a pile of horse turd? It reminds me of a similar argument I made against Rex Reed’s vicious review of V/H/S 2 (another film I haven’t seen, but which once again is entirely beside the point of my argument).
In comparing these two figures, Reed and Travers, I’m reminded of a pitiful scene from Book II of Alexander Pope’s satirical poem The Dunciad, in which the Fleet Street critics (home of London’s main printing houses in the 18th century when the poem was written) participate in some farcical “heroic games”. Among their many scatological contests is one intended to discover who can bray like an ass and impress the king of the monkeys (Pope traded insults for subtlety with this moment). The poet Richard Blackmore, derided by Pope for his limited vocabulary and repetitive imagism (particularly the use of the word “bray” for love), wins the catcall contest, and is praised by the other hacks (themselves parodies of what Pope considered hack writers in his day): “All hail him victor in both gifts of Song, / Who sings so loudly, and who sings so long” (II 255–6).
In case the reader missed the insult, the assembled throng run down the street to frolic in a river of shit, the Fleet Street ditch, where they engage in a diving contest to see who can muck up the most filth. The judge of the contest, Dulness, offers to he “Who flings [the] most filth, and wide pollutes around / The stream,” the prize that “his the Weekly Journals, [shall be] bound” (II 267–8); the Weekly Journals being a collective noun for the London newspapers—the modern equivalent of People magazine and a couple others I leave to your imagination.
Ironically, Travers gets closest to offering a valid criticism when he dismisses the lead actors. “Hammer and Depp never develop a rapport,” he writes, “This is Tonto’s show.” Rather than investigating this line further, however, and interpreting whether the filmmakers intended to say anything by making the sidekick, Tonto, the star of a film called The Lone Ranger (besides merely allowing Johnny Depp more screen time), Travers dismisses the possibility with the unflinching certainty of a fundamentalist preacher. Lest you worried the review would cause you to think, it’s on to the next point, which is that “when you’ve seen one scene of a Native American conning a dumb white dude, you’ve seen them all.” Again, I fail to see how that reinforces the film being about Tonto as a negative.
In light of these many egregious practices in contemporary film criticism, consider then this piece as but another disputation in my own personal Ninety-five Theses. Whether a reformation ever comes is not the point. Though there may never come a time when the decadent critics will be torn screaming from their lofty pinnacles, viewers are nevertheless beginning to tune out the noise—the deadly din of a thousand voices all shouting the same dull pitch. Buy! Sell! It’s a firesale on integrity and everything worthwhile about cinema must go.
Rome burns—the critical and cinematic landscape is aflame—and Nero, the critic, fiddles.
It’s clear from Travers’ review that he didn’t enjoy the film, though why we’re never quite certain, other than perhaps he found it boring, monotonous and covered in shit (if I am to take his quip about “horse turds” literally). My point is that with clearly nothing worthwhile to offer, no biting criticism of the film, Travers merely barks his disapproval.
Nevermind that he deigns to end the review with an arcane ritual of conferring the lowly one star out of four on the film, the five plodding paragraphs of his review encapsulated into the five pointless tips of that pixelated little star. The only point the star really provides is to crush the potential of film criticism down into a quick-chew tablet for the Neanderthalic nine-year-olds he refers to in his review.
Perhaps after I watch the film I may decry it as vapid and intellectually offensive, but rest assured, I will resist the urge to dismiss it simply because this movie sucks, and that’s why.
 I would also like to point out that of all the news agencies that reported the story, the only one who properly sourced the story was IGN, the rest carefully omitted that the words were ever exchanged with Yahoo! Movies UK. Whatever happened to academic and professional integrity? On that note, Yahoo! Movies UK misspelled Verbinski as Verbinksi (which is visible in the quotation which I have left untouched). I give up on these people.