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It’s critics vs. the hype (not the audience)

A few weeks ago, as negative reviews of “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” and “The Da Vinci Code” gave way to record-breaking, skull-shattering, earth-moving box-office receipts, a familiar refrain was heard throughout the land: Movie critics are “wrong” about movies and therefore “out of touch” with moviegoers.

It’s not the first time this has happened -- the meme is as old as the medium -- but lately the chorus is sounding especially triumphal. This summer’s rhetoric had a Coulterian eliminationist ring to it. Exterminate the brutes! Just as the “Pirates” and “Da Vinci” commotion was winding down, we had a sucker rally: New Line decided to hang a “no critics allowed” sign on the just-released “Snakes on a Plane” and, once again, we were off.

Should we critics be nervous? Recant? Repent? Quit while we’re ahead? And are we really so homogenous and monolithic that this oppressive and awkward “we” is even warranted? If so, are we really the elitist, personal agenda-driven Addison DeWitt impersonators? Do we really peer at things through monocles while dressed like Mr. Peanut?

One of the most bizarre occupational hazards that movie critics face is that we are forever butting up against such an unrecognizable mirror image. But lately it seems to be everywhere. Take the recent dust-up over M. Night Shyamalan’s breakup with Disney. In article after article about the director’s commercial demise, Shyamalan’s decision to include the character of an unsympathetic film critic in his movie “Lady in the Water” and to then have him torn to shreds by dogs was perceived by studio executives and journalists alike as some kind of crazy anti-promotional death wish -- as though any critic in his/her right mind would take the “slight” not just personally but drop-dead, challenge-thee-to-a-duel seriously.

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Of course, for this logic to work, the inverse would also have to hold true. What if Shyamalan had made the movie critic character into a handsome and virtuous prince played by George Clooney? Would Disney have sat back and waited for the raves to roll in? It’s nuts, but it’s a good example of how we’ll take received wisdom over independent thought if the wisdom is repeated often enough. Take New Line’s decision to sell “Snakes” as an “anti-critic movie” -- i.e. “they” will hate it, ergo “you” will love it. As clever as this marketing strategy is, it wouldn’t work if the idea of the critic as antagonistic “other” weren’t axiomatic or if the stereotype didn’t get as much play as it does. But writers online and off are only too happy to oblige -- nevermind that anyone who has attended college in the last 20 years has had at least some exposure to critical media analysis and that most people, even “regular” ones, can still tell good movies from bad.

But if the latest chatter is to be believed, every last one of us has completely accepted this dialectical us-versus-them scenario. And why not? We’ve accepted similar ones in almost every other arena of life. To live in the United States today is to be confronted with a dizzying array of false choices. It’s to be encouraged to pick a side and stick to it no matter what. (You’re either with us or against us, etc.) If powerful conglomerates “give the people what they want” (nevermind that they spend in the double-digit millions to make sure everyone knows they want it), and critics find fault with “what people want,” ergo critics hate people. This is George W. Bush logic at its very best, and it would be funny if it weren’t so emblematic of the times we live in.

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MAYBE part of what makes the subject so easy to reduce into angry nuggets is that there is no consensus where the function of a review of the mass-market, tent-pole “event movie” is concerned. No critic in his/her right mind believes that a bad review will have any major impact on the box office performance of a motion picture whose introduction to thousands of theaters has been preceded by months of entertainment coverage and marketing promotions. We don’t assume that readers look to reviews for an absolute gladiatorial go-ahead, either. Most of us have heard of the Internet and are aware of the phenomenon of word-of-mouth.

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This happy development (online word-of-finger) has been cited ad nauseam as the main reason mainstream movie critics don’t matter anymore. And with so much evaluative shorthand everywhere -- thumbs, grades, stars and little men falling out of their seats, bowler hats aloft -- it’s no wonder that the movie critic’s role is commonly perceived to have a lot in common with an “Inspected by No. 12"-style quality control system, as though our job duties were limited to stretching the waistband of an actor’s performance before moving on to check for snags in the CGI. What is the point of a review, anyway, especially where a “critic-proof movie” is concerned? Is it to help the movie make money? To prevent it from making money? To get all excited or schadenfreude-y about how much money it makes or doesn’t?

Evaluation has its place, especially in the case of smaller movies competing in a crowded marketplace without the benefit of multimillion-dollar ad campaigns. But to pretend that we’re not constantly comparing apples to oranges would be disingenuous. Just as it would be equally disingenuous -- or plain cynical -- to pretend that box office receipts are the purest expression of audience love.

Lately, all we seem to hear is that “kids today” want their information text-messaged or e-mailed or just implanted directly into their brains at birth. This is the kind of statement that would send me diving for the Salinger and the Nietzsche and the black hair dye if I were a kid today. It wasn’t that long ago that writing on the Web was characterized by its smart, staunchly anti-mass culture stance.

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WHAT are we defending when we defend the tastes of the “average Joe” against the nasty incursions of critics anyway? In Edward Jay Epstein’s book “The Big Picture: The New Logic of Money and Power in Hollywood,” there’s a quote from an unnamed Sony executive who remarks, “Studios produce two products, movies and marketing campaigns. And theater owners consider the second to be more important.” The opening-weekend box office numbers determine how long a movie will remain in theaters as well as how many copies will be ordered by your Blockbuster. How we feel about a movie after we’ve camped out for it, blogged about it or written our reviews doesn’t really matter. What matters most to the people who make the movies is the perception.

I can’t count the number of times that the simplicity, elegance and all-around visceral dead-on-ness of a particular movie marketing campaign has utterly awed me, when it has fit so snugly into my mood or experience that it’s almost as though it had been designed to click into a campaign-shaped hole in my mind. It’s natural to respond to these marvels of persuasion with an intense desire to see their promise fulfilled. But sometimes there’s nothing like a dose of clarion sarcasm to quell the alienation you feel after attending a cult “event” that leaves you cold. Sith. It does sound like something that pops out of your nose. I’m not alone! Thanks, Anthony Lane.

Surveying the smoldering landscape of the critics-versus-audiences wars, I’m struck by how many times I read an expressed desire to “escape reality” at the movies. This is a time-honored, fond desire, the single one on which the entire history of the movie industry could be pegged. But while our collective wish to escape into other worlds at the movies has not changed much over time, the context in which we do our wishing has. Because surveying the intensely brand- and media-saturated landscape of America with a detached eye (not literally, of course), you might conclude that it’s much more of a challenge to escape fantasy than it is to escape reality these days. (It’s tough to escape reality when you can barely locate it.) And there’s not much we can do about that except talk about it. Anywhere.

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Chocano is a Times film critic. Send comments to calendar.letters@latimes.com.


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