Critiquing Critics of the New York Times


I’ve learned over the years that I shouldn’t rely on movie critics to decide whether I’m going to see the film.  Tastes in movies differ among people and the odds are far more likely that your friends have similar taste than a critic whom you’ve never met.

You’d think that at a minimum–nay, the only–criterion to become a movie critic is that the critic enjoys watching movies, not that he’s watched a lot of films; he knows film history; he’s well versed in the names and works of directors, actors, producers, screenwriters and the sound track guy; or he knows how to write (although, concededly, that helps).  My theory is that if you can’t try to enjoy and find good in what you’re reviewing, you shouldn’t be paid to spread your misery to the general public.

Friends in that regard are reliable sources of honest feedback.  They’re paying to sit through a film rather than being paid, so the odds are that they went to see a film expecting to be entertained and the film succeeded or failed.  Nor do they critique while looking to show off their tangentially-related knowledge of other films, cinematic history, people in the industry and cinematography technique.  Friends can give you a simple, straight forward answer to the question “Did you like the film and why?”

Movie critics for the most part live up to this, which should be the guiding principle for the profession.  For example, I find James Berardinelli, an astute online critic, to be most agreeable.  Roger Ebert is a fun read, although I often think he is far too complimentary. I’m not too familiar with Leonard Maltin’s work, but on the few occasions that I’ve encountered his reviews, I didn’t find the experience torturous.

Then there is the New York Times, whose critics have decided each of their reviews must not only be an academic thesis on the film industry but also an intellectual exercise on the state of the society as a whole.  Hence, in their eyes, the concept of attaching “three out of four stars” to their review to represent their level of affection for the film is not only unbecoming but also totally misses the point.  Films are not to be enjoyed; it’s to be studied.

Take this review of “The Skulls” (2000) by Dave Kehr.  The movie has many flaws, including unconvincing acting, an anti-climatic ending, and the failure to live up to a story with potential.  James Berardinelli and Roger Ebert gives ample other reasons why the film sucks.  But in Kehr’s review, there’s not a mention of whether the acting is good or whether the plot works.  A straight-forward commentary on whether he enjoyed the film is far too beneath him.  The closest we get is where he makes a fleeting suggestion that he has no respect for the film when he states, “the only supernatural element in this Rob Cohen film is the mysterious vanishing university.”  Instead, Kehr provides us with references to who’s who in Washington:  the Bushes, Clinton (not specified which one) and Al Gore, the last of whom didn’t even attend Yale.

But the worst offense doesn’t arrive until Kehr’s concluding thoughts on the film: “In the end, though, ‘The Skulls’ is less interested in politics than in profitably flattering the suspicions and resentments of its intended teenage audience.  For ‘Ivy League Establishment,’ it is enough simply to read ‘parents.'”

“[F]lattering the suspicions and resentments of its intended teenage audience”?  “[I]t is enough simply to read ‘parents'”?  What in the bloody world is Kehr talking about?  What are these “suspicions and resentments” ?  What is this “Ivy League Establishment,” in quotes, that should be simply read “parents”?  Presumably Kehr is making a commentary on general society in relation to the film, although to figure out precisely what he meant, you’d need deeper thoughts than one that is likely to be attracted to this film.  And like I give a crap about what Kehr has to say about the film’s role in the society at large.

In case you thought I was unfairly picking on one review, take another, more recent film, “Taken” (2009).  I’ve reviewed it favorably and James Berardinelli and Roger Ebert have agreed that, while mindless and silly, the film is enjoyable.  Berardinelli notes, “Credulity isn’t high on the list of characteristics they are striving for.  The payoff is that once the movie gets going, the ride is enjoyable (if dumb).”  Somewhat similarly, Ebert comments, “It’s always a puzzle to review a movie like this. On the one hand, it’s preposterous….  On the other hand, it’s very well-made.”  The good, the bad, and the fun in three sentences or less.

The review by New York Times’ Manohla Dargis, on the other hand, spends 465 words in 4 paragraphs (yes, I’ve counted) giving us none of these.  Sure there are fleeting references to the “dubious plot points” and “shamelessly lazy filmmaking” and how the film is “predictably homogeneous,” “digitally dreary-looking,” and “starts in low gear and almost immediately stalls out,” all suggesting the reviewer didn’t think too highly of the film (there the NYT goes again with quality over entertainment), but the critique is so few and far in between (20 words spread out over 3 paragraphs) it’s easy to miss that the reviewer had a comment on the film itself.

But it’s impossible to miss the commentary on this film’s position in the grander world of cinematography at large because the reviewer spends the entire second paragraph lecturing us about “cinéma du look.”  Adding insult to injury, the reviewer never quite tells us whether the technique is good, bad, fun or enjoyable, in general or in the context of this film.

And I haven’t even gotten to the conclusion, which, in typical New York Times flavor, is irrelevant, nonsensical and/or political.

To be fair, there are occasions the New York Times stumbles into an insightful review, such as in the case of “Good Will Hunting” (1997) and “Die Hard” (1988).  They can even get it right when the reviewer doesn’t like the film, such as in the famous review of “Heaven’s Gate” (1981), in which the line “Mr. Cimino has written his own screenplay, whose awfulness has been considerably inflated by the director’s wholly unwarranted respect for it,” isn’t even the most witty (that honor belongs to the preceding sentence about the devil coming to collect).

But movie reviews shouldn’t have “hits and misses,” as in miss the point of a movie review published to the general public.  In that regard, it’s clear the New York Times simply doesn’t get it, or rather, get us.

Addendum (2/1/2010):  NYT can’t write a decent Broadway musical review either, which should come as no surprise.  I read this review of “A Little Night Music” and I haven’t the slightest idea what the reviewer is talking about for the first three paragraphs.  Stop trying to impress me and write a readable review.  Indeed, for NYT, that alone would be impressive.

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