What are film critics for?

This article was first published in Exeposé, Exeter University’s independent student newspaper. To find more of my work for Exeposé, click here.

audience.jpg
Like lambs to the slaughter.

Alex Proyas, the much maligned director of I, Robot and Gods of Egypt, recently called film critics “a pack of diseased vultures pecking at the bones of a dying carcass”. As part of a bizarre Facebook rant, Proyas said that critics “have no personal taste or opinion”, and would soon be going “the way of the dinosaur or the newspaper”. Popular film critic Mark Kermode, never one to take a beating lying down, responded that if he really was a “vulture”, then surely that made Proyas’ films as good as roadkill.

Although Proyas may hope to blame critics for the financial failure of his films, the reality is that professional movie criticism has very little impact on the box office. To take just one example, Michael Bay’s Transformers saga has received intense critical savaging with every new installment, yet the two most recent entries soared past the $1 billion mark at the global box office. A similar story is true of the various Pirates of the Caribbean sequels; universal derision within critical circles, but unadulterated hits among the film-going public.

This apparent paradox has felt more prescient recently, as a number of 2016’s biggest films received a notably poor reception in the press. The newest entries in the fledgling DC Universe, Batman V Superman and Suicide Squad, are both sitting on a decidedly “rotten” rating on the review aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes. Meanwhile, the two films have earned a comfortable profit during their theatrical runs, despite a quibbling notion of “under-performance”. As far as the money is concerned, these big-budget, glossy franchise installments are often too big to fail, regardless of what the critics have to say.

Big-budget, glossy franchise installments are often too big to fail, regardless of what the critics have to say.

Positive reviews have a similarly negligible impact on a film’s chances at the box office. Star Trek Beyond and the controversial Ghostbusters remake were both released this year to a surprisingly upbeat press response, but neither has really succeeded in earning its keep, thus bringing the future of both franchises into doubt. Of course, critical darlings often fail to reap millions – you’ll rarely see a blockbuster sweeping the awards ceremonies – but the authority of critics remains ineffectual even when their praise is focused on mainstream fare.

If the influence of critics is really so limited, then why do people appear to care so deeply about what they have to say? Part of this phenomenon is surely down to the growth of review aggregate websites. Pages like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic attempt to condense often hundreds of reviews into some kind of binary compromise, usually a rating out of 100. While this is helpful if a film is genuinely loved or hated on a mass scale, it entirely fails to take diversity of criticism into account. By aggregating a broad range of opinions into a single figure, these websites rob film reviews of all their nuance, enforcing a consensus that may not actually exist. Many film buffs will no longer go to a single reviewer that they know and trust, but rather check if the assembled might of the world’s press have deemed a picture “rotten” or “fresh”.

The result is that far more weight is given to critical consensus than is really warranted. Narratives are quickly built around a film’s quality or popular reception, and these narratives don’t always reflect the lived reality of the cinema going public. Outside of the critical bubble, audiences remain as fickle and easily pleased as ever. The job of the critic is not to decide which films succeed and which do not, and the truth is that they rarely do.

Mark Kermode at the BFI Southbank

Mark Kermode Live in 3D at the BFI Southbank is a brilliantly entertaining evening for film buffs and Kermode enthusiasts everywhere, although the uninitiated may find themselves lost.

DSC_1984

It’s no secret that I’m a fan of the film critic Mark Kermode. Indeed, the influence of his books and radio podcasts are at least minimally responsible for the blog you’re reading today. Despite this mild obsession, however, I had only managed to glimpse Kermode in person once before, during a chance encounter outside a barbers in Falmouth. When given the chance to see the great man, and his quiff, live on stage, I seized the opportunity without hesitation.

Roughly once a month, Kermode hosts an evening in the BFI Southbank, taking up the largest screen in the complex for an hour and a half discussion of all things cinema.  Mark Kermode Live in 3D at the BFI Southbank, as it’s formally known, is a loosely structured romp through the past and present of the film industry, including Q&A, video clips, special guests, and music.

As I assumed my seat seats, an air of enthusiasm was immediately evident. The room seemed to be a haven for the dedicated mass of film fans who had assembled, eager to hear their oracle speak. As one of the few first timers in the audience, I felt almost as an outsider within a peculiar cult. The show began with a few questions Kermode had specifically selected from Twitter, ranging over a broad spectrum of topics, from Powell & Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death to William Peter Blatty’s Exorcist III. It was a marvel to see the UK’s finest film critic in full flow, his trademark energy and passion pouring onto the stage and traversing an eclectic range of topics.

The first guest of the night was Hadley Freeman, Guardian columnist and eighties film aficionado. The pair discussed the recent Ghostbusters remake in mostly damning terms, contrasting it unfavourably with the 1984 original. They were quick to assert that the all-female reboot was by no means a failure, more an exercise in mediocrity, but their conversation nevertheless cooled my own expectations for the film.

Having had little idea of how the night would play out, I was delighted when Kermode welcomed the second guest, composer David Arnold, onto the stage. Arnold has provided the scores for five James Bond films, among a number of other projects, and I am unashamed to admit that his music has accompanied some of the most formative moments of my life. Arnold provided an animated presence, as his anecdotes often broke into wandering tangents and humorous asides. He was ostensibly on stage to make a defence of the 1985 “comedy” Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, an understandably guilty pleasure, but Arnold appeared most enthused when discussing the thought processes behind his work on the Bond films. Indeed, the highlight of the evening came as the composer took to a piano for a rendition of the song “Only Myself to Blame”, originally sung by Scott Walker on the soundtrack album for The World is Not Enough.

With the evening having flown by, it all came to an end following another round of audience questions. The show, admittedly, was not for everyone. The vast majority of the audience appeared to be seasoned regulars, and a certain level of specialist knowledge was required to stay on top of the discussion. More casual film fans may find themselves lost in a morass of Kermodian obscurity and inside jokes. For the well initiated, however, Mark Kermode will return with another show in September, and a ticket comes highly recommended. It was a joy to witness Kermode’s laidback charisma and somewhat terrifying knowledge of film trivia in the flesh, supported by a pair of interesting and eloquent guests. The rest of the world might be going to hell, but at least some respite may still be found within the world of cinema.