Film criticism in contemporary world: How the art of writing reviews has been reduced to ratings

Gautam Chintamani

October 15, 2017 16:59:03 IST

In an era when the all-powerful film critic say a Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris, Roger Ebert, or, closer home, the late Nikhat Kazmi, could make or break the fortunes of a film based on what they wrote, film reviews meant something else. Today, with the social media enabling nearly every individual to express their opinions, the so-called real film critics have largely been reduced to focus on getting the review out there as soon as possible.

Many today might not even recall that a little over a decade and a half ago, film reviews used to appear on Sundays, almost three days after the film released, something that would be unimaginable today. The moment film reviews began to appear on the day of the film’s release, the mania of the opening-weekend and opening-day became to take shape and now with films reviewed via ‘live-tweets’, this hysteria has reached its zenith.

The obsession with box office was once limited to the trade papers but in the last two decades, this phenomenon has become common with the general public. As a result, a need to comprehend and understand films instantly has become a norm. Echoing this sentiment in his recent editorial essay for The Hollywood Reporter legendary filmmaker Martin Scorsese noted that the manner in which things have changed in cinema in the last few years had a mix of an upside and downside.

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Stills from Mother!. YouTube

The upside, of course, was the manner in which digital technology enabled young filmmakers to make films with great immediacy and complete independence but Scorsese felt that as film criticism written by passionately engaged people with actual knowledge of film history gradually faded from the scene, more and more voices out there engaged in pure judgmentalism, people who seem to take pleasure in seeing films and filmmakers rejected, dismissed and in some cases ripped to shreds has increased.

Much to the chagrin of Scorsese as well as many other filmmakers, the combination of something such as a Rotten Tomatoes and the speed with which the internet operates, a few negative reviews can set off a chain reaction that barely gives a film a shot with a majority of the audiences. For a few years now, online “aggregators” like Rotten Tomatoes, which simply boils down hundreds of reviews to give films 'fresh' or 'rotten' scores on its Tomatometer, have reduced films to manufactured goods, which in turn has transformed the audiences to consumers shopping for a product.

Consider the manner in which an ‘F’ rating by CinemaScore, a Las Vegas-based industry leader in measuring movie appeal among theatre audiences, practically killed any chance that Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! might have had with the audiences. Scorsese felt the severe judgment of Mother! was disturbing and the film suffered because everyone was so used to easily defining, interpreting or reducing films to a “two-word description” that an inability to do that made them bray for blood. Similarly, even Baywatch and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, two films that were assumed to do great at the box office ended up sinking thanks to low ‘freshness’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes. They were voted 19 and 32 percent ‘rotten’ and became case studies for Hollywood studios when it came to studying the potential of the aggregator site’s influence on the public.

In India, the harshness with which many people judged the recent Jab Harry Met Sejal was in a way a demonstration of the same trigger-happiness that often gives big budget films a short leash. The sub par end-result in the case of films like Jab Harry Met SejalBombay Velvet, and Besharam notwithstanding, did they suffer the same harsh fate as Aronofsky’s Mother! when it came to the audiences’ response? Some major film studios and producers across both Hollywood and India have now started to opt for a no preview policy for critics as they believe that this gives the film a better chance with the audience, at least for the opening weekend.

Unimaginable as it may appear, there is a flipside of sorts to this current state of bellicose film reviewing limited to a few keystrokes. Unlike the big-budget films, the relatively smaller films get a big boost and the multiplier effect of social media platforms acts as great thrust. In the last few months, the positive response to films such as Shubh Mangal Saavdhan and Newton from a ‘must watch’ kind of viewer reaction has helped them more than tradition critics’ reviews.

The mix of a lack of a single powerful film critic with enough clout to make or break a film and the democratization of reviews in the hands of faceless people who, with a click of a few keys, can seal the fate of a film has surely transformed film reviews and criticism. Earlier it mattered what was said and how it was said; Scorsese still finds some critics who may not be entirely positive of his works but like in the case of his Silence were  ‘thoughtful and, for the most part, carefully considered’, now it’s all about a barely measurable riposte.

When it came to criticism, Andy Warhol felt one need not pay any attention to what they wrote and asked just measure it in inches. Back when Warhol said this criticism and, moreover film criticism, could be considered some kind of an art unto itself but today it is limited to a single word or just a few clicks, and that by no measure is the same thing.

Updated Date: Oct 18, 2017 16:11 PM