Can a Film Critic Be Too Contrarian?

Slate's Culture Blog
Aug. 17 2009 6:21 PM

Can a Film Critic Be Too Contrarian?

Everyone loves District 9 . The sci-fi action flick took in more than $37 million  in its opening weekend, and drew raves from just about every movie critic in America. It's been called a " genuinely original science fiction film ," one that's " visceral yet philosophically sophisticated " and a " biting social commentary ." As of this writing, the film's score on RottenTomatoes.com sits at 88 percent , with 142 positive reviews against just 19 negative ones.

I'm one of those rotten tomatoes. (My review , published last week, bemoaned the film's plot inconsistencies and reliance on genre clichés.) 

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

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That fact is beginning to make me nervous. In recent days, New York Press film critic Armond White has been targeted by an angry mob of sci-fi fanboys and film bloggers. His review has now garnered almost 600 angry comments on RottenTomatoes, many of which call for him to be kicked off the site's meta-ranking system, since his hyper-contrarian take skews the numbers.

On Thursday, Roger Ebert came to White's defense, calling him "an intelligent critic and a passionate writer" and pointing out that "his opinion is often valuable because it is outside the mainstream." But Ebert had changed his mind by Friday morning. After consulting a list of films that White had praised (e.g., Norbit , Transformers 2 ), and dismissed ( Wall-E , There Will Be Blood , Knocked Up ), he conceded " that White is, as charged, a troll ."

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I guess the argument here is that Armond White takes controversial views on movies just to provoke a reaction—that he calibrates his opinions to go against the mainstream. But a look at his record shows that's not the case. As Ebert points out, White votes with the mainstream exactly half the time: He's neither conformist nor contrarian.

For comparison, I looked up the profiles of 20 film critics whose reviews are regularly featured on RottenTomatoes. White is certainly the most contrarian of the group, but that's because the others happen to be bunched up at around 75 percent on the scale. In other words, most film critics tend to agree with the mainstream as a general rule, but every once in a while—once per four reviews—they go against the grain.

What, if anything, can we draw from this? The first lesson is that you can't be a successful critic if no one agrees with you. (No one in the group lives on the contrarian side of the scale.) Second, you can't be a successful critic if too many people agree with you. (The biggest conformist, Keith Phipps, tops the list at 83 percent.) I wonder if there's a third lesson, too. It's striking that White is so perfectly positioned at the center of the graph, while his colleagues cluster so neatly a little farther down—at what might be deemed a respectable level of dissent. Could it be that professional film critics (not amateurs like me) somehow keep track, consciously or not, of how often they rock the boat?

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