Movie Critics: The Contrarian, the Conformist, and the Co-opted

Slate's Culture Blog
Aug. 18 2009 4:12 PM

Movie Critics: The Contrarian, the Conformist, and the Co-opted

Dan, if it's not too late I'd love to respond to your post on District 9 , Armond White and the " can a film critic be too contrarian ?" dustup. Maybe it's just because, on that nifty widget designed to graph the relative "contrarianness" and "conformity" of various critics, I came out occupying the bland middle of the spectrum, but I want to protest the idea that liking or disliking a movie that a majority of critics feels the same way about constitutes "conformity." Insofar as that word implies obeisance to a pre-established norm, it simply doesn't make sense in this context. Since most critics are writing their reviews at the same time, in that brief window between screening and opening, they wouldn't have a chance to make a survey of the general response to the film even if they wanted to. I know, in my case, that I actively try to avoid reading too much about a movie before reviewing it; I might follow industry-type coverage (actor and director profiles, news about upcoming movie deals, etc.), but I certainly don't look at straight-up reviews of a movie I'm about to write on. According to your graph, the majority of critics have around a 75 percent consensus rate—or only 25 percent above a random coin flip. (This math also doesn't allow for the ambiguity of reviews that are less "thumbs up or thumbs down" service pieces than attempts to think through a a movie's cultural impact, and which may be hard to tag as "rotten" or "fresh.") To suggest that reviewers who hated Transformers 2 are somehow cravenly beholden to critical dogma does a disservice to their integrity (not to mention their taste). More absurdly, though, it mistakes critical disagreement for free speech, as if championing Transformers 2 (or dissing District 9 , which I haven't seen) were some kind of blow against censorship. God love the often-contrarian (and always fun to read) Armond White, but maybe the lockstep contempt for Transformers 2 had something to do with the fact that it sucked.

As a reader and practitioner of film criticism, I'm less worried about where I fall on the "conformist" spectrum than about the recent studio practice of selectively screening certain films only for the fanboy sites most likely to gush about them (as Paramount did with G.I. Joe , a movie I'm happy to have an excuse to boycott). The only product movie critics have to sell is their honest, unbiased, hopefully well-stated opinion. If that opinion is regularly misrepresented by sneaky marketing strategies, it won't be long before all our movie conversations are taking place in an industry-funded echo chamber.

Dana Stevens is Slate's movie critic.

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