Monday, June 3, 2013

Critical Mass - the mob mentality of judging and pre-judging movies

There's something that's been kicking around in my head a lot these recent months and I think that at some point in the last month, it finally hit critical mass.  Between the reactions to a lot of summer movies and the release of Arrested Development on Netflix, I'm noticing a significant shift in how we as viewers react to entertainment.

Hype has long been a factor in shaping critical reaction. I'm sure everyone can point to an instance where they were so amped up for a film or TV show that they either convinced themselves to ignore its flaws - or were let down by it so much that they swung the opposite way and declared it the worst worst that ever worsted.  (I'm sure The Phantom Menace provoked both reactions in somewhat equal measure.)

But now we seem to have gotten to the point where the hype isn't just fostering an inevitable backlash (i.e. "The new Arrested Developments suck because they're not what I wanted when I heard the show was returning!"), it's also setting up a mob mentality before people even see the film.  We've gone from reaction to over-reaction to now pre-action.  It's a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Trekkers enraged at J.J. Abrams spend two years bitching how its going to suck, then spend $15 for a ticket just so they can have their prejudgment validated.

I haven't seen The Hangover III, nor have I seen After Earth.  In fact I have no plans to do so because neither one of them looks like my kind of movie.  At the very least, the trailers for each did such a poor job of selling me on the concepts that I'm not going to plunk down full price for tickets.  Maybe I'll catch then via Netflix someday, but the point is that when my expectations are so low, I'm not eager to rush in and have them confirmed.

Even more notably, these days, when one reacts to a film, it has to be an extreme reaction.  I feel like there's no room for nuance in reactions anymore. You either come out of a film proclaiming it "fucking awesome" or it's "an abortion," the "worst film ever," and justification to have its makers drawn and quartered.  Maybe I'm overreacting and merely am noting those with the loudest voices, but this is certainly what it feels like.

There are a lot of movies I see where my reaction trends closer to a middle ground - not being perfect, but also not inspiring much hate either.  These movies inspire apathy more than aggressiveness.  It's something I'm aware of when I go to see a new film and walk out thinking, "I don't know if I have anything interesting to say about this on the blog. I liked/hated it, but that's about it."  It's times like that when I'm glad I don't have Roger Ebert's old job because I imagine it's a lot harder to write an intelligent review when that film comes up short on inspiring passion.

After Earth is the latest example of this phenomenon. The film was saddled with bad buzz and a lot of ill will directed at Will Smith, Jaden Smith and especially M. Night Shyamalan.  In his review, Drew McWeeny remarked on the fact that some people seemed to be gunning for this movie for reasons entirely independent of its merits.

"M. Night Shyamalan has entered the phase of his career where there is a certain amount of baggage that prevents a percentage of the audience (and the film press) from even remotely approaching a new film by him with an open mind. It's been fascinating to watch the fall from newly-annointed genius in 1999 to openly-reviled punchline in 2013... 

"I see people piling on already, and I'm baffled. Maybe it's the father-son act of Will and Jaden Smith that also has some people cracking their knuckles and sharpening their knives. Keep in mind, I'm not talking about people who have seen the film and didn't like it, but the ramp up over the last few weeks where I've seen people who have absolutely not seen the film railing on it anyway.

"I think "After Earth" is a modest pleasure, but our media landscape now demands that we either destroy a film in a review or we have to canonize it. Enjoying a film and having a complex reaction to its merits and its flaws is evidently no longer allowed."

I'll be the first to say that I don't always agree with Drew.  In fact there's a wide gulf between our reactions sometimes.   But he's not wrong, and for evidence of that, you need to go no further than the comment section where people who haven't seen the film accuse Drew of having been bought.  Because, of course bribery is the only explanation for how one could give a B- to a film from this creative team.

It's one thing to take a reviewer to task if you've seen the work and you feel that he's made a grievous error in his reasoning.  I'm sure you don't have to look too far to find a review where the writer clearly missed important details and that had an impact on their summation.  But to attack someone because their experience didn't match your prejudgement?  That seems insane.  And I think it's worth considering this the next time you walk out of a film and are formulating your own reaction to it.

I want to cycle back and bring this around to the mission statement of this blog, it's worth remembering that if these sorts of pre-judgments have with completed films, you can bet that projects at the script stage will face it to some degree.  Yes, that means it's possible that YOUR script might not get considered in the sort of hermetically-sealed vacuum that you would demand.  People who evaluate scripts are professionals and they do their best, but that can't help if - for example - you've written a poker movie and it ends up being read at a company where 5 of the support staff had to be laid off after that company's poker film tanked.

Like I said, most of the pro scripts I read fall into the "not terrible, but not fantastic" category.  For now, the ones that land at either extreme are still a minority percentage.  But if you're contributing to a culture that can only stand to eviscerate a film or want to have its babies, you might consider how that lack of nuance could eventually infect all forms of critical conversation.


  1. I've always maintained that if/when I'm lucky enough to have a film produced, I hope it garners a strong reaction whether it be positive or negative. Something more than "at least it killed a couple of hours."

    But until recently, I never accounted for the amount of pre-judgment that you outline in this post. It's gotten downright ridiculous. I suppose an unestablished writer can fly below the radar. However, if the first movie becomes a monster to the degree of The Sixth Sense, future expectations make continued success nearly impossible.

    I would have to imagine that studios are taking this new reality seriously and are adjusting their marketing strategies accordingly, such is what happened with Star Trek.

  2. Thought provoking topic BSR. I'm old enough to remember a TV with only five stations not hundreds and for better or worse, less people trying to get everyone's attention. I love the fact that I can post a comment to you without licking a stamp, and the internet, truly amazing compared to looking for answers in a set of encyclopedias. Nuance can be found among friends but for the media and everyone else that takes advantage of this technology, polarized comments are a more effective means to get attention. Sadly, it seems getting attention is more important to substance or subtlety.

  3. The two extremes strike me as largely ignorance (spawned by a variety of circumstances) exacerbated by the internet, which has given that ignorance critical mass.

    If Joe Public sits in a bar and tells his friends that After Earth was the worst movie he ever saw (or didn't see), it might spread a little bad word of mouth but the ripple effect is going to be relatively minor.

    If Joe can logs onto a comments section (the real carrier of lots of the poison IMO) he can broadcast his views to a much wider circle of people. He doesn't really have to account for himself; he might never log in to comments for a particular article again. He can leave a glowing or withering comment and... pff! Just like that, he's gone.

    Re: negative comments, people seem to channel all their anger, all their hate, all their frustration into interaction on a forum in which they're largely not held accountable in the way they would be for saying something in a traditional social context.

    In short, these very forums have given the idiots a voice. How's that for irony?

    If there's any academic study around the sociology of comments sections on film web-sites, I'd love to read it. If there isn't, someone should write one.

  4. Everything you've written here is doubly true of politics.
    ~ Shelia

  5. My high school students last summer told me that "Abe Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" was terrible and not to go see it. They seemed to be jaded about everything ("Yeah, 'Ted's' OK if you like 'Family Guy'"---really? What's up with teenagers these days?)

    Then the 30-something guy working on my computer tells me that he was totally entertained by Pres. Lincoln as a Vampire Hunter, he knew it was B movie when he went in and that's what he wanted to see---he totally got his money's worth!

    And still remember film school days, taking junk food into a Univ of TX Roger Corman movie marathon and enjoying every minute of it (including the bat that flew back and forth in the auditorium until it figured how to get out).

    Maybe someone should study the difference in generations with regards to media consumption?

  6. Dude. Using the word "judging" twice in your post title?? Lame! "Mob mentality" sounds like something my stoner uncle would say!! I read like two sentences, then I got to "Arrested Development," which sucks. Which proves you know nothing, Jon Snow. That show sucks too. Less talking, more fighting!

    (removes his troll mask and gets serious)

    Critics and cynics have always been with us. As several commenters have noted, the explosion of social media has cranked the volume on their voice. When the internet first took hold of the family computer, one had to find subject-based AOL chat rooms to dissect/predict a film's failure/glory. It was still a mostly desktop-based adventure: I'm sitting down to FOCUS on this discussion.

    Then came smart phones, wireless everything, MySpace, Facebook, and furious, in less than 10 years we went from "hey, isn't texting a nifty new version of passing notes in class" to every 12-year-old in the country shooting out tweets to their favorite celebrities. It's been a fascinating escalation, and while some use it to express themselves in a healthy, measured capacity, many individuals seem to be driven by untamed egos desperate to be heard. Not understood necessarily, just HEARD! And often that "pay attention to me" attitude is wrapped in a "rip apart what's popular" package.

    We're all guilty of hyperbole from time to time, but there seriously needs to be a new A-Team style Hyperbole Assault Force assembled and sent in to take down the serial tweeters/trolls who ravage the internet with ridiculously arrogant/ignorant declarations. Granted, they're easy to ignore, but their numbers sure seem to be growing with every passing season.

  7. The studios are just going to have to deal with it. They drive up the hype to a fevered pitch to gain the sales, then often deliver a product that is meh. So why can't the opposite be true. Let social media nay-sayers prejudge a film and let the studios blow us away with some quality entertainment to change our minds. After Earth is getting bad word of mouth, but the best way to combat that is to make a good film that will chew the negative press and spit it out.

    Ever since I was knocked up the side of the head with two awesome movies that I badmouthed prematurely (Bridesmaids and Black Swan), I just shrug and wait rather than yap ignorantly. If it turns out to be good, I'll hear about it and go see it. But do I think it's a problem if people start negative hype? Nah. The studios can learn to make better films and to stop info leaks and to stop showing 90 percent of the movie in the trailers.

  8. I'd probably be the worst critic in the history of film criticism if this Drew guy is getting crucified for giving "After Earth" a B-. I have seen a lot of movies and the ones that I actually thought were bad or didn't enjoy even a little bit are few and far between. My friends would always rag on me for liking every movie that I watch especially ones that they believed no one could like.

  9. Hey T.A. Snyder!

    With regards to trolls, there's so many of them now, that I find myself skipping over them and moving on to people who have something to say. I can't imagine that other people aren't doing the same---how many snarky, nasty comments can we read, when there are so many other worthwhile posts that deserve our limited time? IMHO, the death of the trolls will be when:
    -People stop reading them because their worthless
    -People stop reacting to them, so there's no satisfaction from their posts

    It'll be interesting to see how we all evolve....