IMO there’s a fundamental difference between the taste of critics (film, music, literature etc.) and that of ordinary people. This derives from the unavoidable fact that critics are more educated about their subjects than ordinary people are, and - more important - that they consume a whole lot more of it.
As a result of these factors, there will inevitably be things which seem worn or trite to the critics while being more entertaining to the unwashed masses. Conversely, things which seem clever and cutting edge to the critics - playing off the worn and trite tropes - will go over the heads of or at least be unappealing to the masses.
To the extent that the role of a critic is to preview these works for the public (as opposed to trying to shape the public’s tastes in unnatural ways) it’s an inherent problem, and I don’t see any way around it.
Some critics are good at understanding what ordinary people like. Most of them are trapped in a critics world as you describe, along with some who are just snobs and/or ignorant clowns.
One thing I see often from critics is adulation for anything different. It doesn’t have to be good, just different enough feel refreshing to a critic who has suffered the tedium of one derivative work after another. We shouldn’t blame them for that, we just have to take it into account when considering a review.
I think it’s a lot easier to listen to what people I know have to say about something because I know them and can compare my own tastes to theirs and take a guess at how I’d react to the same thing. I don’t know any reviewers that well to make such an evaluation, but I suppose if you follow particular reviewers you could work that out based on their perspectives also.
That was always something I thought Roger Ebert was good at. He could give serious attention to a French art film, but he could also review a teenage sex comedy or a Fast & Furious-type film on its own merits.
There’s already a way around it – review aggregators that offer both Critical and Public scores, thus allowing you to compare what critics thought about the film/album/whatever and what the common consumer thought about it. This might not help you with Day One purchases but, if you’re consuming it the day it comes out, you probably felt fairly confident about it regardless.
I think the OP’s concern only comes in when critics are writing about something that’s fundamentally mass-market/lowest common denominator and using their education and expertise to review it. They often do miss the point- they’ll go on about how character development in “Animal House” is non existent, or whatever, and miss the point that it’s a funny movie.
But thankfully, critics tend to cluster(?- maybe there’s a better term) in their specialties. A perfect example was that old clip of Siskel and Ebert debating “Star Wars” with John Simon. The fundamental issue there is that Siskel and Ebert were more “everyman” reviewers, while Simon was more of an art-house reviewer. So of course Simon is going to hate Star Wars, and Siskel and Ebert did not. So if you’re an art-house/indie film type of person, you’d do well to pay attention to Simon’s criticism, and if you’re a more average Joe type movie watcher, then Siskel and Ebert were your men.
Similarly, if you’re going out to eat in NYC, and you’re a fine-dining kind of guy, you’re going to want to pay attention to the guys who review restaurants like Le Bernardin or Marea. But if you’re a pizza and beer sort of guy, you’re better off with Yelp! or other reviewers.
I think bump’s point is good - I would read a review of some mass-market art form, like the latest comic book movie, differently than I would a review of the latest display at the MoMA.
Roger Ebert was good, not because I always agreed with him, but I could figure out from the reasons he gave why he liked or disliked a movie, and then gauge if I would like or dislike it if I valued what he saw more, or less.
I notice this also in cooking shows. Contestants will come up with unusual combinations of spices that sound bizarre to me, but the judges tend to value it more because it is unusual. That doesn’t make me right and them wrong, or vice versa, but putting thyme in chocolate does not appeal to me just because nobody ever did it before.
YMMV is generally true, but how it varies can convey information as well.
The last movie I saw in theaters was Ad Astra, which has an 84% critics’ score and a 40% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes. And it made me wonder what makes a movie get that kind of response.
My problem with the movie was the pacing: I thought it moved way too slow. It made me wonder, “Do critics really enjoy slow, draggy movies?”
Or, since critics watch movies as a job, do they even pay attention to whether they enjoy a movie? Do they focus on how good a movie it is—how well done, the level of craftsmanship in the acting and directing and writing and cinematography and etc.—to the exclusion of how entertaining it is?
Critics get paid to review lots and lots of stuff. So they take a quick look and then move on. Whereas you and I have the leisure to listen/watch/read slowly/many times over. Which I would argue leads to a more insightful take.
Someone (Orwell?) wrote a brilliant essay describing the life of a book reviewer. Due to time constraints, he mostly just skimmed the books he reviewed.
I have an anecdotal story about reading, authors and novels that’s kind of illustrative I think.
I’ve known my buddy K for almost 30 years now- we met our first semester in college, and have been fast friends ever since. We share a lot of the same tastes in literature in particular- not exactly, but the odds are high that if one of us likes a book, then the other will as well.
But it’s interesting where we differ. I tend to read in a fashion that I’d describe as having a little mental movie running in my head. I visualize what’s going on, and the actual words on the page are being read/processed almost unconsciously. He, on the other hand, is acutely aware of the actual words, sentences and what-not.
I’ve found that when we differ, it’s almost always centered around that difference- I may like a book because the story, pacing, etc… was great for the mental movie, while he will dislike it because he can’t get past the writing style of the author. Conversely, if I don’t like one, it’s because the writing/descriptions hinder me in getting my mental movie going, and I get bogged down with the actual words on the page.
I suspect that the critics and audiences are similar- audiences tend to like fast paced, loud and spectacular movies, even if they don’t require too much thought (maybe **because **they don’t require much thought?), while critics are coming at it from a different angle- they’re looking at it from the viewpoint of someone who knows how the sausage is made, so to speak. So the elements that they notice and value are going to be very different than the general audience.
I reviewed science fiction for a number of venues from around 1975-1985. I reviewed the top literary works by the best authors and I reviewed space opera trash by people I never heard of again.
Looking back, I see things I wouldn’t have recognized then. Mainly that reviews are part of their time. They’re not written for posterity. The time I started reviewing was still in the era when many people thought that science fiction had a chance to be taken seriously as literature. The field nearly died around 1960, because no publishers were paying good money for original novels. That changed around 1965 and the quality of writing in the field had taken a giant leap upward, with a bunch of now classic names entering the field. I definitely championed the literary works and denigrated the space opera. Good, good in all ways, fiction seemed to be the future the field wanted and needed.
It didn’t work out that way. Star Wars and Star Trek novels proliferated and fantasy sagas took over more than half the field. Literary novels are making a comeback but for a quarter century midlist writers (good writers who aren’t stars) couldn’t make a living that way and had to find other outlets or leave the field. (See sharecropping.)
I felt qualified to review in those early days because I was reading a large percentage of everything was published, along with a lot of older works. I could judge writing at the sentence level and I could recognize when plots just rehashed older tropes without adding anything new. (Good/good and bad/bad works for novels as well as movies.) When I stopped reading everything I stopped reviewing. My opinions no longer had a solid backing. They would have been mere personal preference. I thought then that was a difference, and I still think that today.
That’s one reason Ebert was so successful. He saw everything, high and low. He had standards, but knew to judge works on how well they met their goals rather than how good or bad they were on some imaginary outside scale.
We have to recognize that critics themselves are producers of a product. Their reviews are creations they are selling, and this shapes the way they approach their opinions, especially if they reveive a regular payroll from regular assignments. They often are striving as much to make themselves relevant as to “inform” consumers. (This isn’t necessarily good or bad–we just need to keep it in mind.)
That is a very good description of the difference between what a work is about vs. how the work is about what it is about.
Critics are burdened with responding to both aspects. And readers of critics are burdened with discerning their own style of receiving a work (do you only care about the what, or do you care about the how) and parsing where the critic is commenting on the what vs. the how.
An obligatory point; “Critic” and “reviewer” are different.
A movie critic is someone who watches movies and tries to understand and explain what the movie means, why it was made, what about it works and what does not, how it compares to other movies and how it fits in the the current reality, and history of, cinema. A reviewer is someone who watches movies and reports as to whether the movie is enjoyable and worthwhile to watch.
If I watch “Airplane!” and tell you the movie is funny and a blast to watch, I am reviewing it. If I tell you how “Airplane!” is specifically a surrealist comedy, which built on the success of “Kentucky Fried Movie” and led to similar films that competed with the teen sex romps of the 1980s, I am engaging in movie critique.
Okay, having said that, the reason movie critics seem to be different from the general public is
They have the chance to see way more movies than most people do,
They’re watching them for a different reason, and
They’re not really that different; lots of ordinary schmoes hate junk movies, too, and critics often like popular movies.
I mean, the critics raved about “Toy Story,” an animated children’s movie, like it won World War Two. And they were right.
This is one reason I typically trust the audience reviews less than the critic reviews. I find when I go and actually read the audience reviews most of the negative ones give the movie a low rating for what I consider stupid reasons. Using Lady Bird as an example, there were a ton of one star reviews from people who just didn’t like the fact that the title character is disrespectful to her mother and think she’s a bad influence on kids (which IMO completely misses the point of the movie). Others thought it was “anti-Christian” for some reason. Or they simply declared the movie “too liberal” for unspecified reasons.
And then there are audience reviewers who don’t seem to get that something not being to their personal taste isn’t the same thing as being bad. And that brings me back to the point someone else made earlier. IMO a good critic is one who can provide enough information about a movie, without giving away critical plot points, to allow the reader to be able to determine whether or not it’s something they’d like.