The Boyhood Effect
A couple observations from other people to begin:
“Spinoza once opined that you couldn’t use words to describe God, because by choosing any one or several, you would be eliminating the infinite nature of the deity. That essential inadequacy of words drive much of Christopher Nolan’s stunning film, Dunkirk.” –Andrea Chase, Killer Movie Reviews
“Rotten Tomatoes has taken that proposition to its most reductive point, providing only two understandings of a film (three, if you count the “certified fresh” subset). There’s no allowance for isolating a strong performance, or for recognizing a strong element within a flawed film. It reduces criticism to judgment and attitude without discernment.
The methodology tips toward the negative, with films requiring 60 percent or more positive reviews to avoid being labeled “rotten.” The site’s name comes from the legend that in the 19th century, rowdy theater and music-hall crowds would show disfavor by throwing spoiled vegetables at the stage. It reflects an attitude of cheering for failure — a film isn’t good or bad, but “rotten” or “fresh” depending on the percentage of unfavorable to favorable reviews. And there’s an audience for negativity.”—Tom Brueggemann, IndieWire, 6.23.17 ‘Studios are Right: RottenTomatoes has ruined film criticism”
Current RT score for Boyhood: 98 (274 fresh, 6 rotten)
Current RT score for Dunkirk: 92 (219 fresh, 19 rotten)
I hated Boyhood, and I wasn’t a fan of Dunkirk.
I saw Boyhood the night it opened in Boulder-CO with my sister and brother-in-law and within 20 minutes I knew I was in trouble – the magic of the film didn’t work on me and at nearly 3 hours long, this was going to be an ass-numbing mistake.
Why didn’t it work? Linklater was (and to a degree still is) my favorite of the American Indie directors who hit it big in the late 80s and early 90s, and two of my favorite American films – Before Sunset and Dazed & Confused – were directed by Linklater, to say nothing of Slacker, which had as big an effect of the teenage me as Godard’s Breathless and Kubrick’s 2001. The three of us knew going in that the film was still at 100 on the aforementioned Tomatometer and for a change, there was a “small” movie getting a wide release with good advance notice.
It was terrible. It is the most overrated film of my lifetime – even the god-awful Titanic had its merits. The only merit in Boyhood was its method – I didn’t like any of its characters except for an older Ethan Hawke, and Ellar Coltrane had no presence once he hit puberty. It had political cheap shots galore, and even though the film takes place in deeply conservative Texas, it’s the people of non-leftwing politics who are treated as alien.
I figured I was alone so I kept my thoughts to myself. After it was over, I was surprised to learn that sis and her husband both disliked it as well.
Ergo, The Boyhood Effect, a kind of mass cognitive dissonance, or mass delusion, regarding the quality of a film based on the expectation going in, an expectation uniquely created by Rotten Tomatoes. To get even more detailed, one must jettison the potential of the effect when discussing the latest DC/Marvel/LOTR/StarWars/HarryPotter movie – those are product, not art, not cinema, not even movies – those are aesthetic SPAM, canned hypnotic entertainment for people who want to return to the matrix.
It’s the hype as much as the actual RT score – and it is specifically generated by RottenTomatoes, this isn’t a Metacritic thing. In the offhand vernacular of people who go to the movies, Dunkirk got a 92. We don’t need to say it scored a 92 on RT, we just say it got a 92 and anyone who goes to the movies knows of what we speak.
That hype, though, that thoughtful hype created by critics and then parroted by moviegoers. When I review movies that are in theaters, I text my reviews to a couple people who I know like going to the theater as well. My pan of Dunkirk was met with surprise all-around (my sister floated the not-entirely-insulting idea that I’m becoming contrarian, which might be true but remains unintentional) and a friend sent me the Facebook thoughts of a friend of hers – its hyperbole was equal to Andrea Chase quoting Enlightenment all-star Spinoza to start her review of Dunkirk.
Dunkirk may be better than I thought it was, but the simple fact is you cannot understand much of the dialogue in the film because of the sound, the masks, the accents and the delivery, and that alone means that it isn’t a masterpiece because it would fail in a student film course because that’s Film 101: you have to understand what the characters are saying, and if you can’t there needs to be a reason relative to the film itself, and in Dunkirk there was no reason. Like La La Land’s opening shot taking place in shadow even though it’s set on a freeway overpass in L.A. on a clear blue day, it’s an amateur mistake regardless of how much people enjoyed the film.
I have a snob’s taste and can be pretentious at times – I enjoy such things, which is part of the reason why I find Frasier to be one of the funniest TV shows ever conceived. I don’t have a problem with a film critic quoting Spinoza in a review of Dunkirk, because it’s the kind of thing I would have done when I was in teens and 20s, when my writing was both better but also lacked a certain … self-awareness. That absence made for, at different times, great writing and cringe-inducing jackassery.
Pauline Kael’s review of Last Tango in Paris is arguably the best known piece of film criticism ever written – the only one, off-hand, I can think of that would rival it would be Kael’s review of Nashville. Kael was the long-time film critic for The New Yorker, and her review (10.28.72) opener is quite stunning, both in its unequalled praise for a film of any kind, and for its sheer delight at its own pretentiousness:
“Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris was presented for the first time on the closing night of the New York Film Festival, October 14, 1972: that date should become a landmark in movie history comparable to May 29, 1913—the night Le Sacre du Printemps was first performed—in music history. There was no riot, and no one threw anything at the screen, but I think it’s fair to say that the audience was in a state of shock, because Last Tango in Paris has the same kind of hypnotic excitement as the Sacre, the same primitive force, and the same thrusting, jabbing eroticism.”
Seriously – read the whole thing. Her review of the movie is as good as the movie itself, and the movie is damn good, possibly the last genuine performance Marlon Brando gave, definitely equal to his performance in On the Waterfront, the best of his career.
That said, it’s also an example of why film criticism really only matters to people who are really into film, and even then, it’s a lost art. The reviews that Kael wrote that lasted – Nashville and Last Tango in Paris being at the top of that list – are film that have been seen by less than (my estimate) 1 percent of college-educated people under the age of 40. They are as obscure to Millenials as the work of D.W. Griffith – like the novel J.R., they are masterpieces that have been lost to time in less than a half-century.
It’s fashionable to mock the media, in large part because its members have brought it on themselves. This isn’t just an observation about “fake news” and CNN, the media extends to the entertainment media, which is really just PR by another name. I’d grown leery of RT long before Boyhood, but Boyhood was a nice case of the positive aspects of confirmation bias: I secretly believed that RT was nothing but a bunch of dimwitted liberals who had few to no original thoughts of their own, and Boyhood proved it. When the LA Times got hatemail for a negative review it printed of the film, the critic pulled the review, proving further that moviegoing liberals were no better than political liberals – they cannot abide disagreement in any form.
It was around that time – Boyhood might have been the exact time – that I started reading Armond White, film critic for both the conservative journal National Review as well as the foremost gay chronicle in America, Out Magazine. White is a notorious contrarian that most other film critics seem to despise – he loves Michael Bay films and hates Nolan films (he hated Dunkirk and panned it hard); his reviews of Baby Driver and Valerian (which opened yesterday and I’m going to see this morning) were largely positive; more importantly to me, his reviews are literate in a way that few others outside of film journals are – White writes reviews in same spirit that Kael wrote reviews, by assuming the audience doesn’t need its hand held when explaining what was experienced by watching a film, what it brought to mind, where it excelled and where it – more often than not – failed.
I don’t pattern my writing after White, and I don’t even agree with him a great deal of the time, but he’s the only critic I read religiously, both his work at National Review and his work at Out. Scanning over this site since January 1, here are the films I’ve praised the most that I’ve seen in the theater this year:
- The Founder
- The Circle
- The Beguiled
The movies I most looked forward to – Dunkirk, Fate of the Furious, War for the Planet of the Apes – I didn’t care for. Fate was fun, but it was a letdown. Atomic Blonde opens Friday, and my hope is it becomes the fifth one I enjoyed as much as the first four.
So, I clearly don’t have a problem falling under the spell of the Boyhood Effect, but maybe my spell is the opposite – it’s becoming difficult for me to enjoy anything, the so-called Black Pill as applied to going to the movies, the last fun thing I still enjoy doing.