What David Cronenberg Doesn’t Get About Rotten Tomatoes (and Online Film Criticism)

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It seems, at times, like there are more thinkpieces on whether critics still matter than there are reviews by working critics; it’s one of those perennial subjects that pops up with an alarming frequency in commentary corners, like whether TV is better than movies and what Girls is actually telling us about The Millennials. Last week, CBC News tackled the topic (and if you’re wondering how long it takes them to get to that old saw “Everyone’s a critic”: first sentence!), and since it’s a Canadian site, you won’t be surprised to hear that David Cronenberg weighed in. And he pins the blame squarely on the true villains: young bloggers. Sigh.

“I think the role of the critic has been very diminished, because you get a lot of people who set themselves up as critics by having a website where it says that they’re a critic… Even now if you go to Rotten Tomatoes, you have critics and then you have ‘Top Critics’, and what that really means is that there are legitimate critics who have actually paid their dues and worked hard and are in a legitimate website connected perhaps with a newspaper or perhaps not. “Then there are all these other people who just say they’re critics and you read their writing and they can’t write, or they can write and their writing reveals that they’re quite stupid and ignorant… Some voices have emerged that are actually quite good who never would have emerged before, so that’s the upside of that. But I think it means that it’s diluted the effective critics.”

There’s a lot to take apart here. But let’s begin by defanging Cronenberg’s central premise: that only the scribes labeled “Top Critics” by Rotten Tomatoes are working for “legitimate websites,” and everyone else is a sub-literate fanboy, tanking poor Cronenberg’s Tomatometer score at blogger.com/loki-movie-badass19942. In fact, “Top Critic” is one of the most befuddling elements of Rotten Tomatoes, and the pro-vs.-amateur free-for-all the filmmaker describes is patently false.

Take a look at the Rotten Tomatoes page for his latest, Maps to the Stars. It’s currently rated “Fresh” at 68 percent; switching that rating from “All Critics” to “Top Critics” adds a measly three percent to its score. Only seven of its 56 ratings are classified “Top Critics” — but among those not considered such, for whatever reason, are such reputable outlets as Film Comment, The Guardian, and, no kidding, the BBC. The web-only outlets represented there aren’t bullshit throwaway blogs; they include Indiewire, HitFix, Little White Lies, Slant, and Movie Mezzanine. These aren’t poseurs; these are serious film writers, and by sneering at them, Cronenberg isn’t sticking up for “legitimate critics” as much as showcasing his own snobbery.

But let’s ignore all of that and presume that he’s right — and to be sure, anyone who’s spent any time reading film criticism online knows that there are plenty of online scribes (successful ones, even!) who “can’t write,” or are “quite stupid and ignorant.” The problem is that no (or, at the very least, astonishingly few) film writers — or writers, period — come out of the creative womb at full speed. Good writing is the product of practice, via thousands of hours spent hunkered over the keyboard, banging it out and learning by doing. There was a time when a would-be film critic would learn their craft at a small-town newspaper or regional magazine, and work their way up to a bigger market and a post of some import. Those days, to put it mildly, are long gone; the local film critic has been put out of business by, yes, the omnipresence of their (usually unpaid) online counterparts.

Those writers have to start somewhere, and online film writing offers the opportunity to learn the craft, get feedback, and get better. Your film editor started out with personal film blogs on Tripod and Xanga (remember them?); from there, I went (again, unpaid) on staff at a review site called DVD Talk, where I logged over a thousand reviews over four years. Some of them, particularly the early ones, are not very good! Most of the personal-blog ones are borderline unreadable! But this is the kind of thing you learn by doing — just as a businesspeople take internships, or craftsmen serve apprenticeships, or young filmmakers find their voice on YouTube. Or, y’know, Canadian television.

Is there some substance and sense to Cronenberg’s statements? Sure. The “criticism by consensus” that Rotten Tomatoes encapsulates is fairly antithetical to the spirit of personal engagement and reflection within great criticism — but then again, so are Oscars and critics’ awards. The idea of an RT or Metacritic score serving as the final word on a picture’s quality is pretty asinine, but then again, there are two halves to that transaction, and only a schmuck would actually take that score as the final word. It is what it is: a survey that results in an average, and for those who see film criticism purely as a consumer’s guide, it does the job.

But for those who read and take criticism seriously, the thumbs-up or thumbs-down takes aren’t all that interesting. I care less about whether the critics I read liked or didn’t like a movie than why; we remember and celebrate Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert and Andrew Sarris and Manny Farber for their linguistic ingenuity and intellectual rigor, not for how many stars or popcorn kernels or meow meow beenz they awarded to this movie or that. Rotten Tomatoes isn’t ruining film or film criticism, and neither are green writers; both are an entry point, after which the reader, the writer, and the filmmaker must do a bit more work of their own.