Critical Reactions

Nigel Watson

Talking Pictures alias






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Since writing Hooray for Hollywood I have come across a few more relevant references regarding the differences between the critics’ and the audiences’ reactions towards films.

In Jaap Mees’ interview with Derek Malcolm the long-time critic for The Guardian bemoans the dumbing-down of movies and the parallel cult of celebrity, which even the more respectable publications have pandered to and encouraged. This is not just a problem for film criticism and reviewing; as the Wimbledon tennis tournament progresses in June 2001 I heard a commentator say that more journalists were chasing changing room gossip rather than following the actual matches on the courts.

Even Derek Malcolm admitted to me that he maintained his position at The Guardian because of his contacts with film stars rather than just his film knowledge. The situation is so bad now, according to him, that most young film reviewers think film history began in 1977 with the release of  Star Wars.

Derek also observes that there are not the new directors making their name today in the way that the 1950s New Wave or US Movie Brats did  in the 1970s. The underlying question is ‘have audiences got dumber and deserve the films and reviewers they get today?’ Derek sensibly  notes that more media fights for our time and attention (e.g. the Internet, computer games, mobile phones, DVD, digital TV) so films have to fight more for their share of the popular audience.

Likewise the media that reviews films, from TV, newspapers, radio to websites, has to stand-out from the crowd.

A Hollywood blockbuster movie (e.g. one that has cost a fortune to make and will cost even more to advertise and promote) will attract more column space even in the ‘respectable’ press especially if they get ‘exclusive’ interviews and a photoshoot with its stars. As an example, in a recent (June 2001) edition of The Sunday Times’ Culture supplement there was a cover shot of  Angelina Jolie (star of the Tomb Raider movie) and a double page spread featuring more photographs and an interview; a third of the way through the text the author mentions that the film isn’t up to much. If that is the case why did the Sunday Times devote so much space to it? Why didn’t they give the space to a film that they thought really deserved it? 

These questions are even more pertinent in relation to Pearl Harbor. It got a huge amount of publicity throughout the media, yet the reviewers shot it down in flames. Jonathan Ross on his BBC show Film 2001 even compared it to polishing a turd! 

Money answers some of these questions. The studios spend a fortune on advertising that benefits all sectors of the media. The spend on a movie, the wages paid to stars appearing in the movie, the promotional budget are all newsworthy factors on their own. The media loves a story that states that ‘this is the most expensive movie ever made’. A ploy used by Pearl Harbor, surprise, surprise. If we take the cost of the movie as a reason to see it, then why not just have a film showing millions of pounds stacked up in full colour widescreen? The audience could just sit there counting the notes...(stop being silly Nigel, but remember you read it here first).

If a film is a success the media can produce more features about the subjects related to the movie and analyse why it is a success, if it is a flop they can analyse the excesses of Hollywood and the reasons why the audience stayed at home. The sheer hype/advertising spend surrounding a movie, its stars and/or subject matter makes it a ‘story’ worthy of publication whatever its quality or box office results. 
After money comes sex (as the actress said to the director) as a potent selling tool. Even the most hidebound editor knows that a picture of a half-naked film star on the cover of their magazine or newspaper will sell more copies.  How the use of  images of the body are used to sell and package movies is discussed in my article Girls on Film elsewhere on this website.

Roger Ebert disagrees with Derek Malcolm in that he thinks there are good directors in the USA equal to the 1970s Movie Brats, but they both probably agree with his statement that:

‘American mass-market releases are currently dominated by gross and stupid movies aimed at teenage boys who attend early and often, helping those pictures “win the weekend“. They’re forgotten two weeks later, but not before they’ve driven good films out of the marketplace.’
It is his conclusion, in his article This is a golden age for movies. So why are the cinemas showing such rubbish? that there is a thin line of art houses, film societies, museums and the odd multiplex that keeps the flame burning for American quality movies.

I think the problem with Derek Malcolm and James Ebert is that they make a distinction between quality and popular movies.  For them popular movies are nearly all trash for kids, yet these films often become fondly remembered as ‘classics‘ over the passage of time whilst more ‘worthy‘ efforts are deservedly forgotten. 

Such snobby critics ironically make a very good living reviewing Hollywood movies! Isn’t this a case of cynical exploitation of the masses that they accuse the studios of?  If they hate Hollywood movies so much they should pass the task on to those who are willing and able to do the job. 

The art of the critic is to look at each movie on its own intrinsic merits rather than its origins or hype surrounding it. 

I will probably discuss the assumptions and ideologies of film critics and reviewers in the future, in the meantime I would welcome any comments.

Also on this website:

Boy's Town - White Male critics...

Hooray for Hollywood
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Material Copyright © 2001 Nigel Watson