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Tall Tales from a Lincoln Test Screening: Critiquing the Critics…

Apparently there was a test screening of Lincoln in New Jersey. I know this because the film media has gone absolutely wild over it. What’s astonishing about this coverage is the fact that it’s less about how rare it is to test Spielberg movies (Hook was the last one tested, and we know how that turned out), but more about the perceived responses to audience comments coming from that screening. Critics and pundits were quick to dismiss audience members speaking out as “anonymous jackasses” or to question their critical faculties…

Which all seems a bit much, doesn’t it?

I’ll be honest. I don’t like the idea of test screenings. I don’t think that a director should have to change a movie because a bunch of random people thought it would be this way or that way. It’s hard not to look at the focus group feedback for David Cronenberg’s Videodrome and dread what might have been released had the studio listened to the commentators. The resulting film might be an acquired taste, but it’s a unique vision. (And one of the Cronenberg films I am most fond of.)

I tend to think that more diversity in the films produced is a good thing, and that a director’s vision is worth bringing to the screen. That doesn’t mean it’ll be a film I’ll like, it doesn’t mean the director’s vision isn’t flawed, and it doesn’t mean it will have mass appeal. However, it makes it more likely the film will be something distinct and something individual, regardless of quality. Then again, I’d rather an ambitious failure over a modest success any day.

Of course, I’m not fronting the $50m budget for Lincoln. I can understand why the people putting the money in might want a return, and focus groups seem like the most logical way of getting an audience perspective on it. Of course, getting a bunch of random people in a dark room and asking them how they feel about a particular thing is hardly a recipe for success. What are the odds you’ll find a group perfectly representative of the cinema-going audience? Or the nation as a whole? And, if so, are they going to be able to “hone in” on the reason they feel a particular way about a film? After all, “it’s too long” or “it’s not interesting enough” are hardly the most constructive of criticism.

I’m not a fan of focus group testing, but the people who put up the money for the film have every right to it. I’m surprised Spielberg didn’t negotiate that into his contract, given how strongly he seems to feel about them. After all, it’s easy enough for me to sit back and hope for Spielberg’s untempered directorial vision, but I don’t believe that the producers of the film invested all their money to satisfy just little old me.

While I don’t think asking a bunch of random people what they think will lead to a more satisfying movie-going experience for me, I think that the inverse is also true. If the studios screened for me instead of a random audience, I’m not really sure I’d help produce a film with more mass-market appeal. Sure, I’d produce a film that I would like more, but I can’t imagine that my own opinion would instantly make the movie more appealing or successful. I did, after all, quite dislike Avatar.

However, I find the attacks on the anonymous people leaving feedback to be a little bit much. It almost seems like film critics are quite an insecure lot. In fact, Sasha Stone, who provided the above “anonymous jackasses” quote, also caused a bit of a stir a few years back when she got upset at IndieWire’s list of “critics” at Toronto:

What makes a film critic, one has to wonder. Nowadays, anyone with a blog who sees movies is called a “critic.” I really think that should be amended to use the term “blogger” or “industry columnist.” Not everyone is an actual film critic. I feel like I’m the only person in the known universe who cares about the difference but that’s because I come from a time when there was a difference; not just anyone could write about movies and be called a “critic.” Indiewire has a rundown of grades from the Toronto Film Fest and calls it a “Critics Poll”. In truth, it is a columnist/critic/blogger poll. I’m not dissing these guys at all. I’m just making the point that the line is invisible if no one notices it’s there. At any rate, you’ll find the grades of people like Anne Thompson (not a film critic), Jeff Wells (not a film critic), Peter Sciretta (not a film critic), etc. These opinions made by them are made as industry columnists and bloggers. I think it’s important to remember that (thus, the main difference between Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes).

I’ve always felt that the term “critic” belonged in the eye of the beholder. After all, there’s really no set list of criteria used to determine a person is a “critic.” I don’t have a set list of goals to accomplish on the road to becoming a critic, nor do I have a checklist of qualifications I must receive in order to be considered a film critic.

It is, as with so many things, really determined by what others make of your writing. I’ve never really bought into the grand arguments about the important social function of film critics. The quality of a film is inherently subjective, as with virtually any other form of art. As such, there’s no “right” or “wrong” answer to meet when appraising the film. One of the major problems with internet discourse, in my opinion, is the idea that your (or my) opinion is inherently right and anything that disagrees with that opinion is inherently wrong.

So anybody who likes Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen must be an idiot, because they don’t have the crucial critical faculties to determine that the movie is objectively “bad.” It doesn’t matter how they reach their answers, the weighted decision-making they use in their own subjective value-system. There’s no “proof of work”, because it’s the end result we’re interested in.

I find this fascinating, because it’s a slight variation of the same absurdist logic that internet trolls use to attack those critics who dislike films like The Avengers or The Dark Knight Rises. In this case, it’s the opposite situation, but the same inherent problem. Rather than a person reaching a conclusion deemed “invalid”, it’s the starting point that’s “invalid”, which seems to dismiss the possibility that somebody without a regular column or a massive ad-revenue-generating website might have an opinion worth considering.

The opinions of the people who saw Lincoln aren’t inherently invalid because they came from a test screening of “regular people” rather than those inside a critical circle. It’ fun to mock the grammatical errors showing up in the IMDb user reviews, or to accuse these people of hiding behind anonymity because they dared to share an opinion with the world on a personal blog. However, to dismiss these opinions because they aren’t from people the critical community “knows” and to suggest that they have no value because none of these people make a living doing it? That seems a bit harsh to me.

It’s always interesting to consider what a critic’s function is. They don’t exist to reflect popular tastes, and I don’t think they should. After all, they hard rallied around Michael Bay’s work. If they don’t exist to tell people what they will like, there’s implication that they exist to tell people what they should like – which is an idea that I am less than comfortable with. I will point to films like Shame and Samsara as films I really like, and films I hope you’ll enjoy, but I’d draw the line at saying you should.

That smacks of elitism and superiority, and it’s something I’m not comfortable with – the idea that critics exist in some sort of paternalistic way to supervise media. I don’t buy that argument. On top of the rather obvious anti-majoritarianism of the statement, I don’t think that there’s enough critical consensus to even ground such an argument. Which critics occupy this status of arbitrators of absolute and unquestionable quality? What happens when they disagree over a film? I don’t think that critics exist to tower over pop culture or those who consume it. In my mind, the goal is to engage with it and to discuss it.

And I think those early reviews do that, albeit in a very rudimentary fashion. However, value is determined by the reader. It’s up to the people reading the comment or review to determine its worth to them. If they find it worthwhile, they’ll come back and follow that particular writer. If not, the opinion is dismissed, and it plays no further role in the discussion and debate of the film. It’s the market place of ideas, baby!

If these early reviews happen to make some cogent point about Lincoln that defines the discussion and debate around Spielberg’s latest, then that’s great – they aren’t invalid because a person published in a newspaper didn’t voice it first. If however, there’s absolutely nothing of worth in these comments, then they’ll be dismissed and never really thought of again – not because of the source, but because the ideas themselves were asinine. Without seeming too petty, I suspect the latter is more likely than the former, making this whole discussion a tad irrelevant.

Truth be told, I’m not letting these early opinions influence my anticipation of Lincoln one way or the other. There’s nothing in them that gives me pause, or cause for concern. However, I don’t take the fact that people dared to voice their opinion as inherently offensive to me. I’m liable to dismiss any number of published “critics” in national and international newspapers for the same reason I don’t engage with these commentators – the writing simply doesn’t speak to me. However, I can’t get quite as vehemently upset with the thoughts as other writers seem to.

But that, like the movies themselves, is inherently subjective. I’ve always liked the idea that critics exist to spark debate and discussion, and that there’s no objective measure of a contributor’s worth. All that matters is subjective. Does a particular film writer make you think? Do they challenge your preconceptions? Even if their view doesn’t line up with yours, do you still respect their arguments and find them worth digesting?

You could argue that it’s bad that these potentially shallow or unfocused opinions (if you accept them to be that) are being used to shape the motion picture. You would suggest that there are apparently more “valid” opinions to be found out there, from “professional” sources. However, this argument seems to misunderstand the purpose of a focus group. The goal isn’t to make an objectively better film, or to increase the artistic merit of Lincoln.

The only reason the studio is test screening Lincoln is because they want to increase its financial success, to assure a return on their investment. That means they want it to appeal to as broad an audience as possible. While I’m not convinced a test group is the way to do it, for reasons outlined above, I’m absolutely certain that showing it to a bunch of people (myself included) who loathed Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is not the way to go.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not happy about that, but it’s a fact of life. However, that relatively shallow argument seems to mask a more basic prejudice and dislike directed towards a bunch of people who just happened to be sitting in the right cinema at the right time. As the old proverb goes, don’t hate the players. And a lot of the hate seems to be directed towards those people sharing their opinions on a film they watched, just because they saw it first.

None of this early word-of-mouth does that to me, and that is why these early reports don’t interest me. There’s quite a few published writers that Stone would consider “critics” who fall into the same category.

4 Responses

  1. So what makes a critic a ‘critic’? I never trust critic’s views, anyway. The majority of the time, I tend to love films that have had bad write ups. I’d rather check out blogs and Rotton Tomatoes – I think people tend to be more honest about films if they’re not being paid to give their verdict.

    Going back to the first thing I said, is it just because they feature in newspapers? Because as far as I’ve seen, some people get those kind of jobs because of ‘who’ and not what they know. Not always, of course, but still…just because you have the ‘title’ critic doesn’t mean you’re actually, well, good.

    Great post.

    • Thanks. I don’t know. There are “critics” I trust, but there are also bloggers, writers, friends and random people who I also trust. An opinion is what should be judged, in the context of film discussion – not the person making it.

  2. I always viewed the role of the critic was to inform the public with an educated opinion. He analyzes a piece with a trained eye to point out why something does or does not work; but subjectively, the critic is also an audience member and may enjoy a work despite its objective flaws or dislike something similarly. You’re right, though, that many critics set themselves up as the voice of God when it comes to saying what is good or bad. Their snobbery is what makes people hate critics so much. The question that is always raised is if they think they know what makes a good movie, why don’t they make one? It’s because they’re generally not artists themselves, but they can certainly criticize artists for their failings. The best critics provide an opinion based on years of education and experience and tell exactly why they have that opinion. They provide technical or emotional supporting details rather than simply tear down or praise a film because it fits into their definition of what a motion picture should be.

    Unless, of course, they’re reviewing a Michael Bay film. Then they can tear it to pieces all they want!

    • Very good point. And I’m not disputing that there are some people who are inherently better at recognising narrative hooks, practical techniques and other important parts of putting a film together. Of those, there’s a smaller subset that can properly articulate their opinions in an engaging and coherent manner. I think what really got me was that thing you were talking about, the need to set themselves above people. The response to a test screening allowing “civilians” to see it first just smacked of snobbery, and it’s the kind of snobbery that we parody in film critics, as you noted, of the “you common people couldn’t possibly appreciate it” variety.

      I’ve actually had discussions with people who steer clear of critically-praised films because “it sounds too arty-farty” for them, regardless of the film itself – the implication being that it’s more for critics than regular people. It’s a surreal division – almost a cinematic class system – and I despise that.

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