With movie theaters open again, yet such limited content, I have once again found myself scrolling Rotten Tomatoes and its app Flixter to determine if a movie is worth seeing or not. I usually consider movie recommendations in one of the following categories:
- Critics & audiences agree. This could be a high score or a low score, but in general, these are the movie reviews I tend to believe the most. Consensus between the supposed experts, the critics, and the people just out to spend a few pleasant hours being entertained, is equal. Either it’s good or it’s bad. Current movies in this category: Stillwater, starring Matt Damon. Critics give it 74%; audiences give it 72%. That’s pretty dang close. Others that are in this category: The Suicide Squad (91% from critics / 84% from audiences) and Black Widow (80% from critics / 91% from audiences). These are not as close together as the ratings for Stillwater, but they are generally in the *highly or mostly positive* category for both.
- Audiences love, critics hate. When I see this kind of split, I usually think “This is a movie with a specific target audience that loves this kind of movie despite its many flaws.” If I’m part of that same demographic, I might take a chance on the movie. If not, this is the kind of movie I skip. Currently in this category: Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins. Critics give it 38% fresh; audiences are at 74%. Likewise with Space Jam: A New Legacy. Critics say 27%; audiences say 79%. This probably means these aren’t great movies, but audiences choose them because they know what they are getting into; it’s not a surprise to them. Another one that’s close, but not quite in this category is Jungle Cruise (63% from critics, which is still positive or “fresh” vs. 92% from audiences, which is really high). When I see this kind of split, I read the reviews before I decide. In this case, I determined that most of the critics sound like they have never been on the Jungle Cruise attraction in their lives. If you are choosing this movie and don’t expect corny jokes and a convoluted plot, you lack the spirit of discernment.
- Critics love, audiences hate. Honestly, these are generally just as bad as the prior category in my book. According to critics, we are supposed to like this type of movie, but for whatever reason, we just don’t. It’s not entertaining. This feels like a recommendation for more gruel in our diet (or early morning seminary or a really boring “classic” piece of literature that just feels like a punishment). Current example: The Green Knight. Critics are 88% positive; audiences are only 50% positive which is pretty lukewarm on average. Having read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by assignment in far too many classes, I can see why this might be a slog.
This got me thinking about the role of critics (which is a category that includes bloggers such as myself as well as many commenters) vs. the role of audiences (which in Church terms we call either the membership or the congregation). Just because critics think something’s bad doesn’t mean people who choose to participate don’t like that thing. I enjoy discussions with those friends I think are smart but who disagree with me on this or that point about church experience. I remember one such discussion about the requirements for my sons to dress a specific way to do the sacrament. Our bishop at the time objected to their sleeves being rolled up to pass, which really bugged me because they were growing so fast that their sleeves were too short, and I wasn’t going to be able to get back to the US to buy them new shirts for a few months. (It was really difficult to buy for them in Singapore unless I wanted to shell out big bucks at Marks & Spencer, just trust me, it was a pain–no Amazon Prime there either). To me, this requirement lessened my enjoyment. I considered it needlessly Pharisaical or rule-focused for the sake of rules, not for the sake of my boys or us as members.
When I complained about it to a work colleague who happened to be Mormon, he said it’s the “uniform of the priesthood,” and if you don’t wear your kit, you can’t play on a sports team, and this was the same. To him, having this uniform brought a sense of purpose to what they were doing, taking focus away from them as individuals, and putting the focus on the ordinance. They could disappear into the uniform and let the sacrament take center stage. They were part of a team, something bigger than themselves. It’s not a bad idea. Restaurants also have the wait staff dress uniformly, and the sacrament is more important than a burger and chips, right? So, it’s not my jam, but I see how it could enhance someone’s experience.
You could say that this isn’t a critic / audience split, and you’d be right–we are both the audience in this case. But if I write a blog post about it, suddenly I am not just the audience; I’m a critic. I’m now the arbiter of taste! I’m an intermediate between your experience and what is “good” or “critically acclaimed.” If I tell you what’s bad about it, now you might see it. Once your eyes are open to other perspectives on what is good or bad, you can’t unsee it. You doubtless have some critics whose opinions you find more valuable than others, usually because you generally agree with them, or your experience closely matches theirs. We pick and choose whose criticism we read, ultimately as an extension of our own views. If a movie critic tells you that the first half of a movie is great, but it gets bogged down in the second half, you are looking for that to happen, and it does! If you hadn’t read that review, you might also think it’s slow in the second half, or you might take a welcome bathroom break while ponderous music plays and the main characters shuffle around, waiting for the action to pick up again.
Lee Hale once mentioned in his old podcast Preach that if you want to stay in the Church, don’t look too closely at it (that’s a paraphrase). He specifically meant don’t become a journalist writing about it. Why is that? Journalists (and even lowly bloggers) have to have something to write about, even if it’s just reporting “news” and giving an opinion about it that others might find engaging. The more you do that, the more you see, including the unsavory, and finding a perspective that is unique but not bonkers is the sweet spot to finding an audience that thinks you are relevant and have ideas worth reading. Eventually, you can’t stop seeing the flaws that a closer inspection will reveal. Do movie critics enjoy a popcorn film or are they too busy noticing that the dialogue is wooden or the action sequences contain too much CGI?
Another thing that occurred to me is that the ratings on Rotten Tomatoes are determined based on something that is deeply misleading. Critics’ reviews are seen as binary, either positive or negative overall, but if you read the review, you may find that a “positive” review uses lukewarm words and identifies a lot of flaws, some of which may be more important to you than others as an audience member. Likewise, a so-called negative review could be fairly positive if you read it but the things that caused it to be negative might not apply for you. For example, it could consider the movie difficult to follow if you don’t already know the backstory, but maybe you do know the backstory, so that critique doesn’t reduce your enjoyment at all; it enhances it.
- Do you look at movie reviews before going to the movies? If not, how do you decide whether to see it or not?
- Does your experience at Church (or the movies) differ if you think of yourself as audience vs. critic?
- Do you think (movie or church) critics often miss the enjoyment in an effort to have something unique or insightful to say?
- Do you agree that journalists and others who write about or investigate something are less likely to be able to enjoy it for seeing its flaws?
- Do you think we tend to reduce blog posts to either being positive or negative when the majority contain both? How does this affect our willingness to engage?
 I hated this explanation even more on the basis that it felt like membership dues, but he felt differently which is valid.
 I’m not saying this as a defense of Oaks’ stance that all criticism is wicked, which I don’t buy.