"Tastes Good to Me"
Writing in today's Christian Science Monitor, David Sterritt asks an excellent question: Why do movie critics engage in groupthink? At press screenings, he notes, he and his compadres often seem to be "on different wavelengths" about the films they see. But when the time comes to compile lists of the year's best movies, "the same titles keep leaping out, as if some secret signal had been transmitted to our movie-critic brains."
I agree with Mr. Sterritt that along with challenging the taste of the public, critics should challenge the taste of other critics. But I disagree with his account of how to do this. Rather than engaging in groupthink, he writes, critics should be "following our own lights, disagreeing more often than agreeing, and remembering there's no scientific test to determine 'good' or 'bad' at the movies." The first two points make sense but not the third. Of course there's no scientific test. But that doesn't mean there are no tests at all.
Personally I find critical groupthink reassuring, because even when wrong, it suggests a certain coherence. The alternative is found on the ubiquitous chat-rooms attached to movie websites. They contain many intelligent remarks, to be sure, and every now and then you find someone who can actually spell. But these free-form reviews also illustrate what happens when (as the saying goes) "everyone's a critic": unfettered subjectivity, bizarre free association, celebrity gossip, and worst of all, a childish inability to disagree without reaching for the flamethrower.
Now let me offer a flameless rebuke to Mr. Sterritt. The critical favorite of 2004 is "Sideways," a judgment I am happy to endorse; it does my heart good to see such a terrific film get the kudos it deserves. Mr. Sterritt admires "Sideways" too, but so intent is he on the virtues of disagreement for its own sake, he quotes A.O. Scott of the New York Times reducing the critics' plaudits to narcissism. They like "Sideways," Scott suggests, because as "white, middle-aged men" they identify with the main character's "self-pity and solipsism," qualities that "represent the underside of the critical temperament."
Oh, dear. Leaving aside the merits of proving one's independence by quoting the New York Times, isn't it possible that all those hard-working criticis actually have good reasons for praising this movie? If they identify with the character of Miles (Paul Giamatti), it is probably not because he is a sad sack (excuse me, Mr. Scott, but your description of the movie critic does not cover all cases). Rather it is because Miles has a fine palate for wine, which he has developed over a long period of time, and he is traveling with a buddy who keeps saying, "Tastes good to me!" while slurping down the worst rotgut. Hate to sound like a snob, but I've been there. Haven't you?