Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Criticwire Survey: Groupthink

Q: In his New York Times Magazine rant against "the pernicious rise of poptimism," Saul Austerlitz argued that the music-critical establishment engages in an "increasingly shrill shouting match" when individual critics diverge from the herd. His concern was echoed by Entertainment Weekly writer Anthony Breznican, who accused critics of "cruelly ganging up" on his colleague Chris Nashawaty over his review of "Under the Skin." Is critical groupthink, especially as amplified by the echo chamber of social media, a pressing concern, and if so, how can we mute its effects?

I don’t know enough about music or music criticism to speak directly to Saul Austerlitz’s argument about that – although I admit I do find it a little odd that when I read year end top 10 lists for music, they do seem to align closely to the best sellers. As for Nashawaty’s review of Under the Skin, I think part of the reaction can be chalked up to the fact that he didn’t really spend much time reviewing the film itself – instead he digressed into talking about Johansson’s career choice to do the film, and comparing it with other actors who have made “difficult” films in the past – as if Johansson should spend all her time doing Marvel movies (which, I increasingly love her in by the way). There have been other negative reviews of Under the Skin – and there will be more (I loved the film when I saw it at TIFF last year – but the public screening I attended had more walkouts than any other TIFF movie I’ve been to – people thought they were going to see a more typical sexy alien movie – perhaps along the line of Species). It will be a divisive film. Part of the people shouting down the review were doing it because Nashawaty didn’t love a film most critics did – part of it was because of the substance of the review itself. And perhaps a small part of it was anger at EW itself – for firing Owen Glieberman last week, and leaving Nashawaty, a critic with far less experience and less well known in critics circle, as the only one left over there. Not all of what Nashawaty faced was fair – but some of it was.
In terms of groupthink, it is a danger somewhat – not so much because critics agree on certain movies, but the way they react to those who don’t. All movies will have their detractors – they aren’t necessarily wrong if they fall outside the majority opinion – we’ve all been there. Great movies can withstand that criticism – I’ve often found that a negative review of a movie I loved has helped me see what it is I loved about the movie more clearly than a review that agrees with me. You shouldn’t be shouting down everyone who disagrees with you, but rather engaging with their argument, even if you completely disagree with it. But that’s the culture we have today – and it goes well beyond critics. Go to the comments section of (almost) every movie site, and you’ll find a bunch of people calling each other idiots for their opinions, rather than engaging in serious debate. Basically, I don’t even bother to read most comments sections anymore, because they are so full of hatred and vitriol – The Dissolve’s thoughtful commenters being the exception that proves the rule.  

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