Good by Whose Standards? Exploring the Gap between Critics and Consumers

Hope you had a happy Easter! ****WARNING: If you wish to avoid reading anything about what critics have said about Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, stop reading right now. You have been warned.****

By now you’ve heard that one of the most anticipated movies of 2016—Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice—opened to dismal reviews. It earned a stunning 29% on Rotten Tomatoes. (By comparison Zootopia earned a 99%.)

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I was surprised at that score. But what interested me more than the reviews I’ve seen was the reaction of fans in regard to the critics who viewed the film with such disfavor. Even director Zach Snyder and some of the cast reacted to the criticism.

The New York Times addressed the gap between fans and critics in an article by Jonah Bromwich that you can find here. Bromwich proclaims

Critics who have panned the film have been met with fury online, with angry fans sneering at their reviews, their writing and even their motives.

512px-Thumbs_down_font_awesome.svgThis is not the first time fans and critics have failed to see eye to eye. Undoubtedly, it won’t be the last. While Bromwich’s article mentioned that a critical thumb’s down won’t deter diehard fans (case in point: a teen I know saw the movie and loved it), a steady onslaught of critical reviews can sometimes take a toll. As of the writing of this post, the box office take for the movie had not yet been posted. So who knows? Perhaps the fans will have the last word if the film rakes in a ton of money. (Wired.com has what I think is a fair take on Batman v. Superman and the critical drubbing it received. You can find that here.)

Reactions to any artistic endeavor can be subjective. But when so many people pan a project, thus inspiring another group to pan them for panning said project, I can’t help wondering who decides which elements make a project “good” or “excellent.” Is beauty truly in the eyes of the beholder (the consumer) or in the eyes of the gatekeepers (critics, agents, movie studio executives, publishers—whoever)? Is the gap between consumers and gatekeepers widening?

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Many people have written books on what makes a piece of writing “good.” I’m sure you’ve seen some of those. You’re probably thinking of Strunk & White right about now, or Stephen King’s memoir, On Writing. I think of Ursula Le Guin’s Steering the Craft (a personal favorite). As for films, you have only to look at the lists of the “best” films of all time and books like Agee on Film: Criticism and Comment on the Movies to see what many have regarded as “good” films.

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If I’m serious about seeing a film, most of the time there is no critic alive who will deter me from seeing it. In fact, I try to avoid reading reviews until I’ve seen the film. But I’m not always successful in avoiding them; consequently, negative reviews sometimes sway me. With books, however, I often check the reviews (including verbal praise from friends) beforehand. I’ve been burned too many times in the past not to.

I have opinions, yes, about what I consider “good.” Sometimes I judge by the way a book or film made me feel as I read it or viewed it. Many of the books and films I’ve loved over the years haven’t had all of the bells and whistles of a critically acclaimed, National Book award finalist or Academy Award nominee. Yet I found something endearing about them. On the other hand, I’ve loved some extremely well written books (All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, for instance) and films.

All the Light We Cannot See

The jury’s still out on whether or not I’ll see Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. I have to chalk some of my reticence up to my inability to escape some of the negative press. How about you? Have you ever been swayed against seeing a film or reading a book because of a negative review? Do you, like some fans, believe that critics don’t understand what the average person likes? Why or why not?

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Batman v. Superman poster from thegg.net. Book covers from Goodreads. Peeps from Pinterest.com. Thumb’s down image from commons.wikimedia.org. Gap image from clipartpanda.com.

“Something” or “Nothing”: What Do You Mean?

Back when I first began writing curriculum—da Vinci was still at the sketch stage of the Mona Lisa at the time—supervisors told my fellow co-workers and me to make our lessons engaging and fun. Though we saw the merit in lessons fitting that description, this sort of feedback frustrated my coworkers and me, because both terms are subjective, rather than measurable. What’s fun or engaging to one person might not be the same to another. But I gave it a shot. Sometimes I reached the target. Sometimes I didn’t.

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That feedback returned to my mind as I read a recent review of a young adult novel. Sorry. I don’t plan to divulge the name of the book or the reviewer. (Hint: The book was not written by anyone I know nor reviewed by anyone I know.) Her review interested me, because she spent the whole post explaining why she did not finish the book. Her biggest complaint was that nothing happened.

How many times have you said the same thing about a book or a movie? I know I’ve said that phrase dozens of times. But now that I think about it, what does “nothing” really mean in this context? “Nothing that engaged me?” “A lack of good action and tension”? “I was bored”? It’s really subjective, isn’t it? I struggle with filling in the blanks.

Do you ever ask yourself, What is the “something” that should have happened? Depends on the story, right? We might define “something” as “an event that moves the plot forward”; “exciting action”; “a scene that made me laugh”; “realistic dialogue that made the characters come alive”; or in other ways.

I’m reminded of All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. Doerr spent three whole paragraphs talking about discoveries one of the main characters—Marie-Laure—made in the drawers of a cabinet. Drawers. In. A. Cabinet. Would you categorize that scene as “nothing happening”? Yet I was mesmerized by those paragraphs. Many other people probably felt the same way, because this book is a best-seller, a National Book Award finalist (click on the award to watch Doerr read a chapter of this book), and a Pulitzer Prize winner.

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We can credit Doerr’s magical prose. But some of the “zing” that makes this scene “something” as opposed to “nothing” is due to the imagination of the reader. Doerr invites us to come along on Marie-Laure’s journey of discovery. Oh, did I mention that this girl is blind? That’s not a spoiler. The book jacket tells you that much. We see what she can only “see” through touch.

I’m tempted to quote lines from that scene. But I won’t. I’m not trying to be obstinate, honest. As I mentioned, I was mesmerized. You might not feel that way, however. Some of the people who commented on an article I read recently on Doerr’s prose had a negative view of his work. But if you are curious about which scene I mean and want to decide for yourself whether or not it has that certain “something,” you can find it on pages 29-30 in the hardback.

Engaging. Fun. Nothing. Some aspects are purely subjective. But when offering feedback, the more specific and measurable one is, the better.

Why measurable? Well, I have to go back to curriculum writing for that. My colleagues and I were always told to make lesson objectives measurable. I found a quote on the subject in the Web article, “Writing Measurable Learning Objectives”:

When you begin creating a course, you want to design with the end in mind. The best way to approach this is to start by writing measurable, learning objectives. Effective learning objectives use action verbs to describe what you want your students to be able to do by the end of the course or unit.

“What you want your students to be able to do.” So, measurable feedback at the manuscript stage helps an author know what it is you want him or her to “be able to do”; in other words, to effectively fix his/her manuscript. Yeah, I know. Telling someone, “Nothing is happening,” is easier than saying, “This scene feels static to me, because Angela is passive, rather than active” or “This scene does not advance the plot. Perhaps you could take the character to the next threshold quicker.” But such feedback gives the author a more specific idea of the “something” you have in mind.

Some people are better able to gauge what nothing happened means. Not me. I need people to spell out what they mean. And I hope I can make the effort to provide clarity for someone else too.

Smith, Tracy. “Writing Measurable Learning Objectives.” TeachOnline. Arizona State University, 02 July 2012. Web. 13 June 2015.

Mona Lisa from en.wikipedia.org.

Suitable for Adults?

What items would you deem suitable for adults? Why do I ask? Let me elaborate in case your mind is going in a totally different direction than mine. If I go to a store and purchase a DVD or blu-ray for an animated show or movie, most of the time the cashier will ask if I want a gift receipt under the assumption that I’m making a purchase for a child. The question is never posed to me if I buy a live action movie.

The same question occurs if I enter a bookstore and purchase a middle grade book. I once told a cashier, “No, I’m going to read that.” She offered a “You’re kidding me” look. Never mind the fact that people who write books for kids can learn a lot by reading books other people have written for kids.

Several years ago, before miniseries like Galavant were even a gleam in the eye of ABC executives, a friend gave me this as a gift.

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(Um, not the books. The knight and horse.) Makes you think of this image, doesn’t it?

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She knew I loved stories about knights and was researching them for a book. Yet this knight and horse have drawn some disbelieving glances from others of the “Why would you want that?” variety.

When I was a kid, I remember asking my parents if I had to dress a certain way and like certain things when I became an adult. Would I have to give up Chuck Taylors? If so, being an adult would totally suck.

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Well, I’m an adult, and my love of the above has yet to dissipate. But I guess I sometimes make other adults uncomfortable, because I still love

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• Puddles (though I don’t jump into them these days)
• Animated series
• Bubblegum
• Graphic novels
• Fairy tales

You’re probably ready to sing “My Favorite Things” now, aren’t you? Part of being an adult is admitting to being childlike without being childish. For example, sticking my tongue out and going, “Nyeah!” when someone looks askance at a purchase I’ve made (though I really want to do so), would be childish. But I have to wonder why being an adult means you have to give up something you love just because you cross a certain threshold age-wise.

The apostle Paul stated

When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things.
1 Corinthians 13:11

But did Paul mean that being an adult means dictating how all other adults should behave? I can’t help thinking back to third grade when we used to say to each other, “Ewwww! You like that?” So are we suddenly more grown up if we utter the same statement about something harmless another adult happens to like?

Don’t get me wrong. I love books like this

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which is an award-winning adult fiction book. And I love these Prada boots

Prada boots

though I can’t afford them. And in the winter, I love this:

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(In case you can’t read the label, this is Windshield De-Icer. For those of you who live in warmer climates and don’t see products like this, it makes scraping ice off windshields a lot easier.) And I love this brand of lipstick no matter what season:

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So, I need to take joy in the things I love and not worry if I get “the look” from someone. Instead of scowling, I can say, “Okay, sure” when someone asks me if I need a gift receipt, simply because it’s not worth the time to justify a purchase I have every right to make for myself. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to watch Justice League: War. And I might chew some bubblegum while I’m at it.

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Chuck Taylors from shoebizsf.com. Galavant poster from melty.fr. Book cover from Goodreads. Justice League: War image from mundobignada.com. Bubblegum from whoguides.com.