MovieBob - Intermission

It’s Hard Out There for a (Critic)


Audiences and critics don’t always get along, but this is one thing we should agree on: when you sit down to watch a movie, you want to see the best possible version of it.

Earlier this week, I was privileged to attend an early screening of a decently-noteworthy upcoming film. Said screening was held in a major multiplex movie theater in Boston. I won’t say which one (theater, that is), but suffice it to say it’s not an “exclusive” theater — in fact, you could say it’s a rather Common Boston theater…

Anyway. As the film started up (no, you don’t get to know which movie, either), it was obvious something was wrong: The image flickered and glitched, colors switched and jittered. The entire thing looked like someone had laid an After Effects “strobe” effect over it and this was most definitely not a film where this would’ve been intentional. We (the assembled critics) snickered and groaned while one or two ventured out to alert the film’s publicist and the theater staff that something was amiss, ultimately watching about five minutes of the movie before it was stopped and re-started to correct the issue.

This happens more often than you’d imagine. Like, a lot more often.

Was the movie good, ultimately? Yeah, pretty good. But let me ask you something: If you go to a restaurant and they get your order wrong (and I’m talking “I ordered a salad, this is a Cajun pan-seared Ugg Boot” wrong), even if they fix it and you eventually have a good meal, do you imagine you’ll consciously walk out of there feeling 100% happy with the experience?

Well, then…

For some reason, “Food Critic” is an unusually well-represented profession in movies. Maybe it’s because Hollywood is as fond of food metaphors as some entertainment writers tend to be (“If Gone Girl was a pizza…”). But thanks to films like Big Night, Mousehunt, Ratatouille and, most recently, Chef (to say nothing of the popularity of Food Network’s 751,300 separate shows about food/restaurant judging), I feel like audiences are largely familiar with at least the ideal of how restaurants attempt to ensure positive reviews.

We’ve all seen the scene: The Critic arrives with the ominous pomp and circumstance of a foreign dignitary at the threshold of war. They’re given the very best table (even if someone else is using it!) and the cleanest, shiniest silverware. The head chef? Ordered to prepare their signature meal. A bottle of the house’s finest wine? Complimentary! Everything must be just so — just right. Above all else, The Critic must be made to feel as though they’ve awoken in the comforting womb of luxury before they even get around to tasting the food.

Sounds nice.

In any case, when I read about what audiences/readers/etc think of film critics (or, lately, game critics), I get the impression that they think that’s how it works for us, too. It makes sense, after all: If you’re showing a movie to people whose job is to inform the public of whether or not it’s worth seeing, you’d want to make sure they saw it under the best possible circumstances — wouldn’t you? Maybe not feted in the manner of a Roman day spa (“Hot towel, Mr. Chipman? Another palm-frond girl, perhaps?”) but at least comfortable, in a good mood, feeling welcomed and, well, “deferred to” to a reasonable degree. If nothing else, you’d expect that they’d be seeing the Best. Possible. Version. Of the film they’ve come to judge.

Wouldn’t you?

Well, that’s not how it works.

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With increasingly rare exception, the majority of film criticism you may be reading to help plan your weekend viewing was written by a person for whom your hoped-for pleasure was part of their harried workday. Chances are they didn’t have much choice as to where and when they saw it (unless it’s Awards Season, in which case maybe they had the opportunity to watch it on a screener so plastered with anti-piracy watermarks as to make it unwatchable) and likely had to scramble for a Friday morning deadline or earlier.

And that’s only assuming that the critic in question is fortunate enough to live in the center of a major metropolitan city. If not (and I don’t mean “lives a state away from New York” – I’m talking “lives even one hour outside of Manhattan”) they’ll be fighting traffic and scrambling for trains like anyone else, except unlike regular movie audiences, “Oh well, we’ll just wait an hour for the next show” isn’t an option.

Is the popular concept of “The Press Screening” – critics (and only critics!) spaced-out comfortably in a theater set aside for them to work – true? Sure! …providing you’re in a major East or West Coast city. And it’s a smaller movie. And it’s finalized early enough. And it’s November or early-December and the film is expected to be an Oscar and/or Indie Spirit contender.

Otherwise? Well, you know those free “Preview Screenings” you hear about given away as prizes on radio call-in shows? If it’s a “big” movie, there’s a good chance that’s where “your” professional critic saw it: Sandwiched (if they’re lucky!) into The Critic’s Row, surrounded by an audience of people who had nothing else important to do on a weeknight, so you know it’ll be a classy, well-behaved crowd. Oh, and that’s often after being searched on the way in for cell-phones or laptops like you just showed up at an airport in an “ISIS 4EVA!” t-shirt, as though any critic is living comfortably enough to risk their job pirating a movie — hell, as though any meaningful piracy comes from cameras in theaters anymore!

And a few days later, when the actual review runs, regardless of what The Critic says… someone will ask “Why are you people so negative all the time!?”

I recognize that a lot of that (maybe all of it) sounds like petty complaining. Maybe it is. I’m under no illusions that I don’t have a great job that many people at least think they’d kill to have. I’m not laying bricks. I’m not building rockets. I’m not counseling the suicidal, sewing up knife wounds or raising a family in a frenetic economy. And while many folks privileged to work in The Arts (even at the journalist/critic level) like to think of themselves as “too good” for the world of beige cubicles and goldenrod spreadsheets, the truth is often that we’re simply incapable of it — our wiring doesn’t work that way.

So no, I don’t lay all that out to ask for pity or pump up my work as some Sisyphean ordeal — I do it to illustrate a point.

The fact is, I’m a grown-ass man (a little too grown, at least according to my nutritionist…) and I can accept that job hassles are part of having a job in the first place. My concern — my reason for bringing this up in a column in the first place — is where stuff like this begins to affect the work a critic’s readership relies on him or her for.

Because, let me tell you: If you read the above spiel and thought “Well, maybe the ‘atmospheric’ details are lacking because all the effort is being put toward the most important element: the presentation of the film itself!” Well… you couldn’t be more depressingly wrong. In many ways, that’s often the worst part of all. Granted, I can only speak from my own experience firsthand, but journalists talk to each other so I can say with some certainty that my experience as a working critic in Boston isn’t at all far removed from the rest of the business in these respects. But if you’d like to take me with a grain of salt? Be my guest.

Press/preview screenings of new films are often projected from a DVD or other smaller-file source, digitally. And while I’m not 100% onboard the Snob Train that demands film prints and only film prints; I know enough to know that if I’m seeing a Windows desktop projected onto the big screen before a feature I’m probably not seeing it in the best quality. I may not be the world’s greatest expert on aspect ratios, but I know most major Hollywood productions don’t “miss” visible boom-mics in the shot. I don’t carry a light-meter with me, but I know when the projector bulb has been dimmed to extend its lifespan (which, incidentally, doesn’t even work).

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Along with the story that opened this piece, I have regularly seen films played for critics with incorrectly-timed sound, incorrect light-levels and jittery digital-artifacting more befitting a low-resolution YouTube clip than a feature film. House lights coming up during the feature? Common. Bad contrast? Expected. And while I’ve personally never seen the “buffering” symbol pop up in a theater, I’ve heard tell of it more than once from more than one source.

And it’s not just a matter of bad source-material: With most multiplexes leaving more and more projection duties to a single projectionist (if that!) and whichever ushers aren’t currently serving or sweeping-up popcorn, serious flaws like 3D lenses being left attached for 2D movies (resulting in dramatic loss of color and contrast) or mis-framed images rendering certain films largely unwatchable are practically the new normal. And if it’s like that for critics and preview audiences, whom theaters, studios and publicists are supposedly trying to impress… how much care do you imagine the general audience is getting?

To use only one recent example: At a recent screening (for critics only, no less!) of a major Awards Season contender at that same aforementioned Not Exclusive Boston multiplex, the image turned out to have been incorrectly-framed so sloppily that a pivotal scene was utterly ruined: It featured two characters speaking Spanish, and the poor framing caused the English subtitles to be chopped-off by the bottom of the screen.

Yes, it was only one scene and sure, we got the jist of it. But the film’s “rhythm” — the dramatic spell of its narrative — was broken completely. We were yanked out of the story, spent several minutes afterward still snickering over it, and it’s almost certain some of us (however unwittingly) may have had our opinions colored negatively by the experience. Can you “trust” my review of this? Should you? And if no, whose fault is that?

Today more than ever, presentation quality is of paramount concern to audiences deciding whether to see a movie in theaters or wait for Netflix. But for all the talk of whether entertainment critics can be trusted because of “bias” or being “out of touch,” how often do you think to ask whether a critic saw the best possible version of the film in order to properly inform you? People are quick (and not without a sliver of justification, at times) to ask whether a critic’s personal politics, or fandom, or hobbies, or even lifestyle factor too much into their enjoyment or disdain for this or that film — but do we ever think to ask whether they were able to actually see the film properly to begin with?

But alright – I promised that this was about more than my professional-venting, and I meant it:

The fact is, this is one of those rare places where movie audiences and film critics should be on the same side. Critics are routinely being forced to render their opinions based on sub-par presentations of films largely because of errors and laziness that starts with theater management not caring what kind of presentation they deliver to their customers — who, in turn, might not be getting the reviews they deserve as a roundabout result. If you watch movies in theaters, chances are you’re paying a pretty high price to do it, so don’t you deserve to see them looking and sounding their best?

And no, you don’t have to be a film expert to register a complaint (politely! and with management, not an usher or snack-seller) with the theater if you feel you’re getting an inferior product: Did the colors look washed-out? “I think the projector might’ve had the wrong lens, maybe?” Did the image look grainy or warped? “I don’t think the movie was in the right aspect-ratio.” Bad sound? “The speakers sounded weird.” Was it too dark to see what was going on, and said darkness wasn’t part of the story of the movie? “It looks/looked like the light in the projector was going out.” If they hear that sort of complaint enough, they will at least check it out — and most of these are comparatively simple fixes.

Popular culture often pits critics and audiences in opposition. Sometimes there’s a reason for that, but here we should be working together — whether for work or for fun, when you sit down to watch a movie you should actually get to watch the movie.


About the author

Bob Chipman
Bob Chipman is a critic and author.