A populist review of Pirates of the Caribbean

Chuck has a response to a recent article by AO Scott on dumb audiences that don’t seem to follow critics’ advice. Case in point: Pirates, which was suffering at the <60% mark over on the Tomatometer.

I went to see it, and yes it was dumb, and I still enjoyed it. Just like I hated King Kong, which the critics thought was super. So what’s going on here? Chuck suggests that critics need to look at the build-up to a movie as much as the film itself. I think it’s more than that. I think we walk into a theater with a set of expectations, and if the film doesn’t deliver on those expectations, we are disappointed. We (being the seething masses) are not measuring films against some universal aesthetic mark, but against our expectations.

So how were my expectations set by Pirates?

* Disappointing popcorn movies so far this year. Superman was predictable and boring, Scanner visually interesting and boring. So, after these and a few other disappointments, I was hoping formulaic Pirates would pull things out.

* That said, as Ask A Ninja noted in his review, how much can you really expect of a movie based on robotic themepark characters. So, I think one of the reasons audiences like the first one is that they expected it to be so bad.

* I also expected that this one would be bad, because, you know, it is a sequel.

* It’s pretty hot out. Expectation was that the movie would be cool. Not in any sort of aesthetic or (gods forbid!) McLuhanesque way, but in a temperature and iced drink way. I am sure opening weekends are correlated to weekend temperatures.

* I expected a sword-fight or two, several buckles to be swashed, and some arch Depp comments. (As an aside, I think it could have been improved with a battle between Depp-as-Keith Richards and Hoffman-as-William-F.-Buckley.) On this mark, I wasn’t disappointed.

In other words, the difficulty factor was a 1 or 2, and it was reasonably well executed. When films manage to exceed our expectations we like them. The trick that advertisers need to pull off is getting our expectations up high enough to go into the theater, but not raising them high enough that we are disappointed by the result. As such, our experiences of popular film are complex, and may be only marginally related to the quality of a film in terms of editing, story, dialogue, and the other elements that make a film both technically and artistically great.

I can look over the AFI’s list of the 100 greatest films and agree that most really are excellent. But that doesn’t mean that personally I am going to rank Gump over Léon, Tootsie over Lord of the Rings, Raging Bull over Sonatine, Jaws over Holy Grail , or Midnight Cowboy over Le mari de la coiffeuse. Actually, when I compare AFI’s list with IMDB’s, I know why I am more likely to listen to my friends than I am to the critics.

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  1. Posted 7/20/2006 at 10:45 am | Permalink

    You’re right to point out that Pirates benefits from audeinces having relatively modest expectations for the film–as long as they get sword fights, Johnny Depp, and air conditioning, then the experience si probably relatively satisfying (and you’re right to note that heat waves often attract air-conditioner seeking audeinces).

  2. Posted 7/20/2006 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

    You seem to agree that enjoyment expectations and aesthetics expectatiosn can be distinct. Well same goes for the difference between a consumer guide : “you will most likely enjoy this blockbuster because a majority of audience will like it” (statistical speculation on individual taste), and a canon list “these films are demanding and not necessarily cheering you up or making the best time killer” (aesthetic achievement milestones). And I don’t even like the AFI’s list, but by nature they do not fullfill the same function at all.

    If one day some reviewers will admit being entertainment advisors and critics stops trying to be popular, maybe we’ll solve this silly misunderstanding… The audience looking for fun does not need to listen to critics.

  3. alex
    Posted 7/20/2006 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

    You seem to agree that enjoyment expectations and aesthetics expectatiosn can be distinct.

    No, I don’t suppose they can be. But for many critics it seems as though those expectations are filtered by direct experiences of a different set of films (the average age of the films on the AFI list is much longer), as well as by a long experience of criticism, and perhaps more familiarity with the process of filmmaking. Students in communication classes consistently complain that a critical (from a social perspective) examination of television and film makes watching either a less enjoyable experience, in many ways. In particular, it gets in the way of being lost in the film. So, the audience looking for a good experience in engaging a film–not just fun–should probably also stop listening to the critics.

    From the outside, from “below” it appears to me that much of film criticism that is not entertainment advising is really “I believe that other critics are most likely to like this, so I do.”

  4. Posted 7/20/2006 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

    I’m not sure I understand what you mean now. (What is “engaging a film”?)
    Yes, reading critics is totally optional. Everybody is free to (1) pick their movies themselves, (2) make up their mind about its worth and its meaning. But that doesn’t mean the individual experience will be more pertinent (universally) than the educated analysis.

    To me, “critical examination” = better understanding = more enjoybale experience. But I know my posture isn’t shared by the general audience, and I don’t expect them to. For viewing films criticaly isn’t the default consumption of movies.

    Your last sentence is funny. Sometimes it’s true, and it’s a flaw of critical judgement to do so.
    But I’d argue that the critics’ consensus is a proof that there are objective values that can be shared by each individual critic for the same film : “I admire this work with known aesthetic achievements, thus chances are other critics will see these merits too, because we look at the same things in cinema.”
    But there are disagreements, and that’s what makes film criticism richer.

  5. alex
    Posted 7/20/2006 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

    I’m not sure I understand what you mean now.

    That’s OK, I’m not sure I do either.

    To me, “critical examination” = better understanding = more enjoybale experience.

    I get that, and agree; though I strongly suspect my critical examination comes from a different perspective than that of “film critics,” as I have no background in this. In fact, I very nearly failed my one cinema class (Japanese film) as an undergrad. But do you feel no loss of innocence (innosense)? That is, are you capable of viewing a film uncritically and engaging (that word again) in it in a different way?

    I guess what I am saying is that if, despite the more educated palate of a critic, critics are unable to understand what makes a film enjoyable to the masses, they might be missing out on something important, and some way of experiencing the film may no longer be available to them.

  6. Posted 7/21/2006 at 6:29 am | Permalink

    I meant that “engaging a film” has multiple meanings according to each viewer (plot, message, worldview, artistic vision?)
    And I’m not a critic by the way, I’m just a blogger.

    Yes I definitely lost “innocence”, but viewing films uncritically is not the only way to engage.
    I don’t see “engaging” and “critical examination” incompatible. In fact I would argue that active viewing (analytical) has amplified my experience of movies tremendously. And I can still enjoy watching hollow movies for the fun of it.

    The job of a critic isn’t to predict the B.O. or to align with the current most popular taste.
    Popularity doesn’t command greatness in cinema.
    Quality films and movies championned by the masses are rarely the same anyway, because the masses don’t seek “great” films, they just want “enjoyable” movies. The criteria of preferences are different. This is not to say that “entertainment movies” cannot be praised by critics, sometimes they are made with sound artistry.
    You know, critics could point to enjoyable movies that will please the masses, even if they watch them critically. It’s easy to notice if a film contains popular elements even if you don’t like it. But this wouldn’t be a critical judgement. Criticism means “judging” not “consumption advice”.

  7. Posted 7/23/2006 at 10:57 am | Permalink

    Strange that you’d say populist and then ref. Sonatine, assuming you mean the japanese, not the french version. Expectations is key here, as you suggest. The top 100 american films is a mixed group of pathetic, but American, and some very brilliant flicks. it is nice to take teh 20-30 great american films and mix them with the great iranian, japanese, chinese, georgian, european, blaa blaa, and get a valid 100. My point being, rather than just trash once again the amero-centric cosmology (not yours, american cinema), is to say that there’s no way I can watch a Tony Gatlif film without setting my expectations for it in a particularly unAmerican aesthetic. Same with Jeunet, even when he IS making English films in America (Alien Resurrection vs Amelie). There’s a cultural aesthetic. And there is an enjoyment aesthetic… and in the end, an aesthetic of expectation.

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