On Liking

August 26, 2008

I noticed something rather strange while I was poking around metacritic the other day. This is from their methodology:

Q: I read Manohla Dargis’ review of [MOVIE NAME] and I swear it sounded like a 9… why did you guys say she gave it an 8?

Our staff must assign a numeric score, from 0-100, to each review that is not already scored by the critic. Naturally, there is some discretion involved here, and there will be times when you disagree with the score we assigned. However, our staffers have read a lot of reviews–and we mean a lot–and thus through experience are able to maintain consistency both from film to film and from reviewer to reviewer. When you read over 200 reviews from Manohla Dargis, you begin to develop a decent idea about when she’s indicating a 90 and when she’s indicating an 80.

Fine. But then:

Q: Hey, I AM Manohla Dargis, and you said I gave the movie an 80, when really I gave it a 90. What gives?

A: …This does happen from time to time, and many of the critics included on this site (such as Ms. Dargis) do indeed check their reviews (as well as those of their colleagues) on metacritic.com

I’m not going to spend this post talking about the intricacies of Ms. Dargis’ reviews. Dargis has been called something of a contrarian and lambasted for her bizarre reviews. Ok, an example. Gawker considered her review of “How to Eat Fried Worms” part of a “post-modern contest” writing that “if you can wend your way through the convoluted structure she erects in today’s review…consider yourself granted an honorary M.F.A. in comparative literature.”

I’ll focus instead on the content of the review. First there is the use of the phrase “plangent realism.” Plangent is a nice word, meaning “having an expressive and especially plaintive quality,” but totally out of place in a review of a children’s/young adult movie. After all, the intended audience of the film might want to know if the movie’s any good. Even more surreal is her claim as to the movie’s message.

Directed by Bob Dolman, who also wrote the fine adaptation, “How to Eat Fried Worms” is an easygoing entertainment in which a sensible message about growing up also rationalizes the abuse of power. However lightly played, this is, after all, a film in which children learn to stand up for themselves, and for one another, by killing animals.

Gawker’s right to question the sentence structure; just think about how many ideas are placed in the first sentence before we get to the “abuse of power” claim. The claim itself is so bizarre that it needs no comment.

With reviews like this, it’s easy to understand how scoring can be difficult. I like to emphasize meaning and the “aboutness” in my reviews, which sometimes means focusing on particular well done moments and interesting aspects of the movie rather than evaluating all its virtues and defects. It’s not hard to write like you love something, or write like you hate something, for that matter, when you actually liked it or found it ok. Extremes lend themselves to easier prose.

One last note: I think it’s great that metacritic has people who research particular reviewers in order to decode their intended meanings, almost as if film criticism were samizdat. I’m glad someone’s out there coming up with jobs for humanities phds.

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