Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Two awesome links, and why studio business doesn't matter

Before I get into the meat of this post, I have a couple of exciting links for you to explore:

1. The Screen Grab’s “Worst Moviegoing Experiences”: If Screen Grab, a Nerve blog edited by my friend Bilge Ebiri, isn’t already your daily source of movie news, opinions, and gossip, it really should be. But I wanted to called special attention to a running feature called “Worst Moviegoing Experiences,” in which readers are invited to share their hilariously awful moments in a movie theater. The entries are not collected on any one page (ahem…Bilge…ahem), but the full list of links follow each new missive, which you’ll have to scroll down the page to find. The most recent one grapples with Meet Joe Black, an empty theater, and Brad Pitt as an enduring symbol for sexual inadequacy. (Somehow, I’m reminded of that wonderful scene in Diner involving Mickey Rourke and his popcorn box, but this story is sort of the opposite problem.) Other favorites include “A Good Reason For An International Incident” (written by Bilge himself), “Life Imitates Art?” (also by Bilge), “Like Some Sort Of Small Machine,” “A Hollywood History Lesson Gets Out Of Control,” and the many “Confessions Of A Movie Theater Employee.”

2. Filmspotting: Back when I was in college, I co-hosted a radio show called “The Film Thing,” for much of the time with fellow A.V. Club writer Donna Bowman, who managed to throw me a lifeline whenever my inarticulateness deteriorated into nonsensical jabbering or awkward spaces of dead air. We were proud of our little show—and Donna went on to host her own, much better show while collecting her doctorate at the University Of Virginia—but the lessons I learned from that experience was that talking intelligently about film on the radio is incredibly difficult to do and that I basically suck at it.

But understanding the high degree of difficulty is just one of the reasons I’m in awe of Filmspotting (formerly known as Cinecast), a podcast hosted here in Chicago by Sam Hallgren and Adam Kempenaar. Hallgren and Kempenaar have nurtured a nice following on the web and have recently been picked up for semi-regular airings on WBEZ, Chicago’s public radio station. (This move makes sense in light of WBEZ’s decision to produce Sound Opinions, a long-running music show hosted by the Tribune’s Greg Kot and the Sun Times’ Jim DeRogatis.) The podcasts can range in length from 45 minutes to an hour-and-a-half, however much time the hosts need to go in-depth about the films of the day and for segments such as Massacre Theatre (in which they act out a scene from a movie) and a weekly Top Five list. The current podcast features a somewhat revisionist take on the Vietnam documentary Hearts & Minds and a nuanced dissection of Mike Judge’s much-maligned Idiocracy. Check it out.
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This week’s A.V. Club includes our beloved-by-all Fall Movie Preview, which was intended as a cheeky response to the blunt contempt with which studios treated critics over the summer. The concept was, “Hey, if you shut us out when you don’t need us in the summer, then we won’t bother making an effort during the fall, when your self-important Oscar hopefuls need critical support.” (See, isn’t the joke so much funnier when I explain it to you?)

As I suggested in our most recent Ask The A.V. Club column (second item), critics haven’t had much reason to feel good about themselves lately, but this year, the always-contentious relationship between reviewers and Hollywood has reached a new low. Critics are griping for two reasons: 1. There have been more films not screened for critics (or screened too late for many deadlines) than ever before, typified by Snakes On A Plane, which deliberately bypassed critics as part of its marketing plan. 2. Studios don’t care about critics because no matter how many of them slag on big-budget swill like Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, audiences will still turn out in huge numbers. I’ll address both of those points individually in a moment, but my main thought is this: Critics who complain too loudly about these things have a slave mentality. Put another way: Just as studios don’t need us to do what they do, we don’t need them to do what we do. It’s the readers and the readers only that critics need to worry about.

On movies not screened for critics: When there’s no conceivable benefit for studios to screen a movie in advance of opening day, I really can’t begrudge them for not doing so. I’d argue that a major reason why so many films this year have not been screened for critics is that the studios have turned out an unholy avalanche of crapola: Date Movie, Larry The Cable Guy: Health Inspector, Material Girls, et al. I just don’t see how it makes sense for these films to open to one-star eviscerations across the country when they might enjoy a day or two before the wave of toxic buzz crashes over them. (As an aside, I think audiences are becoming more savvy about movies that haven’t been screened for critics and/or ads that feature the likes of Earl Dittman or other junket whores who hail from seemingly imaginary publications.) Granted, I don’t relish dragging myself to the first matinee of some stinker on Friday afternoon—hilariously, these often turn into de facto critics screenings, so Material Girls would have pockets of giggling pre-teens alongside a creepy assortment of pot-bellied middle-aged men—but I can see the logic behind it. And yet even if were a completely ridiculous and illogical strategy not to screen a film, it’s the studio’s prerogative to market it as they see fit. How we fit into that marketing scheme shouldn’t be a concern.

On big-budget movies making money in spite of widespread critical distain: Again, this shouldn’t be a concern. Since when does being a good critic have anything to do with one’s impact on box office receipts? It’s been said many times that a critic’s impact is felt most on small independent and foreign-language films that live or die on reviews. And there are times when you feel inclined to appeal to readers directly through critical advocacy, as I tried to do recently by trumpeting the low-budget indie films Mutual Appreciation and Old Joy. But, in general, the only sort of impact reviewers should care about is the impact they have on readers, not the influence they do or do not wield over the numbers. If you’re worried about impact, isn’t it better to impact how a reader sees a film than whether or not they see it at all?

Sorry to get into too much inside baseball here. I’ll try to focus more on the movies themselves next time.

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