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Criticwire Survey: Groupthink

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April 7, 2014 3:03 PM
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Every week, the Criticwire Survey asks film and TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday morning. (The answer to the second, "What is the best film in theaters right now?" can be found at the end of this post.) Send suggestions for future questions to sam at indiewire dot com.

Q: In his his New York Times Magazine rant against "the pernicious rise of poptimism," Saul Austerlitz argued that the music-critical establishment engages in an "increasingly shrill shouting match" when individual critics diverge from the herd. His concern was echoed by Entertainment Weekly writer Anthony Breznican, who accused critics of "cruelly ganging up" on his colleague Chris Nashawaty over his review of "Under the Skin." Is critical groupthink, especially as amplified by the echo chamber of social media, a pressing concern, and if so, how can we mute its effects?

John DeCarli, FilmCapsule

It seems to me that an "increasingly shrill shouting match" can define a lot of film talk on the Internet, regardless of any deviations from critical consensus. Perhaps this has always been the case with criticism, but I think a little patience, respect, and intellectual curiosity about divergent opinions would go a long way. "Groupthink" or a critical consensus about film seems unavoidable. If I see a film late, I go into it knowing how it's been received, and that knowledge can sometimes influence my experience with a film -- positively or negatively. This happens with classic films too: I watch a film like "Ordet" with the knowledge that it is widely considered a masterpiece. Still, I don't think an awareness of consensus is necessarily a problem as long as critics reflect on films honestly.

Robert Levin, amNewYork

Critical groupthink is an enormous problem and the echo chamber is only growing more pronounced. The process of expressing an opinion shouldn't be like high school, with critics scrambling to have the "correct," popular take, and too often that seems like what happens. I'm certainly not impervious to this, to be sure. It's fair to point out flawed work -- and Nashawaty's "review," which is really an essay on celebrity movie choices, was certainly misguided at best -- but the volume of anger expressed toward it absolutely felt like a piling on. There's nothing to be gained from that sort of communal shaming; better, instead, to spotlight the countless interesting and thoughtful pieces that are written daily about "Under the Skin" and a host of other movies, all across the web. There's not really a way to fix this except for a good, long look in the mirror and some reflection on whether we're using Twitter to bully others or as an outlet for meaningful sharing and conversation. And for all of us to stand by our opinions -- even the unpopular ones.

Peter Labuza, The Cinephiliacs, Variety

Social media consensus is really impossible to judge given that each person curates their own list, and can throw this or that person out on a whim's notice. The only consensus there can be is the one each consumer manufactures for themselves. That being said, I don't think there's serious groupthink seen when ganging up on those who stray from consensus if reviews that don't fit the general "pro or con" of a consensus are well written or articulated. I often find that I get much more out of a review that doesn't "fit" my pro or con assessment than one that agrees with mine. A good review depends on the observations and descriptions of the scenes, and often I've found the best reviews will point to the same things as I might, even if our assessment varies. I've never really seen someone get ganged up by serious critics except for simply writing a piece that disagrees with the judgement of a work, but plenty for poorly written ones.

Alonso Duralde, the Wrap

I can think of nothing worse for the state of criticism, or for the general discussion of the arts or politics or anything else, than the idea that dissenting voices get shouted down. And I say that as someone who gave a positive review to "Movie 43."

Jordan Hoffman, ScreenCrush, New York Daily News

This is a little bit of a "do as I say, not as I do," especially considering that I went on an apeshit 48-hr rage bender and effectively cyberbullied the author of the now-deleted "Why Jazz Sucks" article on BuzzFeed (for which I have since apologized, profusely, and in person), however it may be a good thing if people C H I L L O U T. Spend a little more time worrying about your own work, less on those that you consider a dipshit. 

I know this is hard. I hate-read certain knuckleheads. We all do. When I try to cut myself off, friends of mine text me their offensive links. My friends are awful. And we're all breaking the Jewish law of avoiding "Lashon Hara," which doesn't just warn against gossiping, but against saying nasty things even when they are true. Speaking negatively about people when it isn't in the service of improvement is a poison. Really, it is. I struggle with this constantly. It's the second biggest conflict in my life, after my fearsome and unnatural dependency on Peanut Chews.

We all write about what we like, love, dislike and despise. So, obviously, we take this stuff personally. When a someone who has no business in show business disagrees with me poorly, and in a widely distributed outlet, it's annoying.

Adam Batty, Hope Lies at 24 Frames Per Second

While I'm not sure that it's any more of a pressing concern than it always has been, I guess the danger with such a thing is the opportunity for a situation to descend in to "bullying", or for at least for the perception of that to be the case, especially when a specific situation becomes far bigger than the original context around which it began. Such is the problem with a resource as vast as social media: the original point of concern can soon be lost in the scrum.

The lessening of any situation lies with the ethics of the individual. Having been in both camps in this situation before now I can't lay claim to either being much fun, and tend to step away from any situation that is escalating in such a manner. If it's something worth continuing with I'd rather expand further in a more appropriate manner.

Danny Bowes, Movies by Bowes, RogerEbert.com

The common thread with both Austerlitz's Times piece and Breznican's getting mad about people slamming his colleague is that neither is particularly indicative of a mob mentality or groupthink or any kind of pejorative for collective thought arrived at by surrendering individual point of view. I'd like to propose something that shouldn't be all that controversial if you think about it for a second or two, which is that what appears to be "groupthink," when more than one person shares elements of a dissenting opinion from yours, is in fact an emotional reaction born of being angry at the dissenters for not agreeing with you. Taken a step further, "groupthink" does not exist. The way shared opinions coalesce is by the individuals who hold similar opinions discussing those, assimilating aspects from likeminded individuals' slight variations on same, and through further iterations of merging eventually come to a coherent point of view. None of this is possible without the individual components, which are each provided by individual thinkers.

The specific problem with Austerlitz's piece is that, simply, he's projecting anxieties about what poptimist music critics are like and accusing them of all kinds of nastiness and ignorance when the issue, at its core, is that he can't seem to understand how anyone could possibly enjoy Britney Spears more than The National. This is a thing that happens in the world. Rather than get caught up in a shooting war between poptimist and "rockist" critics (and for shit's sake, if these two sides are going to war, of even greater importance than crafting solid arguments is coming up with cooler names for their factions), and addressing Breznican's complaints about the pointed nature of the criticism Nashwaty faced for what seemed like a hastily written piece to meet a hard deadline, the essential thing is to remember that disagreements happen. Very few, if any, opinions in the arts are prima facie indicators of the holder's idiocy. We should start instead from a point of trying to increase the level of understanding on all sides. Fighting over art does the exact opposite: everyone gets so pissed off that they're not thinking, they're off haughtily claiming that anyone who likes synthesizers is some kind of asshat Milennial and whoever disagrees can get fucked. Enough of that. Respectful disagreement is better in every way. It even FEELS better, physically. So, more of that, less of the bullshit tribalism.

Scott Nye, Battleship Pretension, CriterionCast

I do find critical groupthink to be a pressing concern, and a rather dispiriting one. Even those who pride themselves on trying to forward thoughtful, critical, reasoned thinking seem to fall inevitably into the trap of "sides," "teams," or however else the latest fabricated war is being termed. Last December, I saw many, many people claiming that not only was one disallowed from liking both "American Hustle" and "The Wolf of Wall Street," but that whichever "side" you "picked" said everything there was to know about you, which paints a more negative portrait of the proclaimer's approach to cinema than it does any of their intended targets. I haven't seen "Under the Skin" yet, but from what I understanding, it's a rather difficult film to fully grasp, and the kind of thorny, opaque beast that's going to turn off far more viewers than it embraces. Rather than scold those who cannot come to terms with it (and I understand part of the point of the "attacks" is that Nashawaty spent very little of his review talking about the actual film - a decision he might have made because he didn't really grasp the film - but, well, if cinema can take any form, so too can the writing about it), critics should celebrate that we have a film like Under the Skin that can cause so many unusual and confounded reactions. And, well, a little empathy never hurt anybody, either.

Glenn Kenny, RogerEbert.com, Some Came Running

Austerlitz's piece is poorly argued and The National are terrible; on the other hand, I can't say I was displeased to see so many of the folks who laud anti-art plaints disguised as "questioning" pieces get a taste of their own medicine. As for Chris's piece, he's a friend, but I found it kind of shocking and disappointing not least on account of its staggering cynicism. And the implied sexism of his knowing-better-than-Johansson-what-movies-she-ought-to-be-doing is hardly ameliorated by his citation of an almost two-decades-old Johnny Depp picture. While it's nice of Mr. Breznican to stand up for his colleague, there's really no way Chris could not have known that his review would not get some people's backs up. He's an adult. There's no film critic community. We're not watching each others' backs. Nor ought we be, you know excepting in the "what you do to the least of my brothers, you do to me" sense. We argue.

Edwin Arnaudin, Asheville Citizen-Times, Ashvegas

Dog-piling on the minority is certainly prevalent and occurs both quicker and more intensely via social media. Speaking out against "Stories We Tell," "All Is Lost" and "Gravity" or in favor of "Pain & Gain," "The Lone Ranger," or "Only God Forgives" is a recipe for attracting hate, especially if the opposing critical consensus has been established.

While disagreement is healthy -- if we were all in lock-step, the review landscape would be a boring place -- the danger lies in thinking that a response differing from your own is wrong. Respect for others’ opinions seems to be dwindling and that’s a scary proposition. As long as an opinion of a film is backed up by examples illustrating that point, there are no wrong answers, just different ones. Going against the majority takes thick skin, but if you don't stand up for your opinions, who will?


Christopher Campbell, Nonfics, Movies.com

As someone who has experienced the feeling of being outcast for his opinions or ideas, I'm aware that there is a problem here. If I happen to actually see and engage with what's going on with "Grown Ups 2'" and find it to be hardly worse than most Hollywood comedies, I shouldn't be ganged up by the critical mass who, many without seeing it, think there's no room for anything positive to say about it. More of my experience, though, is with the documentary community and critics who can be kind of cliquish about certain movies, and if I have issues with those movies I'm meant to feel like I'm wrong and an idiot. With the Nashawaty, thing, not that I think it's a great review, but it seems the hate towards the review is that "it's not a review." But who is to say really what constitutes a legitimate film review? The other day someone attacked my writer's review of "The Unknown Known" for not being the right way to review a film. If everyone has the same opinions or things to say or ways to say it or to approach films, what need is there for so many of us? There are levels of writing quality and levels of film knowledge, but there should be no gauge to method or what's being communicated.

Richard Brody, the New Yorker

Fear of groupthink is in the air. Here at Criticwire early in the year, Sam Adams surveyed us about some critics who fret about literal and intentional groupthink -- the awarding of prizes by critics' groups -- and, soon thereafter, he devoted a column to another writer's charges (which he deftly refuted) that a collective wave of "grade inflation" is turning critics into lockstep zombie cheerleaders. The critics he cites aren't revealing a problem, they're inventing one -- and positing themselves as the solution. Expressing a fear of groupthink is a way of defining oneself as an independent thinker without doing any independent thinking. If everyone else thinks the same thing without noticing it, then Writer X, by noticing the fact, is thinking differently, even if he's not thinking anything else. The charge proves, above all, incuriosity: there's a terrific diversity of thought to be found among critics these days, along with the terrific quality of thought to go with it. The fact that some of the best among us are sometimes wrong, as about the terrible "Under the Skin"? At the very least, we're in a time of widespread and nuanced critical enthusiasm for movies that, at least superficially, don't resemble the others -- that are produced in unusual ways and approach familiar material with an attempt at originality. It's better than the way things were, when great but unusual movies were routinely victimized by widespread critical contempt; for all the ostensible gravitation around a pop-movie axis, there's a lot more curiosity and diversity in critical judgment now (partly because even the mainstream movie world is more eccentric than ever). As for "rockism," I don't get it, or its "popist" antithesis. It's common knowledge that Run-DMC is (collectively) the King of Rock (there is none higher), and they're down with Aerosmith, so I don't get (and never have gotten, not even in childhood) the contradiction in loving Marvin Gaye and Bob Dylan, Lesley Gore and the Allman Brothers. The fact that I've always thought of Bruce Springsteen as the Carl Sandburg to Dylan's Walt Whitman is another matter altogether.

Michael Sicinski, Nashville Scene, the Academic Hack

If we really want to have some fun-in-scarequotes, of course, we could take this consideration back to the Armond White/NYFCC ouster, which still seems to be less about heckling Steve McQueen ("did he or didn't he?!?!?!") in the mind of his supporters, and more about ostracizing White's cantankerous, anti-establishment voice. But so many of White's columns trade on drive-by swipes at films (or colleagues) he despises. When he actually mounts a careful, point-by-point argument, supported by evidence from the texts at hand, we are all the richer. Similarly, Austerlitz, a writer I respect, is too busy feeling defensive to ever really explain why "poptimism" is a problem as a critical lens, aside from the fact that it makes him feel out of touch (and seems designed to do so). Could we actually have some textual analysis, or some explication of why Lady Gaga is not really as worthwhile a cultural producer as the Cloud Nothings? Unless we get into specifics, we may as well be in the middle of Yankee Stadium again, steamrolling Donna Summer albums and chanting DISCO SUCKS. And does anyone really want to go there?

It's not that Austerlitz or White don't have points to make. But spewing invective against your peers with the indiscriminate throw of a lawn sprinkler adds little to a broader understanding of the artworks under consideration, or even the field of discourse. It does, however, start meaningless Twitter wars and make arts criticism look like inside-baseball of the lowest form. As for Nashawaty's review of "Under the Skin" and Breznican's complaints that it has been unfairly pilloried, I can only say (as I did on Twitter) that timing is everything. Perhaps Nashawaty firmly believes that "Under the Skin" (and "Dead Man" and "Gerry" and "Holy Smoke" and "The Machinist") were all little more than vanity projects by studio employees too nitwitted to realize how their public wants to see them (two all-beef Kidmans, special sauce, lettuce, cheese...), and that they represent a curse on hard-working Joe and Jane Popcorn Buckets across America. Be that as it may, such a review, which dismisses "Under the Skin" in a single paragraph, while using a "thinkpiece" model to trumpet the virtues of Hollywood predictability and star-power bankability, on the heels of the dismissal of film critic Owen Gleiberman (a man of wide-ranging taste) and EW's decision to essentially crowdsource its web content, is going to read a bit like a craven capitulation to corporate power. Maybe it was just me.

Peter Keough, Boston Globe, Critics a Go-Go

I think squabbles between critics leave everybody else cold and don't do much to elevate the status of the profession. It also adds to an unstated pressure to conform to an undefined universal opinion that might deter some from genuinely expressing what they really think.

Craig D. Lindsey, Nashville Scene, RogerEbert.com

For me, I think it was a convergence of Gleiberman getting laid off, the talk of EW paying blog writers with "prestige" and Nashawaty's ill-timed, not-quite-a-review review that led to other critics ganging up on him. Not to mention that Nashawaty's piece reeked of trolling. It's one thing to have a contrarian opinion, but it's another to have an opinion that doesn't appear to be properly thought out and is obviously out there to piss people off. The thing that irked me about Nashawaty's piece is that he failed to acknowledge that Johansson basically has a career because of doing indie films like "Manny & Lo," "Ghost World" and "Lost in Translation," among others. I'm not saying that critics aren't above taking out the pitchforks and torches from time to time. But, in this case, I feel a lot of us were wondering what the hell was the point of the piece, besides he hates it when movie stars go all indie? Also, is this what passes for criticism at EW  now that they finally got rid of Owen?

John Keefer, 51 Deep

There seems to be a need for a perfect score nowadays. If there is dissension in the ranks that could lead to a lower score on the Tomatometer then there is hell to pay. The critics whose work I enjoy are always actively engaged in discussing the film in front of them. They ignore the memo that seems to go around with the four or five talking points you are allowed to discuss in reviewing the film. Everywhere else, though, the concern is on having that high-percentage point of agreement. Of having the weekly box-office figures line up nicely with critical consensus, either with it so that the money that was spent seems justified or against it so the public can maintain its anti-critic stance, those nerds just don't like what the American people like. Typical. But echo chambers are never good. Wouldn't you be driven to madness if you were standing in a windowless room and every subtle inhalation was turned into a cacophony of noise that in no way resembles what a breath sounds like? You need varied opinion in order to have a discussion.

Mike McGranaghan, The Aisle Seat, Film Racket

This is a compelling question, and I wish I had a better answer. I personally haven't seen many examples of mean-spirited or hateful critical groupthink. On those rare occasions when I have, it's usually come from a small stable of pompous, self-entitled, hipper-than-thou blowhards who shouldn't be taken seriously in the first place.

Joey Magidson, The Awards Circuit, First Showing

This is a bit of a slippery slope for me. Essentially, I don't have a problem with critics breaking from the herd as it were, though I do have a problem with overt contrarianism. I genuinely believe that many of my colleagues are voicing their honest take when they have a minority opinion on something like "Under the Skin," for example, but I also know that there are some out there who look for movies with near universal praise and then go to town with their hatchet. To that effect, I don't think there's anything really to be done, and it's probably something that bothers us in the business more than readers, so I doubt there's much to be done that would matter in any real way

Sam Fragoso, Movie Mezzanine, RogerEbert.com

People didn't "gang up" on Nashawaty because he diverged from the herd. They took him to task for writing a five-paragraph review that didn't address the film at hand until the final sentences. EW hoopla aside, it is in the humble opinion of this writer that critical groupthink is only a pressing concern if you make it one. Sure, the aforementioned echo chamber can be sonically assaultive at times. But step away from the 140-character chatter for a moment and you'll find a wide variety of tastes, opinions and perspectives to read and listen to.

Adam Kempenaar, Filmspotting

It's entirely possible that critical groupthink is a problem, but I'll need a better example to consider than the response to Nashawaty's review of "Under the Skin," which alternately reads like the beginning of a potentially interesting takeout on what happens when mainstream actors go arthouse, or the case of a critic hating a movie and not being able to fully articulate why (we've all been there), so he padded three-fourths of his assessment with filler only sort of related to the movie he's ostensibly reviewing. I didn't see all the comments directed towards Nashawaty, and I don't doubt some were unnecessarily "cruel." But the overall negativity doesn't suggest to me that fellow critics couldn't deal with his daring to dislike the movie (personally, I loved it but can't wait to find and consider a smart takedown, as there are elements of the film I believe are ripe for it); they just couldn't abide a little more rigor not being applied to a movie that warrants it.

Peter Howell, Toronto Star

There's a perverse form of critical fascism which lionizes risk-taking filmmakers, musicians and other creatives yet demonizes anyone who dares stray from group orthodoxy in assessing these same artists. There's nothing more boring than everyone having the same opinion. I'd sooner read a well-written film or music review by someone whose thoughts differ from my own than a poorly written notice that checks off exactly the same boxes. I happen to disagree with Chris Nashawaty's assessment of "Under the Skin," a film I like a lot. But I will fight for his right to party, etc., as long as his opinions (and those of other critics) are honestly expressed and aren't just wilfully contrarian. The problem of groupthink (an Orwellian term first used in 1948) has always been with us and always will be -- I'll bet cavemen had pretty nasty things to say about each other's cave drawings. There's no denying, however, that the rise of social media has exacerbated the problem.

Luke Y. Thompson, Topless Robot

As of this writing, the link to Nashawaty's review is telling me to try back later, so I've no idea what he said or didn't say. But I feel like critical groupthink and this are different issues. I say this having been on both sides of Nashawaty-like issues. The first time, when I became syndicated in the Village Voice after the Voice and New Times merged and various New York-based critics decried how awful that was, and by extension I was. The second time, I saw LA CityBeat get rid of all its local reviewers and syndicate out of Portland or somewhere like that, which struck me as insane given that LA is home base for the movies, needs local critics, and the fees freelancers were getting paid by CityBeat were about the price of a movie ticket anyway, and surely not some huge expense. I called them out on it, though I tried in the latter case not to make it personal toward the reviewers themselves, unless they made egregious errors -- which they sometimes did. In the case of me in the Voice, many people made it very personal. But it's been six years and I'm still here.

It's natural for people to be mad at Entertainment Weekly for both firing Owen Gleiberman and soliciting work-for-free from readers. I suspect Nashawaty is taking the brunt of that, though he presumably has nothing to do with either. Not having seen his piece, my only take is that it should be judged on its own merits or lack thereof. I'm glad his co-workers are defending him.

As far as "is there critical groupthink"? Yeah, there's some. And if you think otherwise, tell me how many people you know who will unabashedly defend "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" on its merits. or even acknowledge that it has any (conversely, tell somebody -- anybody -- that you hate "Schindler's List"). How to prevent it? Make the review embargo of a given movie the same for everyone so that all the reviews drop at the same time. And make it pretty shortly after the first screening so nobody has time to discuss the movie with friends, because they're in a hurry to run home and write. I'm not saying that's a good idea. I'm just saying that might lessen perceived groupthink.

Josh Spiegel, Sound on Sight

I don't know if I would qualify critical groupthink as a "pressing" concern, as the question states, but I do think it is an issue that manifests in various ways in most discussion about film. As always, the recent news makes it seem more obvious to me that the biggest issue is that there's not much money provided in the furtherance of incisive film criticism, no matter how much passion is put forth in its creation. What I find potentially problematic regarding groupthink is not that it exists -- a majority of critics reaching a consensus regarding one film or another doesn't mean that all of the criticism about that film will be repetitive and lacking in insight—but that it swirls often around aspects unconnected to an actual film. The example cited in the question appears mostly to suffer from poor timing after news of layoffs at Entertainment Weekly; I wonder if the reaction would've been similarly aggrieved if, say, Owen Gleiberman was still working at the publication as of this writing. Whatever the case, I don't know how to lessen the effects of groupthink except, perhaps, to attempt being more circumspect. (I say that in spite of almost certainly failing at circumspection on various issues; this is as much a lesson I need to learn as anyone else does.)

Q: What is the best movie in theaters?

A: "Under the Skin"

Other movies receiving multiple votes: "The Grand Budapest Hotel," "Captain America: The Winter Soldier"


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1 Comment

  • Skippy | April 8, 2014 3:57 PMReply

    Off the main topic, but--Dear Mr. Sicinski: Disco Demolition Night took place in Comiskey Park, not Yankee Stadium.

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