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Worried Critics Don't Smile, 'Variety's Peter Bart Gives Them Something to Laugh At

Photo of Sam Adams By Sam Adams | Criticwire February 18, 2014 at 9:36AM

The onetime industry Bible is increasingly dominated by clickbait, but for old-school trolling, look to a master.
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Just another one of those fuddy-duddy movies only critics love.
Just another one of those fuddy-duddy movies only critics love.

Since Variety made the transition to an all-digital format last March, the in-depth industry reporting on which its venerable brand rests has increasingly done battle with shoddily investigated, featherweight clickbait like Alex Stedman's research-agnostic article on the results of a poll purporting to show that "faith-driven consumers" are hostile to Darren Aronofsky's forthcoming Noah. After reading the poll question -- “As a Faith Driven Consumer, are you satisfied with a Biblically themed movie -- designed to appeal to you -- which replaces the Bible's core message with one created by Hollywood?" -- the 98 percent of respondents who answered "No" is less surprising than the 2 percent who said "Yes."

But for some old-school trolling, Variety's Editorial Director Peter Bart is still the champ, as Erik Childress points out in a sharp essay at RogerEbert.com called "Ever Try to Make a Film Critic Smile During Awards Season?"

In the column to which Childress is responding, Bart sets up a facile and tiresome distinction between "the critics" and, well, let's just call them "normal people," which in Bart's back-of-the-envelope calculus also includes Academy voters. 

A good friend of mine who was a film critic once confided that critics see filmgoing as work, not entertainment. Their reviews (and nominations) seem to support that hypothesis. 12 Years a Slave (around $40 million since opening Oct. 18) has been the top choice of most critics associations. The National Society of Film Critics picked the aforementioned Inside Llewyn Davis (less then [sic] $12 million since Dec. 6) as the year’s best film. It's safe to say the films that critics respond to each year consistently rank higher on technique than on entertainment value. Ever try toget [sic] a critic to smile?

The ungrounded assumptions and logical leaps in that paragraph alone could fill volumes. (Let's just say Bart's argument seems to have been vetted as rigorously as his typo-laden copy.) His running assumption that the lack of a "clear frontrunner" -- needless to say, Bart doesn't mention how he determines said lack -- indicates a lack of enthusiasm for the films in contention is so easily smashed by the box-office returns of GravityThe Wolf of Wall Street and American Hustle that it's almost not worth responding to. A lucid observer, one without an axe to grind, would sooner conclude the lack of a frontrunner indicates a surfeit, not a dearth, of great, well-loved movies. Here's Childress, running the numbers:

If Academy voters are looking for the kind of escapist fare that somehow eludes the pleasure buttons of film critics, then why were eight of the nine Best Picture nominees in alignment with what the consensus of critical organizations honored throughout December and January? Thirty-five of the top 44 nominations (including Directing, Acting and Writing) were in sync with what critics already voted on. The Academy is actually far more in touch with the critics' mindset than the top dollar favorites that Bart automatically assumes the public would choose given their own ballot.

Bart's opposition between "entertainment" and "technique" is obvious nonsense, but it's pernicious as well, especially coming from what at least once was considered the industry's Bible. (What would this entertainment-seeking, technique-averse Bart have made of the younger version of himself who helped make the gloomy, laff-deprived The Godfather?) As for the idea that critics don't smile: Dude, have you seen the reviews for The LEGO Movie


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