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Who Criticizes the Critics? Existimatum, That's Who.

by Sam Adams
September 18, 2013 4:58 PM
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Keeping up with the hundreds, if not thousands, of new movie reviews published each week is a full-time job (and no, you can't have it). While review aggregators like Rotten Tomatoes, Metacritic, Critics Round Up and (ahem) Criticwire boil the conventional wisdom down to a numerical score, they omit by design the insight and pleasure of reading a single, well-written review. But which one?

Enter Existimatum, whose name, their about page tells us, "is the nominative neuter singular form of the perfect passive participle of the Latin word existimo, which means to estimate, judge, evaluate, consider, or -- in the context of the arts -- to review or critique." What that means, for those who never got past "Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres," that the site pores over the reviews of a given new release and assigns each a score in four categories: Quality of Writing, Reasonableness, Spoiler Avoidance and Presentation. Those scores are then fed into "a proprietary statistical algorithm hatched out of M.I.T." to produce the ExistiMetric, an overall ranking  that "mutes the opinions of unreliable critics, thereby providing you with the world's most credible compound quantitative assessment of a film." At the moment, Blue Caprice leads the pack with an ExistiMetric score of 793 (out of 1000), while Mademoiselle C trails with a middling 583. 

Existimatum was founded by Peter Kern, a recent law school graduate who works as a prosecutor for the city of Orem, Utah, and his brother, K.C., an MBA student at M.I.T. In an email to Criticwire, he explained that the idea grew out of a scene in the movie Heckler where Jamie Kennedy confronts the writers of several especially vitriolic criqitues, and the collective critical response to Man of Steel.

"I am a huge fan of Superman and eagerly awaited the film," Kern explains. "In reading multiple reviews, I saw so many bad reviews that the idea for the site began to grow. One review went so far as to say that the film's 'bloated budget could have gone a long way toward curing cancer' as an aside.  There was a lot that I wanted to say about that review, but there was no platform."

The idea, Kern says, "was to make a site that combined the satire of the The Onion with the usefulness of Rotten Tomatoes." A team of 10 writers read reviews and provide critiques, and Kern edits each before it is published. "The ExistiMetric," he says, "was a natural outgrowth of the idea once we actually got into the daily work of reviewing reviews."

Given the total subjectivity of Existimatum's "quantitative" categories -- one person's diamond-etched prose is another's pretentious drivel, and I for one sometimes prefer my criticism unreasonable -- it's more intriguing for now to explore the four films for which Kern has added the extra step of reviewing the reviews themselves. Stephen Farber's top-ranked review of Prisoners "flows from one point to the next, never lingering too long and never giving any aspect of the film short shrift." William Bibbiani, by contrast, "milks and misuses language worse than a second-grader with a bad English teacher." 

Would it be petty to point out that Existimatum is not itself error-free? That, for example, that "word-count" does not take a hyphen, that the sixth sentence on the "about" page drops the "r" from "your," and that "accolading," while technically a word, is not an especially euphonious one? Probably. And there's no question that those who critique for a living ought to be able to take what they dish out. (Please leave any complaints about or corrections of this post in the comments.) But then, that goes for those who critique them as well. Who watches those who watch the watchmen?

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  • Alex | October 23, 2013 3:02 AMReply

    As a bit of harmless fun, there's a lot to be said for a site that takes the p*ss out of cinema reviews, possibly the largest receptacle for pomposity on the planet.
    However, when it states its intention to "mute(s) the opinions of unreliable critics, thereby providing you with the world's most credible compound quantitative assessment of a film" alarm bells should start ringing. There's not a lot of joy (or sense) in this Stalinist "mission to explain" particularly as you can't apply one rule (or ten critics' rules - ten for f*ck's sake!) to reviews that range from Sight & Sound (in the UK) analysis to a quick tabloid newspaper pointer as to what's at the cinema this week.
    However, the most unpalatable aspect of the site is the lack of accountability. Some of the comments are little more than anonymous personal attacks on critics who at least had the decency to put their names to their reviews, however bad or good they were. Essentially it's trolling, albeit it trolling justified by Latin pretensions. Looking at a smattering of the critiques offered, it seems the site's guardians are looking for long-winded analysis (the longer the review, the better, it seems) over jokey exuberance. I for one, prefer the latter. In fact, the line that the Man of Steel's 'bloated budget could have gone a long way toward curing cancer' made me laugh...and also said a lot more about the film than a hundred in-depth broadsheet opinion pieces.
    PS I find it rather had to believe that the site's guardians have actually seen all the films (many are press screenings only) that they're upbraiding critics for, particularly in terms of "reasonableness".

  • Edward Copeland | September 19, 2013 2:44 PMReply

    Does this site penalize reviews for being subjective? I get so tired of telling people that there isn't right and wrong in criticism of entertainment works. They all are opinion. People get upset if a critic dislikes something they enjoyed but they fail to grasp that neither is wrong. You can't decide a movie's objective work the way you can scientific facts. Most critics don't slam films just because they feel like doing so.

  • Eowyn Rohan | September 18, 2013 5:11 PMReply

    Why on earth indulge the amateur hacks... after all, if any self-professed "Film Critic" has never made any contribution towards Film Production, then they have minimal competence and credibility when offering a personal subjective opinion towards the creative output of those who have.

    Perhaps a more representative job which reflects their latent skill level is that of a short order cook within a fast food cafe.

  • Boone | September 19, 2013 3:43 PM

    Eowyn, you seemed to have touched a nerve, here.

    That usually means the assertion has a large degree of accuracy.

  • Edward Copeland | September 19, 2013 2:54 PM

    To say that only people with experience in film production, has "minimal competence and credibility when offering a personal subjective opinion towards the creative output of those who have" must be one of the most ridiculous statements I've read in awhile. When we are discussing the best and real critics, many of them probably have more knowledge about film history and have seen more films ever made than some people with film production experience. When Pauline Kael would be asked "If you know so much about movies, why don't you make one?" or a similar variation, her reply was the perfect one. "You don't have to know how to make an omelet to know if it tastes good." As I said in another comment, all opinions are subjective. You can't judge a creative work by any sort of objective measure.

  • Tom | September 18, 2013 7:02 PM

    For the record, Jay: If you think that Sam "looks like a professional dick" but have no problem with Eowyn's completely mindless, kneejerk assertions that "you can't criticize unless you've made a film" and that "critics are more qualified to be short order cooks," then you're not thinking very well. If you need the fallacies of his way of thinking to be explained to you, then I strongly suggest a remedial course in critical thinking.

    Sam pointed out the obvious. If you think that doing so makes someone look like a "professional dick," then I feel quite sorry for you.

  • Tom | September 18, 2013 6:58 PM

    Jay - Based on your comments it's actually pretty clear that you're the one who doesn't quite get the role and significance of the critic.

    Yes, critics can be pompous and think too much of themselves - but that's true of some people in any profession.

    Most of the negativity towards critics comes from the fact that they have the audacity to know what they're talking about (many critics have actually *gasp* spent time studying the history and theory of the medium(s) they write about) and because they sometimes diss things that we like. It doesn't matter how well-reasoned their opinions are (and some critics are certainly much better at justifying themselves than others) - it's simply a matter of whether or not they agree with us.

    But to think that criticism is "built completely upon the concept of tearing down somebody else's work" is stupid. To think that a critic's worth comes down to how often they agree with us or not is also to misunderstand the role of a critic.

    Mind you, there are some critics and some types of criticism that are ripe for satire - but to dismiss the entire profession is sheer ignorance. (Should I mention the irony of you "tearing down someone else's work" by expressing such malevolence towards critics?)

    Criticism is essential to the arts. This has been established for several hundred years. I'm sorry that you missed the memo.

  • Tom | September 18, 2013 6:45 PM

    There are definitely good critics and bad critics, but "has been involved in film production" isn't a good criteria for discerning the good from the bad.

    I know we all like to pretend in this internet age that "my opinion is just as meaningful as any critics'" but, in reality, that's simply not the case. The best critics have actually taken the time to study the history and technique of film. They are also able to express their reactions well and to share their knowledge in the process. They will, ideally, be able to say things more meaningful (and less subjective) than "it was boring" or "it rocked."

    Of course, you definitely don't have to work professionally or write for an official site/paper to be a good critic/viewer - but there rather decidedly is a difference between a knowledgeable opinion and a less knowledgeable opinion.

    So your friend's declaration that the movie that dared to deviate from the Hollywood norm "totally sucked balls" is not as interesting or as meaningful as the reviewer's essay that actually attempts to engage with the film and to consider why it does the things it does. Mind you, your friend's opinion is just as LEGITIMATE as the critic's opinion - but it's of less interest to anyone else.

    ...But yeah. In short, people who use the "critics' opinions don't mean squat if they haven't made a film" line aren't really thinking about the implications of the things they say.

    But I'm sure this will fall on deaf ears. Most people simply can't get over the fact that "Ebert dissed my favorite movie and that movie ended up making hundreds of millions of dollars, therefore Ebert must be an idiot!!!!!" Plus: "Critics think they're always right but they're really just giving their opinion!!!1!1!!!1!"

  • jay russell | September 18, 2013 6:40 PM

    You sound like a professional dick, and if you hate it don't read it simple as that. It's a satire of an industry built completely upon the concept of tearing down somebody else's work with little or no repercussion, and if you don't get it then that's on you.

  • Sam Adams | September 18, 2013 5:30 PM

    For an idiotic objection, this one sure is persistent. By that logic, no one who watches a movie is allowed to have an opinion unless they're directly involved in the film business. You picked a good place to make your case, though.

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