Often, it seems experts and critics are at odds with the general public as to what works of art are good; many well-received films have performed poorly at the box office despite marketing, for example, while many blockbusters have been derided by film critics. What is going on, in these cases? Is it just a difference of opinion, and if so, why is there such a role as a "film critic"? Or do critics detect quality that the average moviegoer can't, and do they see through the presumably shallow pleasures enjoyed by moviegoers? How is it even possible to tell the nature of the disagreement in these situations?

The question of the relation between the judgments of professional critics and those of 'people on the street', as it were, especially with respect to works of mass culture such as movies and--albeit, I think, to a much lesser extent--pop songs, television, and also literature (which I think, even in its 'literary' as opposed to 'pulp' or 'genre' incarnations, is now properly considered part of mass culture)--is a very interesting question, which raises general issues about the reception of art (including 'high' art such as photography, painting, sculpture, theater, etc.), as well as about the relation between art and commerce.

It is true that many 'well-received' films have not performed 'well' at the box office--if by 'well' here one means something like making the list of top-ten grossing films now widely referred to by media outlets (a relatively new phenomenon, I might add)--despite receiving considerable critical acclaim. Olivier Assayas's five-hour film, Carlos, which, if I remember correctly, was judged in the annual year-end round-up published by Film Comment to be the best film of 2010--an accurate judgment, to my mind, for what it's worth--had miniscule box office receipts. However, it should be noted, first, that the film wasn't widely released (even the shortened version of the film wasn't widely released), and hence its gross box-office receipts aren't an especially good guide to how well it did at the box office: more telling would be its per-screen average. But other films lauded by critics don't even make it into theaters outside of New York City, Los Angeles, and a few other select metropolitan areas; still other films are never released for theatrical distribution. So one reason that films lauded as the best of any given year may not do well at the box office as others is because many of them don't even have the opportunity to draw box-office receipts. By contrast, since the Hollywood movie industry is an industry--albeit one that also produces works of art, such as, for example, Wall-E--its eye is on the bottom line (as are the eyes of studios who produce shows for television, which are, arguably, vehicles for bringing advertisements to the attention of potential consumers), and its aim is to sell as many tickets as possible, by appealing to as many people as possible.

Historically, however, 'new' or innovative art has been a hard sell--the booing of the ballet Afternoon of a Faun is a classic example, as is the general public bewilderment at the work of the 'Impressionists', shows of whose work are now art museum cash cows, 'blockbusters', even: consequently, it is unsurprising that studios would not want to risk the expense of putting innovative, experimental work into even relatively wide release--unless the filmmaker is very well known, vide Terence Malick--and not recouping their investment. Moreover, while many 'big' studio movies--e.g., summer 'tent pole' movies--have been criticized, and, I think, rightly so, by critics for not being very good despite selling lots of tickets, there are 'blockbusters', such as the movies in the first Star Wars tetralogy, or Jaws, or, more recently Avatar, that are recognized by critics as interesting and important works of art in certain respects as well. (To be sure, in the past three decades, there has been something of a backlash against the 'blockbusterization' of Hollywood, which reflects both a nostalgia for the 'rebel' filmmakers of the seventies, when innovative film was made within the studio system, as well as a concern that too close an eye on the bottom line is impeding the development of film as an art form--a worry that I think is misplaced--or leading viewers to form expectations for film that make it difficult for more 'difficult' films to receive an audience--a worry that may be in order, but which applies, mutatis mutandis to literature, without any especially deletorious effects for that art form, although the major difference is that it is far more expensive to create a film than a novel, although even that is beginning to change as technology changes.)

I don't think, however, that in cases when there is a wide divergence between critical assessment of a movie and its gross revenues (from the box office, DVD sales, rentals, etc.), that this reflects a genuine disagreement between critics and the general public. Critics may be assessing whether the work in question is a good or interesting example of the art of film; it's not clear that the large crowds who make a film a 'blockbuster' see it because they want to see the development of the medium of film: they may just want to be entertained, and a more 'difficult', 'experimental' film may just not be very entertaining. (One has to be in the right frame of mind to attend to Meek's Cutoff; one doesn't have to be mentally prepared in the same way to see Planet of the Apes. This is not, of course, to say that there weren't many great things about both the original and the remake of Planet of the Apes.) Grosses simply track how many people paid to see a film in some format; they can, but needn't track the quality of a film. But critics don't, I think, assess every film in the same way: even 'highbrow' critics do not reflexively prefer 'difficult', 'experimental' film to 'genre' film: indeed, to my mind, in judging a film, a good critic should take into account what kind of work a film is meant to be. And there are, of course, different ways of being a critic--although, sadly, there are fewer and fewer film critics, just as there are fewer and fewer book critics, being employed these days. And the merits of a critic, are, I think, as variable as the merits of films: certain critics may appeal to certain people, other critics to others.

But let a thousand flowers bloom, I say: let there be different types of critics, different types of films, and let them be as accessible as possible to the viewing public!

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