When critics bemoan the state of Hollywood movies, they are also implicitly - and unfairly - criticising the film-going public who flock to see them, says Lee Marshall
The back-to-back releases of Spider-Man 3, Shrek The Third and Pirates Of The Caribbean: At World's End have generated a spate of op-eds and blog rants, most of them lamenting the paucity of ideas, playsafe conservatism and corporate cynicism that is seen to reign supreme in Hollywood these days.
But when you scratch the surface of this debate, there is a sense in which it is as critical of today's audiences as it is of today's studio executives. After all, ordinary punters have been buying tickets to see these sequels in pretty impressive numbers.
Once again, as happened with The Da Vinci Code, critics find themselves raging not only against the direness of studio product but also at the apparent readiness of the public to lap the stuff up.
In July last year, The New York Times critic AO Scott addressed the problem in an article subtitled, 'Critics and the masses disagree about film choices'. (Yep, and bears don't generally avail themselves of portaloos).
Scott was perfectly right when he stated that financial success does not invalidate negative critical judgment, but his conclusion was both weak and pompous (I actually like a lot of Scott's op-ed pieces).
'We don't go to the movies for fun'
Setting himself up as a spokesman for the critical corps, Scott solemnly declared that 'our love of movies is sometimes expressed as a mistrust of the people who make and sell them, and even of the people who see them. We take entertainment very seriously, which is to say that we don't go to the movies for fun. Or for money. We do it for you.'
Personally, though I too make a living as a film critic, I do go to the movies for fun. I also go to be emotionally ravished and even, occasionally, intellectually stimulated.
I certainly don't see myself as some self-sacrificing public servant, though I'm happy when I'm able to nudge someone into seeing a gem they might otherwise have missed, or if I'm able to prevent them wasting valuable time and money on dross.
I also happen to have had some of my best and toughest conversations about cinema with non-specialists, and though such passionate laymen are a minority of the filmgoing public, I'm still not convinced that even mostonce-a-year cinemagoers are sheep being herded into multiplex pens by the major studios, as most critics seem to assume.
The long-running debate about critics versus the masses is based on a false premise: that there are active, thinking viewers of a type that could not possibly enjoy a film like The Da Vinci Code, and passive viewers who will see anything provided the p&a budget is high enough.
In the most engaging chapter of his new book, Understanding Audiences And The Film Industry (BFI), Roy Stafford rightly locates the origins of the 'passive audience' model - which is regularly wheeled out in discussions of the influence of violent films - in the paternalistic attitudes of the post-Victorian ruling classes: 'There was evident concern ... that (the cinema) would become a major source of attraction for the working-classes, and for women and children of all classes - all easily susceptible to its excitement and influence.'
What AO Scott and other critics who are baffled by the box-office results of films such as the Pirates Of The Caribbean series seem to forget is that just because millions of people go to see a film, it doesn't mean that millions of people like it.
'Don't waste your money'
You only have to check out some of the user comments for Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest on Imdb.com to realise that plenty of paying customers were as disappointed as the professional critics. Headers such as 'Don't waste your money', 'The first movie I ever walked out of' and 'Worse than Bicentennial Man' are eloquent.
True, the naysayers are in a minority, albeit a large one, and the film still scores an average to high user rating of 7.4, based on almost 50,000 votes.
But three things are worth pointing out. First, people will go to see an event movie purely because it is an event movie, regardless of the critical consensus.
Second, Hollywood may have become complacent, but there is no real evidence that audiences are following suit.
And third, as blogger and MIT comparative media studies boss Henry Jenkins points out in a stimulating post on the Pirates franchise (www.henryjenkins.org), 'one should never trust the opinion of an established film critic about a movie with a number after its title'.