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In Defense of Rotten Tomatoes

Filmmaker Martin Scorsese thinks that the reviews site is ruining film criticism. He's wrong.

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On Tuesday, Martin Scorsese graced the online pages of The Hollywood Reporter
with a guest column on the way that America judges films now. He’s not happy with the rise of box office sales as the arbiter of a film’s worth. This process has been on the rise since the 1980s, as he concedes, but he links the instant production of success/failure data to other types of rating, too. Market research outlet Cinemascore and online aggregator Rotten Tomatoes are rating movies “the way you’d rate a horse at the racetrack,” he writes. Meanwhile, real movie criticism is dying out. The result is an ungenerous viewership who are not seeing movies fairly.

According to Scorsese, Rotten Tomatoes peddles “a tone that is hostile to serious filmmakers.” The people contributing there are “engaged in pure judgmentalism” rather than considered argument. They are “people who seem to take pleasure in seeing films and filmmakers rejected, dismissed and in some cases ripped to shreds.” Scorsese broadens his point with reference to Mother!, the Aronofsky movie which he loved but was panned by Rotten Tomato-ers and professional movie critics alike, including me.

This style of fogeyism all feels a little rich coming from a filmmaker who owes his own career to the collapse of the old Hollywood studio system. Scorsese is one of the key beneficiaries of the director-centered filmmaking that emerged after the five major movie studios of the “golden age” ceded control of production. Hollywood is a place in constant flux. But to take his column on good faith, the crux of his argument seems to be that Rotten Tomatoes is promoting the worst of democratized criticism, rather than the best. The chief problem, he thinks, is in the pace of this reviewing.

“Good films by real filmmakers aren’t made to be decoded, consumed or instantly comprehended,” Scorsese writes. “They’re not even made to be instantly liked.” This is a fair point. When a new movie comes out, the instantaneous conversion of viewer reception into data via Cinemascore and online takes is bound to be warped in favor of whatever idea comes to the reader first, rather than whatever idea is best. Film critics are, I suppose, a bit more practiced at slowing down their reactions. Box office ratings are certainly not a good measure of how well-made a movie is, and there’s merit to the argument that insta-criticism functions more like box office data than like measured appreciation.

But the problem with Scorsese’s point is that Rotten Tomatoes, well, mostly gets it right. Admittedly I’m biased—I use Rotten Tomatoes and love it. For example, in his column Scorsese cites “The Wizard of Oz, It’s a Wonderful Life, Vertigo and Point Blank” as movies that were “rejected on first release and went on to become classics.” The idea is that Hollywood’s hostile viewership is not giving movies a fair chance, and sometimes the best movies need multiple chances to catch on. But these four movies are rated 99%, 94%, 97%, and 97% “fresh” at Rotten Tomatoes, respectively. Those are pitch-perfect ratings! I couldn’t have done better myself.

The question then becomes, are the scores on Rotten Tomatoes just reflective of the history of criticism, and thus of conventional opinion? Or are the Rotten Tomatoes contributors themselves the critics who prop up these reputations, and thus pave the way for smarter conversations about film online? Scorsese sees them as mere responders-to and parroters-of film reviewing. I think they’re doing their own real criticism. There’s an element to Scorsese’s column that feels simply anti-reviewer. Movies are “just made,” he says, “because the person behind the camera had to make them.” This might be true, but it’s a truth seen from the filmmaker’s side. Critics feel similar promptings, I think. We just write reviews because we just do, because they’re things that we feel have to be said. That goes for staff critics and online writers alike.

Rotten Tomatoes is a repository of some of the best nonprofessional film criticism on the internet. Take this observation about Mean Streets (1973, 85% fresh), by Scott M.: “Takes the gangster movies from the golden age and kicks it up a notch.” Spot on. Ian B. continues the exegesis, explaining the plot issues that hamper this movie: “De Niro keeps screwing up, Keitel keeps trying to bail him out. That’s about it.” It’s not the highflown prose of the New York Times, but these are accurate assessments.

There’s also a particularly Rotten Tomatoes-ish vein of criticism that mainstream reviewing lacks, which is distance. On the Mean Streets page, for example, “super user” Daniel P. describes how it feels to watch the movie at a distance of “this many years.” Scorsese’s subsequent career made the casting into something of a red herring: “if you’re a De Niro fan, don’t go into this thinking he’s the star! I only knew a little about the movie before watching, and it took a while (maybe too long) for me to really invest in Harvey Keitel’s character, Charlie, whose movie it actually is—I don’t blame the filmmaker or Keitel for that though, that’s my fault.”

But it isn’t Daniel P.’s fault. He is actually offering up an interesting statement: a perspective on the early films of Martin Scorsese by a viewer whose reception of those films has been overwhelmed by the later features of his career—features that include Robert De Niro’s face in every frame. And it speaks to a certain weakness in the Scorsese oeuvre, notably repetitiveness. I don’t know about you, but I’ve had it with soundtracks by The Rolling Stones. I’ve had it with shots of a smirking Leonardo di Caprio. And I’ve specifically had it because the repetitions of Scorsese’s later career empty his early innovations of their transgressive power. It’s difficult to find space to talk about Mean Streets in a magazine review, because we have to think about new things in light of the old, not old things in light of the new. Rotten Tomatoes is a repository for analyses like these.

Scorsese’s column is all the more confusing because his movies are pretty easy to love. Not all of them have been well-reviewed, but movies like Taxi Driver and Raging Bull bathe in the kind of edgy machismo that pins posters to the walls of college students. But again, that speaks to the innovation-turned-convention that the Rotten Tomatoes critic of Mean Streets was getting at. It makes sense that a famous auteur would loathe “crowdsourced” movie criticism on the internet, because it undermines the predictability of the relationship between director, studio, distributor, and critic. It’s unpredictable, anarchic, and informal. But that doesn’t make Martin Scorsese right, or the anonymous online critics wrong.