I have serious doubts that anyone misses the days when they were back in school and getting graded on their work. I could be wrong, but I don’t think so.
When I graduated from school, I thought to myself, “Great, no more grades!” That was before my first sneak preview. As any filmmaker can tell you, previews are brutal experiences. Sometimes, they’re truly damaging, as in the case of RKO’s infamous Pomona preview of Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons. Studio executives used negative audience reactions from that screening as a rationale for butchering Welles’ original cut of a picture that is now widely acknowledged as a compromised near-masterpiece.
Sometimes, when everyone is working together, test screenings can help answer some very basic questions. Was this piece of information clear enough to the audience? Was the timing right with this scene? What is throwing the audience off at that moment, and why isn’t it landing? Small, extremely specific issues can be clarified.
And then, once the movie is made, there are the reviews. Like everyone else, I’ve received my share of positive and negative reviews. The negative ones obviously aren’t much fun, but they come with the territory. However, I will say that in the past, when some critics had problems with one of my pictures, they would generally respond in a thoughtful manner, with actual positions that they felt obliged to argue.
Over the past 20 years or so, many things have changed in cinema. Those changes have occurred at every level, from the way movies are made to the way they’re seen and discussed. Many of these changes have had an upside and a downside. For instance, digital technology has made it possible for young people to make movies in an immediate way, with complete independence; on the other hand, the disappearance of 35mm projection from the majority of first-run theaters is a real loss.
There is another change that, I believe, has no upside whatsoever. It began back in the ‘80s when the “box office” started to mushroom into the obsession it is today. When I was young, box office reports were confined to industry journals like The Hollywood Reporter. Now, I’m afraid that they’ve become … everything. Box office is the undercurrent in almost all discussions of cinema, and frequently it’s more than just an undercurrent. The brutal judgmentalism that has made opening-weekend grosses into a bloodthirsty spectator sport seems to have encouraged an even more brutal approach to film reviewing. I’m talking about market research firms like Cinemascore, which started in the late ‘70s, and online “aggregators” like Rotten Tomatoes, which have absolutely nothing to do with real film criticism. They rate a picture the way you’d rate a horse at the racetrack, a restaurant in a Zagat’s guide, or a household appliance in Consumer Reports. They have everything to do with the movie business and absolutely nothing to do with either the creation or the intelligent viewing of film. The filmmaker is reduced to a content manufacturer and the viewer to an unadventurous consumer.
These firms and aggregators have set a tone that is hostile to serious filmmakers — even the actual name Rotten Tomatoes is insulting. And as film criticism written by passionately engaged people with actual knowledge of film history has gradually faded from the scene, it seems like there are more and more voices out there engaged in pure judgmentalism, people who seem to take pleasure in seeing films and filmmakers rejected, dismissed and in some cases ripped to shreds. Not unlike the increasingly desperate and bloodthirsty crowd near the end of Darren Aronofsky’s mother!
Before I actually saw mother!, I was extremely disturbed by all of the severe judgments of it. Many people seemed to want to define the film, box it in, find it wanting and condemn it. And many seemed to take joy in the fact that it received an F grade from Cinemascore. This actually became a news story — mother! had been “slapped” with the “dreaded” Cinemascore F rating, a terrible distinction that it shares with pictures directed by Robert Altman, Jane Campion, William Friedkin and Steven Soderbergh.
After I had a chance to see mother!, I was even more disturbed by this rush to judgment, and that’s why I wanted to share my thoughts. People seemed to be out for blood, simply because the film couldn’t be easily defined or interpreted or reduced to a two-word description. Is it a horror movie, or a dark comedy, or a biblical allegory, or a cautionary fable about moral and environmental devastation? Maybe a little of all of the above, but certainly not just any one of those neat categories.
Is it a picture that has to be explained? What about the experience of watching mother!? It was so tactile, so beautifully staged and acted — the subjective camera and the POV reverse angles, always in motion … the sound design, which comes at the viewer from around corners and leads you deeper and deeper into the nightmare … the unfolding of the story, which very gradually becomes more and more upsetting as the film goes forward. The horror, the dark comedy, the biblical elements, the cautionary fable — they’re all there, but they’re elements in the total experience, which engulfs the characters and the viewers along with them. Only a true, passionate filmmaker could have made this picture, which I’m still experiencing weeks after I saw it.
Good films by real filmmakers aren’t made to be decoded, consumed or instantly comprehended. They’re not even made to be instantly liked. They’re just made, because the person behind the camera had to make them. And as anyone familiar with the history of movies knows all too well, there is a very long list of titles — The Wizard of Oz, It’s a Wonderful Life, Vertigo and Point Blank, to name just a few — that were rejected on first release and went on to become classics. Tomatometer ratings and Cinemascore grades will be gone soon enough. Maybe they’ll be muscled out by something even worse.
Or maybe they’ll fade away and dissolve in the light of a new spirit in film literacy. Meanwhile, passionately crafted pictures like mother! will continue to grow in our minds.