Critics should be brilliant and witty, not reliable…

6 May 2013

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Peter Bradshaw is The Guardian's film critic. He has written three books, the latest 'Night of Triumph' was published in 2013.

Critics get any number of questions fired at them online, via Twitter, or Facebook or even through the quaint medium of face-to-face. Most are welcome. Some are not. The most baffling question — maybe it more accurate to call it a comment, or a peculiarly passive-aggressive complaint — comes in response to your or anyone’s review of a certain film. “Ah,” they will say, “but what percentage did it get on Rotten Tomatoes?” Or possibly: “Ah, but do you know what percentage it got on Rotten Tomatoes?” The look on my face at this stage is generally like that of the High Court Judge in a murder trial who was reportedly asked by the jury what the defendant’s date of birth was, so that the man’s star-sign could be factored in to their deliberations.

If someone seriously raises the question of what approval percentage a film gets on the Rotten Tomatoes website, my instinctive reaction is to check their forehead for signs of a lobotomy. Are they kidding? The Rotten Tomatoes site is possibly valuable in that it may direct the user to individual reviews, by individual sentient human beings, which can be judged on their merits by individual readers. But the idea of mulching all those reviews together and whisking them into a bland fruit-smoothie of crowdsourced collective opinion? Please.

It comes down to what people expect of critics in the first place. And here’s another moment when I am overwhelmed with grumpy resentment. Very often, critics will be described as “reliable”, or, perhaps “unreliable”, by which the commenter apparently means that the critic’s opinions by and large coincide, or differ, from the commenter’s. In my time I have been condemned as “unreliable” or praised for being the opposite.

“Reliable”? You mean like a VW Passat? What are you talking about? I have been reading critics all my adult life: Samuel Johnson, George Steiner, Pauline Kael, Clive James, Robert Hughes, Adam Mars-Jones, Christopher Hitchens. Even as a teenager, I never expected critics to be anything as banal as “reliable”. I expected them to be brilliant, witty, entertaining, passionate. I relied on them for stimulus. I certainly didn’t want them to be a trusty consumer guide, reassuringly backing up my own views.

Of course I’m just being curmudgeonly. All critics are like this, occasionally. I shall now put on a DVD of Singin’ In The Rain to get myself back into a sunny mood.