Last week I was lifted from obscurity to semiobscurity when the website Vocativ announced that I was the most reliable movie critic in the country. “Screening for Hacks: America’s Movie Critics, Rated” is based on a formula that writers Adam K. Raymond and Matan Gilat concocted using numerical data from Metacritic, one of those sites that harvests reviews, converts them into number values, and averages these to rank new releases. I’ve always thought such sites are ridiculous, not to mention a little demeaning: as film editor I try to persuade my contributors that we’re writing literature, not consumer advice. But we all know that’s baloney—how can you be a man of letters when people keep turning your letters into numbers?
Raymond and Gilat decided to stand the Metacritic model on its head and, based on the site’s user rankings of movies, come up with scores for the critics instead. “Because professional critics get paid to judge everyone else’s work, we thought it was high time someone flipped the script on them,” they write. “Going purely by the numbers, who are the most shameless cheerleaders—and plain old hacks—who consistently give movies better reviews than the rest of the pack? Who are the nastiest grouches who rarely seem to like anything (Spoiler: They’re exactly who you think they are), and who are the straight shooters who reliably deliver reviews in the critical dead center?” There in the dead center of their table is J.R. Jones of the Chicago Reader, with a score of .3 above the mean; the “Least Discerning” award goes to Steve Persall of the Tampa Bay Times (+24.7) and the “Biggest Hater” award to Joe Morgenstern of the Wall Street Journal (-12.7).
Of course, the data used to calculate this were the same dubious number values assigned to people’s writing, so the critic rankings are just as ridiculous as the movie rankings. The methodology used by Raymond and Gilat is open to debate as well. For a sample, they chose the 200 highest-grossing films from the last ten years, which is obviously skewed in terms of quality (or lack thereof). They compiled their list of 50 critics based on the writers’ “reach and reputation, the frequency of their reviews, and whether or not they’re still in the game, with a focus on those who write for newspapers, magazines and websites people actually read”; yet Richard Roeper, Bill Stamets, Mary Houlihan, and other contributors to the Chicago Sun-Times—the 11th-largest newspaper in the country—are conspicuously absent. When I scan the list, the writers I like to read are all over the place, from Andrew O’Hehir at Salon (+7.2) to Anthony Lane at the New Yorker (-10.9).
“Because professional critics get paid to judge everyone else’s work, we thought it was high time someone flipped the script on them.”—Writers Adam K. Raymond and Matan Gilat
On the other hand, I’ve never been named the most anything in the country, so no matter how meaningless a distinction this might be, I plan to milk it for all it’s worth. Besides, I got off pretty easy compared to the other guys: “The scores Jones gave the films in our sample”—of course, I did no such thing; Metacritic came up with the scores—”are nearly identical to their Metascores, at right around 59, which doesn’t actually mean he’s average in a middling kind of way. It means if you put all 50 of our critics in a room, he’s the one they’d agree with most—and probably the one you could trust most to size up a movie, if you had to pick just one. He’s the consensus critic who reliably finds the pragmatic center, who’s neither too soft nor too asshole. Think of him as the Justice Anthony Kennedy of film critics.” And all this time I thought I was Robert Kennedy.
From personal experience I can tell you that there’s nothing less fun than a room with 50 film critics in it. (As Stamets pointed out to me, that may be the reason the Lake Street Screening Room, where we gather to preview many new releases, seats only 49 people.) But from now on I expect my colleagues to treat me as a Solomonic figure—the lawgiver, the soothsayer, the final arbiter of any dispute. When the lights go up, all heads will turn toward me. In fact, in the tradition of Solomon, when we can’t agree whether a movie is good or bad, I shall simply order that the movie be cut in half. Everyone knows the first half of a movie is usually better than the second half.
I shoulder this great responsibility knowing full well that there will be drawbacks. When I go to a screening, I like to sit in the back row, so I can see the whole frame, and on the aisle, so I can have some leg room. But now I’ll have to sit in the exact center of the middle row, where I’ll have to stand up and crawl over people whenever I need to take a leak. Now, whenever I forget about a press screening or turn in my copy late or allow an error into print, I’ll hear, “Oh, here comes Mr. Reliable.” Now, I’m going to be the critical dead center—like Derek Smalls, the bass player in This Is Spinal Tap, who compares the two guitarists to fire and ice and explains, “I feel my role in the band is to be somewhere in the middle of that, kind of like lukewarm water.”
Over the years, as contributors to the Reader‘s movie section have come and gone, I’ve always tried to impress on them that, as long as they write well, I couldn’t care less whether they like a movie or not. Manny Farber, one of the greats, was known for the ambiguity of his reviews; from his work comes the ideal, imparted to me by my predecessor, Jonathan Rosenbaum, that precise, colorful description of a movie can be more helpful to the reader and more revealing of the writer than opinion, because opinions are like—well, you know what they’re like. Rosenbaum always fought like hell the suggestion that every capsule review carry some sort of rating, though eventually the paper instituted the little backward R as a “recommended” icon throughout all the arts sections. Thumbs up, thumbs down; four stars, two stars, no stars; 59 out of a hundred—there’s no respect for words in this racket. Someday I’m going to look up the formula for nitroglycerin and turn it into a sonnet.