Once upon a time, if you wanted to find out the “general consensus” on some movie, you had to force all your friends to watch it and (*gasp*) have a conversation. Or two. Or three. Then came the website Rotten Tomatoes…
Actually, no – the stars bar on the Internet Movie Database came first…and before that, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert had their famous thumbs…and way before that, almost everyone adopted some kind of four or five-star rating system, similar to hotels…or an A-to-F grading system, similar to American schools…and there’s a much deeper conversation to be had about boiling one’s subjective opinions down into a supposedly-objective, numerical score…so let’s have that now, shall we? But first, here’s the story of Rotten Tomatoes.
When it first formed in 1998, Rotten Tomatoes dot com had a simple mission: to become your one-stop shop for snapshots of the “critical consensus” around some newly-release film. Or, ya know, all of them. And by “critical consensus” I mean an aggregate number, generated by some completely-opaque algorithm, based on film reviews from the few publications RT deems big enough to count. This immediately erases the vast majority of the film-loving internet, because how in name of all gods could any algorithm reasonably aggregate all that? You’d need a room full of supercompters to even start.
I know this because we internet-enabled nerds love seeking out new critics, and new critical publications. Boldly going where none of our immediate friends have gone before in search of new hot takes to get mad about and/or new ways to say what we already know, deep down in our hearts, but never quite found the words to express. We recommend even non-critics do this, because it’s supposed to encourage thought. It allows us to practice thinking. We take that practice into theaters with us and that is the only thing that separates us from the rest of you. You know that old adage, “everybody’s a critic”? Well, it’s true. I just gave away the whole secret. (And Glorious Godfreys, when they added the “Audience Score” tab they offended every deity the human race has ever worshiped, and all the psycho robot gods we’ll worship in the future when we’re scrounging through the wasteland for canned goods. As if critics and audiences are separate in any real sense, besides the one I just outlined. It’s like the Hulk’s evil dad said after he got his superpowers, “You really think that I’m separate from you?”)
Like every other 21st Century Robber Baron in Silicon Valley, the boosters of Rotten Tomatoes like to say they’re “democratizing” film criticism because, to them, “democracy” is an empty buzzword, deployed by hucksters to convince fools that they should act against their own best interest. No longer would we need to read every single link in the “External Review” section of a movie’s IMDB page. With Rotten Tomatoes, and its competitors – the only one that really matters being MetaCritic.com – we can see, at a glance, what all the “professionals” have to say about anything…with enough money for a mass market release. Whom amongst us could argue with such a thing? Who has time to read a wall of links anyway? Hell, who has time to read? Especially when the Consensus is right there – not in black and white, but red and green, just like Christmas! MetaCritic’s major innovation being they added yellow for all the stuff in the vast, mediocre middle ground, rather than just automatically adding those to the red column, like RT does.
Unfortunately for humanity in general, and the popular art-loving internet in particular, the creators of these sites never considered that their scores would become rhetorical cudgels, deployed by idiots of all stripes against said idiot’s ideologically enemies, real or imagined – and even by some corporations against their own employees.
Don’t say it doesn’t happen. If it didn’t, no one would care if a score rose above or fell below a certain threshold, and they certainly wouldn’t care enough to send people death threats over it. Plus, every six months or so, some video game news website will come out with a story about how some game designer’s bonuses, salaries, or even their whole jobs, are tied to a game’s MetaCritic score. Let me say that again for the cheap seats – there are actual human goddamn beings whose entire goddamn livelihoods depend on the video games they make getting a high enough score on a goddamn third party website that’s still younger than most of them. We feckless consumers hear about this in the press and then…nothing happens. How long until everyone gives up and just starts reposting the same article with all the nouns changed, like the Onion does with rampage massacres?
Not long, probably, since this is America – where everyone talks a good game about “democracy,” but everyone acts like they hate it. Especially our ruling class, who seek to undermine it at pretty much every turn. The most popular and successful method is to create your own little private fiefdom, colloquially known as a corporation. Second best option involves being bought out by one of the shrinking number of megacorporations (we dare not call them “monopolies”) that already own and control everything we see, hear, or read.
For example: at the time of this writing, after a long chain of buy-outs, RottenTomatoes is now eighty-percent owned by Universal Studios (which is, in turn, owned by the cable company Comcast – shout-out to my Internet Service Provider, you suck) and twenty-percent owned by Warner Brothers (which is in the process of being bought-out by AT&T – you also suck, but for different reasons – Release the Snyder Cut, you dumb bastards). So let me just tell my fellow movie fans something here, right quick: every time y’all bitch and moan about how “unfair” some movie’s Tomato-score is, you are doing less than nothing.
It’s like the NFL…hell, it’s like all sports in general. No matter who you wind up rooting for, the league’s getting paid, either way. I can’t even say you’re “tilting against windmills” because in order for that to work, the windmills would have to be real and Miguel de Cervantes would have to own them. All you’re really doing is ruining movie nerds already-useless reputations…and increasing RT’s reputation by treating their scores as something that’s worth serious discussion. They aren’t. Not in and of themselves. Hence why I’m being so damn meta about all this.
Ask yourself why you even care what number’s next to a movie’s name on a website you claim to despise? Surely you don’t take that on face value as an indicator of quality…right? Ah, but some people really are that dumb enough to do just that, aren’t they? I get it…We’re all nerds on the internet here, and I know my people. We all tell people art is inherently subjective and that there is no objective truth when it comes to this stuff…and we all then proceed to speak our particular truths at you in the most authoritative voices we can muster and act surprised when people get confused. We’ve all thought, at some point or another – deep down in the calcified part of our hearts – that we, and we alone, could be “objective” about things as inherently subjective as reactions to works of art.
Most of us grow out of that in our twenties, but this delusion can also lead to evil places. Places obsessed with measuring and classifying everything by some kind of “objective” standard, driven by a deep-seeded contempt for subjectivity in all its forms and permutations. The contradiction gnaws at us like the contradiction in capitalism. It’s what birthed RottenTomatoes in the first place and it has created a movie “culture” (in the largest possible air quotes) that’s as toxic as the blood of those shapeshifting assassins from the X-Files.
Once upon a time, if you wanted to find out a “general consensus” opinion of some movie, you had to force all your friends to watch it and then have a conversation. A conversation with nothing but empty air between you and getting punched in the face for saying something particularly stupid, awful, or stupid-awful. And where the response to a question of quality might be something other than, “That’s shit and you’re shit for liking it.” There’s real democracy for you – outright fucking dangerous whenever it’s not tedious as hell, occasionally awkward in a way that makes me involuntarily do Jazz Hands…and, crucially, not owned outright by a major, multi-billion dollar entertainment company. Or two. Not yet, at least.
But that’s not good enough, is it? What’s the point of having an opinion of it’s not validated by some external force that’s more powerful than we are? Not like a “god” or anything – ewww, gross – but something that can spit out numbers. Numbers don’t lie, unless you’re trying to vote. Numbers are “objective” as long as you ignore the entire context around them. Another American tradition we proudly carry on into the future…assuming we even have a future and it won’t just be Mad Max. Or The Road.,,
Fuck, I want to end it there, but I can’t. This is a YouTube video, and those have as many structural problems as RottenTomatoes. Look – if you’re watching this, I shouldn’t have to tell you not to care about RT scores because you’re a demonstrably good and smart person who thinks for themselves and blah-blah-blah, yackety-schmackety, “leverage your parasocial relationship with your audience.” So look: send this video to anyone who’s done any of the following things:
-Argue about RT scores, especially in public: Positive or negative, too-high or too-low, don’t do this. Ever. You’re just giving them free advertising. Kinda like I’m doing, right now, but I am necessary evil.
-Argue about MetaCritic scores, since this applies equally to them.
-Argue about any critic’s score, in any form, now or at any time into the future. Because for fuck’s sake – argue with someone’s actual points. Read further than the headline and argue with someone’s actual conclusions. Even if they’re stupid, at least you’ll be arguing about something slightly more real than a number some computer spit out. A guy named Socrates allegedly perfected this technique some time ago…though I’ve always been a Diogenes fan myself. Now, back to my wine barrel. Alexander the Great’s about to show up and I don’t want to miss the chance to mess with his head.
Thanks for watching, everyone. Special thanks to all my Patrons, though there’s no charge for this one – this one was just for me. Someone who isn’t Brett Fucking Ratner had to say all this and, after being disappointed by everyone else who tried, I went “Fine: I’ll do it myself.”