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Why 'Rotten Tomatoes' is more rotten than fresh

Tom Hanks' new film "Inferno" is only 21 percent "Fresh" according to the movie site Rotten Tomatoes. So that means it's 79 percent "Rotten" the way this site seems to score movies. "Jack Reacher: Never Go Back" starring that other box office monster Tom -- Cruise -- is listed as 38 percent "Fresh" in the world of Rotten Tomatoes. And "The Accountant" starring Ben Affleck is now at 50 percent "Fresh."

To all of which I'd reply "As far as I'm concerned the whole Rotten Tomatoes website is only 10 percent 'Fresh.' The other 90 percent of it is rotten to the core."

If the period we're living in is proving anything, it's the harrowing insight of H. L. Mencken's definition of democracy as "the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard."

When you discover through viewer numbers that there are human beings in this world who value utter television garbage highly and, through much smaller numbers, truly great television much less, you have become fully immersed in Tocqueville's "tyranny of the majority." That, predicted the French visitor to our shores centuries ago, would be the eternal curse of "Democracy in America."

Now aggregators from Rotten Tomatoes might well argue that their site doesn't count up the opinions of "common people" but rather film critics from around the English speaking world. "Common people" numbers, after all, are found in movie box office.

To which I'd say, "So what?"

Precious little in this world that's great has ever resulted from pack journalism. When you're talking about something as subjective and individualized as criticism, all that agreement or disagreement proves bupkes.

Some movies by virtue of what they are, are going to score highly with indentured film critics -- Barry Jenkins' "Moonlight," for instance, which is scheduled to open Nov. 11 in Buffalo. But when you're talking about big budget big star popcorn movies like "Inferno" and "Jack Reacher" and "The Accountant"  you're talking about movies that seem to invite lousy critics to say lousy things for lousy reasons.

That's the trouble with aggregating critics by the numbers and generalizing about what they do and don't do. Film critics come in all sizes, shapes, colors, flavors and personalities. Some of the smartest and best people I've met have been critics of one art form or another. And some of the nicest and most approachable, too. But I've also found among critics some of the nastiest, meanest, smallest-minded and most toxic members of our poor benighted species.

Let me give you one example of the kind of thing that often happens in places where ideas are infectious. When Brian DePalma's "Wise Guys" starring Danny DeVito and Joe Piscopo first came out, the film got enthusiastic thumbs up from both Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. And those positive notices influenced wholesale many Siskel-and-Ebertites and other sheep to pretend to the world that the film was funny.

It was not. The film is godawful. The truth about it has won out over time. But ever since critic Pauline Kael turned absurd DePalma worship into an acceptable activity among film critics, it became virtually impossible to get an accurate assessment of anything DePalma did, whether terrific ("The Untouchables," "Carrie," "The Phantom of the Paradise") or in the godawful neighborhood ("The Bonfire of the Vanities," "The Black Dahlia," "Wise Guys").

The first critic I ever fell in love with was Dwight Macdonald, who told Esquire Magazine readers in 1959 that no matter how much "Ben-Hur" was praised by every major critic in Manhattan, the movie was "bloody bloody and bloody boring." Since I had already seen the film by then -- swept along in all the unseemly gush clogging the zeitgeist -- my 14-year world exploded with delight to find that you could actually be paid money in this world to impart the naked truth to the world while everyone else paid to do so was full of prunes.

There was a lot of that at the time. In the first era of film critics I was old enough to pay attention to, the unfortunate fact is that the most influential critic in America -- Bosley Crowther of the New York Times -- was one of the worst who ever lived.

His influence too, was huge.

A pack of movie critics is no more reliable than a pack of pundits or a pack of any other kind of journalist whose stock in trade is supposedly thinking for his or herself.

Adlai Stevenson had a nice wisecrack about political commentators who huddled in packs for ideological warmth: "The herd of independent minds" he called them dismissively. Or, as Eugene McCarthy used to put it about the creation of journalistic groupthink: it begins with one little birdie perched on a telephone wire. Then comes another. And another. And soon all the little birdies are on the same wire. And you can't see a thing.

Aggregating the opinions of people whose job is to think for themselves but seldom do is among the more fruitless enterprises in the world. Reading them isn't much better.

That's especially true when you're talking about a slightly loony popcorn thriller with a Graphic Novel-ish concept like "The Accountant" about the movies' first autistic superhero; or Tom Cruise inhabiting a character who, as written, was 6 feet 5 and weighed 250. Kneejerk hostility is guaranteed.

So too is dissatisfaction with an overwrought Ron Howard movie of a Dan Brown novel constructed out of bits and pieces of esoterica from the art and history of Renaissance Italy.

The trick of reading movie critics couldn't be simpler: Read enough of them to get comfortable reading four or five who entertain or enlighten or frequently see (or hear) the world the way you do (or would like to.)

And then be happy as Humphrey Bogart said to Claude Rains at the end of "Casablanca" that it could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.


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