' Cinema Romantico: Some Drivel On...Rotten Tomatoes

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Some Drivel On...Rotten Tomatoes

Rotten Tomatoes, a website launched pre-Y2K in which myriad movie reviews are aggregated and then tabulated per some mathematical formula in order to determine whether a film in question is viewed, as a whole, positively or negatively, reached peak awfulness this past December when Slant Magazine (where, full disclosure, I used to write) published its review of “Star Wars: Rogue One.” There, the valiant commenter Joe Mack said: “I didn’t read the review but just in case you can’t do math your score 2.5/4 equals 62.5% which means this is fresh not rotten as far as how you should be reviewing things on rotten tomatoes.” I think I just stared at that comment for three minutes with my jaw open. It suggested the review itself and what it was attempting to impart as antithetical to Rotten Tomatoes, mere words, means to an end, existing for no other reason than to prop up a score that serves all the other scores.

Rotten Tomatoes, as the site’s oral history explains, was begun in 1998 by a Cal-Berkeley student named Senh Duong who yearned to gather reviews of his beloved Jackie Chan movies in one place. That suggests a site in which the original intent really was the reviews themselves, to help direct people to them. Then again, listen to Duong’s introductory anecdote: “My first visit to the theater was in junior high. And it was a double bill — Raw Deal starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Cobra with Sylvester Stallone). My friends and I thought Cobra was the better of the two.” Though the original motivation for assigning Fresh and Rotten ratings to each movie is sketchy in the oral history, you can nevertheless detect the genesis of the so-called Tomatometer in that anecdote, whereby nuance is jettisoned for delineation, whereby movies are pitted against one another, whereby the end point is Good or Bad and the in-between, the place where so much film lives, is heaved over the side.


The Tomatometer is, per Brett Ratner, non-filmmaking luminary who never made a bad movie he wouldn’t try to not take the blame for, “the destruction of (the movie) business.” That quote appears in a recent Brooks Barnes piece for The New York Times where Ratner, as well as other unnamed Hollywood bigwigs, point the finger for their industry’s woebegone 2017 summer box office squarely at the numerous rotten ratings of Rotten Tomatoes. This is because the site, as Barnes outlines, is now in something like cahoots with online movie ticket site Fandango where the official Tomatometer rating is posted, meaning, if the Hollywood bigwigs are to be believed, a rotten score inspires consumers to stay home. Maybe that’s true, though the veracity can be debated (though if the veracity is ever truly confirmed then it means, contrary to the common refrain, that critics do matter) and anyway, as the NYT piece notes, Hollywood bigwigs are just as quick to embrace favorable Rotten Tomatoes scores as they are to denounce unfavorable ones, belying marketing as the bigwigs’ weapon of choice more than moviemaking.

This all signals a move into something like a post-review world, one perhaps explicitly prefaced by none other than the patron saint of movie critics, the late Roger Ebert, who along with the late Gene Siskel pioneered the thumbs up, thumbs down movie review approach, which is basically what Rotten Tomatoes is too, and Duong, in the oral history, says as much. Of course, Siskel & Ebert augmented their talk show with written analysis and that analysis is not something that exists just to skim so you can find the grade at the bottom to yell RIGHT! or WRONG! Reviews are intended to enlighten and expand a moviegoer’s experience, to help them make further sense of what they have seen, whether they agree or not, to wrestle with how a film was made and what that means, which is really all critics care about in the first place, and which so often anymore seems so far away in the discourse as to be strangely, sadly beside the point.

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