Years ago, when I was a movie critic, I was invited over for coffee by a guy who had just been hired at the review-aggregating website Rotten Tomatoes. I can’t remember the purpose of the meeting. I just remembered feeling—when he vented about the site’s “Tomatometer” rating, which would soon crush all my elitist insights into hard data—that I had been summoned to witness my own grave being dug.
This actually suited me. I was already demoralized by the whole enterprise. I had always seen the critic’s role as a channel, someone who has an aesthetic experience and then reports on how it was; I never cared about telling others what to see or avoid, imposing a hegemony of tastes and interests that I didn’t believe in. At work, however, I felt the pressure to provide readers with ratings and recommendations — and, increasingly, sites like Rotten Tomatoes seemed to push a binary of “good” and “bad,” all based on consensus. It was depressing, all those fingers in the wind. Consensus is a snowball with a hard, mineral center, descending a slope, and few people want to be on the wrong side.
Sometimes consensus grows around a movie’s story even before people have seen the movie themselves. A few weeks ago, I attended a screening of “Don’t Worry Darling,” which I’ve been looking forward to since I first glimpsed the poster. I had been vaguely aware of some noise coming from the press release of the film, I suppose, but it wasn’t until the now infamous spit video that I realized how much flak the movie was catching. The video showed Harry Styles, one of the stars of the film, approaching his audience seat at the Venice Film Festival, buttoning his coat softly, leaning forward and then – according to nothing but cheerful online assumptions – supposedly a loogie on another of the film stars. chopped , Chris Pine, who stops clapping and his eyes trace a trajectory from Styles’ lips to his own lap. There is no actual spit in the video and no motive was attributed. But no one was needed. Those few video frames were examined, analyzed, slowed down, zoomed in, dissected and compared to the Zapruder movie so many times that the joke begged for mercy.
People were happy to believe everything – even the unfounded rumor equivalent of jumping the shark.
But to me, the Cold War artifact it remembered was Kremlinology — the practice of sifting through every available piece of information to discern the hidden motivations and power struggles of distant, unknowable figures. The events that drew so much attention to “Don’t Worry Darling” weren’t big in general: They included an alleged feud between the director, Olivia Wilde, and the lead actress, Florence Pugh, possibly with a pay gap between leads; the actor Shia LaBeouf is replaced by Styles under controversial circumstances; LaBeouf’s Leaky Messages From Wilde About Pugh; Wilde gets custody papers from her ex-fiancé, Jason Sudeikis, while onstage at CinemaCon; and especially that Wilde enters into a romantic relationship with Styles, 10 years her junior. Where the theoretical animosity between Styles and Pine should fit was unclear. But by then, people were happy to believe anything—even the unwarranted rumor equivalent of jumping from the shark—as long as it kept building the story of a woman who nurtured a work environment so fraught that one star would star on another. spitting, in public and on camera, for no apparent reason.
“Don’t worry honey” is just the most recent example of a movie maudi, or ‘cursed movie’. That was the term coined in 1949 for Jean Cocteau’s Festival du Film Maudit, which describes works that had been unjustly neglected or considered too scandalous to deserve serious attention – “films made marginal by a bad reputation,” as J. Hoberman would later write in The Village Stem. Movies made by women aren’t the only ones stuck in this defensive position, but they seem to be disproportionately prone to it, often with criticism of the director himself. (Elaine May’s experience with “Ishtar” was such that Hoberman classified her as a cinematographer maudi; she wouldn’t direct for decades.) Hints of a production’s chaos or excess are less likely to be perceived as signs of unruly genius, and more often framed as messiness or lack of authority. The more that talk of ‘Don’t worry, dear’, the more its quality – and especially Wilde’s competence – was questioned.
The Tomatometer comes out and the party is over.
Cinema has a century of lore about films plagued by budget overruns, clashing personalities and steady affairs: Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski set out to kill each other while making ‘Fitzcarraldo’, mental breakdowns on the set of ‘Apocalypse Now’, Peter Bogdanovich leaves his A woman’s actual genius after an affair with a young Cybill Shepherd in ‘The Last Picture Show’. These productions were plagued by bad press and rumours, but they never faced the wrath of Stan Twitter. Today, fans are spreading rumors and memes, which are picked up by media, which disguise their lust with speculation about prospects or reviews at the box office. Then the Tomatometer appears and the party is over.
But, of course, the idea that this consensus opinion comes from a pure, objective place is insincere. The press is always coloring reviews – and now a vocal segment of the public seems oddly invested in Wilde’s credit, a fact we may see reflected in reviews. (Given the statements Wilde has made about some of the film’s true inspirations, it’s not hard to imagine the response online, including the kind of organized response that has greeted other unfavorable films.) And while critics’ reactions will not be actively evil, nor will they be magically free of their own prejudices. “More or less the definition of cinema history,” wrote Richard Brody in The New Yorker in 2012, “is: the stuff most of the best-known critics disliked, or damned with vague praise — it isn’t.” that they didn’t care, but they didn’t care.” According to studies conducted by Martha Lauzen of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, there are more male film critics than female film critics.
It’s strange that this could be the fate of “Don’t Worry Darling,” a movie about men who imprison women in a regressive, suffocating place where dissent means rejection and exile—a movie whose big plot developments must be difficult for Wanted to resist talking about it, given how much the story surrounding the movie captures their point. But it’s impossible to talk about it without ruining the story, so I’ll just share an anecdote. My 14 year old daughter accompanied me to the screening, not bothered by outside luggage. When the credits started rolling, she announced, “That was the best movie I’ve ever seen in my entire life.” Seeing Wilde’s name in the cast, she asked what character the director had played. When I told her, she was impressed. She said, “I want to be her. I want to do what she does.” It made me happy to hear this. And then I started to worry.
Photo source: Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images; Screen grab from Warner Bros.
Carina Chocano is the author of the essay collection “You Play the Girl” and a contributing writer for the magazine. She writes regularly for the magazine’s Screenland column.
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