Anyone else remember the movie Hook with fondness? You know the one I mean: from 1991, with Steven Spielberg, Robin Williams, Julia Roberts, Robert Deniro, John Williams, et al? Great movie, and one of my childhood favorites. My wife and I decided to watch it tonight, and it brought back a lot of great memories.
Every time I watch that movie I catch numerous little details that I never noticed before, but this time I was particularly paying attention to the writing. It's really good, and I don't just say that because I grew up with this movie (I also loved the cult classic Transformers: The Movie as a kid, and it seems like utter nonsense now). The writer deftly introduces the entire Peter Pan legend, which is essential backstory, and introduces a number of fairly complex ideas without repeating them over and over. Elements of the Pan mythology are only introduced when they have relevance to the plot, and so there is a constant feeling of purpose to all the scenes. For me and my wife, there is also a genuine feeling of magic, of being transported to another place.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I looked over at Rotten Tomatoes and saw that out of 35 professional film critics who had reviewed this work, only 20% of them gave it a positive review. Yikes! Even most of those critics who liked it seemed to have reservations, and the others called it lots of mean names. Spielberg's worst. A five million dollar show with a five cent script. Devoid of magic and mystery. Boring. Entertaining for kids under five, but worthless for everyone else.
I repeat: yikes! I feel really bad for the author of this screenplay, because this collective criticism seems really unjust. Most of the time I agree with the general consensus among movie critics--there are exceptions, but I feel like they generally get it right as a group. Yet their treatment of Hook makes me wonder if I'm letting any good movies slip through the cracks just because critics are jaded and sometimes unreasonable.
How can I trust film critics as a group if so many of them miss the subtle genius and the the magic of a movie like Hook? Meanwhile, Borat receives a 91% rating? Just because a movie has an incisive cultural message doesn't make all that crudity into something I consider quality art. If you approach viewing films (or reading books) as just your daily grind--especially if you aren't inherently excited about today's particular material--then that surely must color your opinion and create a sense of detachment from the material.
This is the same sort of thing that seems to happen with readers of the slush pile. The volume is so high in the case of the slush pile (and the quality so much lower) that this grim outlook is understandable, but to reviewers of published works there doesn't seem to be much excuse. I much prefer the critics in our industry to that of the film industry. There are many undefinable qualities about what makes art good or great, but there are also some very concrete criteria that serve as a sort of baseline--in the film industry, a lot of critics seem to blur the two, but in our industry it seems like this is generally less of a problem.
I've actually drifted away from my original point, and that is: even if a large number of people can't see that your work is any good, that doesn't mean it isn't. Even if you or I hate it or love it, that doesn't mean that either of us is right, either. Art of has a life and a value all its own, independent of what anybody thinks.