If you're in the market for a contrary opinion, you can't do better than the September 24, 1939 review of The Wizard of Oz from The New Republic film critic Otis Ferguson.
“It has dwarfs, music, technicolor, freak characters and Judy Garland,” Ferguson wrote. “It can’t be expected to have a sense of humor as well -- and as for the light touch of fantasy, it weighs like a pound of fruitcake soaking wet.”
Ferguson’s critique has to be one of the most churlish and thus entertaining professional assessments in the history of fictional media. I only wish he'd condemned the film as "unrealistic."
Everyone’s entitled to an opinion, of course, even one that can get you on the wrong side of six-year-old girls. I started thinking about this concept -- good critics hating great films -- after interviewing the esteemed and wildly incisive reviewer David Thomson last year. I mentioned to him 2001 had climbed to No. 6 in the last Sight and Sound poll of movie critics, yet he called the film "a lavish travesty." Silly me, I thought I could coax a sliver of appreciation from Thomson for what is arguably Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece. Why so down on the picture, Dave?
“Because I think it’s a very bad film.” His voice rose in good-natured indignation.
I couldn't agree less. But you have to hand it to Thomson for sticking to his guns in the face of overwhelming antithetical opinion. With all due respect to subjectivity, going aggro on movie reviews is a good way to sublimate general misanthropy, and I find it cathartic to declaim that Thomson is just dead wrong.
Considering the variability of human taste and preference, maybe the fact more outliers don’t exist on the estimation of certain established classics is the remarkable thing here. Compared to some other societal spheres, like, oh ... politics ... the sum total of opinion seems to indicate a decent consensus around just what constitutes cinematic quality. Can you imagine, say, gun control getting a 91 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes?
Still, there’s one in every crowd, and we can only assume Otis Ferguson fed his inner child cod liver oil the day he saw The Wizard of Oz. Either that or the little guy lost his ability to recognize a life-affirming rainbow staring right at him.
Perhaps that’s mean. I should know, because some people said similarly crummy things about my humanity when I penned a jeremiad called How Woody Allen Became a Hack. I had the temerity to wander from the herd and peg Blue Jasmine as just another late-period Allen fiasco. The film was widely praised as one of Allen’s greatest achievements (David Thomson called Woody's best film), and the online judgments came fast and furious. “Blue Jasmine was brilliant,” harrumphed one commenter. “You are an imbecile,” said, sweetly, another. “Probably a Republican? How you ever got to write anything is a surprise to me. Your logical reasoning is almost on par with a five-year-old. Please die soon and rid humanity from this banter. You are a waste of space.”
“No, you are,” I replied in my head, because there’s no HTML tag to indicate wiggling fingers with thumbs touching ears.
I'm also happy to note a fair amount of people actually agreed with me on Blue Jasmine, proving the comments section can be a validating experience when it doesn’t make you want to stick your head in a blender.
Take for instance, the comments on this anomalous pan of Boyhood by movie critic Victoria Alexander of the Las Vegas Informer. Hailed as an innovative, metaphysically joyous stroke of brilliance in its use of the same actors over 12 years of shooting, the film gets a stunning 98 percent positive rating among reviews collected on Rotten Tomatoes. Indeed, Boyhood stakeholders probably thought they'd died and gone to marketing heaven when they were able to truthfully stick a review snippet at the top of their poster that read: “The most impressive film ever made.”
You have to give credit to Alexander for writing her honest negative opinion:
Nothing about the family resonated with me. There was no high drama, conflict, or family rage that is so common today in families broken through divorce. Linklater should have filmed a few days every month at our house the year my stepson came to live with us.
Several commenters on Alexander's piece seemed to be waiting for someone to tell it like it was: “It’s nice to see the Emperor’s clothes as they really are." But not everyone: “Escape your bubble. Get out of Vegas for a while. That’s all I can say.”
Can you imagine what the comments section would look like if legendary film critic Manny Farber were writing today? After reading one anthology of his work, I struggled to pick out which of the films he actually liked of the hundreds cited. He had serious qualms with some, he damned many with faint praise and others he viewed as clear evidence of a doomed culture.
Among the roster of great movies of little worth to Farber: The Asphalt Jungle, The Third Man ( a “monsterpiece"); Sunset Boulevard (“cleverly camouflaged hot air”), Hail the Conquering Hero, A Place in the Sun, Grapes of Wrath, A Face in the Crowd, La Notte (“embarrassing the viewer with dialogue about art that is sophomorically one-dimensional”), The 400 Blows, L’Avventura, Lawrence of Arabia, Repulsion, Band of Outsiders, The Graduate (“the simplest sentences have trouble surfacing through this lipless mini-man”) and Psycho.
Citizen Kane, he said, was “marred by obvious items of shopworn inspiration.”
Nor did Farber enjoy Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire, as he found the actor to be “stuttering the first syllables of his sentences and mumbling the rest as though through a mouthful of mashed potatoes."
Brando's method, it seems, is a distinctly non-acquired taste for some. Stanley Kauffmann of The New Republic wrote about the actor in The Godfather:
They have put padding in his cheeks and dirtied his teeth, he speaks hoarsely and moves stiffly, and these combined mechanics are hailed as great acting. I don’t see how any gifted actor could have done less than Brando does here. His resident power, his sheer innate force, has rarely seemed weaker.
Kauffmann didn't enjoy the rest of the film, either. He believed Al Pacino's part was "too demanding" for him, Nino Rota's music score was "rotten" and Francis Ford Coppola had "saved all his limited ingenuity for the shootings and stranglings, which are among the most vicious I can remember on film. The print of the picture showed to the New York press had very washed-out colors."
The popcorn, most likely, was also stale.
Kauffmann couldn't have known, of course, that The Godfather would go on to become one of the most critically praised and avidly enjoyed movies of all time, and that the internet would not only prevent an embarrassing review from disappearing into the scrapheap of history, but make it readily accessible forever. While time makes fools of us all, who wants it on our permanent record, ready for posting on Facebook?
But critics-are-human-too aside, how can you not enjoy longtime New York Times reviewer Vincent Canby's opinion of The Godfather II as lacking because "Everything of any interest was covered in the original film." Or Pauline Kael's appraisal of Raging Bull director Martin Scorsese, whose “excesses verge on parody.” Not to mention her opinion of Robert De Niro as Jake LaMotta:
“What De Niro does in this picture isn’t acting, exactly, I’m not sure what it is. Though it may at some level be awesome, it definitely isn’t pleasurable.”
"... it’s a film that’s totally uninterested in anything that doesn’t connect with the mass audience," she wrote. "(I)t has no emotional grip ... It’s an epic without a dream."
Kael never retreated from an opinion simply because it went against the grain. Nor would any critic worth half his or her free movie passes. Yet, as someone who thinks and writes frequently about movies, I have to acknowledge that an opinion can be revised upon future viewing. When I watched Blue Jasmine again, I didn't think it was half bad. (Just 45 percent bad.) In the theater, I judged The Master an elusive Paul Thomas Anderson misfire. On Blu-ray, I thought it was pretty good. After a third viewing, it was a masterpiece.
Let us praise reviews like Otis Ferguson's, and let us have our little man enthusiastically clap for the curmudgeons, naysayers, pessimists and critics with a capital "C" who just can’t get on board. After all, a world that takes delight in flying monkeys and talking scarecrows without exception is anti-democratic.
And besides: they're only movies.