Audience-friendly: It’s not a crime

April 12, 2013

audience friendly
I recall a while back that a fellow critic took offense when I referred to Noah Baumbach’s “Greenberg” as “not an audience-friendly film.”

He felt that I was using the term pejoratively – as though I was saying there was something wrong with any film that didn’t make a specific point of trying to connect with its audience. Though I explained that it was not meant as a slur but as a simple descriptive, he still wasn’t satisfied.

I continue to believe, however, that the term has validity, particularly as a way for critics to describe a film in a way that is helpful to the reader.

I’m not making judgments about either side of this equation. I’d say I like films that are audience-friendly as often as I do the more challenging ones. It depends on the film itself.

You know what an audience-friendly film is. It tells a story that engages you about characters you can like and root for. It doesn’t have to be just a comedy, though that’s always a helpful element. But something like “42” is the pinnacle of the audience-friendly work of popular culture – and it’s certainly not a comedy.

Yet those films – movies that seek to tell a story that uplifts or inspires – often get short shrift from critics for that reason alone. This week, for example, “42” is being slagged by some critics for being manipulative – as though all movies are not manipulative to one degree or another. “42” happens to be a well-made and extremely involving story about an important moment in history. The fact that it works on the viewer emotionally, however, is often seen as a negative by critics who aren’t comfortable with movies that deal with feelings, rather than ideas or theories.

I don’t think those particular elements – a story you can follow, characters you like and root for – are disqualifiers for a film that can be exciting, entertaining, even mystifying. That’s the bread-and-butter of the box-office chart: movies that appeal to an audience. To too many critics, however, appealing to an audience and pandering to it are inextricably linked. That’s as much an erroneous generalization as saying that all films that go in the opposite direction are the only true art: plotless character studies, impressionistic slices of life, nonlinear puzzle films.

Those are the films I would classify as not being audience-friendly. They don’t offer themselves to the viewer; indeed, they force the viewer to dig in and excavate meaning for himself. Or not. The plot isn’t necessarily a plot, the characters aren’t necessarily likable (or even understandable) – indeed, the characters sometimes are not even characters. Consider Terrence Malick’s “To the Wonder,” opening today, in which the actors are almost an afterthought.

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There is an audience for those films, films as disparate as Sofia Coppola’s “Somewhere” (quiet, sharply observed father-daughter tale, minus a real story) and David Chase’s “Not Fade Away” (snapshot-glimpses of the music of an era from the viewpoint of multiple characters, again driven by character rather than plot).

Just as there is, no doubt, an audience for “To the Wonder” and Shane Carruth’s “Upstream Color,” which opened to an 84 percent “Fresh” rating from critics on Rotten Tomatoes last week.

But those Rotten Tomato ratings can be deceptive. RT critics, after all, were at 92 percent “Fresh” for “Room 237,” 90 for “Holy Motors,” and 86 percent for “The Master.”

All of those were movies that were not audience-friendly. Most of them were barely watchable. But if you read those reviews, you would find little that’s descriptive of what the movie actually looks or feels like while you’re watching it. Which, for a lot of people, was a negative experience in the case of those particular titles.

How many people saw them because of positive reviews that were misleading? How many might have thought twice if the review mentioned that, oh, well, this film is all but incomprehensible, even if you’ve read a director’s statement on what it means? Or, well, this movie has very little dialogue and takes a 20-minute break for a flashback to the beginning of time? Or this movie is about an inarticulate movie star caught in moments by himself during a movie junket?

Critics have a duty to be clear with readers. Not to warn them, per se, because, again, that implies something about relative merit. But to be clear or honest: This is a movie in which nothing much happens. Or this is a movie in which what does happen doesn’t make a lot of sense. Or is deliberately off-putting or upsetting.

At which point, the critic says: And this is why I think you should pay attention anyway.

That’s the critic’s role – to identify something that seems off-putting or uninteresting and share your passion for it.

Obfuscating it, however, doesn’t do anyone a favor. You don’t get people to interact with and, perhaps, develop an appetite for unconventional or form-breaking work by tricking them into seeing it. You do it by describing it honestly and accurately, in the hope that your description fires a reader’s imagination in some way.

Describing a film as not being particularly audience-friendly is a step in the right direction. It’s not an insult; it’s an adjective.

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