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How Joe Morgenstern’s Non-Review of GI Joe Hastens the Death of Film Criticism

I liked GI Joe. Okay, it’s not Citizen Kane. It’s not even The Mummy. But who says it has to be? I found it to be a fun, brainless summer action film in the tradition of many fun, brainless summer action films that came before it. Yet in a time when film critics are already seemingly becoming obsolete, their response to this summer’s blockbusters make them look all the more out of touch with what the average moviegoer. GI Joe looks to be on track for a $55-60 million opening weekend, and received a “B+” Cinemascore from audiences– and an “A-” from those under 18 who saw it. This is in stark contrast to the 39% on Rottentomatoes.com and the 32 on Metacritic.com, numbers that plummeted lower as more film critics saw it and provided snarky, above-it-all commentary about the film’s noisy, brainless demeanor. Joe Morgenstern of The Wall Street Journal went one step farther, publishing a non-review on Friday morning trashing the film. Audiences ignored him, and the other critics, per usual.

Rob Moore, vice chairman of Paramount Pictures, decided to not let critics see GI Joe in advance, saying, “After the chasm we experienced with `Transformers 2′ between the response of audiences and critics, we chose to forgo opening-day print and broadcast reviews as a strategy to promote `G.I. Joe.’ We want audiences to define this film.” Smart move, Rob– GI Joe received the second-biggest opening weekend for a non-sequel in August ever. Now a movie swamped with negative advance buzz and critical thrashing still has a shot at making a profit. The only losers here are the critics so willing to trash the movie, in particular Mr. Morgenstern, who dedicated a surprisingly large amount of article space for his elitist, holier-than-thou non-review. I found it to be so odious, I shall provide the article in its entirety with side commentary.

Morgenstern: “The folks at Paramount wouldn’t screen “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra” for critics—they must love the movie so much they want to keep it to themselves. But why do I have to see it to review it? People debate the merits of movies they haven’t seen all the time—especially on the message boards of the Web, where vast numbers of fanboys, apprentice ­fanatics and professional grousers turn an endless supply of baseless ­assumptions into groundless ­conclusions.”

Translation: “I’m mad that I didn’t get a free ticket. I’m also mad that the Internet is where people turn to find out about movie buzz, and not to Pulitzer-Prize winning film critics in The Wall Street Journal.” How does this paragraph hasten the death of film criticism? By insulting those who write on the Internet– the wave of the future for film criticism– and by condemning a film and those who’ve seen it… WITHOUT HAVING SEEN IT HIMSELF!

Morgenstern: “At first I felt shut out, but then I realized I was missing the point of a double blessing. Paramount has spared me the pain of sitting through another military-toy epic (the recent “Transformers” sequel having been a near-death experience), and the studio has set me free to reach my own conclusions—not quite groundless but close—on the basis of the “G.I. Joe” trailer.”

Translation: “The last hit movie Paramount put out was too low for my elitist sensibilities, so I’d rather spitball COMPLETELY groundless conclusions out of anger.” How does this paragraph hasten the death of film criticism? By portraying film critics as angry, out-of-touch old farts who are more than eager to trash a film before stepping into a theater. Note to Mr. Morgenstern: don’t pretend watching a trailer helps one reach sound conclusions about a film. Often trailers don’t represent the best parts of a film, or sometimes even the correct genre.

Morgenstern: “The first thing that happens in the trailer involves the Eiffel Tower, which is hit by a missile and makes a splash by falling into the Seine. I don’t like movies that trash the Eiffel Tower, although I loved “The Lavender Hill Mob,” in which Alec Guinness’s mild-mannered bank clerk smuggles gold bars out of England by turning them into Eiffel Tower paperweights.”

Translation: “Since I’m better than you, let me reference an old film you probably don’t remember that has nothing to do with the current film at hand, but makes me look smarter.” How does this paragraph hasten the death of film criticism? By showing that critics are more than happy to stick in a mindset of “I wish things were as good as they were in the old days,” rather than being forward-minded and look for merits in current films.

Morgenstern: “The second thing involves an ­actor intoning, voice-over: “We have never faced a threat like this. A team is being assembled. They’re the best operatives in the world. When all else fails, we don’t.” Even apart from the actor pronouncing “assembled” as “assimbled,” the speech suggests a sound clip from an early rehearsal of a junior-high-school pageant. I don’t like movies with bad actors reading dumb lines.”

Translation: “Because I didn’t like the way one vowel was pronounced and Paramount didn’t show me their movie for free, I will dismiss Dennis Quaid as a bad actor, and these lines as being dumb.” How does this paragraph hasten the death of film criticism? By showing how critics can be needlessly nitpicky and spin wild conclusions out of the most trivial of details. Dennis Quaid is an Academy Award nominated actor, and he is perfect for the role of General Hawk. The dialogue may be dumb, but it fits perfectly into the genre of the film, and the film itself is fun because of lines like these.

Morgenstern: “Most of all, I don’t like vast industrial productions based on toys I never played with as a kid (although the first “Transformers” was actually good fun). When I wrote a review suggesting that the sequel would hasten the end of civilization, a reader emailed me to say, “I have more than 700 Transformer toys and you don’t know . . . ” That’s as far as I read, since what I did know is that he was right. I am no more qualified to judge the details of these toy-based monstrosities than a toy critic—there are toy critics, aren’t there?—would be qualified to review “Casablanca.” (Though a battery-powered Rick puffing real smoke might be collectible.)”

Translation: “Because I missed the boat on these crazes, I’m going to act like the kid who is ‘too cool for school’ when it comes to movies based on these toys. I also think I’m better than the young people who play with these toys and see these movies.” How does this paragraph hasten the death of film criticism? These young people who play with these toys are the people who buy the tickets and are thus the people who the studios make the films for. If you can’t approach a movie based on toys and expect nothing more than a fun, gadget-filled romp, and instead you feel a film like this can “hasten the end of civilization,” then you’re expecting too much. Even if you hate these types of films, as a critic, try to put yourself into the shoes of the target audience. Don’t simply dismiss a film and everyone who sees/enjoys it, otherwise YOU will be the one who looks like they missed the boat.

Morgenstern: “Nonetheless, I insist on my right to say that “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra” will also hasten the end of civilization and may well be as dreadful as it’s said to be by countless online blatherers who, exactly like me, haven’t seen a single frame of it on a big screen. These days, not seeing is believing.”

Translation: “I don’t know how the Internet works, but it has a lot of power, and I am jealous.” The Internet buzz turned quite positive once test screenings started occurring, and online critics such as Harry Knowles and Devin Faraci, kings of the “fanboys,” deemed the film to be fun. Of course, that point is moot when one considers that Joe Morgenstern isn’t an online blatherer– he’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic. He is supposed to help an audience decipher whether a film is worth seeing. That requires two things: 1) The critic should see the film. 2) The critic should write for all readers, not simply for other Pulitzer Prize-winning critics. If critics like Joe Morgenstern continue to write for each other, without thinking about the people seeing the movie, then the precedent Paramount set here by not screening potential blockbusters will spread quickly. Yes, in the past, movies that aren’t screened often are of a lower quality– but shouldn’t one see a movie before deciding if it’s bad? And shouldn’t one not be so peeved at the prospect of having to *gasp!* pay for a movie ticket that he dedicates six paragraphs to his anger?

In the end, his review no more hastens the end of film criticism than Transformers 2 hastens the end of civilization. But film criticism is dying a much faster death than civilization, and between film critics and Transformers 2, it seems most of civilized America would be glad to side with Optimus Prime.

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~ by russellhainline on August 9, 2009.

14 Responses to “How Joe Morgenstern’s Non-Review of GI Joe Hastens the Death of Film Criticism”

  1. Hey Russell,
    I’m not so sure I agree with your analysis here. Or anyways, it kind of sounds like you’re just asking for a different TYPE of critic which, as you mention, already exists (on-line). People write for their perceived audience, and the Wall Street Journal has a different demographic than, say, Aintitcoolnews.com, so their take on the material is understandably different. Personally, I think he’s justified to write a scathing review if he doesn’t like the movie he’s reviewing. He’s a professional that has seen hundreds of films–I’d wager far more than the average movie-goer–and as such his opinion *does* mean something. And I personally love that there are still guys like him around. If every critic were a fanboy there’d be even less reason for the job because they’d put a stamp of approval on just about every movie Hollywood spews out. And yes, that’s me speaking with a certain elitism, but I like character development, good acting, and well told stories that have something to say. In my mind, its people like Joe Morgenstern (though I prefer to read AO Scott, Christopher Orr, and Stanley Kauffman) that in fact are holding the bastion of film criticism in America. Films have more potential than to make a quick buck, and I don’t think you’re arguing on the right side in the audience v. professional dichotomy here. GI Joe, Transformers, etc. are going to make money because there’s an audience for them. Critics aren’t going to kill these movies, but they’d be doing us a disservice if they let this sort of drivel off the hook (and maybe they get some people to cross the aisle and give a movie they wouldn’t normally see a chance). They’re holding films to a higher standard…is that really a bad thing?
    -Fricano

  2. I forgot to mention that yes, this particular non-review is ridiculous. I totally agree with you on that one. I’m speaking more about your comments in the first couple of paragraphs. BUT he just seems to be giving an alternate view from things he’s seen in forums. I don’t see how that’s really all that horrible. Granted, I haven’t seen the movie, the trailer, or the forums.

  3. Well, my issue with criticism like this is it DOESN’T help sway audiences to see smarter films. It alienates those who like the dumb films from reading criticism, so they can’t get smarter or see new things– it’s a catch-22. Studios promote the dumb films, so they get watched, and they let the smart ones fend for themselves, so no one sees them, but we get mad at American audiences for not seeking them out, when folks in the Midwest/South don’t even get smaller movies in many countires, because the studios promote the dumb films, etc. etc. etc. It’s a damn shame, but patronizing those audiences who do like the escapist fare isn’t going to help folks listen to them.

    The problem with Morgenstern is that dismissal. Even Ebert, who gave it 1.5 stars, admitted kids will like it, and that it has its audience. THIS is what the world of film criticism needs, not overarching dismissal.

    It’s not about letting movies off the hook, per se. It’s about giving them a fair chance, and showing film critics as someone who give everything a chance. It’s why I call Ebert the GOAT: he legitimately loves movies, and hopes every time he sits down that a movie is great. (A.O. Scott is also good at this.) Morgenstern, and several other prominent critics, are guilty of pre-judgment.

    What he should do is ignore the forums (which, by the way, were giving very positive buzz as of the last couple weeks), and remember that he doesn’t have to stoop to their level. He has a Pulitzer, for Christ’s sake.

    And if he’d given the film a chance, he’d see it’s harmless fun, with lots of gadgets and actors giving fun performances. There has been silly escapist fare like this since the beginning of film– it’s nothing particularly new or particularly stupid. He’s just mad he lost out on a free ticket, and he sees the coming trend, where blockbusters can just exclude the critics altogether, and he’s trying to stomp his foot down before it happens. Unfortunately, he’s going about it in an awfully stupid and shortsighted way.

  4. I agree with a lot of what you’re saying, but allow me to play devil’s advocate for a second here. In Morgenstern’s view, films like GI Joe aren’t harmless fun. TO him they mark the ‘end of civilization,’–hyperbolic to be sure, but he sees these types of films as the end of cinema. Of course there’s been fun, escapist cinema since its inception, but there is a difference between something like Le Voyage Dans La Lune or something by Charlie Chaplin and many of the movies coming out today.

    I haven’t seen it, so bear that in mind…I may be way off base (and correct me if that’s the case, please) but GI Joe isn’t just escapist fare. It celebrates a certain militarism, and that’s the worst part of Ebert’s comment that it will have an audience in younger demographics. I’m no censor and I’m not saying movies like this shouldn’t be made (and I’m not advocating complete dismissal of it either), but in a way its a symptom not only of a movie industry that finds it easier to cash in on formulaic films with little character and plot development, but also, it seems, by celebrating the worst parts of society. I agree that his dismissal isn’t going to convince anyone–he’s basically preaching to the converted. And I totally agree that it isn’t the most eloquent argument that he’s given us, but I think its from a guy that genuinely sees these types of films as an affront, and he’s in a position to speak out against them.

    Again, in this particular instance he does resort to petty quibbles and snarky comments. He could have made a really thought provoking essay, even without seeing the film, but you’re right in that he falls into the trap of elitism with his straight out dismissal. In that way, you’re right. This ‘review’ could be seen as the a sign of the end of criticism. Criticism is as much an art as cinema itself-it has the potential to change the way we view and think about films. Morgenstern’s review is a bad omen indeed, if this is the state of film criticism in America these days.

  5. Yeah, I see what you’re saying and agree with most all of it. A couple of objections– Charlie Chaplin and Le Voyage weren’t the only escapist fare back in the day. They made plenty of shitty, brainless musicals, plenty of jingoistic war flicks, plenty of romantic dramas that haven’t stood the test of time and made it to DVD. It’s easy to say, “They don’t make them like they used to,” because it’s easy to forget a studio’s output yearly was literally five to ten times what it is today, and people saw nearly all of them.

    The militarism it celebrates is harmless and cartoony– it’s an advocate for militarism in the same way that kung fu films are advocates for kicking everyone’s ass that steps in your way. Now, Transformers 2, you could make an argument that the jingoism there was pretty over-the-top, in particular all the montages of the Army, Navy, and Air Force mounting up in slow motion. That was less the plot being offensive as Bay’s exploitation of montage imagery. But I digress.

    But yeah, the issue that Morgenstern creates is that he sets himself up to be dismissable by writing like this, by seeming like a guy who only wants to write to other 65-year-old men who are frightened and confused by explosions. There’s literally nothing he can write that will turn the American public away from its attraction to CGI… so he needs to write more creatively, giving backhanded compliments at best to films like this (if they deserve them, which I feel GI Joe does, actually), while promoting hard movies like The Hurt Locker, which would be a great time for anyone who liked Transformers 2 or GI Joe, but has far more brains and skill in its execution.

    And I agree, criticism is an artform. But much like movies look after the business side of things, with the business side of criticism wildly failing (there are a record few number of film critics who make a living in this business at the moment), those who do make a living doing this must protect the craft, otherwise the future of criticism will be fanboy conjecture and Internet ramblings– the very thing he is afraid of.

    • And one more thing: the villain is the weapons provider for America. Maybe it’s anti-militaristic after all? lol

      • You’re totally right about films made back in the day. I didn’t mean to imply that the entire output back then was better than it is today, but it came out that way. I was trying to say that there has been ‘good’ escapist fare since atleast the turn of the century…I don’t know why that sort of quality hasn’t progressed, but it seems that for every interesting movie made a year, 30 or 40 more come out that are unidentifiably different from material that’s come out 100 times already, save a few plot and character quirks and/or bigger, badder, explosions and CG. Films drive criticism, not the other way around. We’d be seeing better criticism if the majority of movies today weren’t carbon-copies of themselves.

        That’s an interesting plot twist I didn’t see coming. But it isn’t like everybody decides that weapons and war are wrong and they throw all their munitions into a big fire, right? 😛

  6. really? I personally agree with these “elitist holy-than-thou” critics (who are probably just “smarter-than-thou”. Transformers 2 was awful, and the fact that so many Americans actually liked it is evidence of our country’s declining mental values. I have not yet seen GI Joe and I won’t until it is at redbox, but I seriously doubt that it was worth the ridiculous amount of money that was spent on it.

  7. I sort of thought he was mad that studios can bypass professional film critics . . . and despite all the sloppy, self-satisfied love of the internet that internet “critics” drool all over each other, there are still such things as PROFESSIONAL movie critics, whose qualifications are to actually know something about film, and who have the credentials to prove it. For all of the “internet freedom of speech,” “great equalizer” BS, it remains true that calling yourself a “critic” just because you’d like to be one – and because you yourself feel some sort of smug superiority to professional critics by equating box office with artistic quality (or worse, arguing that box office negates the importance of artistic quality) – is fairly invalid. A blog and an attitude does not make your judgment of a cinematic artifact either informed or necessarily valid. Professional critics’ jobs are to evaluate the ARTISTIC MERIT of a film – a fun film can be “fun,” but that does not make it GOOD in terms of artistic merit. So go ahead and call it “fun” if that makes you feel better – and leave the educated analyses of films to those who have the education and the credentials to do so. Yet another example of how the internet is dumbing down the national artistic culture.

    • Mike, here are the ways in which you are wrong.

      1) “all the sloppy, self-satisfied love of the internet that internet “critics” drool all over each other”- I hate most online critics, except for a few, and those few are just as qualified if not more in the film of criticism than Joe Morgenstern.

      2. “it remains true that calling yourself a “critic” just because you’d like to be one – and because you yourself feel some sort of smug superiority to professional critics”- I don’t feel superior to him at all. He has a Pulitzer. But he went overboard here.

      3. “by equating box office with artistic quality”- I don’t know where you got this. I dislike a lot of box office hits.

      4. “or worse, arguing that box office negates the importance of artistic quality”- Again, not sure where you got this. It doesn’t negate artistic quality in the slightest. It’s when professional critics spend time scatting on films that the masses love for no reason other than anger– and yes, Morgenstern had no reason to do that, since he hadn’t seen it– that he undermines his own position as an authority for the masses and rather appears to just be writing for himself and the amusement of other critics. Artistic quality is important, but by dismissing a movie solely because it’s designed to make business, without even seeing it, hurts the art of film criticism.

      5. “A blog and an attitude does not make your judgment of a cinematic artifact either informed or necessarily valid.”- You’re right on this. It’s my training, my education, and my experience that makes my opinion informed. Its validity is subjective.

      6. “Professional critics’ jobs are to evaluate the ARTISTIC MERIT of a film – a fun film can be “fun,” but that does not make it GOOD in terms of artistic merit.”- It takes zero skill and/or artistic merit to make a fun film? Really, Mike? Have you ever tried making a film? Even a short film?

      7. “So go ahead and call it “fun” if that makes you feel better – and leave the educated analyses of films to those who have the education and the credentials to do so.”- Not only do I have the education and credentials, my analysis of GI Joe is a MILLION times more educated than Morgenstern’s. Wanna know why? I SAW THE MOVIE.

      8. “Yet another example of how the internet is dumbing down the national artistic culture.”- Go to some websites like Salon.com, or Greencine Daily, or Jim Emerson’s Scanners, and tell me again that the Internet’s sole purpose is to dumb down artistic culture. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.

  8. On another note, why does Morgenstern hate animated/fantasy-inspired films so much?

    Negative reviews for Harry Potter, Up, Monsters vs. Aliens, Watchmen, Coraline, Bolt, The Dark Knight… That’s just searching back as far as Dark Knight…

  9. Where is his review? The link…both here and elsewhere in the blogosphere…leads not to GI Joe, but a paean to a DVD box set. No sign of the “review” on the WSJ site.

    Hmmm.

  10. I’m not going to read this review, but I’m sure it’s very entertaining.

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