Culture Warrior

Two weeks ago, thousands of people read a restaurant review in full for the very first time. Many of these people don’t live anywhere near the restaurant, or would have no intention of visiting it if they did. Pete Wells’s Socratic takedown of Guy Fieri’s bloated American Kitchen & Bar in Times Square is an exemplary work of fiery, hilarious, righteously indignant criticism. By constructing nearly the entire review through questions, Wells paints a detailed picture of his experience while simultaneously explicating, point-by-point, its astronomical failure.

So why the hell am I writing about a review of a restaurant on a movie site? As the vast reception and ensuing conversation about Wells’s review indicates, the implications of this singular work stem far beyond food criticism.

Movie critics and restaurant critics may seem to have as much in common as apples and celluloid in the world of written evaluation. However, as leisure activities, movie theaters and restaurants share a great deal. After all, dining out and moviegoing just about weigh even in the ritual of the American first date, and these activities are regularly combined, sometimes simultaneously (thanks, Alamo Drafthouse!). But beyond the disparate objects of analysis, Wells’s work brings to light several important concerns particular to the enterprise of film criticism.

The Bigger They Are…

In order for rhetorical devices like Wells’s colorful interrogation to be an effective mode of criticism, they have to be used very sparingly – not only because the affect would lessen with each new iteration, but because a particular dynamic needs to be in play in order to justify going so far off the beaten path of critical formulas.

In 2008, our own Cole Abaius began doing something similar to Wells’s takedown with his “In Regards to Your Movie…” reviews, which attempted to address filmmakers directly on a series of remarkably bad decisions. Cole started these reviews with Nights in Rodanthe and has written negative evaluations in the same vein only a few times since. The choices that Cole made about which films would be subjected to this approach – Saw V, He’s Just Not That Into You, Twilight, Religulous – all have something in common: they’re not from the little guys.

Whether it’s the latest entry in a franchise that has a guaranteed turnout, a toe-dip into documentaries by a famous talk show host, or a sappy Nicholas Sparks adaptation from two movie stars who should know better, the work of the entertainingly scathing review is – if you agree with the evaluation – simply an act of speaking truth to power. If you disagree with the evaluation, however, then you might be happy to know that power has the ability to go on The Today Show and explain itself.

This isn’t to say such reviews should only be delivered to those for whom the critique will have minimal material effect. By all means, critical discourse should be able to effect outcome if it’s pervasive enough. But regardless as to whether or not it does, there’s an important difference between A) writing a bad review for a guy who has a long-running cable show about processed food or a financially successful movie series whose habitual output makes it feel like processed food, and B) writing a bad review for a struggling restauranteur in an outer borough or a no-budget film by a first-time filmmaker.

I have a colleague who adamantly refuses to write reviews for bad indies at festivals, because in such cases his work can potentially have a perceptible negative outcome on the careers of those involved, possibly preventing later opportunities for distribution and exhibition that would otherwise enable other people to come to their own opinion. It’s an admirable stance on the ethics of film criticism that I’m not sure I agree with. (If a movie has passed through the gatekeepers of a festival, shouldn’t it be open to public evaluation?) Regardless, any review – fresh, rotten, eat soon – should be honest at its core (duh), but scathing rhetorical devices should be utilized exclusively for the otherwise invulnerable.

The Means of Production Don’t Matter…

Sausage Being Made

How movies get made.

Guy Fieri’s ensuing “defense” of his restaurant has largely consisted of his repeated point that running a restaurant is a very difficult venture and the kinks are still being worked out after being open a “few months.” This is a maneuver frequently utilized to combat criticism: the assumption that, if the critic were privy to the means of production and the mechanics of the process, they would come away with a sympathetic new outlook and, thus, a miraculously reoriented opinion.

A report on the inner-workings of a restaurant as mammoth as Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar would make for an interesting piece of journalism, but it wouldn’t be criticism. Similarly, while a set visit can reveal the complex means of production of an anticipated film, it represents the furthest one can get from credible evaluation. This is not because critics who engage in such activities are somehow rendered incapable of giving said restaurant or film a fair shake; regardless of insider knowledge, a professional critic should recognize shit when s/he eats or sees it. But the problem with getting access to exclusive spaces is exactly that: it’s an experience that the reader interested in the review can, most likely, never replicate.

When exposed to the means of production, the critic is turned into a conduit, the vessel through which privileged information moves from the source to the audience. Wells, a human being, probably would develop empathy if he were shown Fieri’s football team of cooks and the hours it takes to close a restaurant with hundreds of tables, just as a film critic would do the same if s/he witnessed an editor pulling a 24-hour shift. That doesn’t make the result of those means any different. Some people work really, really hard on really, really bad movies.

Film critics can’t take the place of “average moviegoers” (if there is such a discernible category of people) simply because of the many differences between work and leisure, expertise and escape. But the critic should be able to evaluate the final product as a spectator, not a medium.

…But Context Does

Here’s where film criticism has the most to gain from other types of criticism. Restaurant and food criticism often overlap a great deal because context is a hugely determining element of the overall experience. The quality of service, the aura of the room, or even the volume of the restaurant’s speakers influences one’s contact with the food.

When critics review movies, they often discuss the movie alone as if all movies simply provide, by virtue of mass production, an identical encounter everywhere. But movies don’t exist in a vacuum; the context of viewing can attribute significantly to the quality of experience.

Sure, movie reviews should be able transcend the local more than restaurant reviews. But there has been a great deal of discussion lately about poor projection alongside un-policed talking and cell phone use in movie theaters. Shouldn’t critics reserve a space in reviews where they reward the venues that do things right and take frustrating multiplexes to task? This would only be only a small extension of the already-regular practice of imparting advice on whether or not readers should see a film in IMAX, 3D, RegularVision, etc. if such options are available.

Commercial moviegoers might lack the vocabulary to explain to a teenager making popcorn for minimum wage that a 2.35:1 film is bleeding onto the curtains of a 1.85:1 screen, or that the lens for the previous 3D movie hasn’t been properly replaced for the 2D lens. It’s safe to assume most commercial moviegoers don’t want to leave a film they paid to see to solve a problem for everyone else. But most film critics can speak in detail about service and give recommendations for better theaters in a given area for those who care to take the extra step. So it’s time to capitalize on that information and out shitty scenarios for spectatorship.

Cynical Ventures Deserve to Be Mercilessly Destroyed

Let’s face it: Guy’s American Bar & Grill sounds like a cynical, shamelessly inauthentic venture. I’m not making the elitist condemnation that this is just “Times Square food.” At least Hard Rock Cafe has decent burgers, but Fieri’s restaurant seems to be all flare and spectacle with a cold, undercooked substance at its core. Fieri’s brand is a no-apologies embrace of America’s most excessive cuisine. But according to Wells’s review, Fieri can’t even meet his own seemingly modest promise, hiding blandness under the rug of wordily-titled entrées and a T-shirt stand.

Movies and restaurants provide essentially inauthentic experiences in that they manufacture an event patrons are expected to interpret in a particular way that was determined well before they arrived. But beyond the façade should be something real to hold onto. Therefore, lazy, hyped productions of leisure that don’t even meet their most elemental promise should be the subject of the most scathing critical evisceration.

And there’s plenty of cynicism in movies today to be righteously indignant toward. Critics should not hesitate rhetorically destroying “mindless entertainment” that’s too dumb to let you turn your mind off and isn’t even entertaining. Reviewers should feel free to verbally annihilate the latest in the Weinsteins’ assembly line of manufactured Awards magnets. Pop culture commentators should not stall their wrath if Hollywood forgets how to make a standalone movie. Also, Adam fucking Sandler.

Basic adequacy and competence is never too much to demand from powerful producers of culture.

Just remember to tip your wait staff.

I’ll Be Here All Week


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