The Jaundiced Pointillism of Rotten Tomatoes

The human mind is prone to shortcuts. We seek order, trends, simplicity; we look for patterns and simple answers to make the chaos of the world easier to comprehend and articulate. The gap is widening. The world is more chaotic and riddled with information than ever before but we still hold close to this tendency, this flaw, if you will. We are forced to contend with and distill larger waves than ever and, in the process, the unseen underbelly of the iceberg below the surface is looming larger. The way we crave, seek out, and construct consensus and aggregation is emblematic of this propensity. We like thinks tidy and easy. In this process we overlook the details, we make generalizations, and we avoid the wonders of complexity and incomprehensibility.

Our desire for accumulation and efficiency is alive and well in film and media discourse. Media reviews and critiques in general play to this, offering concepts and categories like conventions, genres, tropes, styles, etc. They discuss the treatment of a laundry list in an orderly fashion, seeking to crack the logic of the piece. Media review aggregation sites represent the current apotheosis of this aspiration in this realm. They up the ante by collecting and summarizing large quantities of summations. Intended or not, these sites are emblematic of how our minds work and the modern world we are forced to make sense of. Rotten Tomatoes is a great example and the poster child for this cottage industry.

Rotten Tomatoes’ Tomatometer is quite the enigma. It is a measure of opinion. It aggregates reviews and displays a handy, one-size-fits-all reading—the percentage of “approved Tomatometer critics” who have given a movie a positive review. It’s all very scientific: 60% is the freshness threshold and reaching this mark gets the fresh, plump cartoon tomato icon; anything less gets the sickly green splatter of a smashed rotten tomato. If, after enough reviews are collated, a movie achieves a consensus over 75% it is “Certified Fresh” and that plump tomato is fitted with a golden halo proclaiming the certification.

With this, Rotten Tomatoes provides a tidy delineation between light diversions, high art, and the doldrums of the film world. They and their like—Metacritic, MRQE, etc.—have become gatekeepers in media criticism, analysis, and discourse, in more ways than one. They provide a swift summation of a movie’s “quality”, while also selecting the particular voices that contribute to this meter. They also standardize and solidify how we discuss film and media and how this discussion is measured, articulated, and summed. They do so with a metric built on something that was heretofore unmeasurable and ephemeral—personal taste and opinion—and have turned this into a beast of a brand. In the process, they effectively crystallize and flatten the discourse. The measure of success and failure is reduced to a simple positive/negative dichotomy and designated with a particular number and label. It’s an uncanny sort of pointillism where the individual components fade over time and the big picture permanently consumes the minutiae.

On this subject, a funny thing happened recently, and it has gone almost totally unnoticed, that threw the absurdity and power of this whole enterprise in relief. It was a blink-and-you-miss-it-type alteration that spoke volumes. Here’s the context: with the recent unveiling of Xfinity’s X1 system, Rotten Tomatoes became a partner, and now, as one scrolls through the On Demand options for movies, the Tomatometer score and the “Audience Score” appear along with the film information, helping viewers select titles based on general consensus. Viewers are even able to set their search parameters accordingly.

So, in a recent spot for Xfinity’s On Demand service, Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken was featured as a recently added movie available for rent or purchase. Unbroken currently holds a 51% rating on the Tomatometer and its RT webpage is emblazoned with that green blob at the top next to the film’s title and poster image. But, in this recent commercial featuring Jolie’s indifferently-received period-piece, at the end of the 15 seconds, an approximation of the film’s X1 info page shows the film’s poster with a tiny ripe tomato icon next to it and a barely perceptible 51% tucked in a small font next to that tiny ripe red fruit (or vegetable, the jury is still out). All this to say that the simple, predictable, troublesome formula concocted at Rotten Tomatoes headquarters was stretched just enough by their new partners-in-gatekeeping and Unbroken went from rotten to fresh—and, by their metrics, from a not-so-good film to a good film. The absurdity and the commercialism and the queasy value of those cartoon icons were laid bare by that 9% disparity and that tiny red tomato they tried to slip under our nose.

It is important never to forget the economy behind film. It is an industry, it is a product, and the tension between economy and creative expression bubbles to the surface here. The above example shows the capacity for such sites and labels to be used as a marketing tool. These sites curate expectation, they curate opinion, they guide word-of-mouth, they ensure that the right audience is in the right theater, they deflate experience. Film trailers have progressively followed this trend as well, revealing more plot to target audiences more directly. It is a delicate balancing act between creating a swell of excitement and tempering anticipation, and increasingly consensus and constructed narratives play a larger part in this balancing act. They set an expectation for what is to come. The broad strokes are painted. Star systems, grades, superlatives, all these provide labels, short-hand reminders, triggers for what the movie is, was, and will be. The spectrum of reaction is squeezed. Hampered is the idea that films can and should elicit an array of emotions and that this can mutate over time.

Because of the market, because of the economy of the form, the industry has preferred certain types of narratives throughout its history, playing to certainty and remaining cautious of marginal perspectives, deviant opinions, and alienating styles. Tallying positive reviews and favorable reactions hews close to this. Certain types of films with particular perspectives and narratives are more likely to win favor. Long-standing perspectives and styles will be reinforced, and aggressive, bold, off-putting statements will fare relatively poorly, perpetuating the cycle and the narrative, and centralizing our demands of the form. Now that Rotten Tomatoes is stretching further, ingraining its brand in other outlets and with other companies, and spreading to other media, the monetization of the system is butting against the capacity for discourse and community involvement. The numbers and labels are being removed from their original context. The underlying opinions and experiences are left behind. Only the Tomatometer remains.

These consensuses provide us with a label; they proffer a narrative, a canon, a historicity to unwieldy, amorphous fields. By canonizing a certain continuum of films and movements, we are able to not only fixate on a logical progression of the form and provide a tangible throughline to make sense of it, but we can also centralize different aspects of the form. We can decide what makes a successful film, what constitutes productive stylistic and topical trends, and what falls outside this. It is problematically narrowing, constricting, unifying, and reductive. We have been a generation perhaps overly informed, removed, distanced from surprise, cautious about what we consume and experience because we know there is too much out there to waste time. The increase is exponential and we need a way to manage it, contain it, access it within reason. But, a great deal is lost in this compromise—a bit of the magic of film, the spontaneity and uncertainty of the unknown. Participation in the social discourse around these texts is vital, as is a considered, objective experience of these works; but, what is the ideal balance between these two important but often conflicting components.

And, how should we rate films? How should we assess them? How should we articulate this assessment? Is the most agreeable film the best? Shouldn’t film and art provoke, unsettle, upend, undermine, even revile? Based on our collective predilections, it seems inevitable that we would find ourselves here; inevitable that we would attribute numbers and ratings to art. At the same time, it is essential to hold to the evanescent—the idea that these are bone-deep experiences and reactions cannot be measured, and sometimes can only barely be articulated. Conformity and centralization are antithetical for a generation that has tended toward finding outlets to express originality, deviation, provocation, and novelty. At the same time, our minds are transient; our memories and opinions decay. Renewed experience and exposure is necessary. We change, we grow, we shift, we forget. Affixing a label, a particular designation, a certification is a permanent mark on a malleable, evolving form and comes with the danger of confusing the label for the memory of experience. We yearn to remember it all, to hold on to even a piece. It is this impulse that compels us to make lists and rankings, and scrutinize and dissect these rankings. They can, admittedly, be a hell of a lot of fun. And, they often illuminate and sometimes celebrate the vast spectrum of reactions and perspectives people can have toward popular media and culture. But, film and experience are and will always be liquid, only taking a form when forced into a container.

This article was written by Oliver O’Sullivan, a writer for dusk magazine.

1 Comment on The Jaundiced Pointillism of Rotten Tomatoes

  1. Frances Slizewski // June 18, 2015 at 12:20 pm // Reply

    This article hit the nail on the head with regard to what our culture seeks out nowadays. Audiences are looking for someone to tell them in a very simple way whether they should see a movie or not – good or bad. No talk of nuances. And movie makers will ultimately look not at what the film is telling its viewers but at how many people will fill the seats and put dollars in their pockets. As personal opinion and insight leave the room, so does true art.


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