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Captain Nihilist is both a contrarian and a conformist


This piece isn’t going to be mainly about webcomics, but criticism in general.

I’d like to take a look at something called “The District 9 Incident.”

It started when NY Press film reviewer Armond White posted a critical review of District 6. The piece was entitled “From Mothership to Bullship,” and it contained choice quotes like the one below:

Fools will accept District 9 for fantasy, yet its use of parable and symbolism also evoke the almost total misunderstanding that surrounds the circumstance of racial confusion and frustration recently seen when Harvard University tycoon Henry Louis Gates Jr. played the race card against a white Cambridge cop. Opening so soon after that event—and adding to its unending media distortion—District 9 confirms that few media makers know how to perceive history, race and class relations.

This got the fanboys howling. Some of the criticisms were legitimate. However, quite a few were angry that that the perfect 100% Rotten Tomatoes rating was sullied. Armond White was their bogey man. There were some calls that his review be stricken from the annals of Rotten Tomatoes forever.


What followed was a spirited defense from Roger Ebert. He went through White’s article point by point and said that each and every one of them were valid. And then he retracted after someone pointed out that White had awful taste (or, in more civil terms, tastes that did not comply with Roger Ebert or the general movie critics’ standards).

On Thursday night I posted in entry in defense of Armond White’s review of “District 9.” Overnight I received reader comments causing me to rethink that entry, in particular this eye-popping link supplied by Wes Lawson. I realized I had to withdraw my overall defense of White. I was not familiar enough with his work. It is baffling to me that a critic could praise “Transformers 2” but not “Synecdoche, NY.” Or “Death Race” but not “There Will be Blood.” I am forced to conclude that White is, as charged, a troll.

Let me tell you something, it’s not every day you see Roger Ebert call a fellow reviewer a troll.

This touched off an article in Slate. Daniel Engber wrote about whether critics can be too contrarian in your reviews. (A contrarian being someone who goes against popular opinion just for the hell of it.) You see, Engber was also one of the few who did not like District 9, and he was also pilloried by fanboys everywhere.

The first lesson is that you can’t be a successful critic if no one agrees with you. (No one in the group lives on the contrarian side of the scale.) Second, you can’t be a successful critic if too many people agree with you. (The biggest conformist, Keith Phipps, tops the list at 83 percent.) I wonder if there’s a third lesson, too. It’s striking that White is so perfectly positioned at the center of the graph, while his colleagues cluster so neatly a little farther down—at what might be deemed a respectable level of dissent. Could it be that professional film critics (not amateurs like me) somehow keep track, consciously or not, of how often they rock the boat?

His article also provides a handy visual aid: a scale plotting the most contrarian critics to the most conformist critics. Engber states that White is the most contrarian, yet at only 50% he’s not as contrarian as other will lead you to believe. (The argument is somewhat flawed, however, especially when you get into discussion if 50% is a true midpoint for dissent, but whatever.)

Which prompted Keith Phipps of the AV Club to issue a rebuttal.

…If I’m conforming to something I don’t know what it is. There’s no such thing as seeing a film in a vacuum. When I see a movie with co-workers and colleagues here in Chicago we inevitably end up talking about it after the screening. By then I feel like my opinion is already in place, but who’s to say? (This is to say nothing of some fellow critics who, intentionally or not, change the temperature of a screening with audible scoffs and other unwelcome gestures.)

Looks like we got ourselves a Fatal Fourway of extraordinary magnitude in this piece! Armond White vs. Roger Ebert vs. Daniel Engber vs. Keith Phipps. Clearly, we can only solve this by sitting everyone down for some beer on the White House lawn. Or pitting them all against Shaq. Whatever.

I tend to side with Armond White, since I do think that a reviewer should be free to develop his or her own standards over whether something is good or not. Sure, I don’t agree with a lot of White’s reviews. And he does say some pretty outrageous things, but, truth be told, so does Roger Ebert.

What I do like about “The District 9 Incident” is that it raises a lot of questions. There might be no true webcomic review aggregator like Rotten Tomatoes, Metacritic, or Pitchfork for webcomics, but there is an internal sense of comics that are generally regarded as good and comics that are generally regarded as terrible. Since The Webcomic Overlook has been accused of being both a contrarian and a conformist at different times, I thought I’d address a few things.
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Metapost: Roger Ebert on the Five-Star Rating System

So why am I posting a link to a blog posting from Roger Ebert on this here review site? This is a webcomic site, not a movie site! No doubt some you want to sit me down, pour me a nice, cold glass of milk, and say: “El Santo, webcomics are COMICS on THE WEB.”

And I’d drink that milk because it’s a particularly warm day in Seattle today, and because I need some calcium. But Ebert comments on an interesting grievance that may be of interest to the many reviewers who drop by this site: “You give out too many stars.”

Roger Ebert on giving out stars.

Really a little man jumping and clapping.

Hence, I’m posting this link because I get a lot of questions — surprise! — on why certain webcomics are ranked the way they do. Ebert discusses the topic of star ratings, and he elaborates on these nifty points:

  • Gene Siskel boiled it down: “What’s the first thing people ask you? Should I see this movie? They don’t want a speech on the director’s career. Thumbs up–yes. Thumbs down–no.”
  • Once the scent of blood is in the water, the sharks arrive. I like to write as if I’m on an empty sea. I don’t much care what others think. “The Women” scored an astonishingly low 28 score at Metacritic. “Sex and the City” scored 53. How could “The Women” be worse than SATC? See them both and tell me. I am never concerned about finding myself in the minority.
  • I have quoted countless times a sentence by the critic Robert Warshow (1917-1955), who wrote: “A man goes to the movies. The critic must be honest enough to admit that he is that man.” If my admiration for a movie is inspired by populism, politics, personal experience, generic conventions or even lust, I must say so. I cannot walk out of a movie that engaged me and deny that it did.
  • I cringe when people say, “How could you give that movie four stars?” I reply, “What in my review did you disagree with?” Invariably, they’re stuck for an answer. One thing I try to do is provide an accurate account of what you will see, and how I feel about it. I cannot speak for you. Any worthwhile review is subjective.

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