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Hey, Mr. Fox: Who's the audience? Who cares?

Without making a big deal of it, New York Times critic A.O. Scott slyly slips several sharp observations about the role of movie critics into this paragraph from his review of "The Fantastic Mr. Fox":

Is it is a movie for children? This inevitable question depends on the assumption that children have uniform tastes and expectations. How can that be? And besides, the point of everything [director Wes] Anderson has ever done is that truth and beauty reside in the odd, the mismatched, the idiosyncratic. He makes that point in ways that are sometimes touching, sometimes annoying, but usually worth arguing about. Not everyone will like "Fantastic Mr. Fox"; and if everyone did it, would not be nearly as interesting as it is. There are some children -- some people -- who will embrace it with a special, strange intensity, as if it had been made for them alone.

Those words could well have been written about Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers' "Where the Wild Things Are" a few weeks ago. And, in between "Wild Things" and "Mr. Fox," Scott published an interesting piece about what constitutes a "movie for children." He writes of sitting at the back of a theater showing "Wild Things":

The film had just opened to reviews that ranged from grouchy to ecstatic, and to quite a bit of hand wringing about its dark, sad, scary or otherwise non-child-appropriate content. There was a lot of speculation too about the size, composition and receptivity of the audience. Would children embrace it? Would adults be scared off? Who was this movie -- so melancholy in its whimsy, so rueful in its sentiment -- really meant for?

The answer, I believe, is probably more the concern of the studio marketing and accounting departments than of the critic. Of course it's wise for a reviewer writing for a general readership to address the consumer-report question of whether, in his/her judgement, the movie is addressing the same audience as, say, a beloved children's book. (Kids don't read reviews, but parents sometimes do.) But in terms of criticism, as Scott suggests, that observation ought to form the germ of a possible discussion about one aspect of the movie, not the Final Word.

Which brings up another question: How far can a critic responsibly go in claiming to speak for a by-no-means-homogeneous hypothetical audience (kids of a certain age? horror fans? animation aficionados? Jerry Lewis appreciators?) to which he¹ does or does not belong? Is it really desirable for a critic to offer an opinion -- based on a hunch or an educated guess -- about what persons in some other vaguely defined group will make of a particular picture? What's the point? I'd rather the critic speak for himself, tell me what he saw, not pretend to speak for me or anyone else. (Isn't that the definition of "presumptuous"?)² It's one thing for a critic to say "I rate this highly" or "I recommend this." But it's crossing the line to say "You should see (or not see) this." (To quote Principal Poop's heckler in "High School Madness": ""That's metaphysically absurd, man, how can I know what you hear?")

To me, a critic who makes explicit judgements he is not qualified to make is sidestepping his real responsibility. Don't come out and tell me you think I should "see it," "rent it," "wait for cable," "picket the theater" or "run away." I can make those decisions for myself. Just tell me about your experience, what you observed and what you make of it. (And, speaking as somebody who writes about movies, don't ask me to tell you if a movie is right for your kids. You live with them. I don't.)

It may seem pretty obvious to say, as AOS does, that "not everyone will like" a certain movie -- but he does so in the context of his "Mr. Fox" review to make a point similar to one Mark Harris wrote about a couple weeks ago ("Want to Start a Fight?"):

Anyone who has ever liked a film that most people hated has learned the hard way that it's much easier to tear a movie apart than to patiently explain why you loved it to people who didn't; you can end up feeling mocked and belittled just because a film touched you. And anyone who has ever hated a movie that everyone else liked knows the unpleasant sensation of being glowered at as if only some deficiency in your brain, heart, or soul could have prevented you from grabbing a seat on the Happy Train. We're about to begin the long march through Oscar season, a period that I fear will, this year, provide too few argument-starting films. When they come along, we should count ourselves lucky -- and I'm tempted to say we should play nice, except that such a bland little homily could not be less in the spirit of "Where the Wild Things Are." So instead I'll say, go wild! Have the fight, and encourage everybody else to have the fight too, or Hollywood will continue on its dull path of making nothing worth fighting over.

So, um, has anybody read the reviews for "Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire" (2009)? I've only dabbled, trying to avoid reading very much in advance, but the thing won Sundance last January and now that it's being rolled out across the country (to boffo b.o. last weekend), I haven't been able to notice that certain kinds of critical hysteria are building. More on that later...

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¹ or she

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