Years ago, once I was a movie critic, I used to be asked out for coffee by a man who’d just been hired on the review-aggregating website Rotten Tomatoes. I can’t remember the aim of the meeting. I just recall the sense — as he ventilated concerning the site’s “Tomatometer” rating, which might soon crush all my elitist insights into hard data — that I’d been summoned to witness the digging of my very own grave.
This was actually wonderful with me. I used to be already demoralized by the entire enterprise. I’d at all times seen the role of the critic as a conduit, someone who has an aesthetic experience after which reports on what it was like; I never cared to inform others what to see or avoid, imposing a hegemony of tastes and interests that I didn’t consider in. At work, though, I used to be feeling the pressure to serve readers with rankings and proposals — and, increasingly, sites like Rotten Tomatoes looked as if it would push a binary of “good” and “bad,” all based on consensus. It was depressing, all this holding up of fingers to the wind. Consensus is a snowball with a tough, mineral center, barreling down a slope, and few people need to be on the flawed side.
Sometimes consensus accretes across the story of a movie, even before people see the film itself. A few weeks ago, I attended a screening of “Don’t Worry Darling,” which I’d been looking forward to since first getting a glimpse of its poster. I had been vaguely aware of some noise emanating from the film’s press rollout, I suppose, nevertheless it wasn’t until the now-infamous spit video that I noticed just how much flak the movie was catching. The video showed Harry Styles, certainly one of the film’s stars, approaching his audience seat on the Venice Film Festival, suavely buttoning his jacket, leaning down after which — in keeping with nothing but gleeful online supposition — purportedly hocking a loogie on one other of the film’s stars, Chris Pine, who stops clapping and, together with his eyes, traces a trajectory from Styles’ lips to his own lap. No actual spit is discernible within the video, and no motive was ascribed. But none were needed. Those few frames of video were scrutinized, analyzed, slowed, zoomed, dissected and in comparison with the Zapruder film so often that the joke begged for mercy.
To me, though, the Cold War artifact it recalled was Kremlinology — the practice of scrying every available scrap of knowledge to discern the hidden motivations and power struggles of distant, unknowable figures. The events that drew such close attention to “Don’t Worry Darling” weren’t huge ones, within the scheme of things: They included a supposed feud between the director, Olivia Wilde, and the lead actress, Florence Pugh, possibly involving a pay gap between leads; the actor Shia LaBeouf’s being replaced, under disputed circumstances, with Styles; LaBeouf’s leaking messages from Wilde about Pugh; Wilde’s being served with custody papers from her ex-fiancé, Jason Sudeikis, while onstage at CinemaCon; and, above all, Wilde’s becoming romantically involved with Styles, 10 years her junior. Where the theoretical animosity between Styles and Pine was alleged to slot in was unclear. But by then people were glad to consider anything — even the baseless-rumor equivalent of jumping the shark — so long as it kept constructing the story of a lady who fostered a piece environment so fraught that one star would spit on one other, in public and on camera, for no apparent reason.
“Don’t Worry Darling” is just probably the most recent example of a movie maudit, or “cursed film.” That was the term coined for Jean Cocteau’s Festival du Film Maudit in 1949, describing works that had been wrongfully neglected, or deemed too outrageous to merit serious attention — “movies rendered marginal by disrepute,” as J. Hoberman would later write in The Village Voice. Movies made by women aren’t the one ones stuck on this defensive position, but they appear disproportionately vulnerable to it, often with criticism centering on the director herself. (Elaine May’s experience on “Ishtar” was such that Hoberman classed her as a cineaste maudit; she wouldn’t direct again for many years.) Hints of a production’s chaos or excess are less more likely to be taken as signs of unruly genius, and more often framed as messiness or lack of authority. The more that talk swirled around “Don’t Worry Darling,” the more its quality — after which, specifically, Wilde’s competence — were called into query.
Out comes the Tomatometer, and the party’s over.
Cinema has a century’s value of lore about movies troubled by budget overages, clashing personalities and on-set affairs: Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski’s wanting to kill one another while making “Fitzcarraldo,” mental breakdowns on the set of “Apocalypse Now,” Peter Bogdanovich’s leaving his actual genius of a wife after an affair with a young Cybill Shepherd on “The Last Picture Show.” These productions were affected by bad press and rumors, but they never faced the wrath of stan Twitter. Today, fans spread rumors and memes, that are picked up by media outlets, which disguise their prurience with speculation about box-office prospects or reviews. Then out comes the Tomatometer, and the party’s over.
But in fact the concept that this consensus opinion emerges from some pure, objective place is disingenuous. Press at all times colours reviews — and now some vocal portion of the general public seems oddly invested in Wilde’s comeuppance, a fact we might even see reflected in rankings. (Given statements Wilde has made about a few of the film’s real-world inspirations, it’s not hard to assume the net response including the form of organized backlash that has greeted other disfavored movies.) And while critics’ responses won’t be actively malicious, they won’t be magically freed from their very own biases, either. “Kind of the definition of the history of cinema,” Richard Brody wrote in The Recent Yorker in 2012, “is: the stuff that almost all of the best-known critics didn’t like, or damned with faint praise — it isn’t that they didn’t take care of it, but that they didn’t care about it.” Male film critics outnumber female ones 2 to 1, and are inclined to award “barely higher average quantitative rankings to movies with male protagonists,” in keeping with studies conducted by Martha Lauzen of San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film.
It’s odd that this might be the fate of “Don’t Worry Darling,” a movie about men trapping women in a regressive, suffocating place where dissent means repudiation and exile — a movie whose big plot developments should be hard for Wilde to withstand talking about, given how much the narrative surrounding the film echoes their point. Nevertheless it’s inconceivable to debate without spoiling the story, so I’ll just share an anecdote. My 14-year-old daughter got here with me to the screening, unencumbered by external baggage. When the credits began to roll, she announced, “That was the very best movie I’ve ever seen in my whole life.” Seeing Wilde’s name among the many solid, she asked which character the director had played. After I told her, she was impressed. She said: “I would like to be her. I would like to do what she does.” It made me glad to listen to this. After which I began to worry.
Source photographs: Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images; Screen grab from Warner Bros.
Carina Chocano is the writer of the essay collection “You Play the Girl” and a contributing author for the magazine. She incessantly writes for the magazine’s Screenland column.