About a week ago, during the time the Telluride Film Festival was in full swing and TIFF was just getting started, I noticed a few tweets and sentiments bemoaning the rapturous responses to films like 12 Years a Slave and Gravity, implying that they would be the latest victims of critics and bloggers overstating a film’s quality before release. Rather than taking the responses at face value and getting excited about the films, the reaction was one of skepticism. This got me thinking, do critics and bloggers have some sort of responsibility to temper their reactions to films for the benefit of those who have yet to see them, lest they become victims of the dreaded “overhype”?
It’s an odd concept to me, that a response to a film could be judged as less than genuine, or over the top, before those passing judgment have seen the films in question. Many cited how they’d been burned in the past by festival hype setting their expectations too high, only to find themselves underwhelmed by films once they actually see them. This is fair, and I’ve certainly had my experiences with it.
Last year I found myself baffled by the responses to Holy Motors, a film that seemed like it critics had stopped just short of calling it the greatest film ever made. But was my disappointment rooted in the film itself, or the response to the film? David Ehrlich of Film.com suggests “If a few people get seduced into thinking a film is ‘overhyped’, that’s their problem,” later conceding his own reaction to this year’s Palme d’Or winner at Cannes “I was underwhelmed by Blue is the Warmest Color, but I would have been even without Cannes. The Palme d’Or just changed the tenor of my disappointment.”
I think I would tend to agree with that concession. But it still begs the question of whether or not the critic is responsible for where expectations land after the fact. Josh Spiegel of Sound on Sight believes it’s a mixed bag that really only affects the conversation within the critical and blogging community. “I think festival hype can both help and hurt new films. The initial reaction to a movie can be rapturous, which only leads the next wave of critics and audiences to greet it more dubiously; thus, if, 12 Years A Slave isn’t the greatest piece of storytelling since the days of Greek drama, it’s automatically a failure. At some point, people criticize festival hype, not the films being hyped. That aside, even that counter-intuitive hype still raises audience interest. Someone might not have heard of 12 Years A Slave before TIFF; now, though, if Critic X praised it to the heavens, that random person may be excited to check it out even if his or her expectations are perhaps too high.”
Perhaps hyperbolic tweets can set expectations too high, but at the end of the day, they’re little more than 140 characters hopelessly attempting to capture a reaction immediately out of a screening. Like any kneejerk response, these things should probably be taken with a grain of salt until actual critical writing gets published. Whether or not a film experiences some sort of perceived backlash within the film writing community on twitter, if just one person now wants to see Short Term 12 because they heard it was a huge hit out of SXSW, than the argument against festival hype is a bit moot.