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Critical Dialogue: IMDb Nation

By Max Nelson on April 16, 2013

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IMDB comments

We expect professional critics, whenever they discuss a given film, to prove why it makes sense to talk about this movie as opposed to any other. Often the work is done for the critics ahead of time, by the programmers, producers, and archivists who bring new films to theaters and resurrect older ones from obscurity. In any case, there’s a burden to explain why a long-neglected film has something to say about the way we live today, why, for lack of a better word, it is relevant.

But on the lively user reviews section of IMDb, the vast online movie database celebrated by Vivian Sobchack in the March-April issue of FILM COMMENT, every film is relevant to someone. There is something beautiful about the fact that you could post a lukewarm review of the 2007 Kevin Costner serial-killer drama Mr. Brooks six years down the road without ever being asked why—and something still more beautiful about the fact that you wouldn’t be alone.

IMDB comments

“Way back in 2008-ish my boss told me about Mr. Brooks,” writes thesar-2 from the United States. “To this day, I still want to thank him.” Other commentators were less satisfied: “if you enjoy The Sharper Image catalog, reality TV and torturing small animals,” responds NightOwl0, “than this is the movie for you.” Some see the film in light of wider-ranging cultural trends: Matt from the U.S. calls it “a nice alternative to the torture flick du jour . . . an assault to the mind, not the eyes.” Others peddle narrower pet theories: QBSNIDERLOES from Florida considers it an elaborate metaphor for the Iraq war.

“Whatever the individual reviews lack in particulars,” writes Sobchack, “they gain in the aggregate.” She’s suggesting not that we make use of the reviewers as a single representative voice, but that we appreciate the diversity of their backgrounds and the often contentious interplay between comments: “It is not only their quantity that is meaningful but also their geographical spread (sometimes charting the trajectory of the film’s release), their chronology (a lot of posts suggest by their time stamps that their writers might have camped out to get into the first screenings), their revelations of viewer attitudes and tastes, and above all, their rare consensus and vigorous debates.”

IMDB comments

IMDb’s critics might say that the user comments are for the most part long on opinions and short on arguments—and they’d be right. (One reviewer closes an especially brutal review of Mr. Brooks by assuring us that “what I’m telling you is true.”) Critical debates, they might continue, require more than passion and conviction; they demand reasons, theses, claims and counter-claims. But there is another sort of dialogue to which those critics are often blind—based on categorical oppositions, naked personal preference, the clash of reactionary dismissal with reactionary support, and the topping of loud voices with louder ones—that perhaps more accurately mirrors the way film is actually discussed, debated, and dealt with on a large scale.

In a day and age of review aggregate sites, IMDb continues to endorse the value of the intractable opinion and the irresolvable standoff. And to remind us that every film—from Mr. Brooks to Over the Hedge (“Cute farce about creatures on the perimeter of the suburban dream”) to the 1929 early-talkie revue Happy Days (for which one guerrilla scholar tells the life story of a single chorus member mislabeled in the site’s cast list) to the 2008 made-for-TV-movie Cyclops (“It's really unimaginable that we can produce things so bad when you consider that there are humans who have not even eaten anything”)—is capable of provoking a standoff of its own.

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