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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

weekend box office: the passion of the ‘Code’?

“You know a movie’s a dud when even its self-flagellating albino killer monk isn’t any fun,” says John Beifuss in his review of The Da Vinci Code in the Commercial Appeal of Memphis. (I wasn’t much kinder.) Except the movie isn’t a dud, at least as far as box office is concerned: it hauled in $77 million in North America this past weekend, and a whole bunch more money overseas. We critics may hate it — it’s only 22% fresh at Rotten Tomatoes — but that didn’t stop moviergoers from snapping up tickets anyway. Of course, it remains to be seen whether those ticket buyers were happy with their purchases: Will they spread bad word-of-mouth and will we see the box office drop precipitously next weekend? Or will they find something in it that critics didn’t, and tell all their friends it’s worth a look-see?

Julia Keller, the Chicago Tribune’s cultural critic, ponders the disconnect today:

So what’s it like to pay good money to see an instant national punch line? The search for the answer — much like the search for the Holy Grail itself, only with a less portentous soundtrack — leads us on to other questions.

Questions about shifts in critical authority as a million bloggers bloom. About the relationship between artistic merit and box office success. About just what it is we truly desire from our entertainment: diversion or enlightenment?

She doesn’t even begin to answer the questions, but she’s not jumping on critics for being out of touch, either:

Because taste is not a math problem, there is no “right” or “wrong” on the question of a movie’s merit.

Box office receipts can’t settle it, either, because quality and profitability get together these days about as often as Brad and Jen.

The best critics, moreover, aren’t in the business of telling you what to do. Their job is to suggest that if you do go, you might look for this or that. Criticism is a conversation, not an edict.

I can’t help but anticipate that we’ll be seeing a lot of commentary about the success of Code that is not so understanding of the work critics do. There will be much hand-wringing, no doubt, over how “necessary” critics are, as if the job of a critic was over once someone decided to go, or not to go, to a particular film. How many of those moviegoers who paid for a ticket this weekend will want some discussion and analysis of the film? And might they want that not only from like-minded friends but from critics who don’t entirely agree with them?

Probably not, actually. Some divides are too wide to bridge, as Keller discovered, inadvertantly:

But with so many critics lining up to box “The Da Vinci Code” on its expensive little ear, why did Elaine Kitteridge of Chicago — another member of my impromptu squad — show up? What makes her select a movie to see?

Her answer reminds us of the glorious ineffability of the arts, of the fact that even mass-market entertainment comes down to touching, one by one, individual souls.

“Passion,” she instantly declared. The lights had yet to come up in the theater, so you couldn’t see her eyes, but you could hear the gleam in her voice.

For Elaine Kitteridge of Wherever to have found such passion that it would make her voice gleam in what was, to my eyes and brain and heart, and almost entirely passionless film suggests a pretty big disconnect.

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