Don't hate me, I'm just a movie critic

Our reviewer responds to the deluge of mail after he panned 'Lord of the Rings.'

Keep those e-mails and letters coming, folks! But can we correspond about something besides "The Lord of the Rings" for a while? I've riled up a lot of moviegoers with my lukewarm reviews of the trilogy - and they've let me know, with a vengeance.

Here's a small sampling.

"When one is the lone voice of dissent, it's often the case that the dissenter simply has poor taste in films," says one of the more respectfully written missives.

"Do your [paper] a favor and post reviews by a real critic like Ebert or maybe even a small monkey," writes a reader who seems a tad more peeved. "You are trying to get a name for yourself by dissing this movie," says another, raising a possibility - getting a name for myself - that hadn't occurred to me!

"Your movie critic is an idiot," says a correspondent who doesn't mince words.

"Booooooooo," writes someone who minces them even less. One asks me if I grew up near a toxic-waste dump, and another inquires about mistreatment I may have suffered as a child.

Now you know why we movie critics always tell our editors we deserve hazard pay. I answered as many e-mails as time allowed, and along the way I realized some raised issues worth writing about in return.

For example: "You praise all the stupid movies either nobody's heard of or were really dumb and boring, then give bad reviews to all of the popular, well-liked, box office hits.... I strongly suggest you end your job as a critic."

What's interesting here is the idea that a critic's function is to echo the tastes of some hypothetical average moviegoer. I enjoy popular, well-liked movies - why, last month alone I gave good reviews to pictures like "Torque" and "Win a Date With Tad Hamilton," which ought to suggest I'm not exactly a cinema snob.

But a critic's job goes further than that. We're supposed to form our own opinions and then articulate them in a sort of long-distance dialogue with our readers.

Of course, I have my prejudices. Nothing pleases me more than a movie that gives my own imagination a workout, asking me to interpret and ponder its contents for myself. Nothing pleases me less than a picture that dishes up knee-jerk formulas, making me feel like one of Pavlov's trained puppies. But readers can easily spot my idiosyncrasies and take them into account when reading my reviews.

I suspect many of my correspondents saw my "LOTR" reviews on websites for Tolkien and fantasy fans, rather than in the Monitor itself, since "we" crops up more often than "I" in the most aggressive (sometimes unprintable) messages.

Most of the e-mails can be grouped into a few basic categories. Many come from people who feel I've hopelessly misunderstood author J.R.R. Tolkien and filmmaker Peter Jackson all my life, and want to set me straight. Others complain I'm just snooty and want to flaunt my supercilious airs. Still others take genuine pity on me, and want to enlighten me so I can love the movies too.

The idea that I simply found the movies less than sensational doesn't seem to have crossed many of their minds. I came to "LOTR" with high hopes, as a Tolkien admirer who's read all the books more than once. Most of the trilogy disappointed me with wooden acting, unconvincing settings, and more emphasis on dazzling effects than real emotions. The series got better as it went along, but I've seen no reason to revise my response, which is based more on the letdown I felt as a moviegoer than any high-minded ideas I might cook up as a critic.

And hey, I'm not the lone voice of dissent. There are folks out there who agree with me! "I'm very pleased to see someone looked past the surface of this series," wrote one of them, "and saw that the 'adapters' have cut the heart out of this epic masterpiece.... My inner fan boy cries out for something more."

Another wrote, "I believe these movies appeal mainly to those who were Tolkien readers first and now enjoy seeing the stories 'fleshed out' in gloriously computer-generated images. You may be in a minority of film critics, but you have at least one bleary-eyed, mentally numb supporter." Said another, "I left the theater marveling that despite having given Peter Jackson more than nine hours of my life, he had somehow failed to engage my emotions for more than 10 or 15 minutes."

Such support notwithstanding, I know I'm in a small minority, even among my movie-critic colleagues. And I reluctantly predict an "LOTR" sweep of the Oscars this year.

So remember, all you critic-critics, you're definitely winning this skirmish. And that's fine with me, as long as we keep open minds and hearts when we debate the next epic blockbuster coming to a theater near us all.

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