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Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland took around a billion dollars at the box office worldwide. A hit, undoubtedly. Yet it is very rare to come across anyone who enjoyed it. Bloated, overlong and banal, it left you with that jaded feeling of boredom which tends to follow exposure to a surfeit of style. So how come it sold so many tickets?
In a word: hype. Hype is the engine which currently runs and disfigures the best part of our cultural output. Like numerous other big releases, Alice in Wonderland was endlessly previewed, analysed and effectively promoted by a 24-hour print and broadcast media desperate — as it always is — for content to fill the vistas of time and empty supplement space.
So it is hardly surprising that the average punter, after exposure to all of this, forms the opinion that the thing in question has indeed been reviewed and found to be brilliant. I've lost count of the times I have overhead the excited line, "oh yeah, I really want to see that, it's meant to be great." Well, who has told them it's "great"? Certainly not we critics. For starters, most of us don't get to see the new releases until the tail-end of the publicity tsunami. No, it is a kind of media group-think — a mixture of bottom-line commercial interests and sycophantic hacks — which has told them it is "great" and worth their time and money. And they are, more often than not, being set up for disappointment.
In such a context, critics are increasingly regarded as minor irritants, an annoying distraction. It is not difficult to foresee a time when criticism as a meaningful and valid vocation is considered obsolete. Critics are already falling like ninepins in America, so we'll doubtless follow suit here. Not that this should be seen purely as the result of the march of commercial interests, steamrolling finer considerations and higher sensibilities, although that certainly plays a part. The de-intellectualising of our culture, the obsession with not appearing to exercise judgment and, of course, our old friend cultural relativism have all played a part in undermining the critic's role.