Magazine | 10:50 pm | December 16, 2011 | By Aaron Gertler

The Critic Who Played With Fire

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Photo by Creative Commons.

Stieg Larsson’s “Millennium Trilogy” is often boring. At times, it’s also overlong, confusing, improbable and if not butchered in translation, certainly not enlivened by it.

But I devoured The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and the novels that followed just the same and would recommend them to any friend who asked. The same goes for the original, Swedish-with-subtitles film series that tore up the art-house circuit in 2010. And the Hollywood, English-language Tattoo, coming December 21 to a theater near you? Until recently, I had no way of knowing. A flash-cut trailer and brooding soundtrack held promise, but producer Scott Rudin called on reviewers to hold their tongues until the Dec. 13 at the earliest. Though I’m something of a geek for film criticism, I thought I might hold out this time — why spoil the mystery?

But David Denby, a film critic for the New Yorker, upended that plan. His review, published over a week before Dec. 13, enraged Rudin, stirring up movie blogs and news sites alike. In emails made public by Indiewire, Rudin accuses Denby of breaking his word: “[the review] is a very damaging move and a total contravention of what you agreed.”

Denby, for his part, claimed he only wanted to give Tattoo full space for the praise it deserved during a season packed with potential Oscar nominees. It might have been downsized and stuffed into the Christmas issue with other shortened reviews. “That’s not what the New Yorker is about… our readers don’t want to read them that way,” he said.

As long as Denby signed no contract, I hope Rudin won’t take legal action — but his threat to cut Denby off from future screenings is completely fair. Studios certainly have a financial stake in keeping potentially bad reviews out of the press, but even good reviews, posted early, might be forgotten by the time readers get around to picking a weekend movie. Worse, they could inspire a flood of copycat premature critics who might not be so kind.

In the age of digital media and file-sharing, Hollywood has held onto revenues that record companies have seen slip away, with leaks taking much of the blame. If studios try to safeguard their profits by locking down film access — as bookstores did with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and EMI failed to do with Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida” — who can blame them?

On the other hand, the digital age means something completely counterproductive for journalism. Getting to the story first is now just as important as style, structure and correct punctuation, and getting scooped is easier — and more viciously commented upon — than ever. Was Denby wrong for putting the success of his own industry above that of film?

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