Thomas Sutcliffe: This time at least, listen to the critics

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The Independent Online

I overheard a woman on her mobile this morning, updating a friend about her weekend. "We went to see The Da Vinci Code," she said. There was a brief pause - just long enough to accommodate the words "What was it like?" - before she delivered the verdict: "Not good ... not good." Well, we bloody told you so, I thought - feeling a momentary spasm of professional critical solidarity. This is not a sentiment that troubles me very often but I couldn't help it in this case.

In common with millions of other people over the past few days this woman had ignored the hazard warnings and clambered past the safety tape to fall into the boggy hole of Ron Howard's movie - and in doing so she had allowed the film's studio and distributor to claim a kind of victory. After the weekend the film was at the top of the box-office lists in the United States with $77m (£41m) in receipts and actually broke records for overseas earnings by extracting $147m from eager viewers. And I couldn't help wondering why, given the virtual unanimity of the reviews. Had we all suffered for nothing?

I don't really ask the question in a spirit of critical pique. Indeed it seems to me that it would be a bad thing if critics were able to dictate the success of cultural projects, since they're just as prone to prejudice and aesthetic inertia as studio executives. But there was something in the way the woman emphasised her negatives that seemed to imply a larger statement.

"No, really," she was saying, "they were actually telling the truth this time." And the fact that she'd had to go and check it out for herself was one solution to the conundrum. There is a trust deficit in the consumer-critic relationship which means that quite a lot of people are willing to risk wasting their money and their time rather than take the reviews as read.

Critics are conditioned to cinematic snobbery, might be one expression of this distrust - happy enough to send their readers to a low-budget Finnish tragedy about manic depression but inherently sniffy about Hollywood thrill rides. They don't want to lose face in front of their colleagues, after all. Or it's perhaps assumed that their responses have burnt out through overuse. The spark plugs are too heavily coated with carbon to fire reliably any longer.

In this case I suspect that the very consistency of the reaction was a kind of provocation in itself. In an intriguing article about the publicity campaign for the film, The New Yorker reveals how Sony sought the help of some of the Da Vinci Code's theological critics to set up a website discussing the historical details of Dan Brown's plot. The idea was to convert a possibly damaging Christian backlash against the film into a marketable controversy. This would then unleash that most lucrative box-office instinct - the urge to judge for oneself.

Without intending to, the critics added to that impulse with a response so uniform that it looked like a conspiracy. Can it really be that bad, readers must have thought, on seeing lines like "as exciting as watching your parents play sudoku". Well, yes it can. But, in writing that, I only contribute to the effect. If I were Sony I'd cull the worst insults from the reviews and add the copy-line "Are you going to let them tell you what to do?". Since I'm not, I'll just say trust the woman with the mobile phone. Please.

Songs to sing when you're buried alive

I was a bit startled to read that the two Australian miners trapped underground for two weeks had repeatedly sung Kenny Rogers' "The Gambler" to keep up their spirits. Apparently this was the one song they both knew - which seems a bit odd, if not an indictment of the Australian primary school system. What about "Waltzing Matilda", (the finest national anthem that never was) or "The Road to Gundagai", both of them ideal for countering the melancholy attendant on being buried alive? What about anything, frankly, other than "The Gambler", whose lyrics expressly counsel against sitting tight when you've been given a lousy deal. The refrain - "You got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em" - would have been bad enough but what about the line declaring that "the best that you can hope for is to die in your sleep"? Maybe they just hummed that bit.

* The New York Times recently revealed the results of a survey to find the best work of American fiction of the past 25 years, having polled a list of distinguished writers, critics and editors. The winner was Toni Morrison's Beloved, with 15 votes, perhaps because the runners-up, Don DeLillo, Philip Roth and John Updike, all effectively split their own vote between different titles. What was most interesting, though, was the list of also-rans which received multiple votes. Many of the usual suspects here - including Richard Ford, Cormac McCarthy, and Raymond Carver. But it also contained Mating by Norman Rush, Jesus' Son by Denis Johnson and Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin - works which, despite a prejudice in favour of American literature, had quite passed me by. My ignorance long ago ceased to surprise me, but an unscientific poll of my own revealed that I wasn't alone in my parochial embarrassment. Sometimes, in contradiction to every trend of globalisation, you discover that the world is bigger than you think.