Hiss! Boo! Criticism in Our Over-Congratulatory Times

In our clap-happy age of eternal standing Os and bravissimos, a paean to the thrills and virtues of the full-throated catcall. 

The wave of fast-rising, low-frequency displeasure at the Cannes Film Festival is a sound like no other. It is a remarkable noise because it indicates that critics, solitary creatures, have joined forces to express their ire. Individual critics may no longer matter, but the wrath of several hundred disappointed souls reaches far beyond the festival. These are the hisses and jeers, the whistles and shouts that echo through the movie industry and reverberate in the media, tarnishing and defining careers—it is the sound that lingers in memory and at times finds its way into film history. 

I am of course speaking of that seemingly vulgar emanation—the boo. Often delivered in the heat of the moment, the properly executed boo is a full-body experience, requiring commitment and deep inhalations and exhalations. To boo is to turn breath itself into the instrument of discontent, as the air whooshes through lips hardened for a kiss-off. Clapping hands and shouts of “bravo” seem too easy by contrast. Almost anyone with two hands can whack them together, as Broadway audiences and primary school parents loudly announce. In the theater, overeager applause and standing ovations have become as ritualistic as dimmed lights and calls of “encore,” with spectators jumping to their feet, mostly, it seems, to congratulate themselves on their good taste. 

In Shakespeare’s time, audiences whistled and stomped and were far less indulgent. The scholar Baz Kershaw ties the rise of applause in the 20th century to “the taming of the audience” by the forces of capitalism, a domestication that turned patrons into clients and finally customers. This transformation didn’t extend to all the arts—opera, for example, has remained a notable stronghold of the boo. In 1816 the composer Gioachino Rossini wrote his mother that his opera The Barber of Seville had been heckled at La Scala during its premiere. (“What madness, what extraordinary things happen in this crazy country,” he wrote Mama Rossini.) More than a century later, Luciano Pavarotti was booed at La Scala, as was soprano Renée Fleming, who in her memoir writes that “singers save up their own La Scala horror stories and swap them like baseball cards.”

You can feel bad for Ms. Fleming, even as you admit that there is something liberating about booing. That seems especially true in the United States, where the culture of affirmation prevails and the sound of clapping has created an echo chamber that extends from school pageants to television talent shows. Booing, by contrast, suggests the opposite: the culture of negation, which for some may feel not only rude but unkind and in certain contexts (baseball games, presidential campaign rallies) scary. To boo is to throw your lot in with the likes of a professional meanie like Simon Cowell, the dark, sneering lord of American Idol, and everyone who hates the New York Yankees. To boo also means that you’re willing to publicly announce your irritation, to put yourself, your taste, and your sensitivities on the line, an unusually naked stance in the age of anonymous Internet trolling and snark. 

To which I say boo! As an occasional practitioner of the art of the catcall, I revel in its freedom and honesty. Because while booing may be an insult, the same is even truer of bad art, which through its very existence commits a far graver offense than any jeering. In this sense, booing serves as a declaration of aesthetic and ethical principles, even if history sometimes proves the booer wrong. You could, for instance, program an extraordinary festival from the great, good, and simply worthy titles that have been booed at Cannes. Michelangelo Antonioni’s haunting L’Avventura was savaged at the 1960 festival. In 2006 Sofia Coppola shrugged off the booing that greeted her bonbon Marie Antoinette, observing that the negativity was “better than a mediocre response.” 

One of the more famously booed movies at Cannes was The Brown Bunny, an experimental narrative from the actor-director Vincent Gallo that in 2003 became one of the most despised selections in the event’s history. After the screening, the critic Roger Ebert wrote that the audience was “loud and scornful,” and that hundreds walked out, while “many of those who remained stayed only because they wanted to boo.” After Gallo reedited the movie, trimming its original running time by a fourth, Ebert praised the recut, saying that the changes had “set free the good film inside” and giving it three stars. The booing that nearly ruined a career had instead opened a dialogue between an artist and a critic, a transaction that is always worth cheering. 

Manohla Dargis is cochief film critic for the New York Times.