Two movies open this weekend that address our country's treatment of terrorism suspects, including dramatic scenes set inside military prisons. In one, careful re-enactments and thorough interviews investigate the truth behind the infamous photos of torture at Abu Ghraib. In the other, two stoners are sent to Guantánamo Bay, where they are threatened with a "cock-meat sandwich" by a guard named Big Bob. Which one got the lead review in today's New York Times "Weekend Arts" section?
If you look at the nytimes.com's Arts page, you might think it was Errol Morris's extremely serious documentary Standard Operating Procedure, which lands the second slot in the rundown, below a piece about the New York Botanical Garden's Darwin exhibit. (The review, by Manohla Dargis, is lukewarm at best.) Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantánamo Bay is in the fifth slot, well down the list. But if you open up the actual physical newspaper this morning — and we know, we know, why on earth would you do that? — you'll see most of the above-the-fold space in "Weekend Arts" is taken up by a big, juicy five-column photo and A.O. Scott review of Harold & Kumar.
Does this matter? Of course it does! Landing the lead review in the Times impacts a movie's cultural currency, often dramatically more than it can impact its box office. The Times being what it is, in choosing a movie to lead the Friday "Weekend Arts" section, its editors are declaring that movie's importance, for artistic, political, or business reasons. It's interesting, though, how different the section's lineup is online from the actual paper. There are all kinds of algorithms and marketing plans and whatnot that seem to determine what gets play online, but we also sort of hope that the paper's Web staff came in last night, had a quick conference, decided the entire culture department was high, and dropped Harold and Kumar down a few notches.