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The Film Critic is Dead… Again…

We’re coming into summer blockbuster season. Hell, one might suggest that Kick-Ass has heralded the start of it. If it hasn’t, Clash of the Titans has. That’s if you don’t believe Alice in Wonderland kicked it all into high gear. Anyway, you know what that means – spectacle, lots of it. Some of it incredible, some of it… not so much. The masses flock to the cinema to while away the long summer evenings and movie theatres are filled with the laughter of children (which can be quite irritating to the patrons). It also means that, like the spring lambs, the beautiful cycle of the life and death of film criticism must begin anew. Critics will begin to lament their increasing irrelevance as poor movies make huge sums of money, journalists will light a funeral pyre and some filmmakers like Kevin Smith will gladly join the mob chanting ‘critics are dead’. This fine annual tradition will ebb and flow like the box office fortunes of many an undeserving behemoth. And at the end of it, the critics will still be here.

Why so grim?

I like this discussion. You can tell because I spend a bit of time on it. Without getting all airy-fairy on you, film criticism is a hobby horse of mine – I enjoy film criticism criticism, if that makes sense. It isn’t out of some grand, misplaced belief that one day I might join the distinguished ranks and become a film critic – well, at least in a professional capacity: my family are all film critics to some extent, bluntly dissecting a film after the credits roll. I must do a family blog review of something we all watch to give you an idea of the wonderful array of opinions that emerge after a film ends. Anyway, I don’t think I’ll ever be “Darren, the film critic” – I have no illusions. It’s just interesting to see an artform (because it certainly ain’t a science) that is so rigidly trapped between casual populism and solid academia. It’s true of any sort of vaguely mainstream criticism, I suppose, but I take an interest in film criticism because I also love film.

Anyway, the crisis has kicked off early this year. Todd McCarthy was fired from Variety, as they culled their in-house reviewers. Were I a witty man, I’d make a remark about how they’ve discovered they can make money from reviews. But I’m not, so I’ll just state it outright and include a link. Anyway, McCarthy, long the early yardstick of a film’s awards chances with his reviews, was gone. The bloggers rejoiced. It was a victory for populism and an overthrow of the established ruling critical elite. It was a sign that all those out-of-touch fogeys must yield to the cool cats. That’s us nerds typing furiously at our computers, in case you didn’t realise. Yeah, my mom says I’m cool.

I rarely agreed with McCarthy, but he knew what he was doing. It’s a shame to see any cutbacks in established media. The was the recent cancellation of the iconic and long-running At the Movies, prompting host A.O. Scott to comment on the future of criticism:

Where once reasoned debate and knowledgeable evaluation flourished, there are now social networking and marketing algorithms and a nattering gaggle of bloggers.

Or — to turn the picture on its head — a remnant of over-entitled old-media graybeards are fighting a rear-guard action against the democratic forces of the Internet, clinging to threadbare cultural authority in the face of their own obsolescence. Everyone’s a critic! Or maybe no one is.

Of course, the attack on criticism doesn’t just come from within, a profession desperately questioning itself – there are plenty of vultures and outside commentators waiting to decry film critics as essentially pariahs. Take Kevin Smith’s twitter rant. I’ve covered it elsewhere on the site, but here’s an interesting little snippet:

That was it for me. Realized whole system’s upside down: so we let a bunch of people see it for free and they shit all over it? Meanwhile, people who’d REALLY like to see the flick for free are made to pay? Bullshit. From now on, any flick I’m ever involved with, I conduct critics screenings thusly: you wanna see it early to review it? Fine: pay like you would if you saw it next week. Like, why am I giving an arbitrary 500 people power over what I do at all, let alone for free? Next flick, I’d rather pick 500 randoms from Twitter feed and let THEM see it for free in advance, then post THEIR opinions, good AND bad. Same difference. Why’s their opinion more valid?

I remarked before, and it’s worth repeating, that selecting 500 random punters from his Twitter feed might not be so random – there might be what statisticians would refer to as a slight skewing at play there.

What the internet has really done for cinema is to make film criticism and discussion far more democratic. in every sense of the word. Your opinion on film is suddenly valid even if you aren’t being paid to publish it in a massive multi-national publication. Criticism is no longer the exclusive remit of a closed circle of schooled and trained intellectuals, who tended to dominate it over long periods of time. Instead the web allows even the smallest most uninformed nerd to self-publish. The result is countless blogs like this one. And they’re fantastic, aren’t they?

That cinema looks pretty empty...

More than that, it seems that public taste for film opinion has moved to the extremes. You want to know what to make of Iron Man 2? Check out any manner of tiny nerd-run blogs, but make damn sure you also get the massive consensus it. Movie sites like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic have helped make this the era of aggregation. Why do you need to know what the New York Times thinks of a movie when you can get the opinion of someone you is just as geeky as you, but also get the quality of a movie boiled down to a nice round number?

Of course, this isn’t necessarily a good thing. Some have already made their voice heard on how they feel the distinction needs to be made between critics and bloggers. Others have reacted with horror to the idea that the quality of a film can be reduced to a score out of one hundred, or even something as simple as pass or fail. The simplicity of this approach is understandably threatening and, as more than a few commentators have observed, there’s quite a bit lost in translation:

Lastly, the site reduces each individual review to nothing more than a number and a one-sentence blurb. While this is probably all most people want to read anyway, it can completely misrepresent a particular critic’s view. While you can click to read each review in full, realistically there’s no way anyone is going to read them all.

You could argue that we live in a world of constant dumbing down: to cope with increasing data overload we must inevitably reduce items down almost past the point of recognition.

The knock on effect is obvious. Those mourning the loss of the art of film criticism claim we don’t talk about movies any more, that we actively dumb down. Although this Guardian piece doesn’t outright state that the dumbing down of film discussion is due to the rise of the web, it does imply it heavily imply that only the discipline of published old school critics can steer us down the righteous path:

If professional film reviewing is to survive, then critics have to know more than their readers. This shouldn’t prevent film reviewers from still writing entertainingly, wearing their erudition lightly. But they should not be modest in displaying it. They should write with authority without being patronising. Instead of dumbing down, film reviewers should smarten up. Readers should go to reviewers as much for their opinions as with the desire to learn something. They should enjoy being challenged by them.

The problem is, as Oscar Wilde pointed out, that “the public have always, and in every age, been badly brought up. They are continually asking Art to be popular, to please their want of taste, to flatter their absurd vanity, to tell them what they have been told before, to show them what they ought to be tired of seeing, to amuse them when they feel heavy after eating too much, and to distract their thoughts when they are wearied of their own stupidity. Now Art should never try to be popular. The public should try to make itself artistic”.

It’s hard not to get the sense that the blame for the state of current film criticism is being placed squarely at our feet. We’ve been ‘badly brought up’ and that’s why film critics aren’t appreciated.

On the other hand, there are hints that the establishment is gradually growing in touch with the new media model. Indeed, A.O. Scott’s article celebrates the rise of new media, and seems positively excited by this brave new world. As he observes, this isn’t the first time that a new and more accessible medium has caused a revision to the landscape:

Movie criticism on television? Movie criticism with thumbs? You can’t be serious! That was more or less the message of an impassioned, anxious essay by Richard Corliss, published in Film Comment in 1990 (and reprinted, with characteristically impish generosity, by Roger Ebert in an anthology of his own work). The article was called “All Thumbs, or, Is There a Future for Film Criticism?,” and Mr. Corliss’s point was that sound bites, video clips and glib quantification threatened to dumb down the critical enterprise and to dilute the impact of thoughtful analysis and good writing.

Of course, Ebert is no wonderfully recognised as the godfather of film criticism. And it’s somewhat reassuring that Ebert, despite all that he has endured, is still at the forefront of film criticism.

Even as the cancellation of At The Movies loomed, former host Ebert announced a wonderfully modern approach to film reviews. He’s organising an new television review show, but with a dedicated on-line presence:

We also know we will have a strong web presence. We will go full-tilt New Media: Television, net streaming, cell phone apps, Facebook, Twitter, iPad, the whole enchilada. The disintegration of the old model creates an opening for us. I’m more excited than I would be if we were trying to do the same old same old. I’ve grown up with the internet. I came aboard back when MCI Mail was the e-mail of choice. I had a forum on CompuServe when it ruled the web. My web site and blog at the Sun-Times site have changed the way I work, and even the way I think. When I lost my speech, I speeded up instead of slowing down.

Indeed, Ebert has been almost as firm a champion of on-line film writing as he has been of television. His blog is one of the most active on the web. In fact, if you want an argument in favour of what the digital age has done for cinema, he’s your man. of course he takes the opportunity to bash the way mainstream cinema has essentially squeezed out the reviewer and the discussion, but he’s optimistic:

There has been a fragmentation of movie watching. Theatrical distribution is now dominated by the big-budget, heavily marketed 3-D of the Week. Such films have a success utterly independent of critics. Like junk food, they’re consumed by habit and may be filling but are high in cinematic sugar and fat. The consumers of that product don’t think of a movie as an investment of two hours of their lives.

When the New York Times put an interactive Netflix map online, allowing me to search by zip code and see what my neighbors were renting, the top title was “Milk,” followed by such as “The Wrester,” “Slumdog Millionaire,” “Doubt” and “Rachel Getting Married.” Think about that. Good movies. “Transformers 2” was nowhere to be seen. (“Milk,” in case you’re wondering, was first or second in most Chicago zip codes, not just mine.)

Those are the kinds of people who might want to watch a movie review program. Our show will try to reach people who think before they watch a movie, and value their time, and their minds.

Perhaps that’s the real wonder of the widening media market and the possible death of the old media critic. But death must be followed by rebirth, and it’s a rebirth based on a celebration of diversity rather than the threat of homogeny. Rather than film discussion centring on one single group of individuals – in this case the old school critical elite finding themselves under sage from a bland and brutish mainstream – it’s an idea based on any number of radical and unique schools of thought, and all literally at your finger tips.

Like kung-fu movies? There’s an obscure digital channel for that. Love Indian cinema? There’s a whole on-line community dedicated to them. Name an obscure film director and there’s a vibrant forum around the corner. The internet is like a candy store. To those who say intelligent discussion is dead, I suggest you type a movie title into Google. Sure, you need to have to navigate a page or two, but you’ll find some interesting discussion.

Of course, such diversity comes at a cost. Things get lost in the mess. I won’t see every movie produced in my lifetime. I may even miss a cinematic classic or two or at least a dozen movies I would have loved. But I will see hundreds of little movies that never would found their way to me years ago.

But don’t worry, some minor self-confidence issue from critics will probably see me posting on this again in a month or two. It’ll probably be dead, again, but it’ll endure. Change is, despite what easy political slogans would have you believe, terrifying – but it’s also natural. As my mother told me when those caterpillers I kept as a child had stopped moving, film criticism isn’t dead, it’s just changing. And it’s as exciting as it is terrifying.

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8 Responses

  1. People are quick to proclaim the death of film criticism, but as you said it’s moving to a different plane.

    • Yep – and it seems like it’s declared dead every six months or so. It must be the most insecure profession in the history of the world.

  2. Fantastic post! A rallying cry, perhaps? I think that I try to convince myself that my efforts to be a critic come out of some desire to edify the public on what they should watch or avoid, but in the end it’s essentially a personal excercize, a way to come up with something constructive from all the time spent in front of the TV or eating popcorn in dark rooms.

    I think that so long as the methods by which we communicate with eachother continue to evolve, so will the things that we’re communicating. Whether it’s celebrity gossip, political activism or even something as holy as movie criticism. Perhaps the coming years will be more about filtering the voices out rather than giving them a way to spread the word…

    Great post!

    • Yep, I think that it will be interesting to see how that “filtering” occurs – it’s no longer based on where you publish, so what makes a critic? And I don’t consider myself a critic – I don’t have the discipline. This is really more of a public diary of my rants and raves about cinema and popular culture.

      And I agree with what you’re saying – surely something as subjective as film criticism has to be an inherently personal journey? In many ways as much about, as you alluded, society and the world and yourself as it is about the movie?

  3. Marvelous post about the future of film criticism. Some of the sources in the article make some good point but I think film criticism as we knew it is/was an archaic way of critiquing films that hasn’t evolved in decades. A writer sits down and types something that lands in a newspaper or magazine.

    In an increasingly ADD-world where people attention span is merely seconds instead of hours or even minutes, film criticism has to be “dressed up” and made much more entertaining to get attention from the masses.

    • I know what you’re saying, but I’d also argue that the huge widening of the ranks of movie commentators means that the truly special ones have to offer something substantive – the notion that not only must it be broader, it should also be deeper.

      But yep, the medium has changed, as has the method of consuming it, so there have to be some changes made to the way it works.

  4. Wow – this is a fantastic post.

    • Thanks – I’m a sucker for this sort of post-critical nonsense. It just fascinates me endlessly (and probably bores my readers endlessly).

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