“Film critics-who needs them?”
Depending on your outlook, you may have uttered such a response, or words to that effect, when discussing a recent movie. At least in my social circle, I’m generally the one who goes to the films later-I only have so much money to spend on tickets inching past $10-and thoroughly imbibe in a wash of reviews from friends and online. Metacritic, a constant aggregator of notable-and-not reviews from across the web and print, serves as a road map to general critical consensus (I prefer it to the bifurcated fresh/rotten standard of the venerable Rotten Tomatoes). As these web sites’ many sampled review outlets attest, there’s a lot of opinions being published out there. But it seems less and less belong to the oft-maligned “critics” of yore.
It’s not exactly a secret: film critics are in decline. But the critics themselves can hardly be faulted for not seeing the writing on the wall: in recent years and months more and more critics have taken to writing a column or two about what they see as the future (or, more generally, the lack of one.) It’s not some imagined trend: more than 60 very real film critics have either lost their jobs, resigned or been reassigned since 2006. While this is a droplet in the veritable ocean of joblessness sweeping the globe this past few years, in an era of media conglomerates and consolidation even the disappearance of threescore persons (often writing for wires and many papers at once) is a large hole left unfilled. The Old Guard of critics are by and large on old-style print publications, and as these have been hacked apart, dissolved, or merely descended into a lower plane of journalistic integrity, critics as well as reporters, editors, and staff have found themselves put out.
The question is why anyone should care, and it is this point that have spawned a rather remarkable amount of infighting from the critics themselves. Each piece about the demise of the critic has been picked up and created a response or rebuttal from another reviewer, snowballing into what could be considered a head with Salon‘s Andrew O’Hehir writing an angry missive to his fellow reviewers: “Shut Up Already!” Well, that’s the headline, at least. O’Hehir’s more choice words appear halfway into his column:
“Shut the fuck up and get back to work. If you’re worried that people don’t want to read your movie reviews, what in the name of Jesus Christ crucified makes you think they want to read your bitching and moaning? All this stuff is doing, at least at this point, is creating opportunities for feel-bad encounters with other anguished critics and drive-by trolls, and making you look like a bunch of ginormous great babies” (source).
O’Hehir continues that the idea of the worth of criticism is rather meaningless, and he sure as heck won’t bother explaining to readers his opinion with it (rather strange, then: why bother writing the column?) And his opinion seems rather suspect, considering he is not in any apparent danger of losing his job like many other more esteemed and better-regarded critics (in the same article O’Hehir admits that he has recently picked up the bulk of Salon‘s reviewing chores due to Stephanie Zacharek leaving for Movieline.) But he has a few cutting points that have to be addressed: it’s true, any person with an internet connection and a word processor has been able to put out reviews for decades now at virtually no cost. That’s a lot cheaper than what professional critics such as Roger Ebert, Janet Maslin, and Stephen Hunter might ask. To permit a bit of insular reflection, Associated Content is built and run on the premise that “citizen journalism”, especially reviews, are as good as anything else that some “real” writer can produce. I’ve done more than my share of movie reviews as I’ve worked through my Netflix queue (from Angels & Demons and Star Trek, to Runaways and Push). Essentially, I’ve been put on the same footing as fellow AC contributor Robert Denerstein, a former Rocky Mountain News critic (the News, if you’re wondering, shuttered in February 2009, one of the earlier newspaper casualties.) On one hand, this allows people like me to make some extra money on the side and improve my writing, but it also devalues professional writing (such as those by critics) by sheer volume and a low signal-to-noise ratio.
O’Hehir’s comments that the public don’t want to hear the complaints of critics bears some weight, especially as there is a growing margin of films that are critical flops but commercial smash-hits. The sentiment is that reviewers are increasingly “out of touch” with what American filmgoers like and watch, less “arthouse” and more Grindhouse. Perhaps the best summation of that opinion is given in Kate Vendetta’s fan review of the new Twilight movie:
“If you consider yourself a movie snob, stop reading here. If you’re looking for a fancy movie review, check out Roger Ebert’s website. You won’t like what I have to say. […] As a full-fledged Twi-Hard, I’ve had my fill of movie critics trashing these films. They weren’t made to get an Oscar nom, to give Ebert a hard-on or to get a high score on the Tomatometer. They were made for the millions of Twi-Hards who obsessed over the books for months, who know the love story, and who want to see Meyer’s words they so furiously read acted out on the big screen.” (source).
The gist is the same in criticism, then, as it is in politics: the populists versus the elites. It’s not surprising that Ebert is mentioned twice in as many paragraphs above; he has become the public icon of the old guard, the pundit, even in the realm outside of film. When Ebert declares video games can never be art, people notice. When Ebert later recants that view (partially), people notice as well. But Ebert is of a dying breed, in many ways the last Mastodon with any relevance while the others quietly settle into dust in the elephant graveyard. It’s this old guard who, admittedly, have a rather elitist view of the profession, and bemoan the younger generation that has ruined their old model for doing business.
But I’ll argue that parts of that elitist view is earned and merited. The best criticism is well-reasoned, filled with objective observations about the substance of that which is being critiqued; these objective qualities then inform the critic’s subjective opinion on the overall worth, whether as art, entertainment, or both. The best film critics measure a movie compared to what came before and after, not with rose-tinted nostalgia for the days when “men were men”, but with a scholarly recognition of theory, technique, history, and influence. The best film critics aren’t those who buy the latest Hollywood trends and repeat talking points. The best film critics aren’t those who spew invectives, engage in fanboy arguments, and provide knee-jerk justifications for hating films. It’s a regrettable shame that the internet has not only enabled poor rationales and bad reviews to fill our radars, but in fact lowered the level of discourse and criticism on nearly every level. But while there’s no turning back, that doesn’t mean we should give up on criticism either.
Stephen Witty, critic for The Star-Ledger, wrote a piece called “Why critics matter”, and it sums up some of the more tangible reasons why the public should be concerned. With the loss of local reviewers, audiences are left without a connection to things they might not see. Without small, independent-thinking press, blockbusters that cater to repetitive formulas (I’m looking at you, Avatar) can continue becoming hits while more thought-provoking and even more entertaining small films are left to languish without a marketing budget. And, while criticism might get a hard rap from the public, Witty points to research that shows it is still highly important to them at the same time. Distributors, marketers, and regular joes like us rely on reviews: we can only hope that we learn to value that service once again.
* Read more critics’ opinions of the industry: Peter Bradshaw, Chris Vognar, and Vadam Rizov.