Twilight of the Gods (of Film Criticism)

In a landscape where newspapers are dropping movie critics left and right, Darryl Campbell considers film criticism’s past, present, and future.

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I.

Film criticism requires nothing but an interesting sensibility. The more self-consciously educated one is in the field — by which I mean the more obscure the storehouse of cinematic knowledge a critic has — the less likely it is that one will have anything interesting to say to an ordinary person.

— John Podhoretz, “Thinking on Film”

In April of 2008, Sean Means, the film critic at The Salt Lake Tribune, began to compile a list of his colleagues who no longer had their full-time gigs. Since January, ten major publications, including Newsweek and the Village Voice, had eliminated their film criticism spots, and another eleven would follow suit: by the end of the year, there would only be 126 full-time reviewers left in the United States. No wonder critics declared that the sky was falling.

Of course, professional movie criticism has always faced the twin specters of public indifference and fifth-columnists who denounced the field from the inside, including Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir (“film criticism… had a nice 50- or 60-year run, and is now a thing of the past.”), and Variety’s editor-in-chief Peter Bart (who suggested that critics only review Oscar-caliber movies in the latter part of the year, advice that his successor took to heart in March of 2010). The prognosis for film criticism was not good.

It’s undeniably true that the Golden Age of film criticism is long gone. As Jerry Roberts points out in his recent book The Complete History of American Film Criticism, film critics had their heyday in the 1970s, when their mandate was clear expose cheap sentimentalism, champion art-house and independent films, and be unafraid to say that most movies, like most TV shows, most plays, and most other pieces of art, were pure dreck. Newspapers tripped all over themselves to hire new film critics (such as Siskel and Ebert, David Elliott, and Malcolm Johnson) and universities began to offer courses in film, while established critics started looking back on film’s past to write “revisionist criticism” — for example, Pauline Kael of The New Yorker eviscerated Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane as “a shallow masterpiece.” And criticism could influence the film industry itself: in 1988, Anne Thompson of The New York Times found that reviews in four publications — the Times itself, New York Magazine, TIME, and Newsweek — could make or break a movie’s box office run, and film executives purposefully released bad films during weeks when Vincent Canby of The New York Times was on vacation, to avoid the guaranteed hit to their box office totals that a critical evisceration would entail.

Not so anymore. These days, even the best critics can’t save an independent film from obscurity, and there is a huge disconnect between critical and public opinion — see, for example, the disparity between a list of best movies according to the general public as opposed to one according to critics and filmmakers. The tide turned against professional critics in the 1980s and 1990s, who were overpowered by (in Roberts’s words) “buy-off junkets, the blurbmeisters working at full fraud, and the media overkill on TV,” and by a growing sense that full-time critics were cranks, cynics, and — worst of all — elitists.

Thus the push-back that led, as critic Phillip Lopate notes, to the rise of the everyman-as-critic, armed with nothing more than, say, a blog, a ticket stub, and a few good turns of phrase:

Since Americans dislike the idea of being lectured to or (God forbid) taught about movies by specialists, the field continued to promote witty amateurs… the gentleman critic who was not taken in by arty nonsense, and therefore would protect his middle-class readership from their insecurities about the difficulties of new cinema, settled in for a long run.

II.

I often have the feeling that even at the best of times literary criticism is fraudulent, since… every literary judgement consists in trumping up a set of rules to justify an instinctive preference. One’s real reaction to a book, when one has a reaction at all, is usually “I like this book” or “I don’t like it,” and what follows is a rationalisation.

— George Orwell, “Writers and Leviathan”

Surviving film critics tend to fall into three separate camps: the blurb machines, like Gene Shalit, Joel Siegel, or Peter Travers, who give favorable reviews to the vast majority of films that they see — 84, 72, and 68 percent, respectively (Ebert clocks in at 53% positive); the legacies, like A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis of The New York Times and Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun-Times, who work for major print publications and who are just as likely to give a long discursus about cinematic history or treat their review as an exercise in satire as they are to write straight plot summary with commentary; and the middlebrow, who try to be somewhere in between the old guard and the advancing army of bloggers, commenters, and aggregators.

Take, for example, Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir, who thinks that “critics should be educated about the wider world, should know a lot of film history and a little film theory, should be more concerned with the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ of a movie than with the ‘whats,’ should seek to spark debates and disputes and challenge the audience’s preconceptions,” but also that above all critics need to be “funny and lively and engaging,” since writing reviews is most like “performing stand-up comedy.”

And that means sticking to the topic at hand — films and celebrities — period. It’s not clear, for example, that O’Hehir knows anything about Paul Krugman, that he’s read the J.M. Coetzee novel on which the film Disgrace is based (even though he has), or that he can say anything meaningful about Reagan’s America except by way of regurgitating its buzzwords. Nor, I think, would he have it otherwise, even though he clearly is a smart, well-read guy; pretentiousness and elitism are cardinal sins in his worldview, and he considers it the reviewer’s job merely to provide soundbites and laugh lines, not to provide long-winded theoretical or philosophical discussions.

As it turns out, O’Hehir is echoing an old line of thought. In 1831, the essayist Thomas Carlyle ranked reviewers among “the lowest of true thinkers,” mere summarizers who could never truly articulate the genius of a work of literature. William Wordsworth agreed, writing that reviewers “cannot be supposed to be in a state of mind very favourable for being affected by the finer influences” of “genuine” literature. In other words, thought Carlyle and Wordsworth (and O’Hehir), critics are blowhards and idiots, not worth the paper they’re printed on. They all but acknowledge the fact that the easiest way to entertain the public is to turn every column of film criticism into a feel-good factory, where even the worst films get the rubber stamp of approval.

Thus O’Hehir says, without a hint of irony, that the first real compliment he ever got about his work, one that “in many ways still means the most,” was listening to two ladies on a train laugh at a review of his. Having denied that film criticism should or even can have any other purpose — having declared that anything else is fin de siècle-style decadence and depravity — O’Hehir leaves us with only one possibility: it is good for a temporary emotional jolt every once in a while. It is a curiously nihilistic attitude to have. But then, when you’re one of a dying breed, how else can you think about the future except in the most pessimistic terms possible?

III.

The glory of American film criticism has been its double life as American essay. Granted, the internet gives virtually everyone an opportunity to expound at length about movie love, but can the formal pressure and elegance of the best essay-writing be brought to bear on a medium that seems to relish amoebic stream-of-consciousness?

— Philip Lopate, “Critics in Crisis”

On December 10, 2009, Red Letter Media posted a seventy-minute video review of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace that got mentioned on Kottke.org, Ain’t It Cool News, and even SciFi Wire, the official blog of the Sci Fi (or wait… is that SyFy?) channel. Technically speaking, apart from the psycho-killer subplot, the review is more or less a cinematic essay: it has an argument, individually-signposted segments, and is supported with plenty of evidence — see, for example, the review’s emotional (and critical) climax, the part about lightsaber duels. There are a few laugh lines and quotable quotes, but most of the time it’s a steady, point-by-point deconstruction of a disappointing movie.

Most importantly, the review avoids some of the commonest pitfalls of the amateur reviewer (and amateur he is; in an interview with Heeb magazine, the reviewer, Mike Stoklasa, says that “I’m not a reviewer or critic by nature”). It is not a mere thumbs-up-or-down record of the reviewer’s subjective reaction to the film, or a simple paraphrase or synopsis of a movie’s content; neither does it try to turn the movie into an allegory or commentary on something that it isn’t, as amateur critics on both sides did with Lord of the Rings, for example. It flies in the face of box office results and agrees with many of the print-media dinosaurs like Jim Hoberman of Village Voice and both critics at The Washington Post, who thought that the movie was less than stellar.

Of course, Stoklasa’s review came out eleven years after Phantom Menace did, and it is probably not going to affect too many people’s buying habits. But it does show that people are interested in nuanced film criticism, as opposed simple reviews, which are released a few days before a movie opens in order to tell people why they should or shouldn’t go see it. Put another way, reviews are ephemera, designed to exert pressure on the moviegoing public and then fade away, while criticism, at its best, is much more permanent, and has much less economic influence. Opinionated viewers can do the former task just as well as anyone; but it takes a little more time and enthusiasm to do the latter.

In other words, perhaps those delivering early post-mortems on film criticism are confusing the death of a medium with the death of a message. It will probably never be the case again that a single review can translate into millions lost or gained at the box office, nor should we expect that the same people who read Thomas Friedman columns will also want to read extended critical essays that talk about Stravinsky and the French New Wave and the grammar of cinematography, as Pauline Kael’s 3,500-word review of Last Tango in Paris demanded of its readers.

But there are vital signs from the world of film criticism. Sean Means, curator of “The List,” decided that many of the critics who had lost their jobs had also “landed on their feet — finding work at other publications, sometimes in other fields, but often in a better job than they had before.” Roger Ebert’s blog gets nearly 100 million views a year. Even A.O. Scott of The New York Times declared that there was a future for film criticism.

So film criticism will probably go the way of literary criticism, a field dominated by magazines and websites with a limited reach (in the low to mid-thousands of subscribers or regular visitors), where criticism is written by enthusiasts who are speaking to enthusiasts with a level of thoroughness and complexity that rivals even academic criticism — see, for example, The Millions, The Nervous Breakdown, or The Morning News’s Tournament of Books.

But we should not confuse influence with quality. A good film critic, in the words of the 19th-century essayist Matthew Arnold, should be able to deal not only with his or her chosen medium, but also “with the immense field of life… lying before him”; should not to kowtow to public opinion and congratulate every artist merely for existing, but ought to be “perpetually dissatisfied” with “poor, starved, fragmentary, inadequate creation”; should, ultimately, be able to create something new and truthful, beyond mere description and imitation. According to Roger Ebert, “this is a golden age for film criticism… Never before have more critics written more or better words for more readers about more films. But already you are ahead of me, and know this is because of the internet.” That seems right to me.


Photo by Biblioteca de Arte-Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian.

Darryl Campbell is the managing editor at The Bygone Bureau. He once got called an "elitist young author" by John Stossel, which he considers one of his top-ten lifetime accomplishments so far. Others include writing for The Christian Science Monitor and the Chronicle of Higher Education, paying off his car loan a year early, and getting a Twitter account. Send him an email.