At a 'Film Criticism Today' Panel, Thoughts on the Film Critic of Tomorrow

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by Matt Singer
April 5, 2012 5:04 PM
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"It has taken a long time for film criticism to stop functioning as a second-rate job for local reporters and theater and book critics.  Newspaper publishers never imagined that film criticism might be anything more than an editorial favor in return for cinema advertisements.  Just went film criticism finally worked with its own filmic terms and reached a satisfactory intellectual level -- as well as a position on the page that was comparable to that of theater and art criticism -- just after its sudden blossoming, the art of film began to wilt away.  Today the film critic's main failing is that he judges films in the same manner that his colleagues judge paintings, novels, and theater pieces."

German film critic Rudolf Arnheim wrote those words in 1935, in a piece called "The Film Critic of Tomorrow."  On a crisp spring evening in Lower Manhattan, a roundtable of notable writers convened for a conversation billed by its organizers at The New School's Screen Studies Program as "Film Criticism Today."  Whether Arnheim was on anyone's mind when they named the program, it seems that film criticism today is still practiced by the film critic of tomorrow, who is still at the mercy of many of the same problems and concerns that Arnheim described some 75 years ago.

Typically when you put five film critics on a panel you get fifteen different opinions, one louder than the next, but last night's discussion was a thoughtful and relatively sedate affair.  Moderator Noah Isenberg from the New School introduced the event as a examination of the "life, death, and afterlife of film criticism," and that is exactly what was mulled over for the next hour.  The panelists represented a broad spectrum of modern film critics: Dana Stevens of Slate and Stephanie Zacharek of Movieline represented working critics on the new movie beat, while essayist Philip Lopate, who edited the recent "American Movie Critics" anthology that includes Arnheim's essay, never made a living as a film critic and has never been forced to write a review about a movie he wasn't interested in seeing or discussing.  Dennis Lim, contributor to The New York Times, grappled with the weekly grind of cinema for years as the film editor of The Village Voice (where he was my boss as a freelancer and intern), and said he does not miss it.  Paul Brunick, contributing editor at Film Comment and founding editor of the New York City repertory cinema website Alt Screen, noted that "what criticism needs now is less film critics and more curators" before adding his own Arheimian vision of the film critic of tomorrow.  "I think the film critic of the future will be more like a DJ in a club," he said.  "Sampling and mixing together reviews that people have written, viral videos, and framegrabs."

As for the critics of today, one of the main sources of contention on the panel was over the value of reviews of major releases, with Lim voicing his frustration over "the pressure of having an opinion about everything" (thoughts that echoed a recent conversation on this very blog about "The Critic of Everything").  "Who needs 35 reviews of 'Shrek 4?'" he asked, to which Zacharek later replied that seeing and reviewing almost everything that gets released -- even the "Shrek 4"s of the movie world -- was one of her favorite parts of her job.  "It requires me to be alive to the culture around me at all times," she said.  

Zacharek was less concerned about the amount of movies she had to see than the amount of reviews any working critic has to write to keep up with turnaround and to make ends meet in a world where staff jobs are rare and piecemeal freelancing is the name of the game.  She described today's critical environment as "the death of craftsmanship."  For his part, Lopate, who described film criticism as "an arm of American literature,"  said he was less worried about the Internet, or the accuracy of information on sites like IMDb or Wikipedia, or the rise of video criticism, as he was about the rapid depletion of film print archives.  Even if writing may be blossoming in an age when it's easier than ever to get published, the wilting away of film art that Arnheim described is still a concern.

What I took away from this conclave was a sense that there is no one film critic of yesterday, today, or tomorrow, and there is no one definition of film criticism.  Some critics love covering mainstream pop, others only want to grapple with serious works.  Some, like Lopate, see film criticism "as a kind of disguised autobiography," others, like Brunick, bemoan the rise of oversharing Internet critics who start their reviews with a list of what they ate for breakfast that morning.  There is no one way to do film criticism "correctly" (though there are plenty of ways to do it incorrectly).  Taste is important, but the quality of the prose might be even more important.

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