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Now and Then: What's the Matter with Film Critics?

Reviews
by Matt Brennan
February 27, 2013 12:44 PM
6 Comments
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The late film critic and author Andrew Sarris

The only genuine surprise of Sunday night's Oscar telecast — varying levels of predictability, misogyny, and self-congratulations being par for the course these days — came during the "In Memoriam" montage, which by definition should be the least surprising moment of all.

It was the inclusion of a film critic. There, somewhere between Ernest Borgnine and Marvin Hamlisch, was legendary Village Voice and New York Observer contributor Andrew Sarris, whose essay "Notes on the Auteur Theory" (1962) and book The American Cinema (1968) remain required reading for anyone who wants to write about the movies.

Seeing his name flicker past, I felt a wave of delight, and then, barely identifiable, an aftertaste of regret. Sarris received his due, as Manny Farber and Gene Siskel had before him, and even those viewers who did not recognize the name or had not read the work are tacitly indebted to him every time they refer to a "Quentin Tarantino film" or a "Spike Lee joint." But then I remembered, as I often do these days, that Sarris was a holdout from another era, a time "when critics mattered."

Lost amid the Oscar scramble was yet another month of bad news for film critics, with Criticwire's Matt Singer the collator-in-chief. Nick Pinkerton left the Voice with a lovely take on Sarris and a less-lovely description of Voice Media Group ("a dumb, wanton, soulless, and wicked corporate entity"). Lisa Schwarzbaum bid adieu to Entertainment Weekly, after more than two decades, by way of a graceful refutation of her detractors. Sarris' successor at the Observer, Rex Reed, embarrassed himself with an ugly takedown of Melissa McCarthy. To the list of people who think film critics have mostly outlived their usefulness (the Rotten Tomatoes commentariat, Kevin Smith), we added Steven Soderbergh, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Ken Loach.

"The Death of Film Criticism" is a tiresome topic, and the reasons for the current emphasis on this eternal hobble toward the grave — almost as old as the form itself — are legion: the decline of print, the rise of bloggers, the proliferation of movies, multiplexes, "infotainment," "snark." What is curious about the spate of stories cited above is that their target is not film criticism, but film critics. We are, to quote from this small selection, "stupid," "easily fooled," "gone in 60 seconds," "an age old idea gone bad." Which begs the question: why the ire?

It's all too easy to blame the vitriol on the anonymity of the Internet. Like most critics I've been subject, when I've praised a controversial film ("The Help") or panned a popular one ("The Dark Knight Rises"), to bizarre personal attacks: called a "racist," told to calm down and "smoke a joint," accused of shilling for the president. But more often the words are kind, the disagreements well reasoned and sincere. Anyone who follows Roger Ebert's Twitter feed knows that he elicits extensive, engaging debates on his blog all the time.

"For the Love of Movies" director Gerald Peary, with narrator Patricia Clarkson


Consider this a plea, and perhaps a prescription, that we critics stop worrying about those who dismiss us and just embrace the work. Online or on paper, from the mightiest veterans to the most astute greenhorns, the field is rich with ideas.

The next step is to start talking more, and even fighting — not with our readers, but among ourselves. As Sarris knew, criticism at its best is a conversation, often a good-naturedly combative one. The "dialectic" he forged with Pauline Kael, he admitted in Gerald Peary's excellent documentary "For the Love of the Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism" (2009), made both of them better. Write to tell me I'm wrong, and why, or why I'm right for all the wrong reasons.

We don't need to dispense with quick hits to keep the conversation going. As Scott Foundas taught me, the 250-word capsule review is infinitely more difficult to construct than the extended essay. But the short pieces should be just as argumentative, ambitious, unusual, and challenging as the long ones. (Buzzfeed, I'm looking at you. One-liners and GIFs do not constitute "criticism," certainly no more than Rex Reed's awful fat jokes or thin-skinned Twitter tirades.)

Let entertainment business reporting make sense of film as an industry, and let the celebrity culture that supports it — red carpets and after-parties, star turns and scandals — continue in its tenuous grip on reality. Don't lose sight that what we do is distinctive, and valuable. Criticism holds out the possibility of separating subjective quality (of the work) from objective quantity (of the money), of understanding the star system as a constellation of personas as much as it is persons and keeping a wary distance. The only people who can save criticism from dying its thousandth death are the critics themselves. The rest is noise.

Leave the bragging, complaining, and defensive name-calling to others, and remember Sarris' enduring legacy: that it's the smart, the difficult, and the sometimes-enraging that'll still be kicking around in fifty years. Trying to please some amorphous audience is the surest way to become irrelevant. Or, as Don Draper so wisely put it, "Just so you know, the people who talk that way think that monkeys can do this."

Clearly, critics do still matter, even as the zeitgeist (and with it all the particulars of how we write) changes. If people didn't care, they wouldn't take the time to read and remark, whether spirited, mean-spirited, or senseless. If people didn't care, critical support couldn't set the table for the Oscars — featuring admired, little-seen movies like "Amour," "Beasts of the Southern Wild," and "The Master" alongside admired hits like "Lincoln," "Life of Pi," and "Argo" — even if the winners are bound to disappoint someone. If people didn't care, we'd all already be out of a job.

It's high time we admit that our readers may be on to something. The problem isn't the idea of film criticism. It's us.

6 Comments

  • Steve Warren | February 28, 2013 12:50 AMReply

    As I tell young people who ask me how to get started in the business, with an ever-dwindling number of exceptions, "film critic" is no longer a profession; it's a hobby. I've been a professional film critic for over 45 years - about as long as Roger Ebert, with considerably less success. A little over a year ago I moved to a city with two local dailies. Last year I helped one of them cover the local film festival on a freelance basis. This year neither paper has a freelance budget, so I'll be sitting out the festival. Self-syndicated, I was published with some regularity in more than a dozen papers at one point. Now I appear occasionally in four, and the only one that uses me regularly doesn't pay.

    The Internet is creating new "star" reviewers, but their skills in web design and self-promotion are more important than their critical ability. And most of them aren't making a dime either.

  • Edward Copeland | February 27, 2013 6:07 PMReply

    By and large, film critics haven't landed in the In Memoriam segment. (Gene Siskel received a mention by Whoopi Goldberg who claimed his death came too late to include him though an actor -- I forget who it was -- who died later did make the montage.) On the other hand, the list of people who worked in the industry not deemed worthy of inclusion always is a lengthy one thanks to the secret committee and behind-the-scenes politicking that The New York Times reported on a few weeks ago. A partial list, just that I managed to gather with help from some others, in no particular order: Gerry Hambling (6 time nominee for film editing); Patty Andrews, Conrad Bain, Harry Carey Jr., Ravi Shankar (score nominee, Gandhi); Alex Karras, Phyllis Diller, Al Freeman Jr., Judith Crist (another critic who didn't make the tribute), Gore Vidal, Tony Martin, R.G. Armstrong, Lupe Ontiveros, Chad Everett, Andy Griffith, Richard Dawson, Donna Summer, Levon Helm(w/The Band in Last Waltz; actor, Coal Miner's Daughter), Ann Rutherford, Jon Finch, Simon Ward and I'm sure there are many more.

  • Matt Brennan | February 27, 2013 11:43 PM

    Edward, the fact that film critics aren't usually featured in the "In Memoriam" segment is why Sarris' inclusion, though richly deserved, surprised me. And while I noticed that Hambling, Diller, and Karras were absent, I didn't take the time to piece together a more extensive list. Thanks to you and your colleagues for doing so, however partial it may be.

  • Tim | February 27, 2013 3:30 PMReply

    I agree with the first point ("start talking more") in principle, but I'll also admit that after reading a fifth article on the Zero Dark Thirty torture controversy, I pretty much lost all interest. And yet the pieces kept coming... dozens of them... for weeks and weeks on end. And I would say the same for the Django debacle... or the "cultural vegetables" controversy... or any one of a hundred short-lived collective obsessions of the critical community.

    Now, I think those discussions are all important and well worth having. But how do you prevent reader burn out? Honestly, I think part of it may come down to writers choosing their battles. Instead of every critic weighing in on every single issue, I as a reader would much prefer to see critics take a step back and ask themselves "how invested am I in this particular issue? how qualified am I to talk about it? do I have anything new to add to the conversation?" What you should be aiming for isn't simply MORE debate, but more INFORMED debate, higher debate, debate that sheds light on issues important to film as a whole rather than merely particular aspects of particular films that will be forgotten in two months' time. Increasing the signal to noise ratio would go a long way in convincing the casual film criticism reader that you're not just chattering amongst yourselves.

    I agree wholeheartedly with point #2 though. In the internet age, brevity has become a top virtue, and as someone with a dozen or more film blogs in my reader, I'm much more likely to read those who have made reputations for stating big thoughts succinctly. I would direct anyone to Richard Brody. His criticism is polemical and his commenters tend to loathe him, but you'd be hard pressed to see someone who can squeeze so much profundity into so few words. (He's also got a clear aesthetic-moral vision, which is something a lot of critics these days lack.)

  • Tim | February 28, 2013 10:22 AM

    "critics need to engage more directly, rather than all taking up a general topic without engaging each other's specific arguments"

    Well in that case I'm with you 100%.

  • Matt Brennan | February 27, 2013 11:53 PM

    Tim, you're absolutely right about "Zero Dark Thirty," and I think it's apt that you qualify it with the phrase "torture controversy." As I wrote in my column on the film last month, the torture discussion missed what I thought were some intriguing continuities with "The Hurt Locker," and indeed the important discussion about this endless "War on Terror" we're mired in. My point about the need for more contentiousness (in the context of Sarris) is that critics need to engage more directly, rather than all taking up a general topic without engaging each other's specific arguments. I do think, though, that these "collective obsessions," as you smartly term them, do illuminate the zeitgeist at some level, prompting important and sustained questions and meta-questions. With 'Lincoln," "Argo," "Zero Dark Thirty," and "Django," this past year got at ideas of historical accuracy and historical narratives, which is an interesting debate in its own right, but also suggests another. Why, at this political moment, are we all so concerned with veracity? The problem with the torture/ZDT debate was that it never moved forward, leaving, as you say, less "signal" than "noise."

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