Friday, December 01, 2006


Critical thinking

"Never trust the artist. Trust the tale. The proper function of a critic is to save the tale from the artist who created it."
D.H. Lawrence

By Edward Copeland
I felt compelled to write something for Andy Horbal's criticism blog-a-thon being coordinated at (now defunct) No More Marriages!, but so many other projects have kept me preoccupied that I wasn't sure what to offer. I contemplated just re-running previous things I'd written about Pauline Kael's reviews and her death, but that felt as if I would be cheating. Plus, to be honest, the state of film criticism seems sort of depressing to me at the moment. For a long time, my mom kept a little project my fifth-grade classmates and I did about what we wanted to do when we grew up. I waxed on long and hard about dreams of acting, writing and directing, going so far as to list film projects I had in mind (You poor souls — you'll never see Insanity come to the big screen the way 10-year-old mind intended). I also mentioned an interest in a political career (in sixth grade, I would revise this to a scheme for being elected president and then resigning immediately, just to take the pension). The coda to the fifth-grade project though was telling and a bit depressing. I closed with "If all else fails, I could always be a movie critic."

That I did eventually become a film critic, both amateur and professional, (without pursuing my other, more sought-after options), what does that say about me? Boy, imagine if I'd been a subject of Michael Apted's Up documentaries and he got the fifth-grade prediction and then chronicled what transpired down the road. However, I digress — because I decided to contribute to this blog-a-thon to discuss the state of film criticism, at least as far newspaper criticism is concerned, and I think it's as endangered a species as the newspaper industry itself. A former colleague of mine commented not too long ago that when newspapers die, it won't be because of competition from other media — it will be a case of suicide. This is because the executives at just about any newspaper you happen to wander into are completely clueless as to how to adapt. They fruitlessly pursue younger readers, oblivious to the fact that unless they were news junkie freaks such as me, there have never been young readers, even prior to the Internet. Now, even the junkies don't need a newspaper to stay informed.

This problem extends to film criticism as well, whose fate is being threatened by economic concerns on two different sides. The Dallas Morning News recently got rid of its entire staff of local reviewers, preferring to go with wire reviews — and this is a major newspaper serving a large metropolitan area. Other papers water down the effectiveness of criticism by pretty much letting anyone who is free write a review and, if a movie isn't screened in their area, publishing wire reviews in its place. As a result, movie companies are seeing there is little need to screen in smaller markets if they'll get free plugs anyway and are choosing to pull out of many cities around the country. One thing I've always believed about film criticism is that you need a finite number of people doing the job. Some publications will go so far as to have specialty beat reporters review certain films. For example, letting a religion editor review The Nativity Story. While some sort of sidebar is perfectly fine, assessing a film's accuracy in an area he or she knows requires much different skills than forming an opinion on it as a movie. On top of that, I think readers need to see reviews by the same critics as often as possible so they learn to gauge what they think, i.e. "I never agree with him — I might like this one" or vice-versa. On top of that, I fear that if the studios keep pulling out of smaller markets and more and more wire reviews or syndicated critics are used, it's going to lose something for the reader. If all film writers end up being based out of New York, L.A. or Chicago, their attitude toward movies will seem foreign to many readers in places like Iowa or Nebraska or anywhere else. It's not that local critics in those states should kowtow to their readers, but if the papers only offer big-city perspectives, readers will just ignore the review entirely and, theoretically, the papers' bottom lines could suffer even more.

Soon, criticism might be confined to places like this on the Web which, like many political sites, end up basically talking to themselves or preaching to the converted. In almost a year of blogging, I've been amazed at how little debate or commentary occurs out there on most sites, be they about politics or culture. The hits showing people are looking are plentiful, but people tend to keep quiet or return to their own turf to comment on what they've read. Because of the Web, film criticism won't be vanishing any time soon, but I have great concern about whether it will end up being very useful for anyone beyond true movie buffs.
"Movies are made, criticism is written by the use of intelligence, talent, taste, emotion, education, imagination and discrimination. There is a standard answer to this old idiocy of 'if-you-know-so much-about-the-art-of-the-film, why-don't-you-make-movies?' You don't have to lay an egg to know if it tastes good."
Pauline Kael

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Interesting observations - our local daily here in Albany has also dispensed with its own staff of critics, and now runs reviews from outside sources (primarilly Ebert).

The New York Times ran a piece by A.O. Scott last summer examining the diminished role of critics, especially when it comes to economic impact - the piece took shape around the idea that films like Pirates of the Caribbean 2, which received a near universal citical drubbing upon its release, are essentially critic-proof when it comes to box office. The people who made Pirates the top-grossing film of the year so far don't necessarilly read reviews, or have been so conditioned by the Hollywood marketing machine into thinking something is a "must-see", that critical reception becomes irrelevant. I tend to agree that the only real influence critics yield nowadays is in drawing attention to smaller films that otherwise wouldn't turn up on the radar otherwise. As far as mainstream commercial product is concerned, they don't make much of difference - those films succeed or fail based on who the stars are, how they're packaged & marketed, and word of mouth.
Whenever somebody asks a question like "What is the state of film criticism today?" I can almost hear the ears of other critics perk up while everybody else nods off. I think it's mostly inside baseball at this point. I agree with your point about wanting to see several reviews from a critic; you want to see him cover a distance of ground, ect. It's fun to read some critics with whom you consistently disagree. I read my favorites for their insight and prose style; they could write about almost any subject and I would read it. The stuff I read on the web is as good as any. Keep up the good work, that means you too, Josh R.
One interesting problem facing the newspaper film section is the question of currency. Many people complain that newspaper film reviewers typically function as little more than "consumer guides" to the movies. But what function do we want for newspaper film criticism if not as a consumer guide?

Before, the newspaper film section said "these are the movies playing near you" and the critic said "these are the movies that you should see." (Incidentally, I never perceived a conflict of interest in a newspaper running ads for movies alongside reviews of them--who said that originally? Someone at Variety? Peter Bart?)

The better film critics grounded these recommendations in film history and rigorous aesthetic considerations, and the best film critics did this while speaking to the specific interests of their readers. Critics like Dave Kehr and Jonathan Rosenbaum (and I'd say Armond White, but I know I'm in the minority here) respect their readers enough to cue them into movies they can't see that they'd be interested in.

This trend towards syndication makes it impossible for the critics to speak to their audience, and so far this has resulted in them showing less respect to their readers as well. And no one wants to be pandered to: if film reviews say no more than previews, why even bother with them?

The mindset of the newspaper owners and editors seems to be: people want to see the big films playing in the multi-plexes (as evidenced by the amount of money these films make compared to smaller, "arty" and foreign films). Other people at bigger newspapers with better writers are already writing or have already written about these films. So let's save the salary of a film critic and run their reviews.

But if we're using money as evidence, that's not even true! People aren't even going to the movies anymore: they're watching them at home on DVD. Presumably, if we needed "consumer guide" film critics ten years ago, we need them now to tell us which DVDs to watch. So why don't smaller newspapers give their film sections over to reviews and discussion of films available (or not available) on DVD?

Critics can talk about movies with a local connection, movies suddenly relevant in light of recent local events. They can talk about small, local events (festivals, screenings organized by students, local films). And they can let the ads and the previews speak for whatever's playing in multi-plexes. Except, again, when those films happen to have a local angle.

This would result in better film criticism, and film criticism that more people would want to read, yeah?

Sorry if this doesn't entirely make sense or seem relevant to your post, Ed. I'm really not good in comments sections: thanks to that little box I typically forget what I started writing about by the time I get to the end...
I agree with you Andy about newspaper critics functioning as a consumer reporter -- that's how I originally looked at it when I began, but it's such a subjective art that it can't really work that way. You can objectively say a car has this asset or this problem, but everyone will have a different take on a movie's worth. That's why I think there need to be consistent voices in a market so a reader can gauge what they think against the critic's by past comparisons. As for the conflicts, I think part of the problem is that many people working at newspapers see conflicts that don't exist. I know that some papers that will run wire reviews of movies that didn't get screened do so because they fear the movie companies will get mad and drop advertising. However, having talked with many people who work in the film publicity business the marketing and the publicity arms of studios are so separate that I was told a story about one time when this person was speaking with a p.r. person from a studio when a marketing person from the same studio came up to them -- and they had never met before. The ad situation wouldn't change at all beyond the overall drop in newspaper advertising across the board.
Good points Edward!
I like your take on the self-destruction of newspapers, although this terrain is not strategical to film criticism... Newspapers (weekly) borrow reviews to feature culture pages, but "critical thinking" is made and developped elsewhere, in the specialist (monthly) magazine, in books by scholars, or on the web eventually (because it's free of conflicts and pressure).

Your remark on film debate is good too! Unless it's a public forum where people enjoy bashing eachother for no reason, readers are shy about engaging with the opinion of the blog host, like if it was sacrilegious to contradict someone on his/her own land... And it only proves there is no actual "critical thinking", readers don't have the courage to stand up for their opinion and only defend them at home on their own blog. This whole interactivity is very limited and ineffective in practice.

You might not perceive a conflict of interest as a reader, but the liberty of the writers you read is fundamentally hindered if a sponsor pays big money to get an Ad in the paper. It's easy to conceive how this sponsor can put pressure on the editor or the critic by threatening to remove the budget if the films are demolished by the critics.
Besides if an Ad works on readers (to encite to watch such movie) the paper is therefore responsible for having its readers go see it, it's like endorsing the product. So the editorial line of critics melts in with the Ad contents as a global message on what to watch.
You're probably true about DVDs, and the whole market will adapt that way eventually. Although once movies will be made for TV or DVD without any theatrical release the face of cinema will change dramatically, and they won't be films like we know them.
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