Are a pesky bunch. A dying breed.
Done are the days of influential critics who actually had something to say. People who took it seriously, and had a relationship with movies that only now we are beginning to grasp, audience involvement has matured and so has our relationship progressed by our sophistication. And access to information.
The likes of Pauline Kael, whom championed the last wave of 70’s Auteurs to critical prominence, were replaced by one tag line film reviewers in the 90’s (invented by studios to often sing the praises) and turned film criticism into ad copy. A “two thumbs up” no longer signified the stamp of approval it once it, because people are no longer influenced. They will always go see what they want regardless, reviews arguably matter to those who enjoy READING about films. The impact of web bloggers and vitriol infested skeptics should not be discounted. There are people, respected journalists I might add, who should not write about film. Such are the likes of Armond White of New York Press. He is a prime example of everything that is wrong with film criticism: Relentless pandering of bias (champions really bad movies while pans real good ones), negative and often personal dismissal (I wanna take a shower after reading one of his reviews) more ways than not, do a disservice to the appreciation of film. Hate masquerades as “criticism”. His condescension is lamentable, the fact that he does it without humor and single minded seriousness adds to the problem. Others, like James Bernandineli are lighter in tone but increasingly bitter in his reviews.
Could it be a general discontent among the critical establishment regarding today’s films or is this a sign film criticism is dead? writing about film does require some passion and understanding, too many reviews fall under the single minded (it’s either good or bad) category. Reduced to ad copy, it’s impossible to get a sense of anything valid in one capsule reviews.
Every film has good and bad points to be made regardless of quality. A balanced viewpoint is often required, something akin to the insights of the human condition filtered through cinematic literature best underline film language. (pretentious wording #1). Sounds pretentious, it often is. We face the changes within film culture, as the language of connection metamorphoses with technological and social evolution (the internet) impacts the way we see and hear the world around us, and so does film. I’ve written about film language in this decade, and how I consider it a step back from the decade the preceded it. Films today have arguably become formulaic, both in content and execution of emotion. Everything’s become compartmentalized, packaged for maximum impact. This is the language we now speak, traces of subtlety and mystery are still among some films, although one must look outside of America for the truly interesting and far reaching. Few directors have the ability (and storytelling skill) to take audiences down film’s potential and leave a lasting impression. Perhaps it is true it is harder to impress audiences than ever before, but it starts with a good story (why can’t Hollywood understand this). The Auteurs serves as a sanctuary for displaced souls who continue their love affair with cinema.
So, is film criticism dead? dead as we know it. It’s changed from what it used to be, conformed into two camps: Online and disposable. Bloggers can write whatever they want, sometimes what they say is more meaningful than people who’ve been writing about film for decades and lost how.
But not everyone can say anything meaningful or even resounding. I gather film critics are the equivalent of film professors: Knowledgeable about film theory (some) but should they be trusted? if you’ve never made a film, are you qualified for it? some critics brought an aesthetic understanding on how to read a film, and that enhances our understanding of it. For that, film critics are valid. It’s a practice. I wouldn’t understand a lot of films if it wasn’t for the scholars who’ve written books on the subject.
I’m among the fateful, for thanks the likes of Roger Ebert still finds meaningful passion in the magic of film and is still around to write about it. Bless his heart, he’s part of a dying bread. This could use some organization, to be continued.
its not necessarily film criticism thats dead, surely the thriving nature of this website proves that, but its the printed press in general thats going down the drain. people dont buy newspapers anymore, and film critics are amongst the first to go apparently. when you consider the fact that with the internet anyone can start a blog or join a group like this and say whatever they want, at the cost to no one, then genuine film criticism is seen as an unnecessery expense by the average local newspaper, so what we get instead is some extended synopsis probably written by an intern or regular article writer that possibly hasnt even seen the film in question.
thats the way its going here at least, genuine film discussion is moving away from the mainstream and instead were given gossip rags and the like.
I’m a little confused. One minute you seem to be saying that the world of film criticism is dead, then you say it isn’t. Can you clarify a little more?
I’ll clarify a bit more. I know my thoughts could use some organisation, it’s a tough topic to put into perspective.
Film criticism as elitism is dead, now it’s for the wolves.
I enjoy Armond White. It’s funny thinking his crazy and it’s always fun to finally agree with him every now and then. He’s a great writer and possibly an insane person. That’s how I like my film critics whether I agree with them or not.
Print film criticism is in a pretty bad way these days, though, there’s no denying it. And the fact that this douche:
has the most famous job in all of film criticism adds insult to injury.
I was a film critic from 1998-2004 for a U.K national newspaper, but one with a low circulation, which meant having to deal with bimbetic PR women clipboard huggers, who were forever messing me around to get into a press screening for the latest releases. It’s a completely artificial world: you go to private press screenings with other critics on newspapers with bigger circulations, your bribed with quality sandwiches, booze or soft drinks and you sit in seats twice the size of a those found in a normal cinema. You see films at odd times, usually three every Monday or Tuesday for a deadline for Wednesday for publication for the day of release, usually Friday. Your up close and personal with the film company’s publicity machine and this can lead to certain conflicts of interest. Depending on your outlet, you end up doing a puff piece for a movie (even without seeing the film itself) which means the article is little more than a press release puffed up to help the film’s publicity drive.
Despite writing for a very left-wing publication, I wrote reviews apolitically, which I thought would be refreshing from the constant political ear bashing and agenda setting the paper seemed obliged to make. Most films I have to say were dire, very few were worth watching, or worth reviewing with passion or enthusiasm. Other critics tended to keep to themselves: they were so self absorbed, they weren’t interested in bringing in new, young voices into the film critic community. It didn’t help i had to work another full-time job with hellish hours to make ends meet, as I was so poorly paid and exhausted. The air of self-importance of these critics was unbelievable. They didn’t seem to realize that most of us have to do a “real” job, with real hours, rather than a two-day week, while media whoring the rest of the week by freelancing their opinions, remixing them for radio, TV or the internet.
The pattern of big releases not being shown to journalists is a sign that film companies don’t really need film critics. They are recorders of history and film companies have little use for that role. So, they don’t feel they need to screen films for critics, which is a sure sign of their waning relevance. Everyone who watches a film, is, in essence, a film critic of sorts, so setting up a blog becomes just as relevant as the bloated opinions of overpaid gasbags, some of whom were earning £50-80,000 a year for a two-day week, plus holidays. I did it for £4,000 a year, 6 films and 2,000-2,500 words every week, come rain, come shine, and no holidays. No fancy expense account for me. But the experience was worth £500 a week of anyone’s money.
Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian newspaper is probably the best critic in the UK. He writes with authority, humour, is engaging and makes you realise why some critics still have their mojo. Ebert in the US still has his passion for an art form where he has lasted longer than most. He’s a brand all of his own, and has his own company, so he’ll never want for anything, as he has an in-built audience for his work. For a newspaper, if you’re buying it specifically because of a journalist and his reputation… well, that’s piece of mind for an outlet’s future. Ebert can leave the Chicago-Sun Times and his readers would still follow him. There are very few critics or journalists that have that power.
But I’d agree that the power critics once had is dwindling, and I don’t think these guys who’ve been riding the gravy train of a well paid glamour job, can reinvent themselves. The critical mass has moved to the internet, to places like this website and the informed banter and debate on the forum pages shows that there are plenty of non professional critics with just as much talent to write informed, entertaining copy. The days of the bread and butter critic are probably over, but it always helped if they remained truly independent and not felt obliged to be co-opted extensions of the film PR machine. But as the copy devoted to film in the tabloids gets smaller and more people are interested in no-talent harlots like Paris Hilton and her sordid sex life, can you blame serious, passionate film fans not to find solace and community in sites such as The Auteurs?
Andrew, your insights are very much appreciated. I am humbled…
Who’s the douche? I don’t have my douche-recognizing goggles on today.
I forgot to mention that although everyone might be a critic, it doesn’t help when a newspaper or a TV studio goes for the lowest common denominator and employees a “critic” or “presenter” or “pretty, if vapid cue card reader” doing movie reviews. That soundbite, short-attention span culture is ruining film criticism.
Newspapers that bring famous people, or famous authors as they have done in UK, to do reviews are pandering to this celebrity culture, that means people will only read a certain journalist’s work if he or she already has a reputation elsewhere.
It’s no wonder the new breed of critics aren’t versed in film history or literacy. Just because someone wrote a novel doesn’t mean they’re able to write about film with authority. It’s the bottom-line pandering for audiences linked to advertising revenue- it all comes down to money.
Moreover, the amount of money these so-called personalities get for reviewing is obscene and cheapen the whole art and insight of well constructed and argued debate. But once on the gravy train, you can choo-choo yourself into a bloody nice lifestyle, while the rest of us have to live in the real world.
By the way, who’s the guy in the photo? Looks like a basketball player that fancied himself as a presenter. Mind you, he does have a smug-as-hell look on his face.
It’s the dude that replaced…Roger Ebert at the movies. No not Roeper the other one.
Deuche nirvana, with a cup of coffee.
I think the best critic is Ebert.
I was a critic for a street press for six years. Several years of that time I edited the cinema section of the magazine. As mentioned in Film Comment’s recent discussion on this subject (a transcript can be found at http://www.filmlinc.com/fcm/nd08/fccrisis.htm) there is a difference between criticism and reviewing, being that criticism is about discussion and expanding the reader’s appreciation of cinema, whereas reviewing is an attempt to form a “synergy with the readership”; the latter I despise. Personally I find that the film critic earns his or her respect by fulfilling a duty to the public to educate and provide intellectual insight into cinema (being that watching a film should be an emotional experience, not an intellectual one, thus parallel intellectual discussion will always be required). When a film critic abandons this duty he or she becomes a “reviewer” with nothing more to offer than an opinion of equal weight to that of anyone who can set up a blog — or anyone with someone to listen for that matter.
In my job, meeting other film journalists it’s usually obvious who is the critic and who is the reviewer, especially when interacting with the publicists — the critic is respected but not liked, the reviewer is liked but not respected. I’m exaggerating somewhat as to the black and white nature, but it is generally true. You might be surprised just how heavily the reviewers outweigh the critics. I don’t begrudge the reviewers themselves, and can understand the democratic pride one might take in being “the voice of the people” as opposed to the elitism of film criticism, but, in part, they dug their own hole of redundancy — opinion is everywhere, while true film critics are a rare and valuable breed. Unfortunately precious few papers want to print film criticism because publishers fear a lack of said “synergy” and don’t understand the duty a film critic has to the public. However I think this will change soon.
All this said, in my opinion, I think that what is now occurring and what must occur in the future is a “thinning out” of film journalism. The white noise of opinion has reached a saturation point, and papers need only a single paragraph of it for any film release considering the variety of sources where readers can access opinion. Publishers are right to cut the space a writer gets to spout his or her opinion; when a writer is writing something valuable, they will get the extra space. People see this as the death of film criticism, but I see it as the opposite — the death of film reviewing. There is a backlash against the wash of opinion and I think that film criticism will come out the winner in the long run.
The douche is Ben Lyons. His dad is Jeffrey Lyons, another bad critic. Jeffrey is not good, Ben is completely worthless. And not only worthless, he’s really kind of a smug, pompous, name-dropping, camera-mugging, celebrity bothering piece of shit. I genuinely do not like a thing about the guy. He’s a rare one.
Lyons=mega douche, he makes me nostalgic for Roeper—in fact he elevates Roeper’s film criticism to that of a weighty intellectual film scholar, and I think that says a lot.
I love Ebes, always have. These days though, I am partial to Kim Morgan (she is a goddess—she is smarter than you are & better looking…promise).
Check out her work: http://sunsetgun.typepad.com/
In a pinch, the NYT’s A.O. Scott is no slouch.
Lyons is so bad he makes Gene Shallot seems credible. He is literally that God awful.
Lots of good stuff on Kim Morgan’s blog.
I think the quality in structure and development in films has seriously declined since people have stopped reading books.
Sadly, the fate of the film critic is the same as the book critic—or at least those who operate outside the academy for all the obvious reasons, not the least of which newspapers themselves are dying out. Of course, the internet is a terrific thing, but it does set up lots of ways to get around critics. If they don’t serve as gatekeepers or tastemakers or simply those who vet, then the general public won’t turn or defer to them. This is too bad as most others will feel inasmuch as we lose that discourse about film that is open and that seems part of the culture of going to the movies. So may be Andrew is right that this will make other opportunities arise—criticism that is less concerned about the market place and can respond in ways that aren’t implicated in the business end of film.
On a side note—and I’ve mentioned this elsewhere—I’ve recently discovered Jonathan Romney and rather like his work: thoughtful, passionate, insightful…
Charlotte’s half-right about Kim.
Roger Ebert, while keeping it simple unlike Manhola Dargis at NYTimes still dissects a movie like nobody can.
Long ago, after reading his review on “Pather Panchali”, I said to myself how on earth could a non-Indian understand the failings and sensibilities so well, then I thought may be its Ray’s genius which came across, but nobody else from the west did it as good as he did.
Then I grew up.
I like Jonathan Rosenbaum 98% of the time
I still miss Gene Siskel. My favorite review of any movie anywhere at any time was back in 1995 when Siskel gushed over BABE (still a truly great film), comparing it to the visuals and staging of GONE WITH THE WIND. Roger Ebert thought he was crazy, and then he died.
I still read Anthony Lane. His review of SEX AND THE CITY was poetic, vicious and spot-on.
On the flip side, Elvis Mitchell bites the big baloney. Always has, always will.
Excellent topic and great discussion from all, especially appreciate the insights of Andrew and Paul above, as to what it is like to slog away as a ‘film critic’ in the real world. Perhaps Rodney Dangerfield sums up what it is like to be a ‘film critic’ in today’s new reality: “I get no respect.” I agree that there are only a very small handful of media film critics who we can respect, everyone has their own short list. I believe, besides all the great insights offered above, that the main problem still resides in the fact almost all films currently being released, in the US and Canada, are totally inane in content for any serious film critic to post comment. Only the ‘film reviewers’, who work to serve newspapers, and by extension, the film mega-buck media circus, would condescend to write about this trash.
I would have almost no work at all were I a ‘film critc,’ as I would basically hate about every new release, no matter how well hyped. I almost never go out to see a new film, because nothing currently shown really interests me. I believe the good film critics out there are of service for pointing out the obscure, independent or foreign-language film that might be of genuine interest. If it is a rare good mainstream movie, we will all hear about it instantly, anyway. For this service – the small (very small) handful of meaningful films that are made world wide each year – the true film critcs out there deserve our respect. It doesn’t matter if they slog away for one of the more ‘important’ media journals out there – be it the New Yorker, Village Voice, Guardian, New York Times, Chicago Sun Times, or our local newspaper – or post on blogs or the internet. However, since the vast majority of new films should never have seen the light of day, even the good film critics are mainly swept away by the red tide of bad films. Otherwise, if quality were the only criterion for recognizing a truly important film release, they would be writing about maybe one of two films only, every few months (if we are lucky).
In other words, the fault lies not only in the system of movie review and promotion, or the changing nature of the sources of that information, but resides mainly in the very poor quality of films being released. We can lament the death of the film critic by really realizing what we are seeing is the derth of meaningful films to review. Let’s face it: if it’s not cute and animated, loaded with tons of special effects, or featuring the current ‘in’ actors, it will mainly be ignored by everyone. Except, and here is the key, those tiny handful of people that still wade through the garbage to find a true gem. Some of them are here on the Auteurs. Thank you Alanedit for pointing this out: “The Auteurs serves as a sanctuary for displaced souls who continue their love affair with cinema.”
You know, there’s such a thing as having wide-ranging taste in movies, and not just limiting yourself to tiny little niblets of caviar from France or Japan. There are a lot of movies, books, records. There are a lot of points of view, a lot of ways of escape, a lot of ways of looking at life and examining it and presenting it.There’s a lot to discover. From the dawn of time, most of any art form has been commercial trash — and a lot of trash can be enlightening, entertaining, moving, and even suddenly transcendent.
Very true Rodney, very true.
I’ve generally had a much happier experience as a professional than Andrew and Paul seem to have done, but that’s because I’ve never had a job where I have to cover new releases on a weekly basis. I can well imagine how soul-destroying that must be, and indeed vividly recall a conversation with a very high-profile UK critic who actually left his job on a national newspaper as a reaction to watching A NIGHT AT THE ROXBURY. The way he described the experience to me made it sound almost epiphanic – it was “why am I watching this dreck in the first place, and why do I then have to spend time writing about it when virtually none of my readers will be the slightest bit interested in going to see it? And why are film critics expected to cover everything when theatre, music and art critics get to pick and choose?”.
So I’m very lucky in that I do get to pick and choose – I typically review one or two theatrical releases and eight DVD releases in each monthly issue of Sight & Sound. The editors of each section know my taste and existing knowledge, and because I’ve been writing for them for years (my first piece was in mid-2002, I started writing regularly from late 2004 and haven’t missed an issue since early 2006), we now have an almost intuitive rapport. The number of films they’ve given me to review that I ended up actively despising is tiny, and even if I’m disappointed the chances are that I’ll have plenty to write about because it’ll be squarely within one of my areas of expertise. It’s also very rare indeed that I have to turn something around in 24 or even 48 hours – one week is tight for me, with two to three weeks much more common, and in some cases I’ve even had several months (I often catch the very first press show, which might be ages before the eventual release). One major advantage of this is that I get much more time to do background research – for instance, if the film is based on a novel or play, I generally try to read it or any equivalent texts (historical material, for instance), and I also try to watch at least two or three related films. (This in itself can be useful – I used a commission to review grungy low-budget British horror film WILDERNESS as an excuse to catch up with half a dozen post-2000 genre entries that I’d missed).
The major downside is that the pay is pitiful when set against the amount of work involved – even a 1,300 word lead review only nets a fee in the high double figures (probably the equivalent of US$100 or thereabouts), and a capsule DVD review is nearer $30, so this works out at an hourly rate that’s probably nudging or even lower than minimum wage when you consider the amount of viewing/reading/writing involved. (It doesn’t help that I generally pay my own research expenses). Which is why this is more of a freelance hobby on top of my main day job – but because the calibre of films I cover is much higher than that which the average weekly critic gets subjected to, I really don’t mind. And because I generally specialise in ultra-niche titles (central and eastern Europe, documentaries, unclassifiably culty stuff, films from countries off the usual beaten track such as Uruguay or Tajikistan) I’m generally immune to the blandishments of PR companies – no-one seriously expects these films to be huge hits, so they’re usually grateful that they’re getting (hopefully) intelligent coverage in the first place.
And I’m also very conscious of my responsibilities – for instance, I reviewed virtually all the recent Polish films released in Britain by The Polish Connection initiative, and was very aware that my pieces probably amounted to the most substantial English-language coverage that they were likely to get, since they generally bypassed the national press (and even if they did mention them, they rarely got much more than 50-100 words) and didn’t seem to attract much online attention either, at least not in English. I certainly wasn’t blind to their shortcomings (none of these titles was anywhere close to a masterpiece, and I certainly won’t be slitting my wrists if I never have to sit through another Polish romantic comedy), but I did feel a strong sense of responsibility to treat them fairly and accurately. This is partly because I’m not that keen on glib put-downs anyway (which are hard to sustain across typically 600-800 words), but mostly because my main day job involves a lot of research into historical reviews published by Sight & Sound (and its former partner the Monthly Film Bulletin), and am very conscious that some hypothetical researcher several decades hence might well be looking up my pieces for the same reason. So if I’ve failed to give an honest account of the film, so that someone who hasn’t seen it and who might not get the chance to see it will at least get a reasonable impression of what it was like, then as far as I’m concerned I’ve failed full stop.
Andrew and Paul have some great insight and remarks. Although I wrote for a local weekly publication part-time, I was still frustrated at the method and manner in which I was instructed to write in order to appease a certain demographic that wasn’t really understood by the editor and newspaper people. And yes, it’s frustrating to see all the other smuggy critics at the press screenings, self-absorbed and prideful in their print-published thoughts on Saw XIV, or the latest chickflickforguys (“How I F@#!& 300 Hookers While We Were Dating but it Doesn’t Mean Anything Because I Still Love You” ? ;).
After the newspaper started cutting its budget down, the arts/entertainment writers were cut and they defaulted to the national wire syndicates. So yeah, I have a full-time job as a totally-unrelated webmaster, and I now voluntarily write for a spiritually-oriented media site.
Anyway, I agree that the print movie critic is fading away into the abysmal power of the internet. However, the infinite plethora of movie-related websites and blogs will get tiring after a while, and informed/educated, authoritative criticism/opinion will still rise above the “bathroom wall of the universe” that is the web.
I like this remark:
“… [Ben Lyons] elevates Roeper’s film criticism to that of a weighty intellectual film scholar, and I think that says a lot.”
~ Charlotte Perri
My advice to anyone who wants to make a splash as a critic is to find a niche that’s currently underexplored or even unexplored and focus on that. If you choose wisely, and if you’re any good, you’d be amazed how quickly your reputation spreads – and this comes from repeated personal experience.
With a subject like Tarantino or Star Wars, you’re going to have to come up with a staggeringly original take at this stage in the game to make any worthwhile impact, but there are tens of thousands of other films out there which have barely been discussed in English – but which might well be available on DVD with English subtitles. And in those cases, writing anything halfway intelligent in English will automatically constitute a worthwhile addition to film scholarship.
The other great thing about focusing on niches (central European cinema in my case) is the relative absence of advance hype. In most cases, I barely have more than the faintest idea of what I’m about to see when I put the DVD in the player, and I may well know next to nothing about the people who made it. So I’m far more likely to be pleasantly surprised than otherwise – especially given the fact that the film probably has something going for it if its distributors decided it was worth adding English subtitles.