Thursday, April 22, 2010

Is Film Criticism Dead? #2

It’s pretty clear from Salon critic Andrew O’Hehir’s article, with its Alfred E Neuman What-Me-Worry attitude, that he really has no grasp of the bigger picture at stake here – as Susan so aptly put it yesterday. But why should he? What’s becoming increasingly obvious today is the manner in which careerism has infected journalism, so much so that O’Hehir (as a critic paid to ask questions) refuses to examine why certain film critics are no longer considered employable while others are.

I’ve been somewhat fortunate that I came into the profession in 1981 just as the line started to blur between critical and consumer-friendly journalism. Looking back, I think I've had a pretty satisfying career and accomplished things on terms that I found agreeable. That’s partly because there was a time when you could distinguish yourself from puffery by, to quote one sharp radio producer, treating the audience as voyeurs rather than consumers. In those days, if your goal was to be smart, articulate and informative, it could get you hired. It’s almost the opposite now. I’ve lost three jobs as a film critic in the last few years not because I wasn’t doing my job, or forgot how to write, or talk, or had nothing of interest to say. I was relieved of my duties because I held to the same standards I originally brought to my work -- and those standards in the business have now radically changed.

I left Boxoffice in Los Angeles after about ten years with the magazine because the editor-in-chief decided to question the integrity of one of its veteran critics on their public website. When the editor refused to remove the slander, I quit in support of the writer. But there wasn’t a whisper of protest from any of the other in-house critics even though any one of them could have just as easily been targeted. After seven years of reviewing films for CBC Radio Syndication, I was let go by an aspiring executive who didn’t think I liked enough movies (i.e. I wasn’t being consumer-friendly). Finally, last fall, I was dropped from the freelance roster of Metro Newspaper without them informing me that I was being let go. They ducked that responsibility by neglecting to invite me to the freelancers' meeting before the Toronto International Film Festival thus leaving me stranded with no one to cover it for. So I ultimately had to give my press pass back to TIFF. It was the first time not covering the Festival since 1981. Once again, there was no cry of foul from anybody. When professional standards and conduct have slipped to this degree, where editors and producers can act with impunity and without consideration, you can’t lay the blame solely on the economics of the time. However, economics are now being used as a pretense to instill fear in writers who don’t want to lose their gigs, or their access to all those movies and celebrities to interview. That may be one reason why we see more consumer reporting rather than film criticism – and why moral courage in the face of unethical practices is on the decline.

Consumer reporting, for one thing, is much safer. If all you’re doing is giving plot summary and informing the audience that they’ll either love it or hate it, nobody is going to get too jazzed – or upset - over what you say. After all, anybody can have an opinion. Criticism though is about ideas as well as opinions. It’s about creating a context for your reactions which turns out to be more dangerous because it then forces the audience to consider what they are consuming and why. Many editors and producers, with their concern for numbers (or advertising dollars), now fear the possibility of losing portions of their audience. In this climate, if you’re a critic, you might begin to doubt your own instincts. Instead of standing behind your insights, you might worry more about what the reaction to your piece might be – and what the fallout from your opinion might bring.

Since I’ve “retired” from professional reviewing and co-founded this blog in order to continue writing commentary free from those pressures and anxieties, I have been teaching and lecturing and listening to people asking me questions about the profession -- questions that Andrew O’Hehir chooses to avoid. When they ask me why film criticism has been gradually losing its teeth, I often share my experiences and observations. I tell them that if you are a real critic, you will continue to be one wherever you land because sometimes changing circumstances are out of your control. So all you can do is be true to yourself while resisting any capitulation to the desperate conformity around you. But, as a way of explaining the why-now part of this problem, I also give them a quote from the late American composer Frank Zappa.

Back in 1986, Zappa was interviewed by The Progressive, a Wisconsin monthly magazine associated with Midwestern progressivism, on the subject of mediocrity. Here’s what he had to say:

“Social pressure is placed on people to become a certain type of individual, and then rewards are heaped on people to conform to that stereotype…[You] can then look at what’s being done and say, ‘Jesus, I can do that.’ You celebrate mediocrity, you get mediocrity. People who could have achieved more won’t because they know that all they have to do is be ‘that,’ and they too can sell millions and make millions and have people love them because they are merely mediocre.”

“Few people who do anything excellent are ever heard of. You know why? Because excellence, pure excellence, terrifies…[people] who’ve been bred to appreciate the success of the mediocre. People don’t wish to be reminded that lurking somewhere there are people who can do some shit you can’t do. They can think a way you can’t think; they can run a way you can’t run; they can dance a way you can’t dance...So to keep them happy as a labor force, you say, ‘Let’s take this mediocre chump and we say, ‘He is terrific!’ All the other mediocre chumps say, ‘Yeah, that’s right and that gives me hope, because one day as mediocre and chumpish as I am, I can [be terrific, too].’ It’s smart labor relations. An MBA decision. That is the orientation of most entertainment, politics and religion. So considering how firmly entrenched all that is right now, you think it’s going to turn around? Not without a genetic mutation, it’s not!”


--Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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