Saturday, April 24, 2010

Is Film Criticism Dead? #4

Andrew O'Hehir's recent Salon piece on film criticism has understandably struck a nerve with my colleagues on this site. I agree with both Susan and Kevin that critics losing their long-time jobs on major newspapers, magazines and trade publications is tragic, but I’m not sure it matters all that much. The new generation of film critics coming up the ranks just aren't worthy to inherit the mantle of the relatively few good film critics and film writers we still have.

Long gone are the days when a talented critic like Pauline Kael could tub thump for a favourite movie, like Barry Levinson’s wonderful comedy Diner (1982), and actually turn that film, which was dumped by its studio, into something of a hit. Siskel and Ebert did the same for Carl Franklin’s terrific thriller One False Move (1992), which had been under the radar until they shone a light on it. These days, critics are only taken seriously as negative factors. In fact, some movies are now not even press screened in hopes that the movie can get a decent weekend box office before the reviewers take a whack at it. But since those movies are generally bad, they likely would have been financially unsuccessful regardless of whether the critics were able to pan the movie in advance of its opening.

Truth be told, the public doesn’t give a damn what we film critics say about anything - and the press generally doesn't give them a reason to be taken seriously. In Canada, we had a situation where one leading film critic tried his utmost to get one of the country’s major film critics’ associations to honour Paul Gross’s execrable war movie, Passchendaele (2008), which was never even picked up for distribution in the U.S. He wanted to give it some sort of award since the film was, in his words, an important one. And our national newspaper, The Globe and Mail, even published an editorial urging the public to attend the movie – which deals with Canada’s role in one of the key battles of the First World War – out of some sort of civic duty. I did an article many years ago asking if film critics were indeed soft on Canadian movies and, you know what, they actually admitted they were, and also treated American independent movies equally leniently, too. Is it any wonder English Canadian movies tank at the local box office? The public, understandably, doesn’t trust their local movie reviewers to tell the truth about their national cinema.

And when the film critics have a chance to expose flaws in movies that the public wants to see, they usually drop the ball. How many times did I read reviewers castigate James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) for lacking a decent, original script but then turned around to praise the film anyway since the special effects were so stupendous? Or bend over backwards to deny the obvious anti-Semitism in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004), even when its virulent hatred of Jews was plain as the nose on your face? And Gibson, to boot, was an anti-Semite himself. They’re also great at travelling in packs, or pack journalism, deeming movies bad or disasters when they’re often neither. John Boorman’s Burma-set political movie Beyond Rangoon (1995), for example, was an excellent picture, but was uniformly trashed by the film critics who first saw at the Cannes Film Festival. That ensured that critics (who were not at Cannes) wouldn’t bother investigating to see if the movie was as indeed as bad as initially written. And are Gigli (2003) or Ishtar (1987) really the worst that Hollywood has to offer, compared to genuine turkeys like A Few Good Man (1992) or Top Gun (1986)?

O’Hehir misses the point in his rant. Sometimes film critics, good or bad, and who still think for themselves, do lose their jobs. And they are now losing them in greater numbers. But it’s also occasionally about ignorant twentysomethings, who know very little about the history of movies, or are interested in diverse forms of cinema, that are taking jobs away from their more-knowledgeable elders. When I lost my job at Boxoffice, after 20 years, because my editor responded to a reader who was questioning whether I had actually seen the movie I panned, he insinuated that I actually hadn’t (he wrote that he didn’t know if I had or not but surely hoped I did). It was less a case of pandering to the public, though it was that as well, and more an indictment of the Internet where the reader can engage in cheap, anonymous criticism of a film critic without taking the trouble of writing a literate letter to their local newspaper and attaching their name to it. The so-called ‘democracy’ of the Internet, which is why Boxoffice decided to let the readers respond to the magazine’s reviews, can function as a killer of meritocracy, too. But many of the remaining Boxoffice film critics, cowards as they were in not standing up for Kevin and myself, are still original thinkers. It’s not always as simple as consumer reporters replacing discerning film critics. (I did lose a film reviewing gig at a suburban Toronto weekly a decade ago, after seven years there, because my editor didn't like my going against the popular grain, but an internal survey by the newspaper, which was never published, also determined that my column was popular and I was never replaced by any other critic.)

I am much more concerned today with the imminent deaths of so many newspapers and magazines, even when they’re also published online, than I am of the specific critics or writers who are out of their jobs. And if I want to be contrary here, the loss of the post of film critic at so many newspapers may not matter all that much. After all, we have very little decent music criticism, even in quality music magazines like Mojo, but we still have a lot of good music. The reverse is true of the movies. Most of them, Hollywood and foreign-language alike, are really bad, as per Theodore Sturgeon’s law that 90% of everything is crap. And the critics, young or older, free-thinkers or not, still reviewing either just won’t acknowledge that. Thus their praising of Hollywood garbage like Avatar, or the elitist garbage of Syndromes and a Century (2007), comes to mean the same thing in the end, unworthy films getting reams of ink or pixels while the few better films out there often go unnoticed.

In that light, my sympathy for the likes of Variety’s Todd McCarthy, or the Detroit Free Press’s Terry Lawson, or any other film critic suddenly thrown out of a job, is more a function of my relating to people my own age (in their 40s and 50s), losing their steady gig and paycheque and less a concern about what it means to the so called art of film criticism, So is film criticism dead? Not entirely.The New York Times still values its film critics and Time magazine just added Mary Pols, who is quite good, to its roster, replacing Richard Schickel, who has retired from reviewing, and thus augmenting its long time critic Richard Corliss. There are also some good film writers, like Howard Hampton, gracing the pages of magazines like Film Comment.

Is film criticism in bad shape, perhaps dying? Yes but maybe that’s not such a bad thing. After all, if so little of real worth is coming out of their practitioners’ computer keys, maybe this is one critical art form that should be euthanized and put out of its misery. If every film critic, including those of us writing on this blog, disappeared tomorrow, the quality of movies would not be affected one iota. Yes, good film writing, as opposed to straightforward (read unimagnative) movie reviewing, is important in terms of trying to call attention to quality or exposing meretricious films that are receiving undue praise; we wouldn’t still be practicing it, as we are on this blog, if we didn’t believe that. But it may not be significant enough if, ultimately, we don’t help or hinder the chances of a movie being seen by those who it was made for or change what gets made or rejected by cinema’s powers that be in the first place. In that light, the death of film criticism can be viewed as utterly meaningless. More disturbing, to me at least, in light of the current cinema’s continuing poor quality, is the thought that maybe the smart film criticism we grew up with may never have never meant anything at all.

-- Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto.

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