Saturday, November 28, 2015

TIME Magazine: Sticking to the Old Ways, Fortunately

TIME magazine’s recent announcement that it has hired film critic Stephanie Zacharek to replace the late Richard Corliss, its longtime reviewer who passed away early this year, is welcome news for those of us who still buy magazines, value their continuity, and don’t want to see film critics thrown overboard in some misguided attempt to keep up with the times. When publications as diverse as Newsweek, Variety and The Village Voice canned their longtime critics, in recent years, including such stalwarts as David Ansen, Todd McCarthy and J. Hoberman , the future of film criticism, wobbly as it was in terms of overall quality, seemed even more dire. With the ascent of newer reviewers who don’t actually want to bring a real critical eye to their work (they don’t really deserve to be called film critics as they don’t/can’t criticize films but only praise them) and so many amateurs blogging their misguided, superficial and uninformed opinions on movies, there did not seem to be a place for the talented likes of Ms. Zacharek, who has toiled for the Boston Phoenix and The Village Voice, among others. Yet, here comes TIME which could have opted for a rotating slate of film critics, or no critics at all, attempting to keep the old ways going, allowing a prickly, original voice to carry the torch previously held aloft by TIME film critics, including Corliss, Richard Schickel (now retired), Jay Cocks and James Agee. Not only that, instead of routinely directing the readers of the print edition to go online to read most of the magazine’s critical reviews, as they used to recently do, they’ve of late opted to put most of those reviews in print instead and ceased tub-thumping for exclusively online content in the print publication, They still have separate online content, of course, but I no longer get the impression that it is paramount nor perceived by TIME’s editors, as more important to them then the weekly sent out to subscribers or sold on the newsstand. TIME’s decision to hire Zacharek comes on the heels of the startling announcement that Playboy magazine plans to phase out its nude pictorials, the ones that gave it cultural cachet when it was launched by Hugh Hefner in 1953. No doubt, those pictorials aren’t seen as nor are they as racy anymore in an age when mainstream pornography is aired regularly on (pay) TV (in Canada, at least), but it’s the exact opposite of what TIME has done, in terms of honouring its traditions. Playboy is turning itself into Esquire or GQ – profile pieces, interviews and lifestyle concepts geared towards an upwardly mobile male readership – while TIME tries to maintain important aspects of what it has traditionally done for decades. I think the latter has more merit and should be commended for not bending to the internet’s seemingly implacable Borg-like will.

Stephanie Zacharek is TIME magazine's new resident film critic.
Interestingly enough, at a time when CD sales keep dropping and DVDs aren’t being rented or even being bought much anymore, the print medium of magazines and periodicals still seems to be holding its own among the myriad cultural choices available to us all. Newsweek even returned to being a print magazine after declaring, with a splash, that it would be only run online in the future. That development, which I didn’t see coming, lasted just over a year; no doubt because amidst the flotsam and jetsam of so many news publications exclusively online, from Salon to Slate to the Huffington Post, it was likely perceived that a print edition of Newsweek had a better chance of being noticed and bought by those of us who still prefer to read our magazines on paper. And the acclaimed music online magazine Pitchfork has now launched a quarterly print edition for those music buffs that don’t know or want to know about its online counterpart. And let’s not forget about the popularity of the Southern Music print issue of the literary magazine The Oxford American, complete with an excellent accompanying CD, which is anticipated by its readers each year it comes out. And other cultural publications, from film mags, like Film Comment and Sight & Sound to music magazines like MOJO, are also selling regularly, even if their total sales may have diminished somewhat over the years.

It’s not that you can’t read some or all of their content online, too, but it appears that those readers who don’t want to do that – I rarely go online to keep up with the news, for example, sticking to those things called newspapers, remember them? – are staying put with what they’re used to, unlike music listeners or film viewers who seem to be embracing streaming and downloading music and films with an unwavering vengeance. And let’s not forget the very specialized magazines, which either don’t exist online or appeal to older folk who are used to traditional modes of reading about what they’re interested in. Be they magazines about antiques, airplanes or sewing, or the humongous fashion mag editions, like Paris Vogue Collections, whose richly photographed layouts can’t match their dramatic impact online, those mags sell well and consistently.  (Even the celebrity gossip rags, like People, Us, In Touch etc. sell and if anything is ubiquitous online, it's gossip.)  Admittedly, I don’t how much longer this cultural state of affairs will continue – some music mags in England like The Word and Classic FM, have gone under or retreated to online only – since younger people don’t have the magazine reading habit nor are they likely to pick it up. But for now, at least, physical magazines and books, too, for that matter – e-readers have hit their peak, I think, – are holding their own. It might be that magazines, unlike CDs or films, have more of a personal cachet for those who consume them, particularly if they’ve done so for many years – I’ve been a TIME subscriber since 1984 and grew up with it in the house – or it’s the last guilty pleasure they’re holding onto, but I feel optimistic that most of the magazines I read, including the smart left-leaning Israeli bi-weekly news magazine The Jerusalem Report, which I have written for, are here to stay. TIME’s decision to hire Stephanie Zacharek and also replace their fine TV critic James Poniewozik, who was hired by The New York Times, with Daniel D’Addario, from Salon, suggests that at the venerable news mag, critical names penned to their reviews and the old way of doing things still have value. That’s refreshing for so many of us who bemoan change for change's sake. Let’s hope the magazine reaches its centenary in 2023, still in (print) place and still culturally relevant. Will it succeed? That’s up to us, the reader, but hiring Stephanie (and Daniel D’Addario) at least ensures that they’re making the effort to do so. Best of luck Stephanie! I look forward to continuing to see what have to say about the movies. And bravo TIME, for giving us the chance to follow her in your pages.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses at Toronto's Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre and Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where he has concluded a course entitled A Filmmaker/A Country. The course looked at various great filmmakers (Akira Kurosawa, Francesco Rosi, Jafar Panahi and others) who have come to represent their country, at home and abroad, simply because they evince a deep curiosity about what makes their homeland tick, in terms of its people, its history, and its interactions with outsiders and their influences. He has just finished teaching a course on documentary cinema at LIFE Institute.

1 comment:

  1. Nice to see you applauding Time's moves. Zacharek and D'Addario are fine critics. As we were reminded from Skyfall, sometimes the old ways are the best.