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Thumbs down for crix

Variety polls filmmakers about reviewers

Anthony Lane, phone your agent.

Based on Daily Variety’s poll of four dozen filmmakers in Hollywood and Gotham, the New Yorker film critic scores positively for film literacy, reliability, verisimilitude and quality of writing. To paraphrase Sally Field: writers, directors, actors and producers like that critic, they really like him.

As for Lane’s fellow critics in the print, broadcast and online trenches, Daily Variety’s surveyed filmmakers — a generally curmudgeonly lot — aren’t so kind.

The new lineup of reviewers at the New York Times were generally panned, but broadcast critics and blurbmeisters were the hardest hit. Not surprisingly, few would go on the record, but everyone had an opinion.

(One indie director summed up the need for anonymity this way: “You can spill the dirt in your book just before you retire.” He also saw a consolation for filmmakers usually unable to publicly vent against critics: “We never get to review them, but we’re better paid.”)

One actor-writer-director in his 30s made the all-too-typical comment, “I can’t name one critic that I trust. If there was ever an art to it, it’s been lost.”

But filmmakers’ anger isn’t fueled by dislike for film criticism — just the opposite. There’s a hunger for quality criticism, which once played a key role in American filmmaking; moviemakers are angry that it’s been replaced by blurbmeisters, report cards, one-to-four-star rankings and thumbs up or down.

Many expressed compassion for the current crop of critics.

“Today’s critics have to see far more films than they ever did, and in a more confined time,” said producer David Brown. “They’re seeing too many movies, and films today are much more eclectic.”

Expressing a sense of nostalgia typical of many respondents, one scripter recalled his ’60s film culture roots: “The discovery of the artistry of cinema resonated from Cahiers du Cinema to the New York Times. Cinema had meaning.”

A writer-director in his 50s said today’s film criticism “lacks historical context. It’s all one film at time, with no political, social or aesthetic point of view.”

Another helmer added, “Pauline Kael cared passionately, and even if you didn’t agree you could see what her passion was about. Now it’s about soundbite criticism.”

But, many agree that’s not always the fault of critics. Many reviewers in the 1950s-70s established themselves by meditating on the artistic and moral nuances of films such as “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Midnight Cowboy,” or works by Fellini, Peckinpah and Wertmuller. Now, there are few films that lend themselves to such explorations. It’s hard to be impressive when you don’t have the material.

These disadvantages come at an ironic time: A film’s 3,000-screen launch and brief shelf life mean critics are arguably more important than ever.

Brown named another disadvantage: It’s hard to maintain objectivity and integrity. “They’re being hit on by the studios to a much greater extent, and they’re being hyped.”

In one writer’s view, the decline was caused by the fragmentation of the audience.

“The youth audience is an important factor. There are black films, festival films, Sundance films, so many fragmented areas. That’s partly good, but it’s bad for the overall business of creating important socially defining films.”

Many in Hollywood are privately giving some key American film reviewers very tough reviews.

  • Roger Ebert, “Roger Ebert at the Movies”

    For filmmakers, there’s a strongly conflicted love-hate thing going on with the man who, with his late partner, Gene Siskel, probably created the most indelible image of the film critic today. Ebert is quarrelsome, passionate, opinionated, sometimes pompous, but always informed.

    One film producer in his 50s said, “Ebert is a known quantity. That’s important because the key to following a critic is knowing how to interpret his tastes for your own needs.”

    A scripter in his 30s, however, said, “Critics deride Hollywood for its pack mentality, but they have a pack mentality, too.”

    It’s a syndrome the documaker ascribes to the “film festivalization of the world. You get Ebert and Michael Tolkin sitting on a panel talking about this and that. If a critic is a friend from that circuit, the teeth comes straight out of the stuff.”

  • Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times

    In the view of one writer-director in his 60s, “Turan is quite often brilliant, but sometimes I find him on the wrong side of the tracks. He does seem to care, he’s not doing it by rote.”

    Turan’s highest-profile act at the paper was his dismissal — in a review and several subsequent stories — of the highest-grossing pic, the Oscar-grabbing “Titanic.” It’s earned him both plaudits and pans from filmmakers.

    One writer-director in his 40s said, “Turan is willing to get his nails into something, and I respect that.”

    A screenwriter in his 30s declared, “When your ego swells and you become a pundit, it’s over … Kenny picks a stance that people won’t think he’ll say and lets loose. The brouhaha with James Cameron was strange, with essays backing up his obligations as a critic. That’s an example of a critic overstepping his boundaries.”

    A producer in his 60s sees Turan in practical, business terms as “fairly reliable and conservative.”

  • Kevin Thomas, L.A. Times

    Turan’s fellow critic took a drubbing from filmmakers of all ages and disciplines.

    But one writer-director was sympathetic to Thomas’ workload. “There’s way too much on his plate. How can anybody give a studied opinion? He’s got no time to study. He should kick back and do less work.”

  • Anthony Lane, the New Yorker

    The only critic whom virtually no one criticized was Lane. The biggest carp was that he has turned to other writing and doesn’t do film reviews often enough.

    A screenwriter said, “In the ’90s, Anthony Lane was writing beautifully about the movies, made great choices, and I bought the New Yorker for his reviews. His analysis of ‘Saving Private Ryan’ was off-the-charts shrewd.”

  • David Denby, the New Yorker

    An indie producer in his 20s finds, “Usually when I agree with a critic, it’s David Denby. I find his arguments convincing,” while a thirtysomething writer critiques Denby because “he isn’t any fun. I like the critics who take their potshots and like to make an art out of their craft.”

  • David Ansen, Newsweek

    “80% of the time when Ansen likes something, I do too,” said a writer in his 40s. Another scribe in his 30s likes Ansen because “he looks at both sides of things.”

B’casters blasted

The print critics may take a few hard knocks, but it’s a love feast compared with the filmmakers’ views of broadcast critics.

Commenting upon the moralistic tone of Michael Medved’s diatribes, one writer angrily questioned his sincerity: “He found an angle, a market niche for himself.”

Lumping broadcast critics together, one director called them “the people who absolutely aggravate me.” She said, “One guy who’s very uneven and goes into ecstasy over mediocre pictures is Joel Siegel.”

An Oscar-nominated star really unloaded when the subject of TV critics is raised. “I cannot abide David Sheehan. Gene Shalit’s not a dope, but he goes for the gag. And I cannot abide Joel Siegel. I can develop a real hatred for critics as I talk about these people!”

Filmmakers reserved particular scorn for the most heavily blurbed TV critics.

And one young thesp observed, “If there ever was an art to film criticism, it was lost. It all started with the televising of Siskel and Ebert. People stopped reading.”

And as for the critical voices in Hollywood business papers? Again, the filmmakers are both dismissive and embracing.

A young director said these reviews “are the most reliable, because in addition to box office prospects and production values, they pinpoint a picture’s weaknesses and they don’t go out on a tangent.”

Daily Variety chief film critic Todd McCarthy “has a lot of influence around the world and around the country, because he comes out first and the critics read him,” Brown said.

“Todd’s the only one with the long view, the only one contributing something worth listening to,” said a director.

But one Sundance vet protested, “Every review was about the chances of the film turning a profit in the domestic marketplace, as opposed to being about directing or acting. They were profit-margin reviews.”

In case anyone accuses the American film pros of thin skins, consider the situation in France — birthplace of modern film criticism, home of critics-turned-auteurs such as Godard, Chabrol, Rohmer, Rivette, Varda, et al.

Sick of attacks by French film critics, the filmmakers rose up en masse and issued a public directive against their attackers.

Helmer Patrice Leconte and a group of French directors proposed that negative reviews be suppressed until after opening weekend — an idea that’s drawn howls of protest and derision.

So in comparison to the relations between the two groups over there, the bad blood Stateside seems positively great! Exciting! And a barrel of laughs!

(Cynthia Loggia contributed to this report.)

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