They still make their marks despite downsizing

The fate of film critics is a relatively minor concern these days — even to film critics. Or so says Joe Morgenstern, the Wall Street Journal’s Pulitzer Prize-winning movie maven: “At a time when we’re worried about the survival of major newsgathering institutions, the future of film criticism is not the first worry on my list.”

Which isn’t to say that veteran film critics aren’t talking about changes within their increasingly imperiled world. But they regard these shifts as paralleling even larger ones elsewhere.

“A lot of publications are dispensing with movie critics,” says Richard Schickel, whose name has been intertwined with Time magazine since 1972. “The people who run newspapers and magazines never liked us much, and they like us even less now.”

Andrew Sarris, a critic at the New York Observer since 1990 after some 30 years at the Village Voice, sadly concurs. “I resist the idea that books and print are gone,” he says, “but lots of friends have lost their jobs. Print is in a bad way right now.”

Yet the challenges faced by film critics old and young are not all a result of problems in publishing. Studios are partly to blame. “It’s completely insane,” says Morgenstern. “It’s all about winning weekends and setting up for Oscars. So of course our lives are bent out of shape.”

Back-loading of the calendar, in which studios release prestige pics at year’s end, has in many ways transformed film reviewing into seasonal employment.

“The rest of the year, studios put out movies aimed at a very young audiences that don’t even require reviewing,” Schickel says, “because reviews have no effect on their performance at the box office.”

Kenneth Turan, chief film critic of the Los Angeles Times since 1991, also laments this narrowing of focus on the studios’ part. “They have accepted as gospel that the young-adult audience is their bread and butter,” he observes, “so they’re not in the mass-entertainment business anymore. They’re in the certain-demographic business. It’s a calculated choice.”

Stanley Kauffmann, who’s been reviewing cinema for the New Republic for 50 years, uses the phrase “somewhat schizoid” to describe the current situation. “The mainstream, big-budget films have become less interesting,” he allows, “but there’s a flow of very good low-budget films. Underneath the big, roaring stream of films that don’t amount to much is this quiet stream of interesting films.”

Critical relevance has also been affected by the opening-wide phenomenon. “It didn’t used to be that a movie would open on 3,500 screens its first weekend,” Schickel recalls. “There were second and third runs. It all depends on the first weekend now. I’m not paranoid about this, but that release pattern makes reviewing meaningless. It’s the triumph of marketing over reason, and it makes us essentially irrelevant.”

Vet critics insist they still wield power — but only over foreign or independent films. “Print journalists have become for the most part irrelevant to studio production,” Morgenstern says, “but we are more useful than ever for independent films. Because regardless of what people say about the new media, old reliable — and young reliable — movie critics are still very much needed to support independent films.”

As for what distinguishes these critical eminences from their younger peers, Schickel contends not much — save for one important thing. “My knowledge of movies has grown much deeper over the years, and that informs my opinion of current films,” he says. “Unlike some 25-year-old kid, I bring a little bit of that to the party. Andrew Sarris has probably thought about and seen far more movies than I have, but I’ve probably seen and thought about far more movies than the average Internet guy.”

Yet some issues vex even vets like Schickel. Why, for example, does it seem as though movies matter less than they once did?

“It’s hard for me to compare that time to this,” Schickel offers, reflecting on his early years as a critic. “But in the 1960s, there were giants like Bergman and Fellini and Kurosawa — that whole raft of international auteurs — and those people had a major influence on audiences. And that’s gone. There are wonderful filmmakers now, but there’s not a gold standard anymore — there’s a lead standard. I can’t explain why that happened, but I wish there were people like that around, because it would be good for everybody — critics, audiences, even the business itself.”

All that notwithstanding, these veteran critics continue to ply their trade, seeking out cinematic gems and shining a light on them. “There’s every reason why good films should not be made,” says Kauffmann, “but right or wrong, they are being made, by gifted people, at this very moment. And the public isn’t sufficiently aware of how good they are.”

Even Sarris sees reasons for hope, and on the critical not just the cinematic front. “The level of film criticism today is probably a little better than it ever was,” he says. “Young critics know and have access to more, and the best of them are brighter than kids were way back. There are very brilliant people coming up. I don’t ask, Where’s James Agee or Graham Greene? There are people right now who are as good or better than any in the past. I know people disagree. I only hope I live long enough to see my position vindicated.”

But one needn’t necessarily look to the future to take heart. Morgenstern finds it in the “dialogue” he enjoys with his readers, even as he acknowledges a certain decline in standards.

“I think anyone who cares about language has to admit to a certain amount of demoralization that the written word is being slowly displaced,” he cautions, “as are feature films losing their place of primacy in our culture. But then I remind myself that I’m not trying to influence the course of human events. I’m writing for readers who read me, and I’m still enjoying it enormously. “

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