My 26-year tenure as a movie critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer coincided with a transformational period in moviemaking, exhibition and criticism itself. All have now migrated from analog to digital; the latter two from a monolithic delivery system to a multiplicity of them.
I have migrated, too, voluntarily leaving the Inquirer for pastures that, while not necessarily greener, offer a chance to adapt to a changing landscape. I still write reviews, only now it’s six a month instead of 20.
What better time to collect my thoughts about the state of film criticism, to take its temperature, blood pressure and check its vital signs?
For me, as for many colleagues, the past five years have been a period of “pre-morse” — anticipatory mourning — for what looked like the latest death of criticism.
However, “Critics haven’t been put out to pasture,” says Roger Moore, the longtime Orlando Sentinel film critic laid off before Thanksgiving and now with the MCT to “They’ve just been forced to roam several pastures to piece together a living doing what they love.” His is the optimistic view.
“These days,” says one studio exec, “some bozo on the Net with a generic website who calls a comedy ‘the laugh riot of the decade’ is much more likely to get quoted than some more knowledgeable critic who writes, ‘The film’s wit brings to mind Preston Sturges.’?”
Still, the idea makes me giggle that this is the Dark Ages for movie criticism and its finest practitioners have retreated to the monasteries of academe. Countless times during my career, criticism has been declared dead only to pop up its furry groundhog head and give frisky proof to the contrary.
In 1981, shortly after the New Yorker published Pauline Kael’s “Why Are Movies So Bad,” “Entertainment Tonight” premiered, training its spotlight weekly on movie grosses and creating the impression that the films worth seeing were those that made the most money. Kael, among others, publicly despaired that the focus on grosses would effectively kill criticism. It did not, although “ET” did supply an infotainment model that enabled studios to get publicity for their products while bypassing criticism entirely.
In 1990, in his Film Comment piece “All Thumbs,” Richard Corliss took aim at “Siskel & Ebert at the Movies,” and their quotable soundbites he indicted as responsible for the dilution and “devolution of film criticism.” Film criticism prevailed, and so did Ebert.
In 1998, in the anthology “The Crisis of Criticism,” Jim Hoberman’s “The Critic of Tomorrow, Today” pointed the finger at the commodification of the film-critical enterprise, celebrating those who resisted the critics’ role as “underpaid cheerleaders.”
Fast-forward to 2012 and an e-mail conversation with Roger Ebert. He writes, “Film criticism has never been healthier. Film critics have never been so unemployed or underpaid.” His point is taken: There have never been more outlets for critics, even though the remuneration isn’t good.
Given the rise of online movie-review aggregators, it’s never been easier to find a spectrum of opinion on a specific film — most of it from daily and weekly critics whose work appeared in print.
And given the multitude and the erudition of film bloggers unconstrained by space limitations, one can find learned writing — reflections on a film, director, actor, cinematographer or handheld camerawork — at a keystroke.
One great development on the Internet is that some film critics, notably Matt Zoller Seitz, use film clips to make their points visually, giving criticism another dimension. All this immediacy and simultaneity of course, has a downside. The Internet is a tsunami that challenges the most intrepid surfers.
Hoberman, laid off by the Village Voice in January after more than 30 years, wrestles with the cons and pros of the new critical order. “I don’t see the de-professionalization of movie reviewing (or journalism, for that matter) as a good thing, although I do see the expansion of the Internet as being healthy for film culture. A paradox?”
Not for film historian Jeanine Basinger, who sees film discussions on the Net as a “Free-for-all … a giant mass of lobby talk.”
Salt Lake City Tribune critic Sean Means takes Basinger’s point, but begs to differ: “Film criticism is always in flux. There is abundance of thoughtful voices out there discussing movies. There is also a lot of nonsense, puffery and fanboy drooling. This was true before the Internet; the only difference is that a higher percentage of us had employer-provided benefits then.”
Phillip Lopate, an essayist and editor of the Library of America’s American Movie Critics (full disclosure: an essay of mine appears in that volume), notes that film criticism “began as an activity for amateurs. A few people were paid, but many did it for little or no money. It was basically an enthusiast’s medium.”
Looking at what’s happening on blogs and Twitter, it still is.
Ever since the 1980s, when “Entertainment Tonight” and “Access Hollywood” bypassed movie criticism by packaging features about stars and their movies, advertising dollars have been moving toward infotainment. However on the Web, as in the weeklies and quarterlies of yore, criticism has not been the beneficiary of many advertising dollars.
“The industry is moving from an advertising model to a transactional model,” says “Newsonomics” author Ken Doctor, where websites make money from a download, rental or ticket purchase.
That’s a way moviegoers can find films they already know that they want. But how will they find the films they don’t know that they want? Not everyone is a movie geek reading the aggregators.
I see a potential for remuneration in filling that gap: Matching consumers with the kinds of movies they’d like to see, a kind of fine-grain version of the broad-stroke recommender systems of Amazon and Netflix. Lord knows, this isn’t film criticism. It’s a cultural version of matchmaking. It’s a means of connecting under-known or obscure titles to those who will appreciate them (which is a byproduct of film criticism) and a means of supporting the writers’ other critical pursuits.
It’s just another change in the evolution of film criticism.
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