Age is the least of it.
The first thing you learn talking to college film reviewers is not that they’re so much younger than their professional, mainstream counterparts in print. Rather, it’s that they all have this other day job. It’s called Being a Student.
Unlike the major first-string crix who clock in more than 200 films a year, the college reviewer typically sees 30 to 40 features. In addition to her studies and film reviews, Maura Judkis is arts editor for the Hatchet at George Washington U.
“I’m so busy with the newspaper, I don’t have a lot of time,” she says of seeing every other film that comes down the pike. Which is not to say that Judkis and others of her ilk on campus don’t have their opinions when it comes to the movies.
Overall, they claim to be only slightly out of step with the big guns at the New York Times, Newsweek, the New Yorker and other oft-quoted papers, which, admittedly, these students do read, but only after they’ve filed their own review.
David Frank at the Daily Iowan says his tastes run more in sync with the dot-coms. “We have grown up, from childhood, stepped in comicbooks and pulp culture, and that plays in (our) split with the mainstream,” notes the U. of Iowa reviewer. “We give a little more respect to the movies’ pulp roots,” he says, referring to films like “Sin City” and “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang,” and even the big-budget “Batman Begins” and “King Kong.”
In point of fact, the latter two films also were extraordinarily well-received by the mainstream crix. And that goes for the other 2005 movies that many college reviewers, and their middle-aged counterparts, raved about: “A History of Violence,” “Match Point,” “Pride & Prejudice” and “Good Night, and Good Luck.” (Busy with final exams, the college crowd interviewed for this article had not yet caught up with the very limited release “Brokeback Mountain.”)
Universities once were the place to see arty foreign films and obscure American classics. Today’s college crowd, however, seems to be looking for more escapist fare, and the school paper reviewers seem to reflect that mainstream bent. For example: At 25, Jake Gyllenhaal should be the hottest star on campus. “But he acts in heavier movies,” says Harvard Crimson reviewer Kristina M. Moore, referring to “Jarhead” and “Doubt.” “And after finals and the stresses of college life, that’s not what most kids are looking for.”
The college reviewers also sound pretty conservative when it comes to the big crix they follow (Anthony Lane, A.O. Scott) and those they don’t: “Entertainment Weekly gives films a freaking letter grade. It’s a hack publication,” says Kaitlin Thornton of USC’s Daily Trojan.
College crix are not above one-stop shopping when it comes to movies. “I browse RottenTomatoes.com and read only a few critics regularly,” says Brian Clark, a reviewer for Austin’s Daily Texan. Even so, most of them would rather be carried back to the days of James Agee than stuck in contempo blogland.
“The problem with blogs is that they are unedited journalism,” says Eric Herschthal, who writes reviews for the Daily Princetonian. “It is self-edited.” Word of mouth, not reviews on blogs, sells movie tix, says the Princeton U history major.
Harvard’s Moore also pans movie reviews on blogs. “They’re egotistical: It is the news and culture according to ‘me,’ ” says the history and literature major.
Once upon a time, college reviewers like Frank Rich and David Denby cut their critical teeth on the auteur catfights waged in print by Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris.
“Today, it’s not so much a difference in taste as it is the style of writing,” says Iowa’s Frank. “There is a fight between the cooler style of the print critics and Internet critics who write for Aintitcool.com and Chud.com and some of the blogs. It is a more hyperactive voice that pushes criticism almost to a sexual level.”
According to Thornton, the debate on content, as well as style, has never stopped, especially among film students.
“Arguments about directors are commonplace: Is he an auteur or post-modern pastiche? Is he selling out or keeping to his indie roots?” says the Daily Trojan reviewer. “A significant percentage of college students are cultured. They are not all beer-drinking.”
If the college reviewers remain psyched by their medium of choice, they do sound like their grandparents on a related topic: the declining numbers of moviegoers.
“Cell phones in theaters are going off all the time, and there are 20 minutes of commercials,” complains Alfred Lee, who reviews for UCLA’s Daily Bruin.
“Netflix, I’m addicted to it,” says Thornton. “And TiVo has revolutionized everything.”
“A lot of my friends have seen the movie illegally, by downloading, even before I’ve seen it,” says Moore.
“More people are going to the movies now, but not in groups,” Frank observes.
Nearly every college reviewer mentions the high cost of paying $10-$12 per weekend to see a movie. And then there are the movies themselves.
Judkis groans: “‘Bewitched,’ ‘Dukes of Hazzard.’ ”
“They are remaking these ridiculous movies,” says Erin Adler, an arts editor at the U. of Minnesota’s Minnesota Daily. “Students would rather buy the DVD of the third season of their favorite TV show and play videogames.”
Few college papers pay attention to such fluff. But that was last year. “Here at the Minnesota Daily,” says Adler, “we’ve talked about getting someone skilled at games to review them for us.”