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Critics on criticism: Film

Blogosphere changing the role of the critic

Summer truly is the winter of a film critic’s discontent, the time when we are annually forced to confront the serious possibility of our own irrelevance. Even if one took the occasion of “Transformers” to advance the view that it is Michael Bay’s best film, it’s also hard to insist that such insights justify the importance of one’s job as a critic.

But just as we all struggled to find something clever, or anything at all, to say about certain other summer films, the following brief discourse was delivered in June to remind critics everywhere of why we do what we do, and of the fact that it is sometimes of value.

It has perhaps never been more eloquently or pithily put:

“In many ways the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But, the bitter truth we critics must face is that, in the grand scheme of things … the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.

“But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends.”

Remarkably, these thoughts did not originate in the pages of an esoteric film journal or a think piece by a self- justifying critic. They are the words of Anton Ego, the intimidating, impossibly demanding restaurant critic in “Ratatouille,” fashioned by writer-director Brad Bird and incomparably spoken by Peter O’Toole.

Ego’s immaculate confessional came at a time when we were suffering the latest assault on our all-too-vulnerable sense of professional pride and self-worth, that being that we are dinosaurs, that bloggers are stealing our thunder in a way that will soon put us out to pasture for good. The age of thoughtful, considered, in-depth artistic evaluation is over, the argument goes, and the time of quick-draw, highly personalized, instantly disseminated snap judgments has arrived.

It’s been a common refrain for years that everyone’s a film critic. There is no prescribed qualification for the job, no degree required, no background check; in too many cases, the lack of credentials has been all too apparent. The advent of peppy but pandering film critics on television in the 1980s only exacerbated the perception that you didn’t have know anything to talk about movies.

While this attitude gradually improved over the years — I can’t think of too many significant film critics today without genuine expertise in the field — several other recent developments preceded the onslaught of bloggers in clouding the profession.

One was the advent of box office reporting in daily newspapers, the birth of the No. 1 Movie in America phenomenon. There should have been nothing wrong with this; in fact, it’s odd that, while such features as literary bestseller lists, pop music charts and TV’s Nielsen ratings were commonplace for decades, film earnings remained a virtual public secret. Up until about 20 years ago, an interested party had to turn to Variety to learn how much money particular pictures were making.

The resulting problem, however, was that the new spotlight on commercial success reprioritized the minds of many editors to believe that popularity, rather than quality, was what counted. If their egghead critic hated “Patch Adams” or “Armageddon,” maybe there was something wrong with him or her, and not with the film. The customer is always right.

This way of thinking fed directly into the next retreat, which was the dumbing down and scaling back of film coverage in the prominent national magazines, notably Time and Newsweek. For many decades, both publications prided themselves on their arts coverage and have more often than not had smart, articulate critics in their employ.

They still do, but they scarcely use them. Only the biggest, buzz-generating films even seem to get reviewed anymore; for the first time in their histories, Time and Newsweek have essentially abdicated their roles as cultural arbiters, unless they now view aping People and Entertainment Weekly as keeping up with the times.

Tightening space for arts coverage has hurt the cause in daily newspapers, and an unfortunate recent trend has been the tendency for smaller city papers to dispense with the job of local film critic, the better to save money by syndicating reviews by big-name major outlet critics.

One upshot of the cutbacks is that lots of disenfranchised critics have started their own websites or have become bloggers. The result is a free-for-all, an opinion consumer’s wet dream, a bazaar of commentary that constitutes the critical-world version of a global free-trade agreement.

These developments are stirring rearrangements of the status quo that will eventually sort themselves out. What’s evident is that the power of any individual critic is diluted; gone is the day when one critic who happens to work for a publication like the New York Times can make or break a film. The personal, frank and breezy tone of most bloggers has influenced more mainstream criticism to a certain degree, a positive development in the sense that it encourages individual voices and erodes stodginess and academicism.

Some of the newly empowered bloggers have been gloating in their predictions of traditional criticism’s extinction, their hubris largely stemming from the fact that their technological edge allows them to get the word out first, create the early buzz, frame the way a picture will be perceived. By the time newspapers and magazines run their reviews, on the day or week a film opens, it’s old news.

Variety and other trades often have been in this position as well, of being on the front lines at film festivals and publishing reviews before the dailies. Of course, these days everyone attends the major festivals on the calendar, so the word goes out immediately from many sources.

The bane of covering festivals now is that, rather than pausing ever briefly to digest a film, critics are obliged to rush immediately from the first screening to the keyboard to bang out a review just to keep pace with everyone else who’s getting their opinions up online; I’ve written before about the pitfalls of this necessity when it comes to writing about David Lynch, for example.

But just as the reports on the Death of Cinema written around the millennium by the likes of Susan Sontag and my esteemed former Variety colleague Godfrey Cheshire have proved, in my view, to be greatly exaggerated, so, I trust, will be the proclamations of film criticism’s demise.

Ego, in “Ratatouille,” acknowledged that the lesson he learned from experiencing the cooking of the new chef at Gusteau’s is that “Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.” More than before, this principle applies to cinema, in which interesting work can now emanate from every corner of the globe.

And it can also apply to film criticism, where well-wrought opinions will flow from the blogosphere as well as, like it or not, old-school publications. As in the democratization of any endeavor, the aristocrats will be humbled somewhat, but those with something valuable to contribute will continue to be heard, no matter the commotion stirred by the parvenus.