Film criticism, if the headlines, soundbites and studies are to be believed, is in an embattled state. Assailed from without by the forces of anti-intellectualism and tribalist fandom, and moldering from within in a perpetual state of stagnant white male-ness, we might believe it’s pretty much moribund, rotten as an old tomato. Even allies view it as, at best, an unfortunate necessity: Brie Larson’s speech at the Crystal + Lucy Awards passionately advocated for greater diversity in criticism, but was predicated on the grudging concession that “it really sucks that reviews matter.”
But if criticism and reviews do matter, might that not be a good thing — an indication that film culture is a little more robust than the doomsayers suggest? As another fall festival season gets underway, with film fans, reporters and critics thronging the sidewalks of Venice, Telluride and Toronto, a lot of leading festivals certainly seem to think so. Many are taking practical steps toward enlivening, diversifying and future-proofing the pool of critical talent.
In that same speech, Larson announced a Toronto Intl. Film festival initiative to increase the number of critics from underrepresented groups accredited at the fest by 20% (with Sundance reportedly committing to a similar target). “That would mean an increase of about 200 people,” says Cameron Bailey, TIFF artistic director, calling attention to the Share Her Journey fund, which covers the travel and accommodation expenses of critics who would otherwise not be able to afford it. The companies that contribute to the fund, some of whom are “major players in the film industry,” he says, “also see the value.”
The value for Bailey, an erstwhile film reviewer and person of color who recalls being “the only non-white critic in the room many, many times” does not reside in an assumption that there’s a 1:1 correlation between, say, more female critics and higher “scores” for female-led or female-directed films. “Oh God no,” he says quickly. “We have the same conversation about women making films — that women are expected to make a certain type of film, and that’s not the case at all.
What I like is the unpredictability of it, that you will find people who say interesting things that might draw on who they are but don’t line up with stereotypes about who they are — that makes for a much richer conversation.”
The TIFF/Share Her Journey program is only the most recent of many initiatives designed to foster a more diverse critical corps. Other festivals take a hands-on approach: Locarno’s celebrated Critics Academy has just completed its sixth edition, in October the Young Critics program at Film Fest Gent will enter its fifth iteration, and the MIFF Critics Campus, all the way across the globe at the Melbourne Intl. Film Festival, has just wrapped on year five, too.
Like Bailey, MIFF director Michelle Carey, the driving force behind the establishment of the Critics Campus back in 2014, has a background in criticism. Over lunch during my stint as one of the mentors on the 2018 edition (a role a Variety critic has filled in three of the Campus’ five years), Carey says, “[The landscape is] changing, and it’s generational. In the last five to 10 years, the new generation coming up through blogging and social media has really energized the world of criticism, and programming, too. I can program more adventurous films because people are more savvy.
“Of course,” she continues, “the question is money — not all of them are getting paid. But from a festival standpoint these new-generation critics are fabulous, they’re our champions.”
The economics of the situation are not lost on Luke Goodsell, the MIFF coordinator in charge of selecting the participants. Despite the disparate backgrounds of the eight 2018 finalists, Goodsell says, “I’m aware that we only hear from people in the relatively luxurious position of not just being able to take the time to complete the program, but to even conceive of a career in film criticism. There are cultures and classes we’d love to represent more, but for whom the financial insecurity of criticism as a job means it’s not seen as viable.”
Perhaps that, along with the lack of women in representative roles, is one reason that the vast majority of applications still come from men. It makes the five-female, three-male 2018 breakdown at the MIFF event all the more noteworthy, especially given Goodsell’s assertion that they don’t “cast for diversity.” Instead, he maintains, “We look for the most interesting writing samples, the most interesting takes, and they tend to come from people with perspectives outside the mainstream.”
Echoing Bailey’s desire to reinvest criticism with an element of “unpredictability,” he adds, “It’s not that we’re trying to ‘eradicate’ the white male perspective, or anything. It’s just that at the moment there is no other, and there is no surprise.”
Currently, says Bailey, with the same voices contributing to the Twitter feeding frenzy that happens around festival premieres, “it can feel like the conversation is happening off somewhere else. It can feel very limiting, if it’s not as rich and as varied as it will become.”
If criticism does survive its current embattled moment, programs like those at TIFF and MIFF will be central in shaping its evolution, embracing inclusivity as an end in itself and emboldening emerging voices to bring their outlier opinions in from the cold. All of which will, the hope is, contribute to a provocatively rich and varied mixture of critical opinion from the outset rather than a rarefied, snap-judgment consensus. And who could argue with such a certifiably fresh outcome?