Tuesday, April 8, 2008

The film critic stays in the picture

I keep reading articles bemoaning the state of film criticism. Like any idea that gains currency, there's often some truth to it. At the same time, I think newspaper critics too often equate the health of film criticism with the health of their job security.

Goldstein makes the claim that critics are less influential than they used to be and viewed as cultural dinosaurs. Really? I think critics are more influential, if for no other reason than that they are more available through the Internet. Goldstein uses the non-response of his child to a video game review to come to the shocking conclusion that - gasp! - word of mouth exists and people trust their friends' opinions. I know, stop and wonder. His idea that film critics were cultural arbiters in the 1960s and 70s - that Americans en masse were choosing their viewing based on Paulene Kael's recommendations - seems like an insular fantasy. Outside of a few coastal enclaves and college towns, my sense is that before the rise of Siskel and Ebert to popularity in the 1980s average Americans paid little attention to film critics. If you want evidence of film critics' current influence, just look at how critic-favorite-y the Oscars have been over the past couple of years. Or look at the less-than-expected box office of something like Leatherheads after cool reviews. Look at the fact that No Country for Old Men earned as much as it did.

Are film critics losing their jobs because readers no longer pay attention to them? That's not quite right. At most newspapers, film reviews generally are not just being dumped. Local reviews (and local reviewers) are being replaced by reviews from the newswires. If you're an editor facing dwindling ad revenues and having to choose between a reporter or a film critic, that's the only way to get both and lose neither. Unfortunately, that means fewer voices, but it does not mean less availability for reviews, at least not for the major releases. Film reviews are one item in the newspaper that works as appointment reading, that makes a person purchase a newspaper. They're not about to disappear.

I do agree, however, that film critics need to pay more attention to audiences. Too many critics bloviate, write to impress each other rather than their audiences, and generally carry on as if they were writing for Cahiers du Cinema in the 1950s. Too many are too easily dismissive of entertainment. Critics need to recognize that the public has a significant role in determining what is and is not a film that's going to last through the ages. See My Dinner with Andre versus The Terminator. Understanding the audience's responses to the filmmaking of an era is essential to grasping the merit of a film.

When I joined the ranks of critics in 2005, it quickly became apparent to me that the grand age of a film critic's lifestyle might be coming to an end. The man-of-letters lifestyle - working at home, reading the Times, showing up to a movie once or twice a day, and going home to write about them - seems to have its days numbered. But film criticism itself is durable. It will find new shapes. Like this. Or like others.

No comments: