Movie Criticism: Dying Profession?

In recent months, I have been engaged in some interesting and impassioned discussions over the state of film criticism today, that is, American film criticism. Many writers have lamented the decline of serious film criticism in the U.S., the studios’ growing lack of concern for critics’ opinions (as if they ever did), critics’ declining power over audiences’ tastes, and so on.

 

Let me take a minority position and claim, first off, that American film criticism has never been better or more accessible than it has been in the new millennium. The single, most crucial variable is the Internet, which I will discuss later in my essay.

 

Trends of American movie criticism

 

American movie criticism over the past decade or so has been more sophisticated, better-informed, and more democratic and pluralistic than ever before. In what other era, could a film lover get 200 reviews for the same picture within seconds, by just cliquing on RottenTomatoes.

 

Yes, many good and serious critics, such as Andrew Sarris (N.Y. Observer), Richard Schickel (Time), Godfrey Cheshire (New York Press), Amy Taubin (Village Voice), Ella Taylor (L.A. Weekley), Jamie Bernard, and others have lost their jobs due to harsh economic forces. So, if you talk about film criticism as a viable career and gainful employment, there are much less opportunities today to make a full-time living out of film criticism that over the past three decades.

 

No single film critic today can make or break a movie, to borrow theatrical jargon.

 

Neither Roger Ebert, during the height of his TV show, and nor Manohla Dargis or Tony Scott of the today’s N.Y. Times (three of my favorite critics), dominate the movie scene and/or commands the respect and attention that Andrew Sarris, Pauline Kael, or Vincent Canby had at their prime in the 1960s and 1970s. The reason for that may be the decline in a serious movie culture, as we knew it in the 1970s.

 

Overall Quality

 

At the same time, the overall quality of movie criticism has never been better, due to the fact that most writers are graduates of film schools and thus possess greater knowledge of film theory and history than previous generations of reviewers. 

 

Consensus

 

Critics possess greater power when they are united in a consensus. An individual critic can single out in the widely-read E.W. The Truman Show, or Election, or Chuck and Buck, as the year’s best movie, but if other strategically positioned critics don’t rally behind that picture, as was the case of those titles, a single voice has no bearing. This is one reason why critics’ awards at year-end are forceful in determining the very chances of movies to be nominated for Oscars. 

 

With the exception of a few movies, such as the Transformers franchise or 2012, no movie is entirely critics-proof, not even “G.I. Joe.” Most movies, art and trash, would be more successfully commercial at the box-office if they’re given positive reviews.

 

Gap between Reviewing and Critiquing 

 

By necessity, most critics these days function as reviewers, taste-guides writing brief consumer reports, telling the public whether or not they should spend $11 0r $12 to see a movie. Only a handful of writers are engaged in a formal criticism that illuminates a particular film by placing it in the social context in which it was made, or in the context of its director’s oeuvre. I admire the short, intelligent reviews of Leah Rosen in “People,” and know, that given the choice, she would have written longer, more informative essays. 

 

Capsule reviews for foreign-language films have become a norm, not to speak of their placement in the newspaper’s back pages, unless they are high-profile pictures, such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Amelie, or Pan’s Labyrinth.

 

Critics Matter

 

Critics are still especially influential on three types of films: independent and art films, foreign-language fare, and documentaries. 

 

The very existence of these genres–all endangered species in today’s market–depends on critics’ judgments in film festivals, where such fare usually receives its world premiere. Among other reasons, American independent cinema flourished in the 1990s as a result of being championed by major serious critics writing for the Village Voice or the L.A. Weekly.

 

Rise of the Trades and other Daily Websites:

 

Next to the Cannes Film Festival, Sundance is arguably the most influential film forum in the world in terms of discovering “hot” talent and new (preferably inexpensive) movies. Since the trades (Variety, Hollywood Reporter) and bloggers now devote full-length, analytic reviews out of festivals, their critics exercise greater impact on determining the chances of a film to get theatrical distribution, or even play the global art house circuit. Several art films were picked up by distributors after getting positive notices in the trades.

 

The venue or magazine for which critics write is more important than their personality or sensibility. The critics who write for the N.Y Times and L.A. Times assume extra-power due to the stature of their newspaper, which often goes way beyond their idiosyncratic tastes. Realizing this fact, the studios’ publicity machines would take ads that proclaim, “according to the N.Y. Times,” or “see the L.A. Times’ best movie of the year,” without even mentioning the critic’s name.

 

Early reviews on the Internet of the trades, the L.A. Times or N.Y. Times may be more important that the later print versions in setting the agenda for writing about or discussing those movies. By the time the dailies review those movies, usually on opening day, the films’ “fate” has been partially determined, due to the visibility of the early reviews.

 

Word-of-Mouth Among Critics

It may be premature to assess the overall impact of the Internet on movies’ artistic and commercial reputation. But there’s no doubt that these “early” reports set a certain level of expectations (high or low) that a particular movie must face once it’s shown to the rest of the critics. 

 

Critics as Gatekeepers of Cinema

One of the dangers of seeing mostly bad movies is that whenever a truly interesting one comes along, it might be ignored or disregarded unless discerning critics write passionately about it. Indeed, without the active support of critics, “small” but original movies would have fallen through the cracks, and their filmmakers and performers would have never received the recognition they deserve. Alexander Payne’s “About Schmidt” and Sideways” would have not received Oscar nominations and awards had they not swept the critics’ awards, announced in December, months before the Academy nominations are unveiled.

 

Critics as Reputation Makers and Career Builders:

The career of a whole cohort of filmmakers, arguably the most gifted working today, depends on the critical reception of their movies. Take Paul Thomas Anderson, whose features (Boogie Nights or There Will Be Blood) have been well received artistically but have not been particularly commercial at the box-office. It’s critics who have brought Soderbergh from the cold, after making “small” indies (Schizopolis, Gray’s Anatomy) that few viewers saw. The turning point in Soderbergh’s career, which is now at its height, was the critics’ enthusiastic response for Out of Sight, cited as Best Picture by the National Society of Critics, followed by Traffic, for which he won the Best Director Oscar.

 

This is by no means a new function. For decades, despite Pauline Kael’s spiteful verdicts, auteurist critics have claimed that Clint Eastwood should be taken seriously as actor and director, that one day he will make a masterpiece, which indeed he made not once but twice, the 1992 Unforgiven, a classic Western for the ages, and the 2004 Million Dollar Baby. It’s doubtful that Unforgiven or Million Dollar Baby would have won the Best Picture Oscars, or each gross over $100 million, without the critics’ backing. In his 1992 Oscar acceptance speech, Eastwood duly acknowledged critics’ invaluable contribution to his career.