Editorials, Everything Else — May 21, 2013 at 3:00 pm

THE OBSOLETE CRITIC

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criticI have many mixed feelings about what I’m about to say, so bear with me.

I went a very traditional route when it came to my approach to film.  Classes in undergrad that turned to a Masters degree at NYU in Cinema Studies. I firmly believe that to be a good critic you need to understand cinema as more than just entertainment, flickering images on screen whose importance only lasts for the two hours that you’re there.  I also believe that film is its own medium, with its own rules that cannot be cobbled together from an understanding of other disciplines.  I went to school to help me understand cinema in that way, but I know many people who simply watched and read and learned from their peers; who began life, like me, as English majors, or journalists, or art historians.  Or just film buffs, obsessed with the latest release as well as the most obscure cult classic.  What unites us is an unabashed love of film, and a need to talk about it not just as a piece of entertainment but as something that is endemic to our culture, to our existences.

Being as traditionally trained as you can get in the film world, I of course have worshipped at the altar of Andre Bazin, Cahiers du Cinema, Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris.  So why do I feel that so-called ‘legitimate’ film criticism has completely lost its way? I’m not talking about blogs or websites, but about the sources that, for a very long time, I snobbishly venerated over sites, believing that their criticism meant more than the common fanboy/girl in the multiplex.  I’m talking about the New York Times, the New Yorker, The Washington Post.  The people that are paid good money to give their opinion on movies.  These are supposed to be the legitimate critics, the intellectual voices.photo_4051_landscape_large

Reading the regular critical reviews of Iron Man 3, I was struck once more by how really, incredibly … snobbish they were.  How they were treating a summer blockbuster as though they expected it to be 8 ½. I am a firm believer in film as a measure of the cultural zeitgeist, and maybe Manohla Dargis and Anthony Lane have a point when they talk about the juxtaposition of terrorism and the tribulations of Iron Man.  But it is as though they have approached the film with the snooty understanding that they know better than the film – that they are, in fact, superior to the movie they’re watching, long before they’ve ever seen it.

The kind of criticism that comes from Dargis, Scott, Lane, Denby et al. has become obsolete not because they work for newspapers and magazines, but because they decline to accept the fact that film – and film criticism – has changed since the days of Sarris and Kael.    While those critics were instrumental with bringing certain mainstream attractions to the attention of the cognescenti (the Western gained prominence due to them, as did American gangster films, and the cult of the auteur), they did not ultimately dictate the way films were made (as much as they wanted to).  Hollywood in particular remained independent of the critical discourse – the Dream Factory did not care what you thought of their dreams.  Kael and Sarris were lone voices in a land where film still held less importance (again, according to the canon) than theatre or literature.

Andre Bazin, bein' critical.

Andre Bazin, bein’ critical.

Times have changed.  Lest we forget, film criticism is still a young discipline.  Over the years, it has been more or less a mimic of theatre, literary and art criticism. It has long been the arbiter of what is ‘good’ film and what is ‘bad.’ Or rather, what is important and what is mere ‘entertainment.’ Critics like Kael and Sarris cast themselves as cultural gatekeepers, defining cinema as they saw fit. And we should not ignore or lambast their contributions to the discipline. But like most mainstream criticism, Sarris and Kael (and yes, Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel too) were far too limited in their outlook.  They wanted there to be good and bad cinema, and they wanted to be the ones to tell the public what that is.  Now, with the increase of niche marketing, with the appreciation and commodification of cult films and badness for badness’s sake, with the growth of genre as the defining factor in many films, that type of criticism simply won’t wash.  There’s no such thing as good or bad anymore.

Films are no longer quite as genre-stratified as we’d like them to be.  When Dargis reviews Iron Man 3, she writes as though she were Pauline Kael informing you of whether or not this film is worthwhile.  No one thinks that way any more – film criticism has become markedly democratic, thanks to blogs and social media.  Now everyone with a computer can weigh in with their opinion.  Some of those opinions are monosyballic; others are intelligent and well-thought out surveys of the contemporary culture.  But the sheer amount of criticism, good and bad, means that a single critic or cadre of critics quality controlling cinematic production is impossible.  And that, I think, seriously pisses off the mainstream critics.

I don’t think that intellectual film criticism is obsolete.  But critics like Dargis and Scott need to look to their own houses, rather than complaining about the state of the cinematic culture.  The cinematic culture is alive and well and full of people, young and old, who want to discuss cinema in a serious and meaningful way.  The reason why these critics are becoming obsolete is not because the world, the media and film have materially changed, edging out intellectualism in favor of supposedly geeky fanboys who just want Superman again.  The mainstream critics devalue that world because they don’t understand it, and don’t want to.  They are becoming obsolete not because film culture has changed; they are becoming obsolete because they refuse to change with it. That’s what obsolescence is.

4 Comments

  • Lauren, you make very good points, and I can’t really argue against them. I think it’s challenging because there are so many different ideas about what a film critic really is. A lot of people just want to have their views about a movie confirmed. “They gave it four stars!” Some are looking for guidance on which movies to see beyond the multiplex. A smaller (yet very passionate) group is hoping to be engaged intellectually after seeing the movie and wants to think more about the themes of it.

    I’ve found that your average moviegoer tends to disregard critics in general. One of my least favorite statements is when a co-worker says “What they hate, I always love.” This generalization usually means I’m not going to be best pals with this person. Still, it does show the difference between the views on critics from non-fans and devotees.

    For me, I’m drawn to critics that find a way to delve into the essential themes without putting themselves above the material. A magazine like Film Comment frequently has articles that stay down to Earth yet are very smart. Podcasts are also another great way to get that approach, though too many end up just saying the same things. The challenge for film critics, especially professional ones, is to connect with readers without talking down to them. It takes a rare type of person to make that approach work out.

    • There’s a surfeit of criticism now, so it’s really hard to parse out the good/useful from the bad. I used to try to find a single critic that I tended to agree with – for awhile that was A.O. Scott, and then I realized he was turning into a grouchy old man.

      Most of my non-cinephile friends just go to the ratings on Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic for guidance, which really pisses me off. I did not get to see J. Edgar in cinemas because my friend said that it only had a 60% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and so she would not see it. And I happened to love it.

      By and large, I trust the blogging world if I’m looking for guidance on what is good to see in cinemas. If I hear enough people say on Man I Love Films and around the blogosphere that a particular film is amazing, I’m more likely to see it in cinemas.

  • I think Rotten Tomatoes is pretty much useless to me. The only reason I’d check it is on a lark, but it doesn’t affect what I see. There’s way too much attention on it, even from big movie fans. Even if a film has a high percentage, it could all be three-star reviews! That doesn’t mean it’s going to be great.

    I tend to trust a mix of bloggers, podcasters, and just my own sense from the people involved in the movie. I also try to not read too many reviews before seeing a movie, so that doesn’t play as huge a role anymore either.

  • I realize I’m about to invoke the ire of the Cinematic Legion of Doom, but I kind of like Rotten Tomatoes, at least as a general snapshot. It’s not the only factor- by any stretch- that determines whether or not I’d go see a movie. But it is A factor. Even as low as a 40% won’t keep me from seeing something I really want to see. But a 20% might.

    Or… here’s a great example of how it had a positive impact. I would’ve most likely waited to see Mud at home when it hit DVD. But I saw that it was at 98% on RT, I’d gotten some great recommendations, and I found out that it was made by Jeff Nichols… so I went to the theater instead of waiting. And I’m really glad I did.

    The way I see it, it’s just another data point. And the score is sort of a “wisdom of the herd” kind of thing. I honestly find that it’s accurate more often than not. The key, for me, is to take the “All Critics” score and not just the “Top Critics” score.

    And I’ll give the caveat that it’s sort of a curve when it comes to horror. If 70% is your barometer for a decent/good movie on RT, that has to be appx. 50% for horror.

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