Pop Culture

Movie critics become an endangered species

For movie critics, the fickle finger of fate is actually a thumb, or more accurately, two thumbs.

The digits in question were wielded by Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, who used them to vote “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” on a film during their famed review series, which began as a local PBS show in Chicago and eventually became nationally syndicated.

Both Siskel — who died in 1999 — and Ebert were accomplished journalists and passionate film buffs. Their love of movies helped bring intelligent criticism of cinema to the masses. But their thumbs may have signaled the gradual demise of the film critic, much like emperors in ancient Rome called for the executions of losing gladiators.

The simplistic “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” has wormed into the lexicon to such an extent that it has caused impatient audiences to skip past the criticism and get right to the verdict. Because new generations of filmgoers seem to be looking less and less to publications like The New Yorker, The New York Times, Time, Newsweek and many others to find out about upcoming films and are turning to Web sites like rottentomatoes.com — which provides an approval rating based on a collection of reviews by critics — newspapers and magazines are shucking their ranks of critics in alarming numbers.

In recent months, David Ansen of Newsweek, and Jan Stuart and Gene Seymour of Newsday, took buyouts from their employers. Nathan Lee of the Village Voice was laid off, as were several other critics at other dailies and weeklies around the nation.

In short, it appears today’s movie fan wants to know if he or she should go see the movie, and would rather skip over the reasons why.

Sound bite film criticismThat may be considered progress in some quarters. After all, why devote 30 column inches to a piece about the themes, influences, history, production issues and talent involved in “No Country For Old Men” when a quick “Go see it” or “Don’t go see it” will get the job done?

But that’s the point. A good critic provides so much more than that. There is an educational component to film criticism that will disappear if critics become extinct.

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“I got excited about movies back when you could read Pauline Kael in The New Yorker,” said Rick Jewell, a professor in the critical studies department at USC’s film school. “I didn’t always agree with her, but she taught me a great deal about film history, film style, about the relationship between the films she was writing about and the world we were living in at the time, how films reflect how things are going in a society.”

Jewell has taught classes over the years about the studio system, about the Western, the gangster film, and many other topics. He has noticed a trend in the students who come into his classes.

“I sense that students are much less savvy about movies then they used to be,” he said. “Part of it certainly is the absence of criticism today, but I don’t think that’s the only thing.

“We live in a society now where everybody wants things in real small bites. I know the students love to talk amongst themselves about films, but I don’t find that they do it from a very enlightened perspective. There’s not much of a sense of an overview of film history.”

Progress has its “thumbs up” and “thumbs down” elements, especially when it comes to the Internet. There is much to be mined from cyberspace. But in the blogosphere especially, the search for insightful criticism is wildly hit or miss.

“There’s a difference between opinion and educated criticism,” noted Todd McCarthy, the longtime film critic for Variety. “You wouldn’t dream of having people review books or art or opera who weren’t well-versed in those fields. But with movies, the attitude is that everybody has an opinion, and all opinions are of value.”

Chasing the buzzMcCarthy cited a troubling pattern: Many publications seem to be chasing the buzz, and thoughtful examination of the cinema doesn’t qualify.

“It’s striking that magazines such as Newsweek and Time, with a long tradition of having very, very good film reviews, have stopped for the most part unless there is a celebrity tie-in or a trend or something,” he said. “I think that’s an unfortunate turn of events.

“It’s a pandering thing, a devaluation of things cultivated over time. Why now? Part of it is the influence of People and Entertainment Weekly, who believe that only something with buzz is worth covering. Unfortunately, editors have caved in and now that’s true of a lot of newspapers, too. They should have held the line and give people what they need. Instead, they’re pandering to the lowest common denominator.”

Perhaps the decline of the traditional film critic can be traced to another source entirely. Said USC’s Jewell: “There’s a sense today that we really shouldn’t even be thinking about one type of artistic expression as being better than another.”

“As a professor,” he said, “it’s part of my responsibility to point out exceptional work as opposed to mediocre or bad work. There are a number of works that have come out in the past 10 years that are what we used to call exploitation or schlock cinema … that now gets as much attention as Ingmar Bergman.

“This is part and parcel of the whole attempt to tear down the canon, the notion of the great works, that the educated person should be knowledgeable about these works. But in academia, that stuff is out now. We’re not supposed to privilege one director or one movie over another. It’s all part of popular culture — that it has just as much value, so we should study it all.”

And perhaps that trend is affecting the survival of the movie critic. If every opinion has equal value, then why can’t I weigh in about the plight of the American farmer even if I know nothing about farming? Why shouldn’t I tell my neighbor to ignore his doctor, that in my opinion he doesn’t need gall bladder surgery?

Why should people listen to the 2,000-word opinion of a film scholar and historian with years of experience when they can find out about “Lars and the Real Girl” from a high school geek writing on an iPhone?

The proliferation of online critics has been described as a “democratization” by many who enjoy getting their movie information from various sources throughout the land. Kevin Koehler runs a site called pretentiousmusings.com, which is included in rottentomatoes.com’s roundup of critics. He has a different take entirely. He feels most movie critics have written their own obituaries because they’re just not very good. He is not a fan of most of the film critics found in traditional print publications.

“I think most movie criticism is terrible,” he said. “Most of the best criticism now is online. For instance, I really like Walter Chaw, who writes for filmfreakcentral.com. Another is James Kendrick. Now because of the Internet, a lot of movie critics feel threatened. ‘Why aren’t people listening to us?’ It has to be the audience’s fault. Nobody ever says that maybe they should write better.”

Whatever the reasons, the fact remains that a dwindling number of educated voices in any kind of criticism translates into a smaller number of educated.

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