A newspaper film critic is like a canary in a coal mine. When one croaks, get the hell out. The lengthening toll of former film critics acts as a poster child for the self-destruction of American newspapers, which once hoped to be more like the New York Times and now yearn to become more like the National Enquirer. We used to be the town crier. Now we are the neighborhood gossip.
The crowning blow came this week when the once-magisterial Associated Press imposed a 500-word limit on all of its entertainment writers. The 500-word limit applies to reviews, interviews, news stories, trend pieces and "thinkers." Oh, it can be done. But with "Synecdoche, New York?"
Demise of the ink-stained wretch
Worse, the AP wants its writers on the entertainment beat to focus more on the kind of brief celebrity items its clients apparently hunger for. The AP, long considered obligatory to the task of running a North American newspaper, has been hit with some cancellations lately, and no doubt has been informed what its customers want: Affairs, divorces, addiction, disease, success, failure, death watches, tirades, arrests, hissy fits, scandals, who has been "seen with" somebody, who has been "spotted with" somebody, and "top ten" lists of the above. (Celebs "seen with" desire to be seen, celebs "spotted with" do not desire to be seen.)
The CelebCult virus is eating our culture alive, and newspapers voluntarily expose themselves to it. It teaches shabby values to young people, festers unwholesome curiosity, violates privacy, and is indifferent to meaningful achievement. One of the TV celeb shows has announced it will cover the Obama family as "a Hollywood story." I want to smash something against a wall.
In "Toots," a new documentary about the legendary Manhattan saloon keeper Toots Shor, there is a shot so startling I had to reverse the DVD to see it again. After dinner, Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe leave the restaurant, give their ticket to a valet, wait on the curb until their car arrives, tip the valet and then Joe opens the car door for Marilyn, walks around, gets in, and drives them away. This was in the 1950s. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have not been able to do that once in their adult lifetimes. Celebrities do not use limousines because of vanity. They use them as a protection against cannibalism.
As the CelebCult triumphs, major newspapers have been firing experienced film critics. They want to devote less of their space to considered prose, and more to ignorant gawking. What they require doesn't need to be paid for out of their payrolls. Why does the biggest story about "Twilight" involve its fans? Do we need interviews with 16-year-old girls about Robert Pattinson? When was the last time they read a paper? Isn't the movie obviously about sexual abstinence and the teen fascination with doomy Goth death-flirtation?
The age of film critics has come and gone. While the big papers on the coasts always had them (Bosley Crowther at the New York Times, Charles Champlin at the Los Angeles Times), many other major dailies had rotating bylines anybody might be writing under ("Kate Cameron" at the New York Daily News, "Mae Tinay" at the Chicago Tribune--get it?). Judith Crist changed everything at the New York Herald-Tribune when she panned "Cleopatra" (1963) and was banned from 20th Century-Fox screenings. There was a big fuss, and suddenly every paper hungered for a "real" movie critic. The Film Generation was upon us.
Stop Press News! Justin and Jessica "spotted!"
In the coverage of new directors and the rediscovery of classic films, no paper was more influential than the weekly Village Voice, with such as Andrew Sarris and Jonas Mekas. Earlier this year the Voice fired Dennis Lim and Nathan Lee, and recently fired all the local movie critics in its national chain, to be replaced, Variety's Anne Thompson reported, by syndicating their critics on the two coasts, the Voice's J. Hoberman and the L.A. Weekly's Scott Foundas. Serious writers, yes, but...
Meanwhile, the Detroit Free-Press has decided it needs no film critic at all. Michael Wilmington is gone from the Chicago Tribune, Jack Mathews and Jami Bernard from the New York Daily News, Kevin Thomas from the Los Angeles Times--and the internationally-respected film critic of the Chicago Reader, Jonathan Rosenbaum, has retired, accepted a buy-out, will write for his blog, or something. I still see him at all the screenings. My shining hero remains Stanley Kauffmann of The New Republic, as incisive and penetrating as ever at 92. I don't give him points for his age, which anyone can attain simply by living long enough, but for his criticism. Study any review and try to find a wrong or unnecessary word. There is your man for an intelligent 500-word review.
Case of the missing belly button: One step below navel-gazing
Why do we need critics? A good friend of mine in a very big city was once told by his editor that the critic should "reflect the taste of the readers." My friend said, "Does that mean the food critic should love McDonald's?" The editor: "Absolutely." I don't believe readers buy a newspaper to read variations on the Ed McMahon line, "You are correct, sir!" A newspaper film critic should encourage critical thinking, introduce new developments, consider the local scene, look beyond the weekend fanboy specials, be a weatherman on social trends, bring in a larger context, teach, inform, amuse, inspire, be heartened, be outraged.
At one time all newspapers by definition did those things on every page. Now they are lascivious gossips, covering invented beats. On one single day recently, I was informed that Tom and Katie's daughter Suri "won't wear pants" and shares matching designer sunglasses with her mom. No, wait, they're not matching, they're only both wearing sunglasses. Eloping to Mexico: Heidi and Spencer. Britney is feeling old. Amy is in the hospital. George called Hugh in the middle of the night to accuse him of waging a campaign to take away the title of "sexiest man alive." Pete discussed naming his son Bronx Mowgli. Ann's jaw was wired shut. Karolina's belly button is missing. Madonna and A-Rod might, or might not, spend Thanksgiving together. Some of Valentino's makeup rubbed off on Sarah Jessica. Miley and Justin went out to lunch. Justin and Jessica took their dogs for a walk.
Perhaps fearing the challenge of reading a newspaper will prove daunting, papers are using increasing portions of their shrinking news holes in providing guides to reading themselves. Before the Chicago Tribune's new design started self-correcting (i.e., rolling itself back), I fully expected a box at the top of a page steering me to a story lower on the same page.
The celebrity culture is infantilizing us. We are being trained not to think. It is not about the disappearance of film critics. We are the canaries. It is about the death of an intelligent and curious, readership, interested in significant things and able to think critically. It is about the failure of our educational system. It is not about dumbing-down. It is about snuffing out.
The news is still big. It's the newspapers that got small.
Stanley Kauffmann's 426 words on "Frozen River":
Rogers' Little Rule Book for movie critics: http://blogs.suntimes.com/ebert/2008/10/eberts_little_rule_book.html