"Movie criticism of the elevated sort, as practiced over the past half-century by James Agee and Manny Farber, Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael, J. Hoberman and Dave Kehr... is an endangered species..." -- Richard Corliss, Film Comment, 1990
Good gracious, film criticism is still dying all over the Internet again this week. Who's killing it this time? The usual suspects, depending on who you ask, ranging from "Siskel & Ebert" to "the bloggers." The quotation above was written 20 years ago, and that wasn't the first time its dire predictions were made. Now they've just become conventional wisdom, so people feel the need to repeat them every few hours. IFC.com reports that, at a UCLA panel discussion of filmmakers and critics following a screening of Gerald Peary's affectionate documentary overview of American film criticism, "For the Love of Movies," TIME magazine curmudgeon Richard Schickel announced, to no one's surprise, that he never loved them. That's right: No love from Mr. Schickel. None. (This is confirmed by his attitude toward Robert Altman.)
"Watching all these kind of earnest people discussing the art or whatever the hell it is of criticism, all that, it just made me so sad. You mean they have nothing else to do?" asked Schickel before adding, "I don't know honestly the function of reviewing anything."
Yes he certainly doesn't, which has been clear in print for some years, but I don't know the function of what Schickel was doing on this panel. You could make the same complaint about any kind of writing, or any enthusiasm that people feel like writing and talking about, from sports to politics. Oh, you tech columnists and food writers -- stop communicating with others about things you're interested in! What is the point? If you have to ask, you're not likely to feel ardent about engaging in the practice -- except, perhaps, for the paycheck. Now that is sad.
Also on the panel, moderated by TOH's Ann Thompson were directors Mel Stuart ("Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory," "Wattstax") and Allan Arkush ("Rock 'n' Roll High School," "The Temptations") and real critics, including David Ehrenstein, John Powers, Peter Rainer, David Sterritt and Ella Taylor.
Rainer, editor of the delectable National Society of Film Critics collection "Love and Hisses," recalled the unintended consequences of "Siskel & Ebert," when "suddenly, criticism became a celebrity occupation and all sorts of people who really had no business being critics wanted to be critics because they wanted to be on TV." Not unlike the reality TV of today.
While Schickel made the claim that there are fewer good professional critics than ever (correctly observing that many editors at senior publications are "former beat reporters and city desk guys and rewrite men that managed to stay upright in their chairs before they were finally felled by drink"), and that there are some bloggers he finds physically unattractive (a statement of dubious relevance), Rainer summed up the situation most acutely, in my view:
"What's sad now about criticism is not so much that it's dead, but that there are probably more good critics potentially in a position to be critics right now -- critics who have written, who are writing, who should be writing, who have stopped writing -- than there has ever been in the history of American journalism. There are just fewer and fewer places where these people can be published."
Other than, of course, where you're reading this right now: online. If Agee and Farber, Kael and Sarris, had written in the age of the Internet, their readerships would have been many times what they were in print. Living in Seattle in the '70s and '80s, I had to subscribe to The New Yorker and The Village Voice to read them each week -- which arrived via US mail about a week late. Imagine, too, if readers and other critics had been able to engage in online discussions with these critics' reviews, the way they can, say, here or at Dave Kehr's or Girish's blogs now. But how would you have been able to read Kehr or Roger Ebert or A.O. Scott or Manohla Dargis or Michael Phillips back in the '60s, '70s, '80s or even much of the '90s? You'd have to pay a few hundred bucks for newspaper mail order subscriptions -- if you could get them -- or see if you could find older issues of their publications at the local library.
(Side note: In the comments section at IFC.com's account of the panel, SLIFR's Dennis Cozzalio offers the last word on Schickel, whose "bile and his indifference to the profession that sustained him for 43 years makes him the last person whose word on the future of film criticism I would take at all seriously.")
I would like to add something I think these discussions overlook, however, and that is that compelling, serious, in-depth criticism -- beyond mainstream reviews and written for a more cine-literate audience that's more knowledgeable about film culture -- is, as Rainer suggests, more widely available than ever. Look at the wide range of writing by professional critics and academics on the blogs of David Bordwell, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Roger Ebert, Glenn Kenny... And those are just the veteran pros. (Check out Temple University's Chris Cagle's 1947 Project for another smart and ambitious use of the web by an academic critic/researcher.)
As Sterritt wrote back in 2008 (when there was quite a bit of discussion about "the death of film criticism," if you can imagine such a thing), he took early retirement from his reviewing gig at the Christian Science Monitor in 2005, "and with the 'Saw V' circuit happily behind me, I now get to write about film-related subjects I actually find interesting. I also have more time for reading about movies, and this has renewed my respect for the unexpected insights that eagle-eyed critics can bring, even to a frazzled old cinephile like me." (I've written about my interest in these sorts of bloggy ruminations any number of times since I started writing a Cheetos-adorned online MSN Cinemania column called "Scanners" in 1996, followed by my own website, Jeeem's CinePad, in 1998, which eventually evolved into this Scanners blog in 2005.)
Oh, but there's more critical death in the air over at the Chronicle of Higher Education's The Chronicle Review. How do we know? Because the headline proclaims "The Death of Film Criticism" and the article (accompanied by a pair of human thumbs -- pointed down!) by Thomas Doherty reads like it could have been written in the late 1990s:
"It sucks," decrees an Internet movie critic, sharing the most common aesthetic reaction in contemporary film criticism. In the viral salon of bloggers and chat-roomers, the finely tuned turns of phrase crafted by an earlier generation of sharp-eyed cinema scribes have been winnowed to a curt kiss-off. In cyberspace everyone can hear you scream. Just log on, vent, and hit send.
That's so hackneyed it's embarrassing -- and so generic it practically qualifies as plagiarism of thousands of articles that have been written since the advent of the World Wide Intertubes. But the best (worst) part is his reference to David Bordwell as "[Harry] Knowles with chops in postmodern theory" (whatever that's supposed to mean), followed by this sentence: "The impact of the academic bloggers on Hollywood's box-office gross is negligible (sorry, David), but the online work of the digital hordes is already making a substantial contribution to film scholarship--in the spirited parry and thrust of the dialogues, in the instant retrieval of past research, and in the factoid jackpots provided by the film databases."
I'm not going to venture beyond the parenthetical: Sorry, David? The implication being -- what? -- that David Bordwell writes about film because he wants to have "an impact" on "Hollywood's box-office gross"? I'm not going to speak for DB, but I've always wanted to write about things that interest me, whether for a readership of a hundred or a million, and I never, ever wanted to have an impact on Hollywood's box-office gross, even when I was working in Hollywood. Sure, I'd like to call readers' attention to movies they might be interested in, and (most of all) help them get more out of what they see by stimulating thought and discussion, but the only time I wanted to sell movie tickets was when I booked a theater in Seattle. An art house. We didn't show movies just because we thought they'd make money; we only booked movies we actually liked. That was our "niche."
I look at film criticism the same way. Not that one should only write about movies one likes, but that the goal of criticism has nothing to do with box-office or influencing consumer behavior or changing minds. Movies are about seeing things through others' eyes. So is movie criticism. My only hope is that you'll find whatever I wrote about a particular movie worth reading and thinking about, even if you ultimately reject my point of view or have no intention of seeing the movie in question.
As Elliott Gould's Philip Marlowe says in Robert Altman's "The Long Goodbye," "That's OK with me..."
* * * *
1) Jonathan Rosenbaum comments at The Chronicle Review:
Personally, I don't read Harry Knowles, but even on the few occasions when I have, I don't find the slangy, with-it, would-bepopulist tone there all that different from the tone of Doherty's piece. The root of assumption of both is that quantity seems to equal quality, whereas the best film criticism, online and offline, on paper and on the Internet, should be judged by the quality and seriousness of the readership, not by the number of hits or readers.
I second that.
2) Chuck Tryon, author of "Reinventing Cinema: Movies in the Age of Media Convergence, responds to Doherty at The Chutry Experiment:
Perhaps more frustrating is the generation-gap baiting that permeates the entire article. Web-based critics are "young punks who still got carded at the multiplex" or "a man-boy of the people, visceral and emotional, a stream-of-consciousness spurter with no internal censor or mute button." The "gnomish" Harry Knowles is our "poster boy." In short, internet based film critics are young, chubby anti-social males who don't get out much. And we pour our thoughts onto the page without any reflection whatsoever. Doherty is thus falling victim to what might be called the "immediacy fallacy." Just because blogs can be published instantaneously doesn't mean that bloggers necessarily publish ideas without hours or even days of reflection, and even if they post quickly, their posted work is often the product of years of research and reflection.
And a hearty "amen" to that.
UPDATE: 3/03/10: In comments at The House Next Door, Stephen Saito, author of the IFC.com article about the UCLA "For the Love of Movies" panel, provides a broader picture of what was said, including this fuller quotation from Schickel:
"The main thing I wonder about your movie is the title. (Peary - What's wrong with the title? Rainer - it's too positive) I don't think it's a deep and authentic love. I mean, I don't know about other people, but I went to movies as a kid out of some kind of weird habit. I didn't love them. I liked them. (Peary: For the like of movies?) The respect...I respected movies...no, no, no, I respect you here, really, but what I mean is love is a big word and all those years that I did this reviewing thing, I'm not sure.... I had fun doing it. It was engaging for a long time, but I don't know that that was...I think a guy like Mike Wilmington has more of that kind of passion for the thing. Somebody just said he's out there all the time just blogging back and forth with dozens of people and all that stuff. When it was over for me, it was over. I haven't written a critical word since...Let me put it this way, it never felt like love. It felt like interest, affection, a desire to talk about something that other people were interested in. As John [Powers] says, there wasn't much money in it, but it was a living in a little way and all those things went into it, so the habit of moviegoing somehow transformed itself into the habit of movie criticism and it became kind of an unexamined premise for me, like well, that's what I did."