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The Stepford Critics?


It takes a Village of Damned Critics. Are there more where he came from?

Are movie critics too much alike? Not just in their opinions, but in their very approach to movies, or their writing styles? In March, Andy Horbal, formerly of the film criticism blog No More Marriages! and now writing at Mirror/Stage, observed, "When looked at side-by-side at sites like Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes most movie reviews reveal themselves as guilty of a shocking degree of sameness."

Of course, 10 or 20 years ago, virtually nobody outside a newspaper's local circulation area would have any idea of what its movie critic said about a particular film. I wonder: Are aggregation sites like RT and Metacritic revealing sameness, or influencing it, or creating an illusion of it? Could this appearance of uniformity have something to do with the little chunk-ettes these sites choose to excerpt from the reviews -- not unlike the (even shorter) ones studios choose to use in ad campaigns?

In early February, preparing for his contribution to my Contrarianism Blog-a-Thon, Andy was in the winter of his discontent about film criticism in general:

I'm frustrated by the film blogosphere. I'm also frustrated by journalistic film criticism, and the primary problem in both cases is what I see as a plague of sameness. Additionally, I'm frustrated by the imitative quality of much blog writing: specifically, the way film blogs imitate journalistic film criticism which, as I said, frustrates me itself.

As I've written before, I think these are golden days for film criticism -- in large part because of the unprecedented explosion of writing now easily accessible on the web: not only the writing of big, established critics and scholars, but the distinctive voices and perspectives of many bloggers who in the past would not have had access to a publisher, or an audience. At our fingertips we have not only considerations of new movies, but vast archives of writing, from the present and the past, about the whole history of movies.


This has never been possible before, when you'd have to make a trip to the library to physically search for newspapers and magazines, perhaps in bound volumes or on microfilm. Now, no matter how small a town you live in, as long as you can get on the Internet, you have access to much of what was once available only in big-city libraries. And, if you have a mailbox, you can watch or rent more movies on DVD (through NetFlix, for example) or on cable or satellite TV (Turner Classic Movies, On Demand, premium channels or any number of pay-per-view services, including Amazon Unbox) than you'd ever have had the opportunity to see in any major city over the course of several years. (How many times were "Le Samourai" or "Madame de..." or "Celine and Julie Go Boating" or even "La Dolce Vita" actually projected on screens in your town during the 1970s, '80s or '90s? They and many thousands of others are now available everywhere, all the time. That is revolutionary -- beyond anything we could ever have predicted in the 1970s, when we saw these films in 16mm student film series or film societies. Or, if we were lucky, in 35 mm at rep houses, but even then the prints were often dirty, scratchy, choppy or multiple-generation dupes.) All this access also allows us to correct the millions of errors contained in pioneering works of film criticism that were, of necessity, based on old notes or faulty memories. The movies are more alive to us than ever.

I hold movie bloggers (and web sites) to a higher standard than I do daily newspaper critics, because they have luxuries of time and space and choice that the pros don't: 1) they don't have to write on deadline about something they've seen only once before it is released; 2) they can take the time (if a film is on DVD) to be sure they quote it correctly (not just rely on memory or notes hastily scribbled in the dark), and even provide clips or frame grabs to illustrate their points; 3) they can include hyperlinks to related sources of information and opinion; 4) they get to pick and choose which movies they actually want to write about, instead of being limited to what we used to call "the review treadmill" of whatever happens to be opening this week; 5) they are not subject to the many, many constraints of conventional print journalism, including limited word counts, layout restrictions, editorial concerns about writing for a "broad" or "mainstream" readership, and so on.

There's a lot of amateurism on the web -- which can be refreshing and stimulating (especially when, as Andy points out, the writers do not try to imitate some mythical "professional" style, and instead write in their own voices), or it can be embarrassing and stultifying (when ignorance combines with arrogance and a dull or strident writing style). At the same time, there are a plenty of reviewers holding jobs with major newspapers or magazines whose stuff isn't up to the standards -- of readability, accuracy, knowledge, or basic interest and engagement -- that I would consider "professional" quality, either. Yet some bloggers have all this and more. In most cases, they've got everything but longtime professional (i.e., paycheck-cashing) experience writing about movies. (Just try reading some of those reviews you find on RottenTomatoes for some excellent negative examples. Next time you read a printed review, ask yourself if you think this writer actually likes his/her job. Or movies. You may have discovered one of those former sportswriters or feature reporters who've been unceremoniously shifted over to the "movie beat.")

Meanwhile, over at The Aisle View, The Vancouver (WA) Voice movie blog, DK Holm suggests that too many newspaper and magazine reviews suffer not only from a uniformity of opinion, but a uniformity of tone:

There is another kind [of plagiarism], that is more pervasive and insidious and nearly invisible. That’s the group-think that sweeps across the nation as certain reviews and reviewers set the tone and limit the terms of response to a film. What these writers are doing is plagiarizing a tone, the way the Paulettes from long ago, and even to this day, took their cues from Pauline Kael’s New Yorker reviews and her private exhortations.

"Plagiarists" of this kind, Holm writes, are "never" caught, "yet can unduly influence the fortunes of a film. In this light, perhaps it’s a good thing that no one pays attention to movie reviewers any more."

I see his point, but I don't quite follow the logic here. No one pays attention to reviewers anymore, yet they somehow have the power to set a tone that limits the terms of response to films? How can this be?

I've noticed a tendency, which I've remarked upon repeatedly, of pundits either overestimating or underestimating the influence of critics. Reviews don't have much influence at all over the fortunes of most mainstream movies. If people go to see them, it's because of the ad campaigns, and because they have friends who want to go. "Word-of-mouth" gets started before the picture is even released. As a former art-house exhibitor, however, I can tell you that reviews can (or used to) can have a big impact on foreign or indie releases that can't afford big ad blitzes.

But Holm is talking about framing the debate, not necessarily influencing the box office. If he's right, what causes this "group-think"? If everybody's writing on the same deadline (opening day), then they can't very well read one another's copy, and re-write their own, in time for publication. Do critics just grow to think alike, the way they say old married people (and their dogs) come to look alike? What about the young ones? Are they so eager to emulate their elders that they (or their editors) try to stuff them(selves) into a certain mold? Are they even aware this is happening? I don't know the answers to these questions.

Naturally, I have my favorite professional critics (people like Roger Ebert, Manohla Dargis, A.O. Scott, David Edelstein, J. Hoberman, Ty Burr, Wesley Morris, David Ansen...), and my favorite movie bloggers (Dennis Cozzalio, Girish Shambu, The Shamus, Kim Morgan, Andy Horbal...) -- and other favorites who do both (like Matt Zoller Seitz, or David Bordwell on the academic side). But I don't read them because I consider them in my "camp," or because I wold necessarily expect to agree with them, any more than I would expect to agree with critics I can't stand. (There are lots of those, too.) I read them precisely because they have their own voices and their own perspectives. I learn something from them, or see things from a point of view I hadn't considered, at least as often as they make me go, "Yes! That's exactly what I saw!" Sometimes I can tell what they will like or not like, but I never know quite what they're going to say about it. And I certainly don't know whether they will be in the RottenTomatoes majority or minority.

Yes, there have been some indications that certain cliquish New York critics, at least, do tacitly agree on the "proper" approach to certain films*, and there's often a vogue for certain filmmakers or types of films -- currently those labeled (wince) DIY or "mumblecore," the subject of a ten-film series at NY's IFC Center ("The New Talkies: Generation DIY." I like some of the movies, but these cutesy, pompous, and sanctimonious promotional labels make me gag. BTW, if you want to read a solid and insightful piece about these films, see MZS's NYT review of "Hannah Takes the Stairs.")

Films and filmmakers go in or out of fashion with critics and the public all the time, and that's the way it's always been. (Don't forget: Scorsese and Coppola [Francis] are hot, hot, hot again; Fellini and Bergman are passé; Lars von Trier and Abbas Kiarostami are so 1990s!)

But while there may appear to be a consensus on a given film or director at a given moment, it's never quite as unanimous as it may seem. Hugely influential films like "La Dolce Vita," "Vertigo," "L'Avventura," "Nashville," "Psycho" (1960), "Last Tango in Paris," etc., all strongly divided critics and moviegoers alike. That was the idea: Get people talking. If your movie can "cross over" to the Op-Ed pages, all the better. Meanwhile, I seem to be the only person, or at least the only Spielberg fan, on the face of the earth to think that "Always" is really good classic romantic-fantasy storytelling, and "Schindler's List" (he consensus movie of our age) is, for all the artistry it displays, too concerned with covering its bases and collecting representative anecdotes to amount to much as a work of art. I don't expect many to agree with me about either of those things, by the way. But my day will come!

Where was I? Three paragraphs ago, I wanted to say that I don't think I'd mistake any of my favorite critics' writing for anyone else. Yes, I might find a streak of Kael here, or a nugget of Sarris there, but everybody has influences, and the best incorporate them into their own sensibilities. I should do a test sometime: I think I could tell an Ebert review from a Dargis review from a Rosenbaum review from a Hoberman review...

So, what do you think? Are established critics and reviewers, and relatively new bloggers, plagued by unoriginality and sameness? Do they emphasize a restrictive or uniform perception for some films? Are too many of them consciously or unconsciously regurgitating the same press-kit spin? Got any examples?

* P.S. In response to an earlier Scanners post about what Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman described as films "that all the critics kind of collude on deciding are good," David Edelstein responded with a comment in which he said:

... I heard from an LA critic that LA screenings of "Notes on a Scandal" and "The Good Shepherd" were pretty disastrous, and I wasn't surprised to see many LA critics panning those films. My take is that it's cliquier out there, but who knows?

My own initial (internal) response was: Why wouldn't those movies get a semi-disastrous reception? "Notes" was just a nastier "Sleuth" without the cleverness, and "Shepherd" was as flat and dull as an old sheet of microfiche. (See "Breach" -- now on DVD -- instead. It got virtually no attention but is a vastly superior movie.)

See how we all think alike?

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