ARE MOVIE CRITICS OBSOLETE?
Once again, I am reminded that I am not of my time.
On Oct. 26,
The Florida Times-Union printed Matt Soergel's "farewell" column as a
movie critic. My wife saw the column first and told me about it. When I
pondered whom the T-U might get to replace him, she told me, "Nobody.
They're eliminating the position."
I read the column and sure enough, in Matt's words, "The newspaper is reorganizing its newsroom to get the most local coverage out of the reporters and editors it has…The reasoning goes: Film reviews are available through wire services, and local news isn't. So the film critic goes…[I]t's happening throughout this troubled newspaper business. In Florida it's already claimed critics (fine ones) in Fort Lauderdale and Tampa."
I well realize that this is not a catastrophe on the scale of the Iraqi war or the California wildfires. Still, I think a pause for reflection on my fallen comrades is worth at least a brief moment.
First, a full disclosure. I've been a free-lance movie reviewer for ten years with Jacksonville Beach's twice-weekly publication The Beaches Leader. Prior to that, I did movie reviews for a briefly published bi-weekly called Time Out in 1986, and some theater reviews for a local publication. So I like to think that I have at least a small, frail voice of authority on this matter.
I came of age in the 1970's, when Americans' appreciation of movies as an art form was probably at its peak. Movie classics of the 1930's and '40s played at revival houses in the bigger cities; in smaller areas, they proliferated on late-night and independent-station broadcasts. Foreign movies, particularly those of the New Wave era of the late '40s and '50s, were incessantly discussed, and they were a major influence on naturalistic movie directors such as Robert Altman and Martin Scorsese.
Like Steven Spielberg – and believe me, this is where the similarity ends – I was a lonely kid who grew up soaking up movies on local TV stations. As a kid and a self-educated film buff, I believed that any movie that wasn't made before 1945 and didn't star W.C. Fields, Laurel & Hardy, or the Marx Brothers wasn't worthy of immortality.
My coming of age came when I was 16 years old, reading Richard Schickel's laudatory Time magazine review of Woody Allen's "Annie Hall." I can still remember the headline: "Woody Allen's Breakthrough Movie." I had seen a couple of Allen comedies but had summarily dismissed him as a Groucho Marx knock-off. When I saw "Annie Hall," I realized there were far more possibilities inherent in movie comedy than just stringing some jokes together.
After that, I started soaking up great movies, and great movie reviewers, every chance I got. As a kid, I started out reading volumes of reviews from legendary critics such as James Agee and Pauline Kael. Not that I was an idiot-savant of criticism; I first read them only after noting that they reviewed some of my heroes such as Fields and Charlie Chaplin. To my delight, I found that Kael was still writing, for The New Yorker, and I regularly read her and other greats. Kael, sadly, died in 2001, but for years I've followed many of her peers who are still in print, such as The New Republic's Stanley Kauffmann, ex-Village Voice critic Andrew Sarris (now with The New York Observer), and the still-terrific Roger Ebert.
The point of all of this name-dropping is to impress upon you the importance of movie criticism. Prior to, probably, the New Wave movement, anyone trying to seriously discuss movies as an art form would have been laughed out of the room. Though volumes of solid, incisive movie reviews by many of the writers listed above grace the shelves of your local library, I wonder if movie criticism isn't still as derided as the subjects of their reviews once were.
It's hard not to think so, when you hear that many newspaper editors are content to pick up syndicated reviews rather than indulge proven talent or encourage budding writers. Forty years ago, Roger Ebert was a sports writer before the Sun-Times printed his first movie review and launched him as a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and TV commentator. Try to imagine, "It's a Wonderful Life"-style, what the critical landscape would look like without Ebert's presence. I think it would be about as grim as Pottersville minus George Bailey.
Matt Soergel wrote that he wished he had a nickel for every reader who has told him, "If you like it, I know I'll hate it." I have a best friend of 30 years who lives in Los Angeles and maintains the same stance on me, and I'm sure all movie critics can tell similar stories. But that's missing the point.
I have long maintained that what puts a good movie critic above the others is, not that you agree with him on every review, but that his/her writing is so compelling that you'll read it every time whether you agree with it or not. A really good critic has seen hundreds or thousands of movies and doesn't mind noting that he's seen a hoary plot device in one or several previous films, and he might even mention the films' names whether you recognize them or not. He speaks from experience and – sorry to sound lofty – wisdom.
A good movie critic is like a voice in the wilderness. If you disagree with him, it probably won't be mildly. If you agree with him, he's like a lone voice telling you that maybe you're not insane for loving a barely-released gem or disliking the flavor-of-the-month that made #1 at the box office this weekend. In both cases, you've probably followed that critic's work passionately and will continue to follow him to the end. That's an experience which I don't think can be provided by a wire-service columnist on the cheap.
Another reason that critics are scoffed at these days, no doubt, is the proliferation of opinions on the Internet. Why bother subscribing to a newspaper to read a critic's opinion, when hundreds of such viewpoints are available for free on the Web? Lots of familiar favorites such as Ebert regularly post their reviews for free, making a subscription to his home publication irrelevant if you're looking only for his reviews. Heck, why bother following anyone? Just post your own opinions and develop your own mini-following.
There's something to be said for that, and for the Internet as the ultimate symbol of freedom of expression. What's important to remember is that the Internet doesn't live in a vacuum. Ebert, for example, is a passionate film critic, but he didn't get that way just from posting anonymous opinions wherever he could. He trained himself by endlessly watching movies, and he was no doubt guided and groomed by his editor and other professionals. There's a reason that any newspaper writer, much less a movie critic, gets a headshot and a by-line. And it's because he provides the kind of experience that Joe Blog can't quite muster.
I say that I am not of my time because I wish that movies were still taken as seriously, if you will, as they were when I first learned what an art form movies can be. Nowadays, movies are only one more medium trying to grab our attention, to be squeezed in between our recreational time on cable TV, MySpace, YouTube, and Xbox 360. And "back in the day," a blockbuster was a real event, a "Gone with the Wind" or "The Godfather," not something to be expected on a weekly basis. Most movies were rolled out relatively quietly, to a few hundred theaters, with venues to be added as word-of-mouth made each release more popular.
Now most movies – even many of the so-called smaller ones – are preceded by months of hype and making-of videos. And if a release doesn't hit it big on its first weekend – or if, heaven forbid, its box office drops off in the second weekend – it crawls into a dark corner like a beaten puppy, hoping for a chance at lesser recognition on its DVD release.
And "cult" films? Forget about it. Old, forgotten classics and low-budget flicks that struck a chord in quirky viewers' hearts could be shown on weekends at midnight, grabbing a little profit and getting "discovered" by new viewers. "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" was at first considered a flop because its theaters each brought in about 50 viewers at a time – until theater managers realized that it was the *same* 50 viewers every week, and turned it into an event. If "Rocky Horror" had been released in this era, its studio would have choked what money it could out of it for a couple of weeks and banished it to the vault for decades.
And so, the thrill is gone. Movies still make money, heaven knows. But theatrical release of a movie is just another money outlet, on the way to DVD and cable and the big networks – if studios could figure out how to cash in on a movie without actually releasing it, they'd surely do it. Likewise, it seems as though modern movie critics aren't touchstones for habitual readers – they're like one more person in a crowd, frantically waving and shouting, "Over here! Listen to me!" So their experience and body of work is devalued for something we can get either cheaper from a syndicate or for free on the Web.
Some will say that this column is self-serving, and I suppose it is to a degree. But as a frequent movie viewer and as a critic, I've seen, over and over, the enacting of Joni Mitchell's lyric: "Don't it always seem to go, that you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone." Generations of viewers have seen the heights that movies can reach and have often had to settle for the crumbs that modern filmmakers throw their way. I hope that in the future, moviegoers who are interested in solid, informed, well-written critiques will not have to look up from a steady diet of anonymous wire writers and wonder what they've missed.