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David Cronenberg Says Social Media Is Killing the Role of the Critic

David Cronenberg Says Social Media Is Killing the Role of the Critic

The argument that the role of the professional critic is dying is nothing new (Armond White just lamented the profession’s “loss of independence” a few hours ago), but it certainly has a number of new voices adding to it. In an article for The Canadian Press, Victoria Ahearn spoke with people like David Cronenberg, Canadian critic Richard Crouse, “The Interview” co-director Evan Goldberg, “Young Ones” director Jake Paltrow and more about the diminishing role of the critic. Cronenberg argues that Rotten Tomatoes’ use of anyone who calls themselves a critic is partly to blame:

Even now if you go to Rotten Tomatoes, you have critics and then you have ‘Top Critics’, and what that really means is that there are legitimate critics who have actually paid their dues and worked hard and are in a legitimate website connected perhaps with a newspaper or perhaps not. Then there are all these other people who just say they’re critics and you read their writing and they can’t write, or they can write and their writing reveals that they’re quite stupid and ignorant. … Some voices have emerged that are actually quite good who never would have emerged before, so that’s the upside of that. But I think it means that it’s diluted the effective critics.

Paltrow adds to that sentiment:

Filmmaker Jake Paltrow, writer-director of the recent dystopian water-shortage drama “Young Ones,” says audiences’ reliance upon the star system and the “splat vs. tomato” summations on online aggregators like Rotten Tomatoes is “dangerous” and “pretty scary.” “We live faster now and that’s a fast way of getting a consensus on a movie, so it’s not wrong, it’s just not nuanced in a way that I think we used to check in with the same reviewers and you could develop a sense of their taste,” he says. “That still exists to a degree. I think it’s very strong still at the New York Times and I think they work hard to keep that tradition alive. So it’s not dead, it’s just changed, I guess.”

Others still think that the immediate reactions that come from Twitter and Facebook are drowning out any professional voices, as Crouse argues:

“There is so much noise out there right now in terms of the amount of words that are written about films, unlike 30, 40 years ago when there were a handful of people that you could build a relationship with, you could trust. Even if you disagreed with them, you went and read them and you went on your way and you took their advice. Now I think it’s much different. I think that people skim through the blogs and Twitter and everything else and make up their own minds there, by and large, and look at star ratings.”

Jesse Wente, director of programs at TIFF Bell Lightbox, adds:

“When I was a critic I would at least have the blessing of some time for consideration before actually putting my review or my ideas into the rest of the world,” he says, noting he often viewed films twice before writing his review. “I think what Twitter and Facebook and the digital age has meant is, there’s this real demand to react instantly to something without the time for actual deep consideration.”

There are certainly other things to consider, from the loss of staff jobs to magazines like The New Yorker deciding that one critic is enough. There’s also the fact that for some films, studios aren’t bothering to find the few positive critic reviews out there and are instead turning to Twitter to promote “Let’s Be Cops.” Lord knows, the Tomatometer has become one of the more irritating distractions from the profession, especially whenever a critic deviates from the consensus on comic book movies and gets called a “harlot” for their trouble. And while Criticwire gets plenty of thoughtful comments, it also hears from people who think that critics are irrelevant (why they’re taking time out of their day to comment on a blog devoted to writing about critics and criticism is anybody’s guess).

Still, the future for aspiring or working critics isn’t totally bleak, even if there are fewer staff jobs and fewer opportunities to make a living solely as a critic. For all of the bad news about critics losing their jobs, there have been a fair number of critics who’ve moved onto new and exciting roles, from David Ehrlich (Time Out New York) to Matt Singer (ScreenCrush) to Mike Ryan (Uproxx), all of whom found new jobs in the past few months. Alison Willmore became BuzzFeed’s first film critic just last year, while Keith Uhlich has found a wealth of new opportunities as a freelancer since he left Time Out New York, writing for To Be (Cont’d), The A.V. Club,The L Magazine and more. Sites like The A.V. Club, The Dissolve and RogerEbert.com have multiple staff critics or freelancers publishing reviews every week, while newer sites like Movie Mezzanine have relaunched and expanded with new partners and contributors in the new year.

Perhaps it’s closer to what others in the article have argued: the role of the critic isn’t dying so much as it’s shifting in the digital era. Nina Lee Aquino, artistic director of Factory Theatre, says:

“I don’t know what that is but I don’t think we’ll get rid of that profession any time soon. They’re going to exist but probably in a different shape, form, or maybe the content will change a little bit.” 

Crouse adds that the critical profession might start to specialize:

    “You’ll find critics that specialize in writing hard-core academic kind of pieces that will run in the equivalent of literary magazines for film, or you’ll find critics that just go completely populist and essentially give you a synopsis of who is in the movie and a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down. I don’t know that there’s going to be a whole lot in between, professionally,” says Crouse.

    Crouse seems a bit disconnected from what’s actually happening in the criticism world, given that literary magazines like Film Comment and fanboy sites like Badass Digest are already out there, with plenty of stuff in between. 

    Evan Goldberg, meanwhile, says that he’d like reviews to become more open-ended:

    “What I would personally like to see is the critic says what they say and then the filmmakers respond and then the critics respond and then the filmmakers respond,” he adds. “I feel like that’s where things should go. I feel like the critic needs to evolve to be someone who’s a conversation, not just a comment.”

    Goldberg somewhat misunderstands the role of the critic, which is not to finish the conversation about a film but to start it and ask moviegoers to refine their own thoughts by comparing them to the critic’s (or critics’). But for what Goldberg is asking for, he could actually just turn to social media: there’s a healthy community of film writers and critics on Twitter that are constantly talking to each other and to readers, allowing for a surprising level of friendly, nuanced debate in only 140 characters. That’s not exactly an avenue to get paid, but it is an opportunity for fans and filmmakers to engage with critics regularly. The world of criticism isn’t totally rosy in 2015, but there’s plenty of evidence that it’s still very much alive.

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