Armond White. David Cronenberg. Oscar prognosticators and the National Society of Film Critics. Terence Stamp’s priggish art critic in “Big Eyes.” Lindsay Duncan’s poisonous theatre critic in “Birdman.” For a profession that’s supposedly dying, criticism — of film, in films — has elicited more than its fair share of hand-wringing recently, though the anxiety seems to be in the eye of the beholder. Alternately cast as industry shills, out-of-touch snobs, digital amateurs, fearsome gatekeepers, and failed artists, critics provoke passionate responses, but it can be difficult to suss out what the critic’s role in the current cinema actually is, or should be. TOH!’s Anne Thompson, Ryan Lattanzio, and Matt Brennan take up the subject in the debate below, including the biggest question of all: Do critics still matter?
Matt Brennan: I haven’t been at this long enough to possess much hoary nostalgia for the good ol’ days, but if the recent attention paid to critics is any indication, it seems to me that the profession is healthier than its detractors suggest. Why condemn, satirize, or lament something that doesn’t matter? Sure, Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic may reduce the power of a few renowned critics to set the agenda, but with the exception of studio tentpoles, critical reception remains an important element in pointing audiences toward worthy movies.
White’s accusation that critics’ awards are a product of celebrity worship and groupthink may be true at the margins, but flip the script a moment. Would “Boyhood” (I film I adored) or “Birdman” (I film I hated) have been seen as widely had critics not championed them first? A 12-year, three-hour epic of adolescence and a “single-take” backstage drama are anything but pre-sold properties, and I have to believe that most of those who praised one or both came to those assessments honestly. This is what I love about the NSFC’s choice of Godard’s “Goodbye to Language”: it’s an opportunity, like the initial reviews of “Boyhood” and “Birdman,” to (re) start the conversation. Am I being overly optimistic?
Ryan Lattanzio: The fact that critics have enabled the films you mentioned, Matt, along with others, to take off from their respective festivals and live long, healthy lives in theaters outside the arthouse indicates, to me, that critics are doing their job and they’re doing it well. But I do have a couple of bones to pick with the critics contingent overall. First, the problem I have with some, not all, critics is that many of them are writing for each other rather than for their readers, which should be their goal. And the insidery Twitter echo chamber doesn’t help me reconcile these feelings any more than reading an obscurantist review that pedantically exhibits less cinephilia than love of the writer who is writing.
I’m not saying most film critics are elitist, which is an argument that has been waged against the NSFC who, in picking Godard’s entertaining but gimmicky "Goodbye to Language," wanted to zig while others zagged and possibly did so deliberately. And even if that were true, I think their endeavor may actually be productive because we as critics are here to cut through the noise of Hollywood and awards season and draw audiences toward something they may not have seen.
But the problem, not just with awards season but also with year-end best lists, is that the incessant championing of films like "Boyhood," "Under the Skin," "Whiplash," "Ida" and "Birdman" (the real critics’ darlings), worthy as these films are, are impeding our view of other, perhaps even worthier movies. (See Richard Brody’s December 2014 New Yorker piece for more on this, and for his colorful top ten list that could only ever be described as Brody-esque in the best way.) The across-the-board inclusion of the same films on critics’ list underscores the point that many of us are just writing for each other, that we get inveigled by groupthink into forgetting about the first half of 2014, or maybe other Fall films that were not awards season players, and thus it becomes easy to ascribe the "critics’ pictures" vs. the "audience pictures." There’s a line in the sand, and if film criticism is going to survive, we are going to need to smooth it out.
Which isn’t to say that audiences aren’t engaged in the work of film critics. More than ever, young, internet-savvy readers are turning to film critics as tastemakers. But that’s just one demographic and as long as aggregators like Rotten Tomatoes continue to vet voices, we below-the-line critics are going to need to reach more.
Anne Thompson: Armond White’s case against celebrity worship and groupthink reeks of the sour grapes lament of a contrarian who has been kicked out of the group of which he was ashamed to be a member. I refuse to take seriously someone who can’t spell a director’s name consistently in one review, and who seeks attention by holding his finger into the wind–and going the opposite way.
I don’t disapprove of the NSFC, for choosing “Goodbye to Language,” which is certainly irrelevant to the awards conversation, any more than the NYFCC, which keeps moving up its voting date so early –whether to influence other groups or beat out rival Los Angeles is unclear–that some of its members are not able to see all the films of the year. That seems counter-productive.
As an awards observer I know that the critics play a valuable role throughout the year in highlighting movies we all need to see. I wish they gave their readers must-see lists more often instead of waiting for December, when we are all deluged and under the gun. Curation is key in this crazily noisy digital age.
I have no problem with review aggregators Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic; they serve a valuable function for getting reviews read by a wider audience.
As for Ryan’s complaint about the insular Twitterverse, I’d like more critics to get comfortable with tweeting and engaging in the conversations that tend to be dominated by a few loud (male) voices. I understand not feeling welcome to join, but what the hell, just get in there and point your elbows. It’s only words.
Matt Brennan: I think you’re both pointing at a truism of “the media” in general, which is that the current landscape is a clutter to cut through: of films, TV shows, reviews, thinkpieces, rebuttals to thinkpieces, and all of the other “content” I don’t have space to name. This may be the crux of what both of you are saying about top ten lists and, for that matter, critics’ awards, which deluge the Internet in December and end up blurring together. This is true throughout the year whenever some controversy arises (“Is ‘True Detective’ misogynist?” “Is ‘Selma’ historically accurate”?) and writers rush in to comment before the hot topic goes cold.
To me, this is the core dilemma I come up against as a critic. How do you balance the need for timeliness, newsworthiness, and, yes, “traffic,” with the desire to be something other than the 32nd essay about gay identity and “The Imitation Game”? Anne’s suggestion of must-see lists throughout the year is also an argument, I think, for periodically deciding not to be the first word on a subject. Granted, this is easier on my main beat because readers can and do access television out of step with the release calendar. But three of my favorite — and, notably, most popular — pieces in 2014, on “Looking,” “Downton Abbey,” and “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” were all published long after each series premiered. Clearly, if you have an argument to make and do so passionately, readers will find it.
You guys spend more time at the movies than I do. Is this a practical solution to the same dilemma in writing about film? Or are the rhythms of the year — from Oscar and Sundance to Cannes, summer blockbusters, fall festivals, and back to Oscar — too set in stone to allow for criticism to break out of these boxes? More broadly, how do we make sure that we’re producing criticism we can be proud of and simultaneously appeal to an audience that has access to a surplus of quick takes?
Anne Thompson: Obviously in order for any site to succeed online, the editors have to figure out who their readers are and what to give them. Part of it is curation, leading people to a well where there is good fresh drinking water, and building trust and authority. More and more, I find, that originality is the key, thinking up something new and different and not going with the trends and the hot topics of the day.
It’s so hard to resist putting up that sexy new trailer or weighing in on the debate du jour. But going off alone and sweating over something you care about and taking the time to burnish it a little–I know, we bloggers are always in a hurry, often sloppily so–makes all the difference and pays off big time.
That’s what you discovered, Matt, and that’s what you and Ryan and I have to continue to do, sticking to our hard-won takes on things and maybe paying attention to Twitter a tad less. I know, I’m contradicting myself, but my philosophy is to serve the reader by sharing and that means sharing not only what we write but what the people we admire are posting. We just have to strike a balance so that there’s time and room left in both our crowded days and tiny brains!
Ryan Lattanzio: What Anne says about the value in going off alone to write what you want to write rings very true, at least for me, because at the end of the day, these are the pieces that get the most readers with the most engagement. Critics have the ability to steer and shape the conversation. Maybe I don’t love, or even like, half the film’s on Richard Brody’s, or J. Hoberman’s, or Cahiers’ top 10s, but I admire their derring-do in singling out unconventional films that need, and deserve, a spotlight.
I’d love to see more of these must-see or best-of lists piecemeal throughout the year, because they serve a greater function than simply to rank or herald one writer’s opinions about the releases of that particular month or year. As de rigueur and traffic-seeking as they may be, such lists can help expose the diversity of filmmaking voices beyond the been-there-seen-that buzz titles du jour. Even films like "Boyhood" or "Under the Skin," a year ago I would’ve thought, No way, no one’s going to care about these movies the way critics do, and yet these are among readers’ favorite stories on Indiewire, and elsewhere I’m sure.
Matt, you’re lucky to be covering TV because that audience really lives online. TV critics don’t have to adhere to the same, as you say, "rhythms of the year" because television is still an ever-evolving, forward-moving medium that doesn’t have those news-hooking beats. Strangely, I find the calm between the storms of, say, Sundance and Cannes, or Cannes and the Oscar season, to be among the most fruitful, rewarding times for a film critic because this is when a lot of the weirder, more adventuresome films slip through the cracks and it’s our job to help them break out—even when it feels at the end of the day like no one is reading.