At Hammer to Nail, which is in the process of sketching out a “2.0” version of the site under new editor Don L. Lewis, Lauren Wissot weighs in on “Conflict of Interest in the Digital Age,” using the example of Roger Ebert’s public friendship with Werner Herzog as a test case:
Unlike the old guard, represented by Richard Corliss in Steve James’s lovely cinematic tribute, Ebert had no qualms dispensing with the critic’s illusion of objectivity, going so far as to even review “Encounters at the End of the World,” a doc dedicated to him by his good friend Werner Herzog. (“I will review it because I love great films and must share my enthusiasm,” Ebert wrote in an open letter to Herzog.)
Corliss, in contrast, pretty much states in “Life Itself” that he wants nothing to do with the filmmakers whose films he writes about. I assume this is out of a sense of cinematic purity, to keep things as objective as possible in a highly subjective profession. Which strikes me as fairly ridiculous, especially since COI has been going on in the arts for far longer than Siskel and Ebert have been household names….
Corliss may have qualms, but I personally see nothing wrong with this setup — provided there’s transparency (such as the disclosure Ebert made in his “Dear Werner” letter). Indeed, we’re now firmly in the digital age, a time when the bottom has fallen out of film journalism and a huge swath of critics have diversified into other film related, and potential COI, areas. Let’s be honest. Many critics are filmmakers themselves, programmers, educators and more, often rubbing shoulders with those whose work they may end up writing about.
We’re all hip to the idea that objectivity is a chimera, especially in the entire art of criticism: Anything beyond plot synopsis and running time represents a subjective judgement. But if objectivity — or, as it might better be put, even-handedness — is an unattainable goal, that doesn’t mean it’s not worth striving for, and I’m a little dismayed by the apparently blitheness with which Wissot chucks the whole notion out the window. I can say that, you see, because Lauren Wissot and I are not friends; to the best of my knowledge, we’ve never even met. (If we have, then Dearest Lauren, you have my apologies.) It’s true that when traversing the terrain of contemporary film culture, where all but a tiny handful of critics have morphed into all-purpose “film writers” (myself very much among them) one is apt to get one’s feet muddy. As Nick Pinkerton, who is, in fact, a friend of mine — see how complicated this gets? — wrote in Film Comment:
Unless you are an independently wealthy individual working as sole editor and contributor to your own publication, à la Karl Kraus’s Die Fackel, and are capable therefore of staying out of the fray entirely, it’s unavoidable that such conflicts will arise, and anyone who claims to be entirely immune to them is most likely a grandstanding fibber. (I saw you scarfing those canapés at the “Squid and the Whale” party in 2005, Armond!) Critics work as programmers, and vice-versa. Critics make films, and filmmakers act as critics — even if, via a site like Talkhouse, only for a day. (Surely the oddest fantasy camp ever created, this.) The middle-sized festival circuit is a cut-rate permanent paid vacation for the footloose film journo, who’ll find something nice to say about the experience if they’re expecting a return invite. Payola rules everything around me! In most cases, we can only rely on the conscience of the individuals in question to either provide the requisite (usually very boring) “full disclosure” side note, or to recuse themselves from writing entirely when anything approaching objectivity is unachievable
Nick — I can call him that because we’re pals — draws a distinction not between objective writers and compromised ones, but between critics and fans: “Where fandom cheerily accepts, criticism is suspicious.” The issue isn’t, as Wissot puts it, “rubbing shoulders” with filmmakers, or even sharing the occasional drink; critics, possessed as they are of only the faintest slip of a conscience, are perfectly capable of downing a civil pint or two with a director at a film festival and then scurrying back to their hotel rooms to dash off a vicious paragraph or two about her or his new film. But there’s a point beyond which the mere invocation of “disclosure” is not a sufficient hex against impropriety.
In an era where “friend” is a verb, it’s easy to assume that everyone knows everyone — or, more to the point, to assume that your readers assume it, making any further disclosure redundant. But as a reader, there are cases where I’d feed betrayed, or at least unpleasantly surprised, to learn that, say, the writer of a glowing review and the director of the film in question were on especially friendly terms. Fortunately, there are many ways to write about movies that aren’t traditional reviews, ones where objectivity or the pretense thereof isn’t even a factor. If you’re writing about a friend’s movie, you might as well write about the friend, using your unique insights into who she is rather than pretending you don’t know him from Adam. All this concern about objectivity is pretty one-sided, anyway: You rarely hear filmmakers complain that critics are too sympathetic to their point of view.