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The ’70s, When Critics Mattered

The '70s, When Critics Mattered

At the Boston Review, author and Cornell University professor Jonathan Kirshner uses a review of four books by and about Roger Ebert and Pauline Kael — two essay collections (“The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael” and “The Great Movies III”), a biography (“Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark” by Brian Kellow) and a memoir (“Life Itself” by Ebert) — as the platform for a fine introduction to the New Hollywood era of American movies and to the period when, as Kirshner puts it, “critics mattered.”

It’s an interesting companion piece to the conversation I started earlier today about the role that Twitter plays in modern film criticism.  These days, it’s all about the instantaneous reaction; critics are expected not only to be the best, but to be the first as well, in part because modern movies don’t last in theaters long enough to support a substantial conversation.  Only the rarest and most intelligent of Hollywood films (intelligence being the rarest of all qualities in Hollywood) have enough theatrical staying power to provoke truly interesting critical analysis.

As Kirshner points out, this is one of the crucial differences between the New Hollywood Era and the Cubic Zirconia Era.  The rise of the blockbuster in the late 1970s didn’t just drive a stake through the heart of important film criticism because the movies were less interesting.  It hurt film criticism because it transformed the movie industry to follow an economic model that was and is completely antithetical to smart film writing:

“The blockbuster model was also a terrible blow to the critical enterprise. With movies opening everywhere at once, aggressively marketed and highly dependent on the first few weeks of box-office receipts, filmmakers and viewers relied little on the opinions and influence of serious critics. The relationship between the movies and their audiences was changing.”

Blockbusters hit audiences hard and fast; too hard and too fast, much of the time, for critics to break through the din of marketing and hype.  Amongst its other claims to fame, Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” is also credited as the first film to prove the viability of national television advertising for movies.  Before we needed a bigger boat, movies rolled out slowly, and the conversation was ruled by critics and criticism, rather than ads and pull-quotes.  Hence Kael, Ebert, Andrew Sarris (who isn’t mentioned in Kirshner’s piece, but probably should be — but, then, there isn’t a new book out about or by him) and others “mattered” more.

Still, I keep thinking about Twitter and the changing landscape of movies.  The blockbuster model — everywhere at once — is beginning to shift again, this time in a way that favors criticism.  It all has to do with three little letters: V. O. D.  With more and more movies available to rent, stream, and download instantly and anywhere, critics can reach out to audiences who can immediately watch great films without having to leave their house, much less wait the weeks or months until that film finally makes its way to a local arthouse.  Roger Ebert has over 600,000 followers on Twitter.  Suppose he tweets a link to a movie he recommends that people can watch online.  If just 5% of his followers actually watch it, that’s 30,000 people.  At $5 a pop, that’s $150,000, a figure that would probably push several movies I saw at SXSW into the black.  

So maybe it’s not that critics matter less now, they just matter differently.  And maybe that differently is getting more important all the time.

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