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Film Criticism: State of the Art

Does Film Criticism Need Its Own Megan Ellison?

Film criticism is at something of a crossroads, both symbolically and actually. The passing last April of Roger Ebert saw the occasion of a considerable amount of reflection on film criticism, as both pursuit and profession. Writers noted, many times over, that the days of the monoculture in which a figure like Ebert could come to represent the entire profession were long since past, a temporary fluke in media brought about by the technological nature of communications media. With first radio and then television, both passive receivers, becoming ubiquitous presences in people’s homes, culture was united in the limited number of options available, and thus coalesced around a comparatively small number of widely shared cultural reference points. As the influence of cable TV and then the Internet came grew, the number of cultural reference points became comparatively larger and less widely shared. This has extremely wide-ranging implications, but where film criticism is concerned, it has transformed the landscape from a single empire into a myriad of small, frequently warring city-states.

Internet Age though this may be, the experience of cinema still involves physically watching films in theaters and screening rooms, so the film crit city-states are in a very real sense literally that — although the increasing preference of smaller distributors for streaming services like Vimeo may change this yet again. The largest of these, in North America, are New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Toronto, and Austin. The three with the most distinct identities are New York, with its bottomless well of repertory screenings and perceptive preference for cultural elitism, Los Angeles, with its proximity to the nerve center of the motion picture industry and equally rich repertory scene (the obstacle being the driving), and Austin’s free-wheeling, rowdy evangelism for genre fare, and proud fandom. Then there’s Chicago, which largely stays out of the bickering that frequently consumes the previous three and focuses on cranking out some of the best film criticism in the business (it’s no coincidence that Chicago was Ebert’s homeland). Toronto is a bit harder to quantify, but is close to the Chicago tendency to value the work over branding. (These are, of course, generalizations; it is, as always, about the work.)

One of the most frustrating stereotypes about film critics is the libel that all they do is tear down filmmakers’ work. The reality is that anyone willing to spend the time it takes to be a film critic — even if just for a year or two — simply has to be getting something out of the investment. Not all critics start out with a professional berth as their endgame. As New York Post freelancer Farran Nehme, who also blogs as The Self-Styled Siren, puts it, “I never had being a film critic as a goal. I wanted to write about film, which isn’t exactly the same thing.” She continued, “For the most part, it’s a wonderful job. It isn’t just about the films you’ve seen; you use what you’ve read, what you’ve experienced, what you’ve researched. It keeps your mind agile and your eye sharp.” 

Scott Renshaw of Salt Lake City Weekly described another path to criticism: “I didn’t want to be a film critic, really; I wanted to be a writer, and this turned out to be the best match of my writing skill set and my areas of interest/expertise. I dabbled in other areas, unsuccessfully, before realizing that critical writing was my home. And so I worked at honing that skill for several years before I found someone willing to pay me for it, and even longer before I could make a living at it. That included making myself watch even the stuff that I wouldn’t necessarily seek out for myself as just a ‘layperson,’ because my goal was to write about everything, not just to write about my favorite movies.”

The ecumenicalism Renshaw advocates is, to be sure, a noble goal, although the professional critic may, through the caprices of professional fate, be assigned to see something s/he simply can’t stand. Nehme, again: “Before I got the freelance position at the Post, I may have underestimated how depressing it is to see a truly atrocious film, but that doesn’t happen very often.” While the truly atrocious is indeed a rara avis — something for which all moviegoers, professional or amateur, can be grateful — one reality that begins to take shape after not terribly long as a film critic is that very few films are truly great works of art. The overwhelming majority, which critics see many more of than those with other concerns in life, have their good qualities and their bad. The essence of criticism is to sift the work through the apparatus of appraisal and separate out which qualities are which. Opinions vary, because life experience varies.

The legendarily cantankerous commenters of Rotten Tomatoes and their equivalents elsewhere would do well to take the above to heart, instead of throwing the Internet-wide tantrums that erupt whenever an anticipated film’s “Fresh” rating is besmirched. These have succeeded, in some circles, in creating the image of film critics as being people who will review something poorly merely to get attention for themselves. This is, to be blunt, absurd. It wouldn’t even be worth addressing if the accusers weren’t able to spend entire days on end pollinating the Internet with this idiocy.

The worst part about that crude, paranoid slander (proffered in other quarters than Rotten Tomatoes, it must be said) is that there’s a tiny grain of distorted truth to it. While reviews written for the sole purpose of damaging a specific movie’s arbitrary statistical ranking simply don’t exist, internecine critic fights do break out over movies. Because not everyone sees every film at the same time — New York and/or Los Angeles tend to see major studio releases first, and films that debut at festivals are seen first by the critics accredited for the festival in question — the critical conversation tends to consist of a number of waves. Hypothetical Indie Film X, for example, premieres at Sundance in January. It is hailed as a masterpiece, acquired for distribution, and given a July release date as blockbuster counter-programming. In the meantime, Indie Film X plays South By Southwest in Austin, in March. The Austin critics are a bit more guarded, saying that it’s good but not that good. Someone (city-state citizenship undetermined) watching their fourth film of the day after standing in line for eight hours says it’s the worst thing they’ve ever seen. A fight breaks out on Twitter for a week. Some months pass. Indie Film X screens for what few New York and Los Angeles critics were not at any previous festivals. They declare Indie Film X the worst/best/most average film of the month/year/decade. But by that point Superhero Tentpole Blockbuster Y has come out and the Rotten Tomatoes commenters are seething because it’s only 95% “fresh.”

Most of this process is undertaken in good faith. Either way, the critics who see the film first are the ones who get to open the discussion. Everyone else is, to some degree or other, responding to that discussion, and for whatever reason — pre-existing feelings about the director and/or cast, long-standing antipathy toward some colleague or other who got to chime in earlier, a desire to play Devil’s Advocate for purely recreational purposes — might not be responding to the film as they would had they gone in knowing nothing at all about it. This happens because pure, hermetic objectivity is beyond the human mind. The critic’s job is to defy fallacy and get as close as possible.

All of this messiness — the inherent subjectivity of the enterprise, the care for artistic quality, the fact that seeing so many movies only enhances whatever taste for novelty the critic may have already had — makes the film critic the inadvertent enemy of the modern movie studio. In its initial incarnation through to its borderline collapse in the 1960s, movie studios were ultimately, when the ladder of power had been fully ascended, run by one man making decisions (and likely blowing cigar smoke in your face). Today’s movie industry sees decision making deferred with an almost supernatural awe to “the numbers,” where decisions are not made as much as gods are appeased with ritual sacrifices. Sequels are made because sequels have to be made. The same goes for reboots, remakes, and the like.

Film criticism is under an existential threat from the same tyranny of numbers that rules the industry itself. Print media continues its slow decay/transition to digital. Online film outlets are folding at a similar rate, or laying off their staff to go all freelance. It is an incredibly daunting proposition at this point in time to make anything resembling a living writing film criticism. Freelance film writer Vadim Rizov observed, “Rates are so incredibly low on the internet that by my estimation, to make a full-time go of it without any kind of side hustle (I’ve always had one) you need to publish somewhere between 15 and 25 things a month. That’s assuming everyone pays you on time all the time, and a number inflated in my case by the costs of NYC living; still, who has the time and energy to conceive of, pitch, successfully, place and write 15 to 25 sharply written, carefully argued pieces a month? I don’t see a bottom to the rate-slashing either.” To briefly illustrate the severity of the rate-slashing with anecdotal data, my first professional film writing gig in 2010, at the now-defunct Premiere, paid $250 an article for the same rigorousness and type of work for which I now, at an outlet that shall remain anonymous, pays $20. This in under four years, and all thanks to the tyrannical numbers, in the form of “analysis reports,” that stress the unprofitability of quality Internet film writing.

Hearkening back briefly to the 1970s, one of the finest American films of that decade, Network, directly addressed the nascent corporatization of media, warning of the dangers that would ensue from subjecting journalism to corporate oversight. The corporate hatchet man played by Robert Duvall sees that his TV network’s news division is operating at a consistent loss — which news divisions traditionally did — and sets about making a buck off it (which involves a delightful combination of Faye Dunaway sociopathy and Peter Finch howling profanity at the top of his lungs). The idea that journalism (of which arts criticism is a discipline in fine standing) was of sufficient importance that it needed to be maintained, even at a loss, belonged to an era that recognized value in things other than money. It was the era in which William Holden and Peter Finch could sit around a bar regaling each other with their exploits as young bucks with their whole lives ahead of them. Two old men living off memories of a world in which they had a place.

Rather than, as Peter Finch did in that early bar scene, profess his desire to blow his brains out, advocates of film criticism, and journalism and the search for meaning and truth in general, should take heart and realize that history progresses in cycles. The mad, supernatural awe in which pure profit is held today is in no way a revelation of eternal truth, and it is not irreversible. Peter Labuza, host of the podcast The Cinephiliacs and reviewer for Variety, suggests a return to an older form of support for the arts: “[film critics] not willing to sell themselves a bit will probably end up in trouble, unless they go the way of the Ezra Klein/Nate Silver model of finding a patron for their art (The Dissolve in a way comes close to this – founded on the strength of their writers).” Fellow podcaster (Mousterpiece Cinema) and critic (Sound on Sight) Josh Spiegel has a specific suggestion for such a patron: Megan Ellison, the ambitious and quite wealthy young producer whose company, Annapurna Pictures, has been home to auteurs Paul Thomas Anderson, Spike Jonze, and Harmony Korine in its brief existence. Spiegel’s ideal scenario is one where Ellison or some similarly well-funded party “throws an indeterminate amount of money to a group of writers, lets them build a website and create, and never meddles in their work.”

In the current economic climate, that kind of scenario — someone, or several someones, so wealthy and passionate about film criticism that they can afford to run a professional operation as a loss leader — is the only way forward for film criticism as a professional endeavor. The probability of this happening is beyond slim. But should the winds shift ever so slightly, and if art begins to have more perceived value than the grossly monetary, then there may be a chance. Yes, critics do occasionally grandstand and some are better at it than others. But the profession itself, the search for understanding a given work, is one that should not be abandoned. Letting the value of understanding diminish into air is submitting completely to forces as poorly understood as the numbers, abandoning our humanity to the silly little man in the top hat on the Monopoly box. As anyone who’s ever been stuck in a house with relatives with nothing else do can tell you: Monopoly sucks. 

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