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Criticism In the Age of Rotten Tomatoes, and Other Highlights from KCRW’s Talk with Critics

Criticism In the Age of Rotten Tomatoes, and Other Highlights from KCRW's Talk with Critics

Film critics don’t have the power today that the likes of Robert Ebert and Pauline Kael had in the 1970s. Film studios probably think that’s a good thing, but they’d be surprised to find which people agree with them: film critics.

“Press Play with Melanie Brand,” a show on the California radio station KCRW, had producer Matt Holzman speak to four critics about the state of modern film criticism: Manohla Dargis of The New York Times, Kenneth Turan of The Los Angeles Times, Joe Morgenstern of The Wall Street Journal, and former LA Weekly critic Karina Longworth.

One of the things Holzman said the critics agreed on (their answers weren’t played, oddly) was that one critic shouldn’t have the power to make or break a film. The show is available here, but here are some of the highlights.

1. Criticism Needs to Be More Than “Go/Don’t Go.” Turan said that criticism shouldn’t be reduced to simply telling readers what they should or shouldn’t see, but rather helping them make an informed choice.  

You have to give people some idea of whether they’d want to see the film or not, at least if you work for a daily newspaper. It doesn’t mean you say “Go” or “Don’t go.” It just means that you express an opinion in there.

Longworth added that it was as much about informing the reader about why the film does or doesn’t work, and what it’s trying to accomplish.

I think film criticism at its most useful is not consumer reporting: “Is this movie good or bad?” It’s more about how this object functioned. You want to know how an art object functions, and also why it exists.

Dargis summed up the question of audience recommendations nicely: “They’re smart people. They’ll decide if it’s worth their money or not.”

2. The Value of Criticism. Turan went further on questions of what makes critics worthwhile: not whether or not people read their reviews before seeing a film, but whether or not they’re compelled to read them after.

Sometimes people tell me they read reviews after they’ve seen the film, because sometimes a critic has insights and ideas that help people understand the film, appreciate the film better.

3. What To Get Out of Writing. Morgenstern’s comments mostly covered what he hoped to get out of each review.

A lot of what I’m concerned about in my column is showmanship. Every week I want to be able to write an entertaining essay with wordplay and humor, and occasionally even a piece of wisdom. I try to have my writing live up to the event when it’s worth living up to. Or to be amusingly, entertainingly scornful when it deserves scorn.

4. The Hardest Movies to Write About. It’s relatively easy to write a memorably vitriolic review for a bad movie, and good critics make it their job to write well about the movies they love. But the true test might be in coming up with something interesting to say about the mediocre, which is just about everything else. As Dargis puts it:

Frankly, most movies are not awful, and most movies are not great. Most movies are just someplace in the middle.

Turan adds:

The hardest films to write about are the ones that are neither here nor there. Probably the easiest ones to write about are the films you hate, because  the films you love you want to do justice to. You want to put everything you have into convincing other people that they should see it. As film critics we want to spread the good news about the films we love.

5. What Dilutes a Critic’s Power? None of the critics Holzman spoke to thought the blogosphere or Rotten Tomatoes really represented a threat to criticism. All of them agreed that critics have lost some of their power, but Dargis found another culprit.

I’m not really sure that it can be reduced to the tweets and blogosphere have reduced the power of movie critics. I think that if you’re opening a movie on 3,000 screens and you’re wall-to-wall advertising it, that’s what’s diluted the critic’s power.

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