Film Critics in the Soup

Patrick Goldstein has written an interesting piece about the demise of the film critic in newspapers across the country. He admits that our hideous economy is playing a part but there is also something else going on – a generation raised to distrust voices of authority in the media because those voices are altered, often, by the corporations who sponsor them. Whether this is true or not, that is the perception. This is probably why a movie that is panned by critics can still do well at the box office. There is only one area in film where the critics’ voice still matters – awards season. The klusterkluge between September and February very much depends upon what critics think. The Oscars themselves, aging dinosaurs in our age, seem to be the last place where people still care about quality in filmmaking. The crowdpleasers and the awards movies continue to live on different islands lately. Film critics used to be not so important to Oscar voters but now, there is only a small group of films that pass the critics’ test for voters to choose from – there is bound to be crossover.

Goldstein writes:

The best critics have always done exactly the opposite. As the late critic Kingsley Amis put it: “If you can’t annoy somebody, there’s little point in writing.” Whether critics are irritants or masters of elucidation, opinions still matter. But no one is respected simply because of the authority of the institution they write for. The Web isn’t the enemy of critical thinking. The land of a million blogs is a medium brimming with opinion. What’s different is the reader gets to decide whose opinion matters the most. It’s a big adjustment, but maybe it’s time critics, like many artists, realize they should pay more attention to their audience.

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  1. April 8, 2008

    Yeah, yeah, poor film critics.

    Oh no, wait, I think I almost dissed myself there. Probably not.

  2. cc
    April 8, 2008

    It’s all critics, not just film critics, that are struggling. And it’s partly because of a decrease in the appreciation for the arts. Just the other day, the Orange County Register fired their dance critic, Deborah Jowitt. Now there is no more full-time dance critic in the state of California.

    People can say “so what? Why are we paying them to make our decisions for us?” That’s easy to say when we have movies in mind. But certain artistic mediums like dance need all the publicity they can get. If no one is there to write about a dance production, or an art exhibit, or a show at the local club, or a recital at the university, can we count on enough people to know that such things go on in their own communities?

  3. Alison Flynn
    April 8, 2008

    cc, unfortunately there is a decreased appreciation for the arts. Part of it is funding. A huge part of it is the change in entertainment itself.

    Critics in those arts are becoming less relevant because the artists are. Think about it – what draws a bigger audience? A flashy glitzy performance by Miley Cyrus singing and dancing around the stage or a music recital? That’s not to say that no one would have an interest in the recital, or that the house wouldn’t be full, but you get my point.

    When I started working as a professional singer in the mid-90′s there were many, many more jobs than there are now. I have friends who are professional dancers and it’s the same story. There are jobs out there – it’s not as if there’s no work at all. I still work, and of course the big classical “institutions” like the Met, New York City Opera and the like will survive (hopefully) – but the work is slowly drying up, particularly for small “independent” groups, who perform and try to put many different kinds of music out there. A lot of these groups try to work independently, which takes money. One of my dancer/choreographer friends sets money aside and funds her own projects; she used to do this three or four times a year. That’s been reduced to once or twice a year now that our economy is in the shape it’s in.

    Everything trickles down and many professions are slowly dying out. It’s unfortunate, but what can you do?

    Well, anyway, that’s my two cents.

  4. Pierre de Plume
    April 8, 2008

    We’re becoming — ostensibly at least — a DIY society. America’s Funniest Home Videos, blogs, American Idol, and reality shows in general seem to have arisen in part by this distrust in authority that Sasha refers to. But we’re nonetheless a consumer culture, with our tastes — as always — being fed to us one way or the other, whether through advertising that derives from the voices of the corporate few, celebrity role models or simply the desire to be regarded as having “made it” as defined by those holding the purse strings.

    Whether we follow the lead of establishment voices with official credentials or unknown quantities with mouthpieces that reach a smaller market segment, all of us are in varying degrees vulnerable to and dependent upon what others want us to think.

    What we’re seeing is a simply a shift in the mechanics of how all of that works.

  5. K Trout
    April 8, 2008

    Economics aside, this is really about film distribution. A generation ago and further back, movies platformed from city to city. This strategy gave critics in big markets a large megaphone. If a movie started in NY, let’s say, and the Times bashed it, that could affect the movie’s further rollout. But now, with most major movies as front-loaded wide releases, all critics are essentially equal: they drown each other out amid the buzz. Once this started in the ’70s, the only critics who could rise above it were people like Siskel & Ebert or Gene Shalit who were on TV. Nowadays, critics are only really important in the same manner they used to be — with movies that platform (i.e.: smaller, artier films).

  6. jjj
    April 8, 2008

    This article complains about the distrust of critics yet flaunts its own sensationalist header.

    But I agree, to restore the importance of critics you have to restore the importance of the arts, and that’s not going to happen by the coming idiocracy.

  7. Karen
    April 8, 2008

    I think the current state of the arts is a reflection of the times that we live in. Trends have changed greatly because technology has evolved so rapidly in the past 30 or so years. With the internet and computers, there are so many more options available that did not exist previously. For example,when the first Star Wars film was released in 1977, there were no DVDs, cell phones, home computers or even videos available yet. In that era, critics and the print media had a much greater influence on the public because there were less sources for information available. It was a different world than what we live in now.

  8. April 8, 2008

    the demise of the film critic is due to:

    1 – the globalization of communication and the massification of the internet and the web 2.0 phenom. Now EVERYONE’s a critic and proud to express whatever feelings they have, be that what it may. NY Times review? Who cares? Go read this blog written by this 14 year old, he has a great taste in movies! (insert random blog here)

    2 – the dumb down of the IQ of the movie viewer, slightly increasing in numbers mostly cause of on-demand TV services and DVD, that drives the industry to produce more and more average films, which in turn help in further stupidifying people, thus leading to less and less interest in critics. Swear to god, if you could see some of the posts on the blu-ray official forums about movies, you would think seriously about suicide: example: someone did a new thread – actually had the trouble to start a new one – on how Kubrick’s 2001 was bad cause it made no sense (hello low IQ levels) and had no action and 20 minutes of monkeys at the start – this was his review. I attacked it with full force, of course, not on the premises that I was smarter than him, even though I clearly am, but because you don’t start a post flaming a movie and degrading it as “bad” because you don’t “get it” or “has no action” – yet this is the average Joe now. He did say he loved Swordfish or something like that. People are getting dumber by the year.

    3 – too many critics, way too many, and when things are in such excess, without a market to fuel it, they implode and start to fade out, or become a niche thing

    4 – the big critics start to feel like stars and act accordingly – who wants to tolerate that – except other critics?

    T.

  9. Rob Wills
    April 8, 2008

    Or maybe people are beginning to realize It’s better to see the film and form their own opinion. In my perfect world their would be no critics. (You can all start laughing now.)

  10. BSamo
    April 8, 2008

    Some good points made here in the comments section. Yes, there does seem to be less interest in the “fine arts” and audience’s tastes seem to be dumbing down by the second.

    But, in general, people don’t seem to care what a critic writes/says about a movie, a tv show, a concert, or music. People just are not influenced by critical opinion. With all of the forms of communication available today, it’s much easier to find the opinion of a friend, or co-worker, or family member. I think people put more weight in those opinions than those of a critic. And, this is not necessarily a bad thing.

  11. Alison Flynn
    April 8, 2008

    Agreed, BSamo. Audience’s tastes in everything seem to be dumbing down by the second.

    People are putting less weight in the opinions of a critic and taking the word of friends and family; or, as Rob points out, keeping an open mind and forming their own opinion after they’ve seen the film. Not to mention that sometimes critics, like the mainstream media, have their own agendas for praising or panning a movie.

  12. cc
    April 8, 2008

    One problem with A World Without Critics.

    What are smaller films, the independent films, the foreign films going to do, other than flounder? You know, the ones that have little to no financial backing or publicity from the huge studios and rely on advance critic’s word in order to be seen? How will I know that a particular South Korean film at the arthouse is supposed to be a true masterpiece? How will I know it even EXISTS?! From the ads? (What ads?) From my friends, co-workers and family members? (Yeah, right.) If it weren’t for the critics, rallying behind a film that deserves an audience, I and most people wouldn’t know about it.

    So in that regard, critics serve an invaluable service, IMO.

  13. bebe
    April 8, 2008

    I agree with everyone here except that I think people tend to not consciously recognize that the font of these trends is corporatization of all aspects of American culture. Movies don’t platform anymore because it’s all about eliminating individuality and therefore risk. Spend a lot of money for a big opening weekend and then count the days until the DVD release. The homogenization of movie theaters is also a casualty of decreased regulations and increased corporate monopolies. These same companies are tied to the media, which supports the all-in opening weekend, minimized risk mentality. Independent thought, specifically independent critical thought, has no place in a mass produced-to-consumer world. The internet isn’t the wild west anymore either. The loudest voices are often fans who are just as susceptible to the power of high tech marketing as anyone else, or desk-drivers with web outlets who repackage press materials. Look at the Hannah Montana phenomenon – it has major corporate muscle behind it in Disney. This is a commodity with constant promotion on television, radio, the internets, you name it. You want to know the net result of where our culture is headed unless serious curbs are made to corporate acquisition and power, watch Mike Judge’s Idiocracy.

  14. baerrtt
    April 9, 2008

    Throughout the decades we’ve had tons of mediocre and downright awful films that have been huge box office hits despite critical lambasting. I don’t really think critics have ever really mattered when it comes to shaping America’s (and anywhere else for that matter) moviegoing tastes so I find the sentiments in the article peculiar.

    Has there ever been a film which became the year’s No 1 domestic grosser purely because the general public read positive reviews and decided on THAT basis alone to check out the film(s).

    If that was the case why (in the much described Golden Age of the 70s for example) did the likes of Love Story and The Towering Inferno top their respective yearly lists (and both films were slated on release) and yet films by much praised auteurs like Altman (post MASH) and Scorcese (Taxi Driver aside) for example generally failed to find/get huge audiences then. In bringing attention to foreign cinema/smaller films that isn’t something that has gone away (in terms of a film critic’s ability to influence taste).

    Unless you think that the likes of say THERE WILL BE BLOOD or THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES would have been bigger hits in the days when apparently they had this tastemaking power.

  15. Alison Flynn
    April 9, 2008

    Good points, bebe. I would have mentioned the corporatization, which absolutely controls the media as well, but thought I’d be labeled as paranoid. :)

  16. RRA is The Critic - IT STINKS!
    April 9, 2008

    This article is half-right.

    Newspaper film critics themselves are irrelevant, except what this author gets wrong is that RRA is always right.

    That’s right, I’m more dependable than a U.S. Savings Bond. I’m more dependable than steel or fiber. I am always correct.

    Best of all, my wisdom is for free.

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