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Where Have All the Film Critics Gone?

Every day it seems there’s news of a fresh kill.

Turn to any major publication’s arts section lately and you’ll probably find an article about a full-time film critic losing his or her job. Within the last two months, Newsday movie editor Pat Wiedenkeller, along with critics Jan Stuart and Gene Seymour, accepted buyouts. David Ansen, a film critic at Newsweek for 31 years, also took a buyout, and the Village Voice laid off one of their film critics, Nathan Lee. According to a list composed by The Salt Lake Tribune’s Sean P. Means, 28 film critics have left or been fired from their jobs in the last two years.

The New York Times, Variety and The Los Angeles Times have all run recent pieces chronicling the demise of the professional film critic, the irrelevancy of critical judgment on popular opinion, and the ascension of online criticism (on blogs, and opinion aggregator sites like Metacritic and Rotten Tomates) over criticism in print form. Considering that The Atlanta-Journal Constitution eliminated the position of book editor at the paper last year, and has considered following the lead of many other publications in eradicating book reviews altogether, you could be excused for thinking that the critical apocalypse was now upon us.

Clearly, some critics are worried. Responding to the firings, professional film critic Matt Zoller Seitz, fretted on his blog, “I think we’re fast approaching the point where criticism will become, for the most part, a devotion rather than a job.”

Yet, despite the layoffs and the disrespect frequently leveled at their profession by non-critics, film critics and their criticism aren’t disappearing anytime soon. Online criticism has exploded, a trend that could indicate that the public’s appetite for film criticism is increasing. As critic Lee Marshall recently wrote for the film publication Screen Daily, “To take the ongoing critical downsizing as proof there is a shrinking audience for film criticism is to indulge in a classic piece of false logic. I would argue that more people are reading more film reviews than ever before.” In truth, the firings are less the result of criticism’s superfluity than an aspect of the economic struggles that print media is now experiencing.

Though the democratic nature of online criticism challenges the top-down, trust-the-expert criticism of traditional media, online criticism and print criticism are not necessarily oppositional. Professional critics have had to adjust to the constant second-guessing and often combative nature of blog comment sections, but many have nonetheless embraced the web. Writers such as Zoller Seitz, Michael Atkinson and Dave Kehr contribute to print publications while also writing extensively on their own sites. And though the quality of online film writing varies greatly, ranging from random comments on message boards to lengthy academic treatises on cinephile websites, the same discrepancies in critical perspicacity also exist in print criticism: the level of analysis in one of J. Hoberman’s reviews for the Village Voice vastly exceeds that in a piece by Peter Travers for Rolling Stone.

Not all big-screen critics are wringing their hands. Karen Durbin, a film critic at Elle magazine, said the space allotted to her reviews in the magazine has expanded recently. And like Marshall, Durbin views the rise of film blogs as an indication that audiences are more interested in critiquing and discussing film, not less. “Blogs and the net have enlarged the discussion,” said Durbin, adding that she thinks, contrary to accepted opinion, that the state of film criticism is strong.

Meanwhile, journalists everywhere are worrying about job security, with newspapers across the country losing money as they try to adapt to an increasingly online marketplace. Fulltime professional news staffs fell by 2,400 people last year, a drop of 4.4% from 2006, according to the most recent annual census from the American Society of Newspaper Editors. Even the venerable New York Times reported a loss for the first quarter of this year. With newsrooms being gutted and many large newspapers closing their overseas bureaus, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that critics are also suffering.

Many observers point to media consolidation as a main factor behind the recent dismissals. “Fifty years ago, there used to be 500 media corporations and now there are five and they just repeat press releases,” said Michael Atkinson, a film critic whose work has appeared in The Boston Phoenix and The Guardian, and who, like Lee, was laid off from The Village Voice. Atkinson has a point—since the Reagan Administration, the FCC has softened regulations that promote media diversity in individual markets and Americans are getting their news and their arts coverage from fewer and fewer sources. The huge media conglomerates often find it easier and more cost effective to syndicate a film critic’s columns, such as those of Roger Ebert, in all of their papers rather than have a different critic in each city.

Atkinson recently gained notoriety in the film blogosphere for his opinion, published on his Zero for Conduct blog, that the layoff of film critics is an understandable market correction. “Essentially, I cannot be terribly surprised,” Atkinson wrote on his blog. “[T]he existence of full-time staff film reviewers is a nutty aberration in the history of periodical publishing…I’d love to see every magazine employ an army of full-time culture reviewers, and pay them millions, but it doesn’t make very much sense, for the simple reason that it’s not truly a full-time job.”

Based on a principle of what he called “fairness,” Atkinson said that he doesn’t think critics who only work 10 to 12 hours a week should be paid like other professionals who work 40. “I’ve done the job. I know how much time it takes,” Atkinson said in an interview. “Film criticism is a dead-end. You don’t want to devote yourself to it. You have to have something else to pay the bills. It’s not really a viable profession. And it never has been.”

However, Atkinson’s comments are somewhat paradoxical, as they seem to undermine his own profession by reinforcing the disparagement oft-repeated by non-critics that criticism is not work. Granted, watching and writing about films is not as physically strenuous as laboring on a construction site, but then, neither is computer programming or investment banking. A critic may spend less than fifteen hours per week writing, but staying appraised of the prodigious number of new releases, not to mention augmenting one’s knowledge of film history, requires a significant amount of time and energy. Consequently, to excel at his profession, a film critic must devote a lot more time to watching than he does to writing.

The public discourse surrounding the plight of film critics reflects a more profound misunderstanding of the role critics should play in American culture. Many filmgoers and media observers believe critics are unnecessary when their opinions fail to correspond to box office receipts. But as Dana Polan, a professor of cinema studies at New York University, pointed out in a recent interview, that Prom Night, a new horror film, grossed over 32 million dollars in its first 11 days despite being widely reviled by critics (who were only shown the film after it opened), does not mean there is a flaw in the discernment of critics. Rather, the film’s high revenues indicate that the preferences of those people desiring to see such a film are shaped more by marketing buzz than critical reflection. Polan believes the ubiquitous marketing campaigns of film studios have caused audiences to confuse advertising with criticism. “A lot of what people are reading about film today [on websites and message boards] is indistinguishable from press releases and publicity material,” said Polan.

When discussing film criticism, the media itself often makes the same mistake. Take Patrick Goldstein’s April 8th article in the LA Times titled “The End of the Critic?” Goldstein, a columnist who follows the entertainment industry, begins the piece with an anecdote about how his nine-year old son loves a baseball video game that the LA Times games critic panned. Goldstein concludes that “Whether you’re talking to a 9-year-old Little Leaguer, a 19-year-old college kid or a 29-year-old music fan, when you ask why he or she no longer relies on critics for entertainment choices, the answer boils down to the same thing: ‘I trust my friends more than I trust that guy writing the review.’” Goldstein goes on to elaborate how the internet is “brimming with opinion,” and ends the piece with this highly revealing statement: “What’s different is the reader [now] gets to decide who’s 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.”

Goldstein’s article echoes the sentiments of playwright Marsha Norman, who recently wrote into the New York Times website to say:

“So how can critics serve their readers—and the theater—better? They need to accept their responsibility to report how the audience responded…I’d like to see sentences like ‘On the night I was there hating it, the other 1,600 people were cheering in the aisles.’”

The conclusion reached by both Goldstein and Norman is that professional critics are losing their jobs because they too infrequently reflect popular opinion.

But reaffirming popular opinion is exactly what criticism shouldn’t do. Frank Rich, a former Times drama critic who is now a political columnist for the paper, wrote a stinging rebuke to Norman’s appeal that aptly exposes the flaws of this notion. Rich wrote, “The idea that critics might report the audience response is meaningless. Even the most ludicrous fiascoes I saw as a drama critic—the plays and musicals no one remembers that closed in a weekend—received standing ovations at press performances because the producers stacked the house with friends and backers.”

Additionally, the filmgoers most likely to deride criticism are also those least likely to pay it any attention. “The people who say [that criticism is worthless], they’re only interested in going to see Iron Man anyway,” said Atkinson. “They don’t give a shit if one critic liked it and one critic didn’t, they’re going to go anyway. They’ve been trained from the cradle to obey the marketing instincts, the Pavlovian bell of the commercials. Criticism isn’t for people like that. Criticism is for people who like to read, because it’s reading.” Though the “popcorn crowd” demographic might be the majority of today’s filmgoers, critics will only debase themselves and their profession by flattering the tastes of these viewers. These filmgoers are going to ignore criticism no matter what critics write, so there is no point in trying to curry their favor.

Insightful critics alert us to works of art we might not become aware of otherwise. Perhaps the most famed instance of this is Pauline Kael’s championing of Bonnie and Clyde that almost single-handedly returned the film to theaters and made it a classic. But less well known examples abound in the history of criticism, such as Andrew Sarris’ appreciation of Fassbinder and Susan Sontag’s early admiration of Godard’s films in the 1960s. Would we be better off if all these critics had been silenced? The surest way for criticism to become truly irrelevant would be if it became even more like the marketing operations of studios. Instead of attempting to appease filmgoers, critics should attempt to antagonize and challenge us at every possible opportunity. If the faltering economic situations at print publications mean critics will continue to lose their jobs regardless of what they write, critics should at least go into that not so gentle night screaming. Criticism is at its best when it’s telling us all the reasons why we are wrong.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUN 2008

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