The First Thing We Do, Let’s Fire All the Critics

I’m late to the party as usual, but this bellyache looks like it’s going to stick around for a while: Paid movie critics are a dying breed! The horror! The horror!

(Jim Emerson’s entry on the topic is a good starting point for lots of good reading, as is Sean P. Means’ “Disappearing Critics” feature.)

House Next Door founder Matt Zoller Seitz offered many good points around the time of the Emerson piece:

“I find these days that I’m more likely to find lively writing and original viewpoints on blogs than in print outlets.

“At the same time, though, it’s important to acknowledge that the idea of criticism-as-profession (as opposed to vocation or hobby) has a lot of merit. There’s no way that a blogger who isn’t independently wealthy can cover the full spectrum of current releases as diligently as somebody who’s getting paid to do it, much less be able to get newsworthy film people on the phone for thinkpieces, features, obituaries, and the like, or cover local, regional, national, or international film festivals, as film critics for large and even medium-sized papers have traditionally been encouraged to do (depending on the outlet).

“What we’re seeing here is the passing of a notable and vibrant phase of movie writing. It’ll be replaced by something else, yes, but something very different.

“I think we’re fast approaching the point where criticism will become, for the most part, a devotion rather than a job.”

David Bordwell agrees, but he’s unconcerned:

“People do all kinds of things for love of the doing and for the benefit of strangers. Besides, no one should expect that writing Web criticism will pay the bills. If Disney can’t collect from people who have downloaded Pirates of the Caribbean 3 for free, why should you or I expect to be paid for talking about it? Maybe only idlers, hobbyists, obsessives, and retirees (count me among all four) have the leisure to write long for the Web.”

There’s a reason Bordwell is shrugging: It’s simply not true that newspaper-based film criticism will “be replaced by something else,” as Seitz argued; it already has been, and that’s why professional, local film critics are largely superfluous.

As a result, I can’t get worked up too much. If the increasing number of publications that are canning critics are correct — that cultural arbiters drain resources and do not bolster the bottom line — then why should we cling to some ideal of the “professional critic” at publications geared to the Average American? If, on the other hand, they’re wrong in that assumption — and that distinctive, thoughtful critics bring readers, who bring advertisers — then the pendulum will eventually swing the other way.

But it won’t. General-readership newspapers aren’t the places for good writing about movies; they’re the places for the casual movie fan to get a thumbnail sketch: the box-office chart, the feature story on this week’s blockbuster wannabe, the 700-word star profile, the plot summary disguised as a review — with a star rating, of course. All of those things are available in syndication, and none requires much insight.

As Michael Atkinson wrote:

“[T]he existence of full-time staff film reviewers is a nutty aberration in the history of periodical publishing, just as are (or were) book reviewers and theater reviewers, from a business point of view.”

I don’t agree with Atkinson’s assertion that “it’s not truly a full-time job,” because many good critics make it a full-time job. But he’s right that full-time arts writers aren’t generally a profitable investment for most newspapers.

I’m not dissin’ critics. In fantasies not involving Elizabeth Peña circa Jacob’s Ladder, I count myself among their ranks.

But the reality is that Roger Ebert is an anomaly, a relic (in the best sense!) of a different age in the newspaper business. His tenure and his celebrity (and, bluntly, his health) make it difficult for the Chicago Sun-Times to dump him. More importantly, as the only name-brand critic in the United States, it’s likely that Ebert actually does generate readers and revenue for his employer. But he’s the (and I mean “the sole”) exception.

Why do we so romanticize the professional film critic? Even before the Web, the newspaper should not have been your wisdom-dispenser. If you wanted perspective and insight on current events, you were likely to go to a magazine, not the front section of your local daily. If you wanted great sports coverage, you read a sports-specific periodical rather than your hometown rag’s sports pages. And if you wanted great movie coverage, you found a movie magazine that spoke to you.

Those last three sentences certainly sound quaint, don’t they? I still cherish Sight and Sound and the occasional Film Comment, but the bulk of my movie reading is now online. And the best movie writing is online — idiosyncratic, personal, smart, vibrant, creative, and wise.

Yes, it’s also scattershot, and much of it — even the good stuff — is undisciplined and too long. (We need volunteer editors for our volunteer movie critics.) And as with the decentralization of popular music, the absence of gatekeepers means that there are boatloads of shit. And strong writers without marketing and networking skills don’t get the readers they deserve.

But it’s a great problem to have too much.

So let’s quit bitching about the apparent trend and identify the real issue: When we write obituaries for axed critics, we mourn the individual voice that needs to find a new outlet.

After all, few people would cry if Rolling Stone fired Peter Travers tomorrow. Actually, the party would be at my house.

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