"Great film criticism has been devoured by its ugly kid sister, the film review..."
A few weeks ago, a friend and I went to see the revival screening of Funny Girl at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. About halfway through the screening, a line from John Simon's review went darting through my mind. I hadn't read the article in years, but one of his observations had stayed with me, as being both particularly insightful and well-phrased. The moment I arrived home, I called my friend and read him the review. It was funny, as most of Simon's writing about Barbra Streisand can be, but also dead-on accurate. In just a few sentences, he captured not only his personal distaste for the actress (and the reasons why) but also placed her phenomenon in a larger social context. Reading the review aloud to my friend, I was reminded of why it's still fun to read John Simon 30 years after his reviews were published. The writing still crackles, the observations are still potent and there's something personal -- stylish and unique -- about how he approaches writing about a movie. Nobody could ever be mistaken for John Simon -- one sentence in and you know who's at the helm. It's the same experience when you read an old piece by Pauline Kael: You are immediately transported into her way of seeing things, her world and her life all coalesce into great writing about film. At the end of their essays, you felt these critics were writing about things larger than simply a movie -- and that's what keeps them fresh and vital, even when the movie itself is long forgotten.
Film criticism is experiencing a crisis this summer. Some of the most anticipated studio movies were not screened for critics before their release, or were only shown to a select few. Other films were rendered critic proof, opening to huge numbers after receiving lackluster reviews. It's not the first time, of course. Bad movies have performed well in the past -- the marketing and hype of a huge project overwhelming anything in its path. So what makes this summer any different? Why is the profession of film criticism suddenly under threat?
Most writing about the issue has focused on the influence of bloggers and online opinion making. The audience, some say, has taken back the power and decide which films they like on their own. Hundreds of blogs and online websites cater to the desire for people to have their voices heard. To boil down the growing cacophony, sites like Rottentomatoes add it all up and provide a percentage of how many critics liked something and how many didn't -- siphoning a film's success or failure down to a statistic.
But really, what is the difference between a blogger and a critic, other than the fact that someone has been able to convince an editor that they know something about films and filmmaking? The truth is, most "critics" reviewing for newspapers and magazines have no business writing about film. Self-appointed and self-aggrandizing, you can generally sense the vacuousness of the thinking that compromises most of these "film reviews." Why certain people have been deemed worthy of sorting the good apples from the bad ones is pretty much beyond comprehension, and why every paper needs their own "film critic" is equally questionable. I suppose, in a perfect world, there would be some sort of test (like the bar for lawyers) where people writing about film would have to pass a basic level of expertise before they are allowed to put their opinions in print. Frankly, if I was a studio chief or well-known filmmaker, I wouldn't want to be beholden to these amateurs either.
Great film criticism has been devoured by its ugly kid sister, the film review. I personally find it so dull to read what some guy sitting in an office thinks of this performance or that performance, this screenplay or that one -- it all seems dreadfully irrelevant to me. What turned me on about John Simon or Pauline Kael was how they brought films into their own philosophy of life and art -- how it was placed into a larger context. And in doing so, they were as vulnerable as the artists putting their work onscreen, and demanded the same respect. The film review, on the other hand, is simply the process of providing a cursory "authoritative" explanation for an argument (is it "good or bad") that is pretty pointless. There's nothing personal about it -- no glimpse into the soul of the person writing -- just a dashing off of "what I liked and what I didn't." There's rarely any comparison to other art forms or placing of the film in a social or political context. It's as colorless as a studio coverage form, a checklist of "what worked and what didn't" with a few snarky turns of phrase tossed in the mix. They never really "say" anything, and it's hard to imagine any critic writing today publishing a compilation of their work 20 years from now, because their writing is only about the movie.
I suppose the question for me has always been, "how did the movie affect you" versus "is it a good movie?" Sometimes a movie that's important might not be pleasurable to me, or a movie that's memorable or artistic or unique might be something I'd never want to see again. There are movies that I think are terrible but I remember a scene or image as having a moment of wisdom. I don't feel qualified to "review" the work of someone who's put years of his or her life into a movie, but I do feel qualified to say how it affected me and why. I think if film criticism is to remain relevant, we need great writers bringing more of themselves into the mix. Perhaps when the audience gets to know their critics, and the critic has something on the line too, they will regain the influence of halcyon days when what a critic wrote really mattered.
Getting Reel is a biweekly commentary about movies and the world.