March 26, 2007

Stop the Presses

A look at what's broken in contemporary film criticism -- and how to fix it

By Lewis Beale

(Photo illustration: STV)

Stop the presses! Seems the public isn't paying attention to film critics these days. Movies like Wild Hogs, 300, Norbit, Ghost Rider and A Night at the Museum have been cleaning up at the box office even though the Arbiters of Good Taste -- meaning most critics -- have declared them to be as toxic as week-old pork.

Pardon my yawn. To say this is nothing new is overstating the obvious; do you think Hollywood churned out Charlie Chan or Ma and Pa Kettle movies for decades because they were masterpieces of world cinema? And even though the aggrieved critical class continues bemoaning the fact that the hoi polloi aren't listening (best evidenced by ongoing angry reactions to Variety editor and critic naysayer Peter Bart), I think it's about time the folks who write seriously about film shut up -- or, better yet, redefine what it means to be a critic.

The science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon once noted that "90 percent of everything is crap," which is a good starting point for this discussion. Mass culture is just that -- mass -- and with a limited number of exceptions (Shakespeare, Dickens and Hitchcock spring immediately to mind), for most of history it's been characterized by lowbrow works that have served to keep people's minds off their troubles. There's nothing wrong with this; I think National Lampoon's Animal House is the greatest comedy ever made, and if that isn't raunchy lowbrow crap, I don't know what is.

The issue, however, isn't that it's OK to like junk (well, maybe not Mitch Albom). It's about what it means to be a critic, and what critics should be doing, but aren't. Critics are supposed to share perspective on a work, to think critically. Read some of the greats -- Kael, Agee, Hoberman -- and you realize they have a way of looking at things: a historical and cultural perspective that adds up to an aesthetic world view. They're not reviewers; reviewers tell you what the movie's about. Critics tell you what it means. Get the difference? Critics are not meant to be Masters of the Vox Populi, but people we read for intelligent, reasoned, probing analysis.

So why are so many critics insistent on (and defensive about) tastemaking for the masses? Why are they giving thumbs up and thumbs down, star or numbers ratings and all of those other unnecessary signifiers of the contemporary media scene? Some of this has to do with the proliferation of outlets and the wild-eyed desperation to break through the clutter -- "Look at me! I just gave Wild Hogs zero stars!" Some can be blamed on Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, whose popular TV show and signature thumb ratings captured the public imagination and symbolized the precipitous dumbing down of film culture. Fact is, in a world where everyone has an opinion -- and can both share their own and seek out others online -- respect for critics has taken a severe nose dive. But everyone seems to have forgotten that just because you have an opinion doesn't mean it's well-thought-out. None of the fanboys at Ain't it Cool News, for example, have the same chops as Jim Hoberman or Manohla Dargis. I mean, I love opera, but I'll be damned if I'm going to write a critique of Don Giovanni. I just don't know enough about the genre's subtleties.

Which raises the key question: Why are critics writing about A Night at the Museum anyway? Films like this are absolutely review-proof. It's also old news that people who want to see them couldn't care less what any egghead says about them, and given the massive PR machines behind these films, you'd think a critic's time would be better spent writing about deserving indies, thoughtful foreign releases or Hollywood flicks like Zodiac, with its passionate look at obsession and physical decline, that actually merit an essay. Even the thought of The New York Times wasting space on Norbit gives me the willies, so why bother? What does it prove? And who are they reviewing it for, anyway? Some works just do not warrant in-depth examination or critical mention. Does the Book Review cover every Danielle Steele novel? Or the TV section write about every new program on the Game Show Network?

The bottom line? It's time for some critical triage. Time to weed the crap out of the system and let it find its own level. Maybe let a panel of readers weigh in on the summer blockbusters and Sandra Bullock films. Let a panel of readers tell us whether 300 has what it takes; given the material and who it's playing to, they're as good a guide as anyone. That way our poor, overworked critics can get back to doing what they've been hired for: writing insightful pieces about movies that have something to say -- not parsing Spartan abs or Eddie Murphy fart jokes. Please. Stop the insanity.

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Comments (24)

You had me until the end of this essay, Lewis, and then your logic kind of breaks down a little. If the purpose of a critic is to put art -- pop, crap, and otherwise -- into a larger context, then why *shouldn't* we be be writing about WILD HOGS? Maybe the problem is that too many critics -- myself included, on my uninspired days -- waste the limited space they have writing about matters of "quality." We buy into the system when we start thinking of ourselves as mere consumer guides, tasked to evaluate something like WILD HOGS in terms of how clichéd/ugly/unfunny we think it is, as though it were a car with sticky brakes and faulty power steering. A better way to approach it is just as you say earlier in the piece: with an historical and critical perspective. What is its appeal? What does its appeal say about our lives and times? Why might that be dismaying? How is it part of a larger tradition? And, ultimately, how does it fail to uphold that tradition? It would be a mistake, I think, to ignore movies like WILD HOGS altogether, and remain completely shut off from what the culture at large is up to. Following that path, it would be too easy to get completely lost, and have no idea of how to put even the high art into its proper context.

At the very least, the negative reviews of WILD HOGS and NORBIT serve a positive social purpose, which is to firmly state that the attitudes expressed in those movies (respectively, juvenile homophobia and juvenile sexism) are, let's just say, not OK. Maybe they won't reach the people who qeued up for them on opening weekend, but they'll reach somebody. You undersell the value of a review (or, if you like, a piece of criticism) as a work in its own right. Whether or not it steered people away from (or possibly to) WILD HOGS, AO Scott's review packed more wit and insight into a handful of paragraphs than the movie did into 90-plus minutes. Sure, critics are "people we read for intelligent, reasoned, probing analysis," but can't they also, at least on occasion, be people we read because we enjoy reading them?
Also, Noel's right. If you have any pretensions to understanding the culture, you really need to have an understanding of something like 300. Otherwise you become what Stanley Kauffman (I think) derisively calls a "gentleman critic." Also, let's not pretend that critics are the final arbiter of what gets space and placement. It's not as if the column inches that used to go to "Norbit" would go to multiple disquisitions on "Inland Empire" instead.

Your observations on popular culture, the mass market, Hollywood history and criticism are apt, but let’s look at the context.

For decades some of us never missed and issue of The New Yorker, if only to read Pauline. Still, in the nostalgia for Agee, Kael and the glorious days of film criticism, you should keep sight of a key factor: Kael, Farber, MacDonald, Agee, Sarris, Hoberman, Schiff, Rafferty and most of the best film writers haven't been saddled with writing for daily publications and the responsibility to "review" every major release for a general public. They generally wrote for weekly or monthly publications and could pick and choose which films they cared to cover, usually with far more space available than in one of 8 or so reviews every Friday in the dailies.

David Denby carries the torch with some of the best film thought and film prose around today. I'm thrilled with the level quality of analysis and writing we get from Dargis and Scott in the NY Times Todd McCarthy in Variety and Turan at the LA Times. They are a rare treat of depth, perspective and language in the daily paper world where the assignment is generally – “tell 'em what it's about and (maybe) if you like it, briefly, if you please.”

The problem - at its root - is that the larger audience never wanted analysis, not of Hitchcock, Peckinpah or (excuzez-moi) Jerry Lewis. And the cineastes who did want it have become a vanishing breed over the last 20 years. How many of the great film periodicals of the sixties and seventies survive? We’re not finding the same level of excitement and passion about film – either from the audience or from the filmmakers.

Let's not blame the critics. It's the public (they of the ever-diminishing attention span) who became addicted to the quick fix, the thumbnail, the logline, the snap judgment and the overwhelming proliferation of entertainment “journalism” solely for the purpose of entertainment, without regard to real journalism. And if manipulation of a review in order to campaign to be quoted in a national ad can raise the cache of a reviewer at the Podunk Telegraph, eventually maybe raising that writer’s salary, we can expect more of what the system rewards. Who ever heard of much of the media often quoted in studio ads today?

The great challenge to cinema today is to rediscover the passion that once propelled the filmmakers, the films and those of us who love them.

A weird corollary here is how much easier it is to write (at least for me) about bad major blockbusters and their subtext than the small films that deserve deeper analysis, or just straight-up mediocrities. Contextualizing something like WILD HOGS might be a pain in the ass, but it's easy because movies like that aren't artful about disguising their purpose and meaning. Outright bad films deserve discussion precisely because they don't hide what they say, and the way that the mass public responds to them can reveal unnerving things.

Reviewing dull, banal films like, say, the upcoming LONELY HEARTS, on the other hand, is a major problem. Few will watch them, and the movie itself (and those like it) is the nth recycling of dull tropes interchangeable with other bland works. Once the undistinguished (both thematically and aesthetically) movies start blurring together, how many different times can you re-iterate their mediocrity, either as a statement of taste or contextually? It's all sludge. All movies deserve criticism, of course, but the role of the critic as filter, at a certain level, should not be neglected; at the same time, for me a certain register of film will provoke basically the same review over and over.

Apologies if these thoughts seem disconnected; the coffee hasn't kicked in yet.

"Some can be blamed on Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, whose popular TV show and signature thumb ratings captured the public imagination and symbolized the precipitous dumbing down of film culture." Has Ebert ever written about or spoken out publicly on this topic?

Answers, citings, rumblings, musings, anyone?

RIght on - this article reinds me of a great article in this month's Harpers about the lack of literary criticism - again, lots of reviewers, but very few critics. It's not just probing analysis, but also contextualization, and having something to say, whereas most of todays reviewers are simply writing about the film. I'm not sure I agree with your solution, but I do agree we need more actual critics.

I'm sympathetic to Noel and Sam's defense of the virtues of writing about films like WILD HOGS, yet as a critic, I have very little interest in doing so myself. How does one critique a film like 300 without sounding like Tipper Gore, and why should one bother when much of its audience thinks mindlessness is a virtue in cinema? If Roger Ebert ever said "Action films are good when they're stupid," I can only imagine how much flack he'd get, yet the on-line discussion about 300 I've perused is filled with similar sentiments. I fear that alt-weekly think pieces decrying the sexism of NORBIT, the militarism of 300 or the homophobia of WILD HOGS are simply preaching to the converted - certainly for me, doing so in GAY CITY NEWS or even Nerve.com would be - and the unconverted don't give a damn about film criticism (or even reviews.) I have a limited amount of energy for film writing, and I'd rather spend it directing people towards worthwhile films they might otherwise overlook. My biggest beef with Lewis Beale's piece is that art can exist in places where it doesn't call attention to itself. LET'S GO TO PRISON, a film that wasn't screened for the press and received scathing reviews from the few critics who saw it, was one of last year's most interesting comedies - and in terms of sexual politics, probably the anti-WILD HOGS.

My thanks to Larry Jackson for half-pointing out the obvious riposte to Mr. Beale's piece: critics write about said pieces o' crap because they HAVE TO, not because they choose to. As a practicing critic who enjoys the rare privilege of the latter option, equal amounts of sympathy and scorn go out to daily/weekly colleagues who are FORCED to write about the dreck ('cause otherwise they wouldn't have jobs).

That's no justification, just a motivating factor. I agree with the main point of Beale's piece: most of the "films" that get written about ad nauseam are worth no more than a derisory snort, if not complete ignorance. I feel no need to overwork my nerves shrilly condemning the latest shite that comes down the tubes, but for intelligent critics bound to employment obligations, such is usually the best they can muster - leading to the equally damaging consequence of overrating anything that floats slightly above the surface. Economics rather than aesthetics explains the innumerable "think" pieces devoted to BORAT et al (which became an issue because it was cannily promoted as such). Would that our attention could more often be directed elsewhere.

"Some works just do not warrant in-depth examination or critical mention."

I'm sorry, but there's something seriously amiss in this logic. Remember back in the good old days of the 40s, 50s, and 60s, when the films at the bottom end of a double bill were deemed unworthy of criticism? What did they call those films? Oh, right, they were called B-Films, and some of them happened to have been made by SOME OF THE GREATEST DIRECTORS OF ALL TIME.

Sure, WILD HOGS might be crap. I haven't seen it, but I'm sure it is. But if all the critics of the 50s and 60s subscribed to this logic, then an entire generation of great filmmakers would have been lost to the ages, and we'd all be sitting through our 819th Stanley Kramer Retrospective at MoMA.

We'd have better luck if critics started thinking independently, instead of deciding sight unseen which films are worth writing about and which films are not.

Bilge and Andrew make a few important points. First, this very site actually ran an "in-depth examination or critical mention" of 300, one of the films Lewis namechecks, so I don't know if I agree with that either -- at least with that film. But in the larger context of the piece, I think it makes sense, and it goes back to what Andrew was saying: Critics at The Times or The Voice are literally duty-bound to cover films like Norbit and Wild Hogs. This would be fine if they actually approached them canonically or, at the very least, did not dismiss them out-of-hand.

But judging by these films' showings on Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic, such treatment is the rule rather than the exception. As with their year-end Top 10 lists, many critics relish the opportunity to show off for their colleagues and readers -- in this case, how nasty and dismissive can they be? Such predictability is a waste of good critics' (and certainly all readers') time. Those required to cover glorified B-movies would do their readers well to challenge themselves before moving on to challenge the material -- that's a critic.

film critics are left wing hacks, 100%.
Nobody gives a damn what they think, thank God. Efete pantywaists, most of them.

Bilge's criticism makes no sense. There were critics back then who saved the B-movies from oblivion--the Cahiers crows and Manny Farber among them. I think this piece just questioned whether or not critics should feel obligated to review every major studio release, instead of just reviewing the particularly interesting ones or even the surprisingly great ones. Most of the week's lead reviews, in any major publication, do seem perfunctory.

This piece is well-meaning, but naive on many counts, several of which have been elucidated by other commenters. It has been noted that editorial policy drives what is written about, but it also affects who is hired to write criticism and the expectations for how it will be written. Editors and publishers for some time have favored a consumer-reports style, rather than the sort of essayistic, cultural criticism called for here. It is what most readers have come to expect, and the word counts given to most releases, especially in the weeklies we might expect to provide an "alternative," are just enough to provide basic plot information and a qualitative "go/stay home" spiced with some clever verbiage. It has been this way for some time and furthermore, many editors and publishers purposely hire reviewers who know little about film on the basis that they will be more in tune with public taste.

Now consider what happens to the critical faculties of someone hired expressly because he or she doesn't particularly care about film as an art form to begin with, but who is nevertheless professionally obligated to see crap week after week; and do remember, this is a JOB. It doesn't keep you in touch with the tastes of the public, who do not see two or three films a week (regardless of quality) and certainly aren't required to do so to make a living. And I think there's abundant evidence that it doesn't necessarily turn you into Andrew Sarris, J. Hoberman or Manhola Dargis either.

It's also tremendously narrow-minded, if not ignorant of the history of film criticism to say that some films are unworthy of being written about at all. Again, it mostly depends on who is doing the writing and what that person sees in the work, and nothing to do with putative quality. Spend a little time reading Hoberman, for instance, and you'll find some great cultural criticism written on the occaision of seeing films that he obviously finds terrible. Ironically sometimes an awful movie is worthy of more critical thought after screening than was evidently put into making it. Have most of the people making easy jabs at "Norbit" actually seen the film? Yes, it is horrible. And on certain psychological and cultural levels, it's also kind of astonishing.

The point is that one man's "crap" is another man's masterpiece, regardless of the circumstances of its production and/or distribution. I can easily see someone making this same argument in the 50s or 40s, saying "Why are critics even bothering to review the latest John Wayne Western or the latest domestic melodrama?" The real issue is that at the precise point that critics became celebrities, people suddenly began expecting them to parrot back to the masses their own tastes. I'm all for critics writing about the films they find interesting, but when loaded words like "triage" and "films that have something to say" begin getting tossed around, the argument becomes counter-productive and silly. BLOOD DIAMOND had "something to say," but give me THE DESCENT any old day. Oh, and I liked the Sandra Bullock movie, too.

Bilge hit the nail on the head. Critics do not have some intuition on what is crap and what may be dismissed offhand before they even watch the films in the question. It is a laughable notion that Shakespeare, Dickens and Hitchcock are the only authors of mass entertainment later to be elevated to the status of critical darlings. Audience members, tired, working people with broader knowledge of film than the average person, may desire the luxury of arrogance and elitism, dismissing what they take at first glance to be worthless. But film critics review for an audience, and they have a responsibility to the public who seeks their expertise, for which they are compensated, to watch what is out there and provide criticism and commentary of it. Not only may critics reveal the full extent of bad films badness, placing them in a wider socio-political context, but also find and point out the hidden gems which arm-chair sophisticates may very well gloss over if given to their prejudices.

Agreed with Bilge. Indeed, the whole concept of "review proof" is suspicious to me. Show me a serious critic who defines their job as merely a symptom of box office (affective or not), and I'll show you a ... publicist. Sorry, folks, but NORBIT will still be a shitty movie long after the producers who got rich on it are dead. What critics do is forever.

Box office has everything to do with it -- why do you think Lumenick/Emerson/Kenny went to war on Peter Bart? They were more preoccupied with how far 300 and Ghost Rider fell off in week two then they were in qualifying reviewing 300 and Ghost Rider. It's all about who's right. These are guys with talent and audiences and credibility, and they should have taken that time and space and written something on Air Guitar Nation or something everyone loved (check RT) that is really going to die in theaters. Don't say its institutional, either, like their editors won't let them, because editors aren't standing over these guys' blogs telling them to pull a million words on their existential crises.

"Sure, WILD HOGS might be crap. I haven't seen it, but I'm sure it is."

Umm, how many people have actually seen WILD HOGS? I'm wondering because I've heard reports that an awful lot of tickets sold for WILD HOGS were bought by teens who then snuck into the R-rated 300. The same thing happened exactly seven years with SNOW DAY, when legions of young girls bought tickets to that abominable movie so they could sneak into Leonardo DiCaprio's post-TITANIC skin-fest, THE BEACH.

Wild Hogs opened with 39 mil and collected 49 mil in seven days before 300 even opened. Thats huge box office and proves it was sellng tickets before the alleged anecdotal theater hopping.

Actually, I was substitute teaching the morning that 300 opened, and I could not believe the number of high-school students who stumbled in late, bleary-eyed because they had gone in large groups to see the midnight premiere of 300.

I'd have a hard time believing their parents accompanied these kids to this showing.

When I've had to review really awful things that really didn't deserve to be noticed, let alone analyzed, my dream review was always "It's a turd" and nothing else, but it's hard to build a layout package around a three word sentence.

Hey, Lewis:

First, I'm not complaining about Bart's column because he's attacking critics, but because, if that was his intention, he did so for the wrong reasons. His logic is all twisted (as I attempted to show) -- and he even goes further later in his piece when, after saying that kids don't care about critics and critics aren't "in touch" with the pop culture that produces the "popcorn" movies kids like, he suddenly turns around and says: "Yet clearly a lot of filmgoers would like to be entertained in the post-Oscar period as well, and they deserve better than they are getting."

Your "triage" idea is a great theory, if impractical. How do we know what's worthless ahead of time? As others have pointed out, from a critical perspective the horror film "The Descent" is far more interesting and worthy of analysis than, say, Best Picture winner "Out of Africa." My guess is, in the right hands, "300" (which, by the way, got mostly positive reviews, although Bart and others are reluctant to acknowledge that fact) or "Norbit" could be the subject of fascinating critical analysis. More about that in Part II of my piece (after I get off review deadlines). But in some ways I think all these movies Bart mentioned are ideal subjects for critical consideration -- if only because I know that, in my own case, I probably wouldn't see them of my own free will. Somebody would have to pay me.

To Larry Jackson: Good point about daily/weekly/monthly/quarterly deadlines. And, don't forget, Kael's New Yorker gig was only for half the year. She alternated with Penelope Gilliat, Renata Adler, and others for half the year's issues.

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