Critics’ Voices Become a Whisper

All in all, it’s been a rotten tomato of a summer for America’s embattled film critics.

by Patrick Goldstein
Los Angeles Times, August 15, 2006

Who says critics don’t matter anymore? The new trailer for Paramount’s upcoming numskull comedy “Jackass: Number Two” is full of quotes from reviews of the first movie. There’s just one tiny twist: The studio uses the vitriolic reviews attacking the first film (“A disgusting, repulsive, grotesque spectacle” says an aghast Richard Roeper) to promote the new picture. With a sly, leering note of triumph, the narrator intones: “Unfortunately for them, we just made Number Two.”

All in all, it’s been a rotten tomato of a summer for America’s embattled film critics. “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” broke box-office records left and right, despite a yowling chorus of negative reviews. M. Night Shyamalan cast Bob Balaban as a persnickety film critic in “Lady in the Water,” then gleefully killed him off, allowing a snarling jackal-like creature to do the dirty deed.

Sony Corp. chief Howard Stringer, asked after the huge opening of “The Da Vinci Code” why the studio kept reviewers away from the film until the last possible moment, merrily quipped, “Nobody ever built a statue to a critic.” Kevin Smith went even further, launching into an obscenity-laced blog tirade after learning that “Good Morning America” critic Joel Siegel had walked out of “Clerks II” in a huff. “Cardinal rule of movie-going—shut your... mouth while the movie’s playing,” Smith wrote. “Leave the drama-queen antics to the movie stars.”

To add insult to injury, studios have released a record number of films this year without any press screenings—two last weekend alone, with another, New Line’s “Snakes on a Plane,” due Friday. Warners also has a no-screening plan for Neil LaBute’s “The Wicker Man,” which arrives Sept. 1.

The media have been full of stories questioning the relevance of print critics in an Internet era that has ushered in a new democratization of opinion. The prospect of babbling blogmeisters being the new kingpins of cinema has left many critics in a sour mood. Reviewing a collection of critical essays by the long-time Village Voice jazz critic Gary Giddins, Time film critic Richard Schickel contrasted Giddins’ work with “history-free and sensibility-deprived” bloggers who regularly “blurb the latest Hollywood effulgence.”

Old-school critics get little sympathy from their Internet brethren. Entertainment Weekly founder Jeff Jarvis, who writes the provocative BuzzMachine media blog, recently suggested that newspapers get rid of their critics, allowing their readers to share their opinions instead. “If I launched Entertainment Weekly today, I hope I’d have the sense not to propose starting a magazine by hiring a bunch of critics.”

It’s no secret that critics have lost influence in recent years. A recent Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll found that among 18- to 24-year-olds, only 3% said reviews were the most important factor in their movie-going decision making. Older audiences still look to critics for guidance, especially with the smaller, more ambitious studio specialty films. But during the summer months, with studios wooing audiences with $40 million worth of marketing propaganda, critics appear especially overwhelmed, if not irrelevant.

For their part, the studios insist critics still matter, but only for adult dramas, not youth fare. Paramount marketing chief Gerry Rich says critical support for “World Trade Center” was invaluable. “They helped address people’s apprehensions and preconceived notions in a way that made them feel it was OK to see the picture.” According to New Line marketing chief Russell Schwartz, “Younger moviegoers want the immediacy of text messages or voice mail. A review from one of their peers is more important than a printed review from a third party they don’t know, which is how they would describe a critic.”

What we’re seeing is not so much the death of criticism as the death of the culture of criticism, the culture in which a critic such as Pauline Kael—despite writing for a small circulation magazine like the New Yorker—could have a huge trickledown influence, not just with the chattering class, but with filmmakers and executives who hung on her every word, either in agony or ecstasy, depending on the verdict.

But today we’re in an era in which shared enthusiasm matters more than analysis, stylistic cool trumps emotional substance. The world has changed. The vanguard filmmakers of the ’60s—the era that spawned our last great generation of critics—were Godard, Kubrick and Antonioni, filmmakers under the spell of the intellectual fervor sparked by existentialism and Marxism. The filmmakers with a youth-culture following today, be it Kevin Smith, Quentin Tarantino or Wes Anderson, are largely ideology free, masters of detachment and stylistic homage. Like their audience, they prefer irony to Big Ideas.

This puts them in perfect sync with the ethos of the Internet, whose great art form is the movie-trailer parody. By nature, the Web favors immediacy and punchy advocacy, not yeasty prose. When I was in film school, I read critics with as much ardor as I watched movies, but intellectual argument plays better on the printed page. I can’t imagine inhaling Manny Farber’s essay, White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art, on a computer screen—it would be like watching “Lawrence of Arabia” on my iPod.

While it’s been marginalizing critics, the Internet has also leveled the playing field. On the Web, old-school credentials carry little weight. We look for a sharp, distinctive voice, not the heft of a master’s degree. When New York magazine was listing music biz influence makers recently, it bypassed Rolling Stone, spotlighting blogger Sarah Lewitinn, saying her Ultragrrrl blog has “more power than any print music critic.”

As Joe Lieberman can attest, the Internet is the ultimate engine of disruptive technology, whether it’s helping liberal bloggers oust a three-term Senate Democrat, downloaders subvert the music business or wide-eyed enthusiasts on Ain’t It Cool News eclipse far more erudite print film critics.

Most old-school critics insist they’re not threatened by the indifference of young readers. “When I was a kid I never listened to an adult, so why should we expect kids to listen to critics who are the same age as their parents?” says New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis. “I had a rich, intellectual life, yet I didn’t read reviews. They weren’t even on my map. The real problem is that even if a kid wants [guidance] today, what they will find, overwhelmingly, is noise about celebrities and meaningless numbers indicating what big movie ‘won’ the weekend box-office. Who talks about film as something greater than a vehicle for celebrity and consumerism? Very few, I think.”

The biggest knock I hear about critics is that they are out touch with average moviegoers, a charge often leveled when films battered by bad reviews go on to make loads of dough. “I’m sorry, but we’re not supposed to be applause meters,” says Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan. “If you wanted to go to a restaurant for a special occasion and someone said, ‘Why not go to McDonald’s? More people go there than any other place.’ Would that really be enough to convince you?”

I’ve learned too much from critics over the years to want to get rid of them, as ’Net populists like Jarvis seem to suggest. But I do think newspapers, if we want to ever develop any following with younger readers, must do a better job of making our critics’ voices more relevant and immediate. If we don’t champion our critics, who will? We need to reinvent their roles to combat the $40-million mass-hypnosis marketing that occurs every weekend a big movie opens. If I were king I would firmly plant our critics in the new media world with blogs and podcasts, allowing them not only to have more of a dialogue with readers, but extend their influence by addressing timely topics.

If Variety reports, as it did Friday, that “Batman Begins” director Christopher Nolan is near a deal to remake “The Prisoner,” the ultra-cool ’60s TV series—I’d love to know what our critics think. Good idea? Or just as lame as using Led Zeppelin to peddle Cadillacs?

We need to get our critics up to ’Net speed. If studio marketers can spend weeks bombarding moviegoers with 30-second spots to glamorize their product, why should our reviewer almost always hold fire until opening day, long after most of the audience has formed its opinion, not to mention after most bloggers have had their say? We never let studios tell us when to run news stories or schedule feature pieces, so why defer to their preferences when it comes to running reviews? If the studios squawk, we can always review their marketing campaign, which would probably be a treat for readers and, in all too many instances, allow us to write about something far more interesting than the movie itself.

For now, critics seem to take solace in the old maxim—whatever doesn’t kill you will make you stronger. “I don’t mind being an authority figure, but I like the idea of having to earn it,” says the Wall Street Journal’s Joe Morgenstern. “More than ever, if we want to enjoy our status, we’ve got to have something original to say. I think it’s good for a critic to have to stay on his toes.”