Now and Then: What’s the Matter with Film Critics?
The late film critic and author Andrew Sarris
The only genuine surprise of Sunday night's Oscar telecast — varying levels of predictability, misogyny, and self-congratulations being par for the course these days — came during the "In Memoriam" montage, which by definition should be the least surprising moment of all.
It was the inclusion of a film critic. There, somewhere between Ernest Borgnine and Marvin Hamlisch, was legendary Village Voice and New York Observer contributor Andrew Sarris, whose essay "Notes on the Auteur Theory" (1962) and book The American Cinema (1968) remain required reading for anyone who wants to write about the movies.
Seeing his name flicker past, I felt a wave of delight, and then, barely identifiable, an aftertaste of regret. Sarris received his due, as Manny Farber and Gene Siskel had before him, and even those viewers who did not recognize the name or had not read the work are tacitly indebted to him every time they refer to a "Quentin Tarantino film" or a "Spike Lee joint." But then I remembered, as I often do these days, that Sarris was a holdout from another era, a time "when critics mattered."
Lost amid the Oscar scramble was yet another month of bad news for film critics, with Criticwire's Matt Singer the collator-in-chief. Nick Pinkerton left the Voice with a lovely take on Sarris and a less-lovely description of Voice Media Group ("a dumb, wanton, soulless, and wicked corporate entity"). Lisa Schwarzbaum bid adieu to Entertainment Weekly, after more than two decades, by way of a graceful refutation of her detractors. Sarris' successor at the Observer, Rex Reed, embarrassed himself with an ugly takedown of Melissa McCarthy. To the list of people who think film critics have mostly outlived their usefulness (the Rotten Tomatoes commentariat, Kevin Smith), we added Steven Soderbergh, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Ken Loach.
"The Death of Film Criticism" is a tiresome topic, and the reasons for the current emphasis on this eternal hobble toward the grave — almost as old as the form itself — are legion: the decline of print, the rise of bloggers, the proliferation of movies, multiplexes, "infotainment," "snark." What is curious about the spate of stories cited above is that their target is not film criticism, but film critics. We are, to quote from this small selection, "stupid," "easily fooled," "gone in 60 seconds," "an age old idea gone bad." Which begs the question: why the ire?
It's all too easy to blame the vitriol on the anonymity of the Internet. Like most critics I've been subject, when I've praised a controversial film ("The Help") or panned a popular one ("The Dark Knight Rises"), to bizarre personal attacks: called a "racist," told to calm down and "smoke a joint," accused of shilling for the president. But more often the words are kind, the disagreements well reasoned and sincere. Anyone who follows Roger Ebert's Twitter feed knows that he elicits extensive, engaging debates on his blog all the time.
“For the Love of Movies” director Gerald Peary, with narrator Patricia Clarkson
Consider this a plea, and perhaps a prescription, that we critics stop worrying about those who dismiss us and just embrace the work. Online or on paper, from the mightiest veterans to the most astute greenhorns, the field is rich with ideas.
The next step is to start talking more, and even fighting — not with our readers, but among ourselves. As Sarris knew, criticism at its best is a conversation, often a good-naturedly combative one. The "dialectic" he forged with Pauline Kael, he admitted in Gerald Peary's excellent documentary "For the Love of the Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism" (2009), made both of them better. Write to tell me I'm wrong, and why, or why I'm right for all the wrong reasons.
We don't need to dispense with quick hits to keep the conversation going. As Scott Foundas taught me, the 250-word capsule review is infinitely more difficult to construct than the extended essay. But the short pieces should be just as argumentative, ambitious, unusual, and challenging as the long ones. (Buzzfeed, I'm looking at you. One-liners and GIFs do not constitute "criticism," certainly no more than Rex Reed's awful fat jokes or thin-skinned Twitter tirades.)
Let entertainment business reporting make sense of film as an industry, and let the celebrity culture that supports it — red carpets and after-parties, star turns and scandals — continue in its tenuous grip on reality. Don't lose sight that what we do is distinctive, and valuable. Criticism holds out the possibility of separating subjective quality (of the work) from objective quantity (of the money), of understanding the star system as a constellation of personas as much as it is persons and keeping a wary distance. The only people who can save criticism from dying its thousandth death are the critics themselves. The rest is noise.
Leave the bragging, complaining, and defensive name-calling to others, and remember Sarris' enduring legacy: that it's the smart, the difficult, and the sometimes-enraging that'll still be kicking around in fifty years. Trying to please some amorphous audience is the surest way to become irrelevant. Or, as Don Draper so wisely put it, "Just so you know, the people who talk that way think that monkeys can do this."
Clearly, critics do still matter, even as the zeitgeist (and with it all the particulars of how we write) changes. If people didn't care, they wouldn't take the time to read and remark, whether spirited, mean-spirited, or senseless. If people didn't care, critical support couldn't set the table for the Oscars — featuring admired, little-seen movies like "Amour," "Beasts of the Southern Wild," and "The Master" alongside admired hits like "Lincoln," "Life of Pi," and "Argo" — even if the winners are bound to disappoint someone. If people didn't care, we'd all already be out of a job.
It's high time we admit that our readers may be on to something. The problem isn't the idea of film criticism. It's us.
By Matt Brennan