Is film criticism dead?

Informed critics are losing the battle against junket whores and TV thumb turners

Film criticism lost a symbolic voice last month with the death of flinty, influential critic Pauline Kael at age 82. Though it has been some 10 years since Kael wrote about cinema at The New Yorker, her mere existence lent weight to film’s status as an art form worth getting hot and bothered about.

Whether one liked Kael’s two-fisted prose or agreed with her set-in-stone opinions, she at least stirred up controversy and opened a dialogue on the topic. In an age of critical bet-hedging, when an urge to spot the next trend, defend mediocre Hollywood product, go along with the critical consensus or appeal to one’s audience/employer is the order of the day, few critics have the bite, the ferocity, the assurance of opinion and a willingness to offend — qualities that Kael, perhaps more than any other critic, possessed.

Kael’s death inspires concern about her profession’s future and the sorry state of criticism left in her notoriously wide wake. It’s hard to shake the feeling that film criticism, once the domain of writers like Kael, Francois Truffaut, James Agee, Andrew Sarris and Paul Schrader, has become the province of ninnies, dopes and studio stooges who manufacture accolades in some twisted bid for celebrity or power or social acceptance.

Increasingly, critics are intellectual fluffballs, laughably out-of-touch like the prisspot Michael Medved, wrinkling his nose at the modern Babylon of the Hollywood machine. Either that, or they’re effusive popcorn-imbibers enthroned in their velvety maroon perches like Roger Ebert, whose imperial turn of the digit offers either the mortal blow of economic doom or a boost into the celestial heavens of killer box office and Academy Award contention.

Lesser known are the left-of-center, idiosyncratic prose-crafters like J. Hoberman, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Dave Kehr and B. Ruby Rich, who are knee-deep in the love — and more rare, scholarship and history — of movies. They and their ilk slave away at the nation’s alternative weeklies; egghead periodicals like Film Quarterly, Cineaste and Film Comment; or esoteric websites like Bright Lights Film Journal and Images: A Journal of Film and Popular Culture.

Even critics with the confidence and a supportive enough paper to go against the grain are facing an increasingly bleak future. After five years working at the New York Daily News, highly respected writer Dave Kehr was sacked. His enthusiastic endorsement of foreign films reportedly alienated the corporate powers at the News, and Kehr has since found work writing capsule reviews for the Citysearch website.

As he recently told critic Steve Erickson in an online interview, “My experience lately has been that editors don’t want ‘experts.’ ‘Populism’ has become the buzzword. They want standard Joes who won’t have some ‘pointy-headed’ reaction and just want to flop out on the couch before movies or TV.”

“Publishers, more and more, want to give readers bite-sized, innocuous information about film rather than any kind of critical point of view,” critic Godfrey Cheshire told the online film magazine Senses of Cinema in the wake of his recent dismissal from his post at New York Press, where he’d worked since 1990.

“There are fewer places for critics to write where real criticism is called for.”

Peter Keough, editor of the National Society of Film Critics anthology Flesh and Blood and a film reviewer at the alternative weekly The Boston Phoenix since 1989, does not see good things on the horizon for film criticism.

“I think it’s been reduced not only to a marketing tool, but also to a kind of passive, knee-jerk response, so that the whole idea of thumbs-up, reducing opinions to quotable, cliched blurbs has taken the place of any kind of in-depth, intelligent act of involvement in the criticizing process.”

Keough is an increasing rarity in film circles, where “expertise” is more and more an ability to take notes in the dark. He studied film and writing at the University of Illinois in Chicago with such notable academics as Linda Williams and Virginia Wright Wexman, whose more theoretical approach to cinema greatly influenced his critical voice. But few mainstream critics today have even a cursory grounding in film scholarship, history, theory — or even a cursory knowledge of silent, foreign or avant-garde film.

Along with a general lowering of standards in film writing have come economic concerns that have led to axing reviewers and decreased space for reviews, something Keough has experienced at his own paper.

“For various reasons — the change in design at our paper, the different pressures of advertising and the overall shrinkage of space that we have here at our paper — the amount of space that I have to write about films has reduced drastically,” Keough says. The kind of lengthy, informed writing that has helped establish film as an artform, a form of social commentary and an expression of the cultural climate, is less common.

Rosenbaum, film critic at The Chicago Reader since 1987 and author of Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Conspire to Limit What Films We Can See, says critics collude with the Hollywood hype machine. With more and more studio money going toward trumpeting big-budget releases, critics are subtly guided toward what is worth writing about and what isn’t. Where critics once searched out and heralded obscure and neglected directors or small, forgotten art films — as Godfrey Cheshire has done with Iranian cinema, or J. Hoberman with Yiddish films or Rosenbaum with the films of Orson Welles — the newest trend is to hype any film phenomenon that comes down the industry pike. As a consequence, smaller idiosyncratic films “get released in a very marginal way,” says Rosenbaum. “So critics treat them in a very marginal way.”

What better evidence for the intellectually vacuous and market-dictated landscape of modern film criticism than the recent semi-scandal of Columbia Pictures’ advertising department using an invented critic, David Manning, to stud their ads for A Knight’s Tale, The Animal, Hollow Man and Vertical Limit with high praise. That hoax only illustrates how critics have become little more than a stepladder to stand on when hanging the garlands for the studio’s next big release. Further proof of film criticism reduced to consumer guide came in a class-action lawsuit filed this July against the major movie studios by California moviegoers Citizens for Truth in Movie Advertising, who believe the studios should disclose how they essentially “buy” favorable press for their films by offering press junkets, meals and gifts to critics.

On junkets, critics are flown to cities like New York or Los Angeles — or in some cases even London or Hawaii — and put up in luxury hotels, their meals and expenses comped, for press screenings and interviews with film stars, all in an effort to garner more favorable opinions of the featured film. Many of the critics whose praise routinely appears on movie ads are known in the industry as junket “whores.” But critics are induced in smaller ways, too. They’re given T-shirts or coffee mugs or CDs related to film releases that on some level suggest the tactics of a school kid trading candy for friendship. Though a coffee mug is hardly enticement enough to encourage a favorable review of a lousy film, such gifts may give large studios that can afford such swag a psychological advantage over smaller, poorer independents, while creating an environment of cozy familiarity between studio and critic.

More depressing than these scandals is the sense that no one especially cares that critics are so often compromised by the money involved in studio films, since film criticism is inseparable for most viewers from entertainment reporting. Also, there is a general inability amongst many viewers to separate hack critics from the established critical voices.

Film criticism, in its best forms, may be increasingly hard to find in newspaper writing, but perhaps the genre is only recreating itself in a new form, as Rosenbaum suggests, on the Internet, at sites such as Senses of Cinema and Cinema Scope, where he says critics are writing impassioned, engaged criticism. “I think people who have things to say can find outlets. Whether they can necessarily get paid for them is another question.”??