On Monday morning, the good folks over at IFC reported on a screening at the University of California at Los Angeles of Gerald Peary's documentary about film criticism, For the Love of Movies, which was followed by a q&a with Peary and fellow critics Richard Schickel, Ella Taylor, and John Powers among others. Notably, among the participants there was no one representing online film criticism, as there seldom is in what today constitutes "serious" conversations about the industry. But notwithstanding Schickel's perhaps superficially understandable but no less obnoxious dismissal of documentary participant Harry Knowles based entirely upon his appearance, he and his colleagues essentially recapitulated the same idea that mainstream journalistic outlets have asserted for years: print criticism may be dying, but it's still a thousand times better than online criticism.
Schickel, who is now retired, wrote for more than 40 years, and provided criticism through enough epochal times in movie history to earn a sense of incredulity at the current state of his chosen field. But his and others' deliberate ignorance of online criticism and the relevance of the medium only further underscores the fact that it suffers primarily if not exclusively because so few who do it seem to know what it actually means to be a film critic in 2010.
I saw Peary's documentary several weeks ago in anticipation of its screening at the Oxford Film Festival, where I served as a juror in the documentary competition. Not only are its key figures about the number of critics out of work or being downsized painfully out of date – by now they're much worse – but many of his interview subjects are radically different or outright irrelevant as commentators on the process, both personally and professionally. (If it tells you how old some of the material is in the documentary, Roger Ebert, a source of personal inspiration and an icon online, in print and anywhere else, was still speaking with his own voice when he was interviewed.)
So what does it mean to be a film critic in 2010? There are plenty of competent and prolific film writers out there who don't know the answer to this. For example, criticism is not a consumer service, a/k/a a recommendation whether or not somebody should spend ten bucks on Cop Out. At the same time, it is a component of movie marketing, at least insofar as any reporting on a film, even negative, gives that film visibility to the public.
In fact, everything we do as film critics is part of a larger effort to promote movies, be it altruistic or purely monetized. I realize how cynical such an acknowledgment sounds, but it's true. Short of the few filmmakers who make movies simply because they love them and love talking about them, how many actors or celebrities would talk to critics, much less the press at large, if it weren't in their best financial interest to do so? We'd never hear from most of the people in entertainment magazines again.
That however doesn't mean that film critics are in the pocket of the studios, although some of them would certainly be happy to be. No, a film critic's job is to offer an honest and articulate account of their feelings about a film, presumably filtered through some knowledge of filmmaking convention, and in some cases, the interests of a particular readership. Some of us, like I'm grateful to say I think the writers at Cinematical are, are lucky enough to work unfettered by the demands of a niche audience, such as those critics who work for destination sites for fans of certain genres, or resources for families looking for age-appropriate entertainment. But that doesn't make their criticisms less accurate or insightful, even if they are less applicable to the moviegoing public as a whole. Each of us already has undeniable preferences – those reasons we love a certain kind of film and hate another – and such distinctions in print are only a more concrete recognition of the collective eclecticism of people in general.
This seems to be the key difference between most print and online criticism, and it speaks to a cultural shift brought on by the existence of the internet: the awareness of a specific, ever-narrowing audience. With some exceptions, major newspapers and print outlets are required to appeal to a broad enough demographic that their critics effectively write for themselves, and are thus fortified in the belief that they're operating with some sense of artistic purity. A website can, and in order to survive, must tailor its coverage to reach enough of a desired group or demographic that those readers consider that site a resource, and more importantly, keep returning to it. It's no secret that the decline in print journalism is due in no small part to the fact that readers can find exactly what they are looking for – and nothing else they aren't – by looking online at a site that's been designed expressly to satiate them and their appetites.
But the other problem that plagues critics, as much or more than the democratization of entertainment and the media in general, is the judgment and condemnation of other critics. Forget about readers, whose comments at the ends of articles may sting by taking the cheapest shots; it's the incessant backbiting and superiority of self-appointed experts that creates a poisonous and self-destructive atmosphere that basically legitimizes the growing belief among readers and web surfers that no one deserves to be taken seriously. For a community of people who supposedly champion independent thought, it's shocking to see how paranoid and intolerant many critics are of other opinions or viewpoints.
Case in point: as a member of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, I participate in the nomination and voting process that occurs annually to induct new members. Precisely how I got in given my web status remains a mystery (having a great, great sponsor undoubtedly helped), but in 2009 there were critics – ones, I might add, whose opinions and writing I greatly admire – making declarative, shockingly out-of-touch statements like "I will never vote for someone who writes for X site." While I was stunned by the self-delusion of almost any critic who believes the majority of his or her readership doesn't come from the web, what I found more problematic was the tacit acceptance of writers from outlets like Variety and The Hollywood Reporter, precisely because that means the writers are therefore "known." These are some of the brightest and most analytical minds in the field of film criticism, and they're more interested in the perceived pedigree of someone's resume than the caliber or quality of their insights,and candidates are required to supply writing samples.
Meanwhile, there are entire websites themselves devoted to chronicling the infractions of "quote whores," the folks whose names appear most often on movie advertisements. And if you follow the critical community on Twitter or Facebook, there are scuffles almost daily between various writers about etiquette, taste, approach, responsibility, and any and every other aspect of movie writing. But while I have strong feelings about the murky morality of entertainment reporting – don't steal content, cite your sources, etc. – the bottom line is that if you're doing your job in the way you believe it should be done, then the rest doesn't matter. I mean, who cares that someone gets quoted by the studios repeatedly? Or that someone on another site doesn't seem to have a deeper knowledge of cinema than you want them to?
Because the truth is that we're all experts in different things, and collectively speaking, their strengths balance our weaknesses. For every showman and self-promoter on TV or in ads, there's a basement-dweller developing complex, spectacular theories about the language of film itself. There are horror experts whose opinions help shape the direction of the genre, and others who keep it going with their unchecked support and affection. There are guys who know how much money movies are going to make when they're announced, and others who champion them all of the way to the bottom shelf at your local video store. And there are news aggregators who keep people updated with every last little development on the latest project, and folks who update their site twice a week after meticulously researching a single idea and writing a novel-length analysis.
But the bottom line is that believe it or not, every effort fuels our existence, whether people are devoted fully to film criticism in and of itself, or are part of a larger machine that covers the industry as a whole. (And note to older critics who can't believe people both write reviews and cover news, junkets or set visits – if your job ever entailed only one thing, then count your blessings, because you're the exception, not the rule, and it's never going to be like that again.) So, getting back to my original thesis, what does it mean to be a critic in 2010? It means loving movies. It means thinking about why you liked or disliked them, not just whether you did. And it means writing honest, articulate prose describing what you thought of them, whether that prose is academic or deeply personal.
Because the people who will last are the ones who love what they do, suffer through the fools and fakers, and stick it out because that "what they do" means more to them than what other people don't. The more attention that people give the folks that they don't take seriously, the more seriously they eventually will be taken, distracting readers and fellow film lovers not only from your work, but everyone's.
In which case, being a film critic in 2010 means celebrating what you do and what you get to do. Getting past the paranoia and pettiness and most of all the self-righteousness that supposedly protects you from being "like them." Because like it or not, you are like them, Mr. Schickel; a different generation, sure, or a different medium, but a film geek is a film geek whether your area of expertise is Clint Eastwood, Jean Cocteau or Clu Gulager. Besides, any real film critic should know that the worst way to prove that something is truly worthwhile is by trying to convince people that something else is worthless – most of all if it's your opinion that's subject to debate.