It is time to stop whining about the death of film journalism and to start considering ways to resurrect it. Let us first make an assessment of where we stand today. The few coveted jobs in print media are inhabited by ambitious scribblers who are determined to keep their jobs, regardless of moral and aesthetic compromises. For most, this is not difficult, as they possess little original thought in the first place. At best, they are academically astute parakeets, able to digest and regurgitate everything they can amass on any given subject. At worst, they are the toadies of publicists, willing to perpetuate the studio line, whether it is to pan a decent picture like The Lone Ranger (2013) or to praise a mediocre one such as 12 Years a Slave (2013). As most of them are unable to discern a good movie from a bad one, they face no moral dilemma in promoting faulty assessments.
The public, however, suffers from these critics’ inadequacies, as they are left with little means of making their own aesthetic determinations. If they complain that a film has neither a compelling story nor interesting characters, they are assured that such elements are no longer important to a quality picture. They sit in their seats, bored out of their skulls watching George Clooney and Sandra Bullock doing outer space somersaults while talking like teenagers role-playing a video game, then get all excited as Bullock plays eenie meenie miney moe with the control panel, magically returning to the safety of her home planet, and they walk out of the theatre elated, having been told they have had a spiritual experience.
There is a line in Gravity (2013) that takes us back to one of the crucial points in the history of film criticism, a point at which the movie took its departure from the other popular arts and returned to its sideshow origins. As Bollock prepares for her earthbound descent she says something to the effect that whether she makes it home safely or burns up in the atmosphere, it is going to be a hell of a ride. We are reminded of the initial outrage that greeted the imbecility of Star Wars (1977).
Complaints about poor acting and a weak script were answered with the smug assurance that the director meant it to be that way. Thus, inferior movies were justified by, not only the intention of a bad director, but by the interpretation of bad critics, who insisted, “It might not be “Citizen Kane, but it is a hell of a ride.”
During a symposium of critics at Harvard in the late 1980s, John Simon defended his curmudgeonly perspective by insisting that if he repressed the observation that Barbra Streisand looked like a cross between an aardvark and an albino rat, then people of the future would wonder why everybody in the twentieth century was blind to the resemblance. He has a general point, although it may not be necessary to go that far in order to prove one’s keenness of observation. But why has not one critic mentioned that 12 Years a Slave was a remake of a 1984 American Playhouse episode that was based on a memoir that was accused of plagiarising scenes from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin?” And how is it possible that a historical memoir can follow a template for a contemporary movie so closely that every scene and much of the dialogue is predictable?
Even though serious film criticism has virtually disappeared from print media, there is probably a greater wealth of intelligent writing on film than ever before. Unfortunately, the independent minds that should be providing a dictum from which reasonable public opinion may be drawn are not subject to the strenuous discipline of watching and assessing some 200-500 movies a year, which is the onus of the professional film critic. The blogger writes at will on subjects of personal interest, while the professional critic deals with everything that comes his way. Every working day, he must arrive at the screening room as early as 10 am, and then come up with 350 words that are worth reading. Then there are the film festivals, where three to five films must be reviewed every day, most of them so bad that they will never receive a theatrical distribution.
And so the problem lies before us. How can this wealth of critical intelligence that shines so brightly in the intellectual ghetto of academia be given the opportunity and the tools to develop into the sort of critics that are needed to provide a basis for critical thought among those who look to movies for more than just a ride? We need critics, not to tell us what to think, but to moderate the discussion. We also need an aesthetic context in which to ground our views, however they might deviate from the norm. In the blogosphere, debate is not welcome, and adversarial voices are negated by terms such as “troll” or “hater.” We need a new platform, a new acropolis. We have to let go of print media, just as we must accept that 35 MM film is now an anachronism. We must accept the state of the art as it is, as it is becoming; not as it was, and in doing so we must find new arguments for its cultural value. Otherwise, it is in danger of becoming the flotsam and jetsam of a faltering society.
It is up to the film critics of the future to decide whether or not they take themselves seriously. Are they really interested in the relative merits of Man of Steel (2013) to Iron Man 3 (2013), or would they like to explore some of the reasons Nebraska, which appears so authentic on the outside, is one of the most perniciously fake movies of 2013? Are they willing to accept the official word that the character of Llewyn Davis is based on Dave Van Ronk, to whom he bears no similarity, or do they have time and inclination to read Van Ronk’s memoir, “The Mayor of MacDougal Street,” because the job of a film critic involves a lot more than simply watching movies. You also have to read books, study art, go to the theatre, and refine your taste in music.
Finally, one of the most important things is to encounter each film as you would a blind date. Don’t bring any preconceptions with you, and forget about anything you may have heard. Silence your inner voice and pay attention to what is unfolding in front of you. Watch and listen carefully, and keep your eye on the ball.
About the Author
Bill White frittered away his early years as a rock musician in Seattle WA, then moved to Boston, MA, where he wrote, acted, and directed for the theatre, and made experimental films. Returning to Seattle, he became a film and music critic for the Seattle Post Intelligencer until its demise in 2009, after which he wrote a novel and a memoir before retiring to Peru, where he married the beautiful and intelligent Dr. Kelly Edery. Currently, he is making anthropological films in Ilo. Peru, and is writing a volume of short stories inspired by popular songs, as well as continuing his work with Washington historian Paul Dorpat on the chronicling of Seattle’s 1960′s counter-culture through commentary on each issue of its underground newspaper, Helix.