A Plea to the Film Critics of Tomorrow

the lone ranger film criticIt 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.”

12 years a slave film criticDuring 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.

gravity film criticIt 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.

29 thoughts on “A Plea to the Film Critics of Tomorrow

  1. First off I would like to say fantastic blog! I had a quick question that I’d like to ask if you don’t mind.
    I was curious to know how you center yourself and clear your head before writing.
    I have had a hard time clearing my thoughts in getting my ideas out there.
    I truly do enjoy writing but it just seems
    like the first 10 to 15 minutes are wasted simply just trying to figure out how
    to begin. Any ideas or tips? Cheers!

    • i stay in bed and think about what I will write. Then I formulate my opening paragraph. finally I rush to the kitchen. prepare two cups of strong coffee and write that first paragraph while the coffee is brewing. Then I drink the coffee and get to work. When I am all out of idourteas, I stop writing. The key is to do your thinking before you start writing so that all your thought is on the expression of your thoughts, not their formulation. If there is nothing in your head, there will be nothing on the paper.

  2. BILL! Somehow escaped me that you were over here at Curnblog. I love your scathing tone and appreciate your acumen. For now, I will say I enjoyed your comment about disregarding the critic and suggestion to see a film without preconceptions. I don’t claim to be a film critic and prefer considering films and why they mean something to me –not so much advocating why they are great or suck. I like how a film makes me feel. There’s a generational component to what is good or bad. I do love learning about film and your experience and opinions are entertaining to consider. You are a graceful, articulate writer, even if we disagree.
    Oh, I did want to ask you: What you would consider to be five perfect films?

  3. Sometimes, the best thing about running a site from Australia with a large international following is waking up in the morning to read the comments. A great post and discussion – I at least partially agree AND disagree with the post and all the comments. But that would seem to be part of the fun!

    • the comments are a big part of the fun. ideas are not such finite things that it is enough to either agree or disagree with them. the whole point of sharing ideas is to set off a chain reaction of more ideas, and to enjoy them all.

  4. Hey Bill, just wait til I tell A.O. Scott what you just wrote!! I couldn’t begin to address half of the issues raised here because I’d have to take a vacation day to do it. But love the way you stir the pot! I’m glad I’m not a professional film critic–500 films a year when you know that so much of it is going to be disposable product? I think my skull would cave in after about three months. On my own site, I keep it narrowed down to mostly docs and music-related films because that’s what I love and have focused my learning on. Good advice for future film writers–specialize! I do think you’re being a bit hard on some worthy commercial movies like Nebraska and Gravity. High standards are fine but can’t preclude everything. Sometimes “it’s only rock & roll but I like it” as they say. Well, back to work…

    • Hi Rick, I just saw a good doc…”let the fire burn.” have you seen it yet? specializing is a smart move. five years ago, a friend was monotonously blogging on every movie he saw at a film festival. then he wrote something with insight on a silent film. i suggested he cut the crap with the stuff he didnt know much about and stick with the silents, as there werent many people writing about them. today he has developed a reputation as the city’s premier silent film historian. i didnt mean to come down hard on gravity. it just seemed like a good example of a movie that a lot of people who didnt really like it that much were echoing its praises. if more critics had panned it, fewer people would have felt obligated to pretend they liked it.

      • “Let the Fire Burn” is airing soon on PBS, so I’m waiting on that, sounds like a great one. And yeah, point taken on “Gravity.” I did flinch when she had that line, “hell of a ride.” Like the film was writing its own review

  5. I think Arnheim’s timing is key. In 1935, the pictorial quality of cinema was quite bad. There were exceptions. I think Lang and Lubitsch were ahead of their time, but in general all the innovation that had taken place from Lumiere to Gance was wiped out by synch sound. I don’t know if we are in the midst of another technological revolution — the broad spectrum of CGI — which will require recalibration of our critical compasses. But what concerns me more has nothing to do with technology. I fear that multiple generations of film makers and critics alike now look to cinema as their primary life text book. I admire Quentin Tarantino’s facility with dialogue quite a bit, but I find it disappointing that his prodigious talents haven’t taken him farther. And it may because real life does not provide him with dramatic references. Cinema does. Based on your response to Simon, I expect you will find much affinity with Hoberman.

    • I agree that sound was a major setback for the movies, and believe that 1929 was Hollywood’s finest hour. I can’t agree with you on Tarantino’s dialogue. In fact, I find nothing of value in his efforts. He strikes me as a total idiot and incompetent. I do, however, agree that cinema has replaced life in the reality factor of too many people. Im not crazy about Simon. But I admire his originality of thought, and can often see his point even when disagreeing with it. The critics i admired most were Stanley Kauffman and Judith Crist.

  6. A very divisive article! Though I was a bit shocked to hear you call “12 Years a Slave” mediocre. I haven’t seen the 1984 American Playhouse episode you refer to, but since when is a movie’s (or anything, for that matter) allusions to existing material grounds for its dismissal? However, I will agree with your comment about “Nebraska” being “perniciously fake” – I suspected as much from the trailer, and never bothered with seeing the movie itself.

    From my vantage point, it seems that many film critics are people of average intelligence who aren’t very interested in making critical observations about a film. It frustrates me when critics are lauded for watching 500 movies a year, especially if their accompanying reviews are just mediocre. I’d prefer to read 10 outstanding film reviews, than 100 average ones—even if the average ones are easier and quicker to read.

    As for not bringing any preconceptions to a film…. well, I think that’s pretty much impossible.

    • Alina, It is the job of a critic to create the buzz on a film, not to echo it. Since press screenings are held in advance of the film’s release, it is entirely possible to go into the screening without any preconceptions, but only if one avoids reading advance garbage that originates from publicists and such. Johnny Depp accused the critics of killing The Lone Ranger, but those critics were merely parakeeting the word from on high that was sent to kill the picture. As for seeing 500 movies a year, i dont see the critics being lauded simply for going to work every day. i averaged some 100 reviews a year, but had to see between 500-700 in order to keep up with what was happening. Regarding 12 Years a Slave, it was the poor acting and cinematography that added up to mediocrity. The references to the television version and the memoir were simply historical footnotes.

      • Would you mind linking to your full review of 12 Years a Slave? I find your comments about the acting and cinematography astounding, and would like to see those criticisms in context.

        I don’t know why reading “advance garbage” would irrevocably corrupt a theoretical film critic, especially if the critic in question recognizes it for the garbage that it is. There’s something admirable about being able to wade through the zeitgeist of popular opinion to arrive at your own (somewhat) unique ones. Besides, even if all you know is the name of the director, or the two top-billed actors, then that brings another set of preconceptions. We judge films based on their titles alone, sometimes! And how about one’s personal philosophy/politics/beliefs about how the world works? Are those not also preconceptions that EVERY person brings with them to the cinema, regardless of whether they are film critics? “Objectivity” is an idealistic abstraction, not a reality.

        • I retired from film criticism in 2009, when the paper for which i wrote, the Seattle PI, went out of business, so I have no review of 12 years a Slave to share with you. I can say, however, that I thought the actors were playing from a modern, not a period, perspective, and that the cinematography, while impressive in its own right, was ill-suited to both the time and the place in which the story was set. I might add a note on the script. it seemed very implausible that the young woman would be picking 500 pounds of cotton a day when everybody else was averaging between 50-100 pounds.

          Preconception is what one brings into the screening room before the start of the picture. The critic generally sees the picture well in advance of the public, so has the option of going in cold, without any preconceptions. sure, once the picture begins, and the credits appear, the critic begins to form attitudes towards the pictures, but these are not preconceptions. They are the result of the encounter with the picture that has now begun to unfold. Too many critics read everything available about a picture before going into the screening room, which makes it impossible for them to do their jobs as critics, as they cannot encounter the picture with fresh eyes. The public, of course, chooses what they want to see based on critical reports and publicity hype, so they cannot avoid having pre-conceptions.

          You mention objectivity, but it was never my intention to suggest a critic could be a completely objective observer. The subjective, as well as the sub-conscious, mind is always at work during the screening. Were it not, reviewing a picture would be no more than one machine grading another machine.

          • It’s hard to have no preconceptions about a picture, no matter what its source is. And I think the critic often has preconceptions, too. You may be the exception, but you’ve certainly formulated opinions — and what critic hasn’t formulated an opinion of a director, performer, cinematographer, subject, etc., unless the film is totally new and without precedent? You say Tarantino strikes you “as a total idiot and incompetent”; I can’t believe that your assessment of his work didn’t come into play when you were reviewing his movies. We’re in an age when everyone has preconceived notions … and it’s because we’re bombarded with opinions in various media, including the Internet. We can’t escape them.

            • If you walk into a screening room without knowing what movie you are about to see, then you walk in without preconceptions. My point here is to rebuke the critic who reads everything available on the film he is about to review and then, when writing the review, liberally makes use of all this material in lieu of using his own senses.

  7. This is a very interesting article, Bill, and very well written … and as usual, I completely disagree with you. 😀 I’m going to take issue once again with negative personal conceptions of film critics in print media; noting they’re “at best, academically astute parakeets” and that most “possess little original thought” is a vast generalization and, in my opinion, unfair to the legions of pundits who have something valuable to say. They do exist, believe me, and although I may not agree with many of them, I’m not keen on making personal judgments about their intellectual capacities. Instead, I reserve judgment for their opinions. It is true that oftentimes advertising may dictate content, but that’s the way most commercial news outlets operate. You’ve got to give people a bit of credit for having a brain and figuring out for themselves whether a film’s good, regardless of what the critic thinks. That’s certainly what I do.

    I also disagree with the idea that print is dead and that we need to find a new medium for film criticism. Print and the blogosphere, in my opinion, operate on different planes, like science and religion, yet still find a way to coexist. I may be old-fashioned, but I don’t see the daily newspaper going away any time soon. (This is probably why I’m not a publisher!) Yes, advertising often drives content — and advertising has been down for a while — but somehow they keep producing copies … perhaps in spite of themselves. Maybe one day in the future we’ll be fully electronic, but there’s something to be said about holding a newspaper in one’s hand, and I think there’s value in that.

    Now I have to remark on the tough life of a film critic … a life in which one must “arrive at the screening room as early as 10 am” (the horror!) and write about the movies viewed. Surely, there are other occupations more grueling than this? A great family friend who was a widely known theater critic had to see a lot of terrible productions, but he didn’t lament his life; nay, I believe he even called it “rich.” I think a lot of people would be very happy in that role, and suggesting its difficulty doesn’t ring true to me. Perhaps you feel that way; I don’t.

    Finally, and this may seem trivial in light my other comments, I disagree with your assessment of Nebraska, which — though perhaps not deserving of all the accolades thrown upon it — was hardly “perniciously fake,” in my opinion. I’m curious as to why you used those words; I found it quite good and rather sad, but definitely not fake. In fact, I felt it was heartfelt, and while it wasn’t the most moving picture, it had a voice and perspective on aging that, to my mind, made it worthwhile. Still, this is just my opinion, and it obviously differs from yours.

    • You bring up several points here, which i shall try to address. First, my opinion of the current crop of critics is based on my experience of being one of them for over a decade. On one occasion, a screening was received with the utmost negativity by the critics in attendance, most of whom subsequently wrote positive reviews after the glowing notice given the film by the New York Times. If this isnt an example of parakeeting, I dont know what is. You cannot imagine the frustration of trying to hold conversations with such people, these intellectual hypocrites without an original thought in their heads, who can reel off endless facts but go blank when asked a question on a subject they have not thoroghly researched. Of course, there are exceptions, such as the brilliant Richard T. Jameson, former editor of Film Comment, and his wife Kathleen Murphy. I did not write this article to rag on the dregs who remain in print, but to warn future critics of falling into their errors. There are legions of smart people with original thoughts who encounter the world and its artifacts in a manner true to their selves, and they are the ones whom hope will become the future critics after this degenerate period passes away. Many are already writing, but they are not the ones holding down the jobs in the print media.

      I am not complaining about the tough life of a film critic, only saying that it is tough, and that it is this discipline that separates the critic from the blogger. The first thing a professional critic learns is that the least important thing about his review is whether he likes the movie or not. He is not a film buff or a fanboy who writes primarily to share his enthusiasm, but a trained observer who subjects the film under observation to a series of aesthetic considerations that finally lead to the pronouncement on the film’s qualities or lack thereof. I do know of at least one critic who has admitted to me that he will give a good review to a bad film that he likes and a bad review to a good film that he doesnt like. It is this type of critic that is the object of my scorn.

      People do not need critics to tell them what is good and what is bad. Each individual must make up his or her own mind on that. Critics are needed to open up the discussion of a film’s quality beyond the parameters of a publicist’s propaganda. My impression that Nebraska is perniciously fake should cause the reader to ask, “Is nebraska perniciously fake?” In your case, the answer is no. I dont ask that you agree with me, simply that you ask yourself the question. if the idea were not raised, the question would not be asked, and there would be no reflection or discussion on the possibility of phoniness in the picture.

      Finally, whatever direction media takes in the future, and whatever direction film takes as a form of art or entertainment, I only hope that there will be room for everybody to put in their two cents, and that debate will flourish. it is not so much what we think that is important, but how we think, and that we as a species continue to use reason and imagination in our encounters with all that we bump up against.

      • There’s a great line in Mel Brooks’ 1968 original of The Producers where Leo Bloom reacts strongly to Max Bialystock’s suggestion that they do away with all the actors, suggesting that they’re human beings. “Oh, yeah,” Max retorts, “did you ever eat with one?” All joking aside, I still think it’s fallacious to ascribe a personal trait generally to a profession rather than individuals; you mention one example of parakeeting, but that’s just one example — and it doesn’t preclude the review I saw in today’s New York Daily News panning Noah despite any conceivable advertising constraints. Critics can be smart, too, and often are. I well knew a brilliant one who definitely thought on his own. And he certainly wasn’t an “intellectual hypocrite” nor a product of any “degenerate period.” (What a strange thing to say; if this is a degenerate period, give me excess of it!) It may be your opinion that the critics you knew and met were vapid, but that’s just a small sampling of the overall group.

        By the way: the blogger can be a critic, too, and need not see 100 to 500 movies a year to do so. In fact, we have many critics following and writing for this site, thank goodness. I’d hardly call any blogger who writes for CURNBLOG a mere “film buff or a fanboy who writes primarily to share his enthusiasm.” We’re a pretty astute bunch, if I may say so myself, and don’t necessarily write to share our enthusiasm about particular films (which isn’t necessarily anathema to the print critic, either). Check out Anthony Pilloud’s review of Lilo and Stitch on this site. If that’s not “[involving] a lot more than simply watching movies,” I don’t know what is.

        • You are getting silly now. I would not be writing for Curnblog had i had any less than the highest regard for James and his taste in writers, which includes the lot of you. When i write of the future critics, who do you think I am addressing? The number of critics I have known professionally is legion, and the general trend toward intellectual hypocrisy and vapidity among those who continue to work professionally is uniform. My hope is that those of you who are not compromised by the careerist aspect of being a critic will help bring about a renaissance in the field, and that the negative characteristics to which I have referred will soon be a thing of the past.

    • an honest film doesnt tell you what to think or feel, nebraska does. for some honest films about aging, check out Gloria (chili, 2013) and Amour (2012),,,for a real life Nebraska, try to find Sonny boy, which Soliel Moon Frye made about her father, Virgil Frye, as she took him on a trip around the country to all his favorite places as he slid into Ahlzeimer’s amnesia.

      • I have to admit, Bill, my eyes nearly popped out of my head initially when you called The Lone Ranger “a decent picture.” And now you’re suggesting somehow that Nebraska is dishonest because it tells you what to think? Sorry–that’s just a load of hooey, and the credibility factor isn’t there. Nebraska was a textured film with Bruce Dern playing an unlikable character that rarely got you sympathizing with him. I thought that was pretty smartly done.

        As for addressing the lot of us, I’m just wondering who out of CURNBLOG’s writers is “whining about the death of film journalism.” I’m certainly not; it’s alive and well. And I honestly don’t care if the film critics you knew were “legion”; I don’t know you from Adam, and just because you have a dim assessment of professionals you’ve spoken do doesn’t mean you’re right. Maybe because I’m based in New York City that I feel film criticism is alive and well, as well have a robust critical foundation here. But denigrating members of a profession, to my mind, is just absurd.

        • Ahem; should’ve said: I don’t know you from Adam, and just because you have a dim assessment of professionals you’ve spoken to doesn’t mean you’re right. Maybe because I’m based in New York City that I feel film criticism is alive and well, as we have a robust critical foundation here. But denigrating members of a profession in general, to my mind, is just absurd.

  8. A blistering article Bill, showing obvious experience, considerable thought, and good judgement. I have issues with both film journals, and blogs/websites. Many films are just widely accepted as being wonderful, and any criticism considered to be the ravings of an uninformed head-case. Serious film magazines, that I once admired so much, have become little more than extensions of the publicity machine of the large studios. Super hero films are seriously discussed at length, with various pretentious and totally unnecessary connotations assumed or implied.

    One of the reasons that I gravitate towards Curnblog, is for the considered arguments, intelligent opinions, and absence of spite. In a world where we are told what to watch, and what is good, or what is not, this forum allows us to make up our own minds.
    You make a valid point about the critic having to watch, whether they might want to or not. We are spared that chore. As for putting aside preconceptions, that is probably the most difficult thing to achieve. I would find it impossible to stash away my preconceived ideas about a Pixar film I was about to see, or my dislike of Jim Carrey in a comedy. That’s why I could never be a professional critic.

    I still have a lot of respect for Mark Kermode, on the BBC. He has read books, as well as written them, and generally seems to be on the right wavelength. It has all changed beyond compare though, and we have to accept that the golden age of the film critic may be behind us.
    A great piece, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Best wishes from England, Pete.

    • Pete, i enthusiastically second every statement in your comment, especially your dismissal of those stupid super-hero movies that are so furiously discussed by movie buffs who never grew out of their comic book phase. However, I must reiterate the advantage of going into a screening without any idea of what you are about to see. I remember one movie that I didnt even realize was a comedy until it was nearly over. Imagine the delightful change in perspective i experienced at that point. I am unfamiliar with mark kermode, and have been trying to see some of his reviews on my PC, but they will not load. I find he and I share the same birthday, although i am a little over a decade older than he. As for your final statement, there can be no golden age of critics outside of a golden age of movies. i am hoping for the return of both. Thank you for reading my article, and for your comments.

  9. Excellent conversation starter, Bill. We live in an age of unprecedented access to film and unprecedented avenues for expressing our opinions about films. It’s a mixed blessing. It can become an overwhelming quagmire. And it can trick us into thinking we have seen it all when, in fact, we’ve seen and heard very little. Rudolf Arnheim was earliest theorist I know of to discuss the challenging role of the critic back in 1935. I would recommend anyone interested in the whole idea of film criticism take at look at his work and that of J. Hoberman, whose 1998 essay The Film Critic of Tomorrow, Today, makes a good companion piece for your thoughtful essay. For me, Hoberman, Chris Fujiwara, and Stuart Klawans are among the critics I look to these days to provide the kind of perspective I want. I trust there are more good voices out there if we can clear away the clutter.

    • Jon, Thank you for the recommended reading. I have always valued Arnheim for his early defense of film (and photography) as art, and his examples hold up today as a primer on the basic elements of film-making. I havent read the Hoberman article, and am unversed in the writings of Chris Fujiwara, and Stuart Klawans, who i will now check out.

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