More (whingy) songs about film critics and paying work, and a dirty little secret
The first panel on the future of film criticism that I ever attended was in October of 2007, at the lovely Coolidge Corner Theater in Brookline, MA. I was a member of the panel, called "Beyond Thumbs Up: A Critical Look At Film Criticism," and quite a nice panel it was, including such luminaries as Philip Lopate, David Sterritt, Ty Burr, Stephanie Zacherak, Scott Foundas, Owen Gleiberman, Richard Porton, Cynthia Lucia, and oh, yes, the insouciant and delightful Armond White. At the time I was the chief critic for the Premiere website, formerly Premiere magazine.
Since that time I've lost that full-time position, and have sat through any number of panels concerning the future of film criticism, and read countless articles on the topic. "Whither film criticism" seems, as of mid-March of 2010, to be the query that keeps on giving. Just this week, for instance...because I need to be directed to these things, because, as I'll explain more fully in a moment, I never actually seek them out...I was told not of one but of two internet thumbsuckers about the future of film criticism, oh joy.
One tip was provided on a thread at Dave Kehr's website, from critic D.K. Holm, who innocently (to his mind, at least) pointed out, "An interesting debate is going on over at the Chronicle of Higher Education website about the future of film criticism." "Define 'interesting,'" I snarled to myself before following the link, which led to an article by Thomas Doherty called "The Death of Film Criticism," which, among other things, quoted luminaries Rex Reed and Richard Schickel (from their interviews for the documentary For The Love of Movies) bitching about these damn kids on their damn computers. Because that's not predictable or anything. You could look at their complaints one of two ways: that these veterans are voices in the desert trying to stand athwart technological progress yelling "Stop!" is the more charitable. I tend toward the other perspective, which is, well, if these two old hacks wanna spend their commute to the boneyard bitching about the internet, I suppose that's their privilege. Because--and again, here's another surprise--it's not going to affect the internet one way or the other. (And, by the way, poor Rex, right? I mean, back when he young and attractive and nevertheless railing against the rock and roll, it was kind of cute, and a bit of a novelty. And now...)
The other tip was from a friend, of a dyspeptic bent similar to my own, who e-mailed me the other morning with a message entitled "Stop me..." in which he wrote "Woke up this morning and read Eric Kohn's 'think piece' entitled 'On Critics and Critical Thought,' and wow did it send me into a rage. Instead of being, you know, ABOUT critical thought, the piece reads more like a justification for networking [pejorative characterization redacted] such as himself...He bemoans the firing of staff critics (including yourself), yet he can hardly contain his salivating at all these opportunities..."
My buddy, he takes certain stuff a lot harder than I do. I checked out Kohn's piece (which is posted at multiple venues, but I'll link to the version that's on his own blog, not that I expect any thanks for it), but before I could get good and mad, I had a good laugh. "The legendary critic Andrew Sarris once recalled the disdain of a professor when Sarris revealed his ambitions as a film critic. The teacher discouraged him. 'We've already lost James Agee to the movies,' he said, referring to the novelist-turned-critic. 'You don't want to do that.'"
You see, that's funny, because James Agee never actually published any fiction in his lifetime--his sole novel, A Death In The Family, was released posthumously. So how, exactly, was Agee "lost" to the movies? Well, I know, and I bet you know, but let's not tell Kohn. It'll ruin everything.
I know what you're maybe thinking: these kids today, with their not knowing any goddamn thing. I understand, but then again, let's try not to lapse into Schickel or Reed-think here. Kohn's piece was prompted by the news last week that Variety, the showbiz trade paper, was divesting itself of two of its full-time critics: film guy Todd McCarthy, and theater guy David Rooney. McCarthy was/is a bit of a legend among his fellows, not just because of his longevity (he was at Variety for over 30 years) but for his acuity and his incredible professionalism: nobody in the business was better at crafting a cogent (and factually accurate!) review under near-impossible deadlines than he. Kohn's self-aggrandizing take on the situation is practically Panglossian in its "let a thousand flowers bloom" enthusiasm, leaving out the caveat that, like The Stranglers once said, the money's no good in this now freelancer-glutted environment.
And now let me quote Vladimir Nabokov, as is my wont: "Sex as an institution, sex as a general notion, sex as a problem, sex as a platitude--all this is something I find too tedious for words." Now, just substitute "the future of film criticism" for "sex" in the above and you'll have pretty much summed up my attitude. Why? Because I know it's over. It is quite highly unlikely that I will ever make my living from "just" doing film criticism ever again, and that the practice is largely going to be an avocation for me--same as it is for many of the people who are doing some of the best film writing/criticism on the internet today. People such as Girish Shambu and Farran Smith Nehme, aka The Self Styled Siren. (These are personages who do not exist in the philosophies of either Richard Schickel or Rex Reed, personages from whom Eric Kohn, say, could stand to learn a bit.) And I'm fine with my circumstance. In fact, I'm better than fine with it, provided I can continue to make some kind of living somehow.
My poor pal who wrote to me to commiserate was not so sanguine the other day. "I realize that going after Kohn will put me on the outs with a bunch of people, but do I care, and/or should I?" He had good reason to be concerned. Understand, incidentally, that I don't have any personal problem with Eric Kohn; I know him very slightly socially and we've had nothing but pleasant encounters. But if I tick him off personally and professionally with this piece I am not really in a position to suffer much in terms of professional opportunities. And here we come to the dirty little secret. It's not that the film critic scene in New York is as cliqueish, incestuous, and insular as it ever was. It's that the increasing dearth of permanent perches, combined with the putative rise of internet "criticism," has made it more hierarchical and mercurial. Instead of Sarris and Kael marshaling their disciples and polemicizing from relatively secure battlements, or what have you, it's dozens upon dozens of small, mobile, putatively intelligent units jockeying for advantage, following each others' Twitter feeds, getting drunk with each other at open bars, social-climbing with indie filmmakers (it's as if the slightest consideration of journalistic ethics concerning fraternizing is just a joke, even while the resultant loss of integrity is utterly transparent) and talking the nastiest shit about each other behind backs. It's an environment where a wrong remark to the wrong person, or taking a public stand against some egregious stupidity or another, can literally mean money out of your pocket.
How any kind of critical thought, let alone process, can take root in such an environment is, frankly, beyond me.