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March 15, 2010

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. 
March 15, 2010 7:52 PM | | Comments (15)

15 Comments

I looked through this and couldn't get what it was about. Seems to be insider bitching. No wonder film criticism is in trouble, it doesn't talk about film any more. Meta Pass.

The whole point of film, or any other type of media analysis (I dislike the negative term "criticism" as do, I suspect, many half-hearted moviegoers who long ago tuned "critics" out) is merely to provide more-than-suitable reading about whatever adored or malodorous event that's at hand. Of course, what is suitable reading for some is not for others, and this suitability need not work in tandem with the reader's (or the writer's) passion for the medium being examined. The point was never, of course, to provide the best or wiliest writers with paid positions. So the "death" of gainful employment as a film analyst is, for all who practice it, a disappointment, naturally. But it's not a death, really; it's a transmogrification into a larger realm--this internet thing--where there are many more voices to be heard. Again, some will always be irritating--for instance, the Ain't It Cool News crowd is, for me, as painful to imbibe as any of Rex Reed's columns, but now because they're always trying to embrace coolness instead of throwing mud at it. And there are many similar voices out there that will always huff loudly about how the next superhero film either sucks shit or IS the shit--that is, until they grow out of it. Then the next batch'll be along.

But there are many voices, too, who may make little money at what they do, but still provide the rich reading experience I and others like me require. On the net, Ed Howard at Only The Cinema, T.S. at Screen Savour, MovieMan at The Dancing Image, Stacy Ponder at Final Girl, and the Allan Fish/Sam Juliano team at Wonders in the Dark are good enough for me, with the stuff at Film Comment thrown in as the rare on-paper read these days (besides the Kael, Sarris, and Danny Peary archives I still page through).

But I will say this: my six favorite net writers all have something in common: they spend a large amount of space writing about older films (as I do on my site). And we know the reason for that: most movies in most theaters these days are unbearable to spend even a moment contemplating. But still the people go, and it don't matter a whit what Schickel, Travers, White, Scott, Dargis or anyone else crows about a film, favorable or un. I love reading some of these writers, but I've made my mind up whether or not to see a film long before it first unspools for them. I look at who's involved in the movie, and maybe a one-line synopsis, and I'm either there or not. Other people wait to see what bang-ups the trailers hold for them before they make their irrevocable choice. It is, after all, the age of hype (and shamelessness).

What more proof do you need that paying film critics is throwing money down a rathole for everyone except the trade papers (who might as well save some scratch by firing their staff writers, since mostly only industry insiders read these reviews, only in order to know how to make their next business moves; who cares who writes the pieces?) I'll admit, this is the death of one dream for me, because I always did want to make money at being a film expert. But reviewing films from 1999 to 2003 in Atlanta cured me of that. Slogging through ten titles to get to the one good one is not how I want to spend my energy. Even Pauline Kael, towards the end of her life, admitted this was a depressing fate.

So it's probably a good thing I've been spared this career. I wasn't in it for the star-fucking, or the free drinks or junket passes. I was in it because I loved movies. And most movies aren't worth loving anymore. Given this, I would think that all these once well-paid film writers out there on the supposed skids right now, yourself included, might eventually feel rescued from having to nosh at offal week after week. Now we all, in our own ways, will have to really put our muscle into bringing the good stuff to people in more practical fashions--through business, filmmaking itself, festival programming, teaching or merely writing a blog that answers to no free market but our own tastes. We must either do this, or take a stand of indignant ignorance against the majority of present film offerings in favor of the hailing of past glories. For me, it's sort of a bitter relief.

This is pretty poorly written - overwritten - which is a shame because there are things to be said about the demise of the professional critic: how aggregate sites rely on them or how being paid to see films and write about them is just as much a profession as anything else.

Did you actually READ it, Bryan, instead of just looking through it? The points about film criticism that Glenn Kenny makes in this article seem pretty clear.

There's a valid discussion/argument within this. Its eighty-proof rough spots, however, suggest the author would benefit from a few weeks in rehab.

"I look at who's involved in the movie, and maybe a one-line synopsis, and I'm either there or not."

I'm all for writing about, viewing, and celebrating older films-- count me as someone who's going to be spending his Thursday night watching the Edward Everett Horton festival on TCM-- but I think such an apparatus for movie-going-decision-making is frankly terrible. There are dozens of good and great movies released every year, from indie and arthouse releases to, yes, big studio films, and deciding not to see something because of a synopsis and its principals seems like you're cutting yourself off from a lot of great experiences, and certainly from the capacity of someone whose work you previously didn't like surprising you with something great. I had written off Kristen Stewart until I saw her in Adventureland, a film that I didn't want to see until I read Glenn's appraisal over at his site Some Came Running.

I mean, different strokes for different folks, I suppose, because one reason I read critics (like Glenn) is because sometimes their criticism convinces me to watch something that I had previously deemed not of interest.

It's depressing. The situation is depressing, the column is depressing, the responses are depressing. I, too, practice film criticism as an avocation. I feel fortunate in that I get paid a few dollars for my stuff.

I've never liked Kohn's stuff much, but that's solely about his AW-like pseudo-erudition, his fancypants "look, ma, I'm writing" style. Also, he live-blogged the premiere of a film once. But I don't begrudge these kids their ability to hustle, to sell themselves. I wish I had that skill, years ago, when it would have helped my writing career. The idea that their ascendancy is somehow a positive thing for the state of film criticism is, as you point out, self-aggrandizing nonsense. And Kohn doesn't "know" Todd McCarthy, so he can't share the outrage of older colleagues. Oh, plus he's done freelance work for Variety. His piece may as well be a cover letter.

@Dean Treadway, the notion that discerning filmgoers pay no attention to good critics like Scott, Dargis, Hoberman, Kenny et al when deciding where to put their money down seems ludicrous to me. Good critics can have an influence on distributors, festival programmers, and audiences.

Interesting. Always enjoy reading you, Glenn.

Overwritten?? Glenn Kenny?!? Come on!

@ Frank: "@Dean Treadway, the notion that discerning filmgoers pay no attention to good critics like Scott, Dargis, Hoberman, Kenny et al when deciding where to put their money down seems ludicrous to me. Good critics can have an influence on distributors, festival programmers, and audiences."

I said "most movies in most theaters these days are unbearable to spend even a moment contemplating. But still the people go, and it don't matter a whit what Schickel, Travers, White, Scott, Dargis or anyone else crows about a film, favorable or un."

To be clear: For the vast majority of everyday readers who look at film criticism as merely a guide as to what to see this weekend, it doesn't matter what a critic says. TRANSFORMERS is gonna bank it regardless of the inevitable drubbing. And, hey, I made it clear that I still read some film writing. But if it's a Michael Bay movie, I ain't going no matter what (after the glowering over AVATAR, I think Cameron is off the list, too). PRECIOUS, AN EDUCATION, UP IN THE AIR are okay, but few critics noticed these seemed like high-end TV movies, often. Meanwhile, something like BRIGHT STAR falls through the cracks, except with the Film Comment people. No critics rushed to save that movie, even at the year's end. If I had relied on the NY Times review of Campion's movie I would've missed my second favorite movie of the year (after INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, the brashest entertainment of 2009). And if the new Lynch, Assayas, Kelly Reichardt or Mike Leigh gets frowned upon, I'm going anyway; no synopsis necessary. Same with less fawned-over directors like Miguel Arteta, David Gordon Green, Jared Hess (whose GENTLEMEN BRONCOS was misunderstood critically) or Greg Mottola (whose ADVENTURELAND I immediately wanted to see because of its setting and its general vibe, regardless of Kristin Stewart's actually estimable presence). These guys almost always come out with something worth seeing eventually. And if a movie comes out with a title like THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD, I'm seeing that, baby, even if I didn't care for Dominick's CHOPPER; all I need to see is that title and Roger Deakins' name in the credits. (I should say that I look at all the credits, too, not just the stars; if Darius Khondji does the photography, or Albert Wolsky does the costumes, or Carter Burwell does the music, that's something I regard as points in the film's favor, no matter if Rob Schnieder is starring).

But I was perhaps too harsh in saying critics can't sway me. This is why I read, and write, film pieces. I might have missed a movie like Tarsem's THE FALL if someone (I can't remember who) hadn't clued me in. But again, where was the massive critical support for that movie? And it didn't make a dime at the B.O.
The mass audience, they say they want good movies, but they seem to, largely, stay away in droves when something good comes out. So what am I supposed to think about the mass assessment of the film critic mentality?

Finally, I did mention that trade paper reviews, and beyond, do have an effect on how the industry sees a particular film (sometimes). I'm well aware of their usefulness to distribs, fest programmers, and other insiders. Okay, nuff said.

Except this: I thought it was an exceptional piece, Glenn.

Not to be nitpicking (a practice that will probably be the last bastion of film criticism), but Agee published two novels. The first, "The Morning Watch," came out in 1951 while Agee was still alive. (He died in 1955).

No apologies for nit-picking necessary, Peter; I'm happy to be corrected, not to mention hoisted by my own petard. Had I researched a little more carefully, I would have said that Agee's REPUTATION as a novelist was only made posthumously, as "The Morning Watch" did not exactly set the world on fire.

In any event, I can take solace in the fact that my factual error is in a certain consonance with my super-caffeinated, or blotto, depending who you ask, tone here.

As somebody who's always read criticism because he enjoys READING CRITICISM--the most appropriate subject of this blog in my opinion, not to discourage bloggers from writing whatever they want and whatever that jerk Bryan believes--I just want to say to Glenn: more, more, more. As for how your write, please don't let the Grundys get you down. Your writing is entertaining, like most good criticism. That's usually where the enjoyment is--especially if you find ideas enjoyable.

It's interesting how, within the field of a topic, that content of it comes out to play in strange ways. What I mean is, in a post about criticism; the comments are full of criticism, which is kind of fascinating.

That's all.

I'd say that the majority of comments after an article tend to be criticism, no matter the subject.

America enjoys a good movie, but many are spending time at the movies as an escape, a way to shut off their brain for a few hours. As well, it seems many professional critics forget that the audience they're writing to doesn't have the same knowledge of the film industry.

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