May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
March 1, 2010
Thomas Doherty, in The Chronicle of Higher Education, considers that endangered species known as the professional film critic:
“It sucks,” decrees an Internet movie critic, sharing the most common aesthetic reaction in contemporary film criticism. In the viral salon of bloggers and chat-roomers, the finely tuned turns of phrase crafted by an earlier generation of sharp-eyed cinema scribes have been winnowed to a curt kiss-off. In cyberspace everyone can hear you scream. Just log on, vent, and hit send.
The transfer of film criticism from its print-based platforms (newspapers, magazines, and academic journals) to ectoplasmic Web-page billboards has rocked the lit-crit screen trade. Whether from the world of journalism (where the pink slips are landing with hurricane force) or academe (which itself is experiencing the worst job market since the Middle Ages), serious writers on film feel under siege, underappreciated, and underemployed.
The ballast of traditional credentials—whereby film critics earned their bones through university degrees or years at metropolitan dailies—has been thrown overboard by the judgment calls of anonymous upstarts without portfolio but very much with a DSL hotline to Hollywood’s prime moviegoing demographic. In film criticism, the blogosphere is the true sphere of influence.
I may be seeing fewer film reviews in newspapers that are worth reading. But I’m grateful to have found so many friends and colleagues who write about cinema with the care, education, and insight of professionals even though they’re probably not earning a paycheck by doing so.
Perhaps if film lovers press on, writing with passion and excellence about the art of film, eventually we will see another shift. As international and independent cinema becomes more available online, curiosity about such titles is likely to grow. Perhaps we’re on the cusp of a Renaissance of serious film criticism, which could increase the value of well-researched film criticism again. I’d pay for a subscription to the reviews of Michael Sicinski, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Roger Ebert, and Steven Greydanus. Would you?
Nevertheless, with the rare exception of the TV-friendly Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, if there was a time when knowledgeable film critics were celebrated by popular culture, I missed it. Among my fellow college freshmen in the early ’90s, it was a rare experience to find a classmate who had heard of Paulene Kael.
Sure, newspapers may be firing their reviewers. But does that mean people have lost interest in real reviews? Most cinephiles I know began losing interest in newspaper film critics and favoring thoughtful bloggers a long time ago.
Bloggers have the freedom to speak their minds creatively and at length, while most newspaper reporters had to force their reviews into small spaces. And they had to “dumb down” their reviews for general audiences, going heavy on plot summary and celebrity commentary and very light on serious analysis.
From a certain point of view, the internet was a gift to film criticism; critics could reach an international audience of interested film buffs, and say whatever they wanted about a film as accessibly or as academically as they pleased. Chances that an aspiring film critic would ever make a living on such a passion were slim to none anyway.
Now, do I wish critics were paid well for their services? Absolutely. But I think the “pros” of the film-blogger revolution outweigh the cons.
Please note that Jonathan Rosenbaum is as vigilant and thoughtful as ever. He posted a substantial critique of Doherty’s article right there in the Comments section (Comment #5). And I doubt anybody paid him for his insight.
Jeffrey Overstreet watches far too many movies, writes film reviews and two weekly columns for ChristianityTodayMovies.com, maintains the Web site LookingCloser.org, contributes to Paste Magazine, and is at work on a series of novels. He works at Seattle Pacific University.