Saturday, June 03, 2006

Critics -- a thumbs down?

The Hollywood Reporter's Anne Thompson says that Criticism's status quo [is] getting thumbs down --

It took Ebert decades to connect first with a local, then a national audience. He understands intuitively who his followers are and what they want from him; his job is secure.

Not so for most of his peers. That is because daily newspapers are losing circulation, Hollywood advertising and their influence over moviegoers. As publishers struggle to hang on to their readers via online content, blogs and podcasts, some are replacing experienced critics -- many of whom, like Ebert, have built loyal local followings -- with younger, less expensive models. Newspaper editors seem to believe hiring a younger critic will help them build a wider demo. Although they might deny it, veteran critics Kevin Thomas and Janet Maslin were pressured to give up their daily posts at the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times, respectively. John Anderson accepted a buyout at Newsday and is now freelancing. Most recently, the
Chicago Tribune's Mike Wilmington and the New York Daily News' Jami Bernard were forced out of their long-held gigs.

But when established critics stop reviewing, they often leave behind a gaping hole.

"When audiences lose faith in a paper," says SPC's Bernard, "they end up doing something else." He contends that theater attendance has dropped in such specialty film markets as Boston, Seattle and Miami that have lost popular critics.

Over at the New York Times, lead critics A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis have yet to establish the kind of bulkhead that Canby and Maslin had during their tenure at the Times, but that is partly because neither Scott nor Dargis has a particularly mainstream sensibility. Both are canny careerists, though, as well as elegant writers who often seem more interested in crafting arcane intellectual arguments than reaching out to their readers. Thus when Scott or Dargis champions a small movie such as "Gunner Palace" or "The Notorious Bettie Page," it has little impact.

At least Scott and Dargis are encouraged to discourse intelligently about movies. Some of their peers are pushed into being entertainers, promoters and interviewers instead of objective reviewers. Perhaps expressing some sour grapes of his own, respected former Daily News critic Dave Kehr -- who now writes a weekly New York Times DVD column -- blogged at about his and Bernard's former employer: "During my tenure at the News, Jami and I suffered unbelievable interference from editorial higher-ups, all of whom seemed to believe that they were vastly more capable of registering the 'populist' perspective on a given film than the people they'd somehow (and clearly mistakenly) hired as experts on the subject."

Kehr goes on to point out that these days, many younger writers are being hired by the likes of the Village Voice: "Oldsters in the field -- which at this point means anyone over 30 -- may want to start looking for a new gig."

But newspapers might be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Aiming at a youthful readership is a fool's errand. Any parent of a teenager knows where young people go for information about anything: the Internet. Which is where Kehr and many less established critics are now expounding on movies. Such aggregate sites as and collect and rate film reviews, so that it is possible to check any movie's average score. But they also make it easy to find the critics you like, no matter where they are writing. Punch in "Da Vinci" at and 155 reviews pop up, from Scott at the top and 13 entries in the middle to the last citation from -- in Dutch.

One rising cyber-star is's Walter Chaw, who writes with a refreshing candor that you would never find in the print world. In his recent review of "X3," for example, Chaw calls director Brett Ratner "a homophobic, misogynistic, misanthropic moron."

1 comment:

David Apatoff said...

From your example by Walter Chaw, I wonder whether one explanation for the trend you describe is the coarsening of taste in this country, where fine gradations, moderate opinions and mature cultural references are being abandoned for whoever's shrill, clanging insults attract he biggest crowd of generation X mall rats. Are we witnessing the same trends that are responsible for the demise of network news (with Ted Koppel, Walter Cronkite, and all the judgment that involved) and its replacement with Matt Drudge and screaming heads on Fox news? If so, is the art of movies (and the country) better off for it?