Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Newspaper critics: The Journey to Irrelevance

Pop Politics recently posted a shot blurb on the obsolescence of movie critics, mainly referencing an L.A. Times article, found here. The decreasing relevance of newspaper critics may be shocking to some people, especially those used to traditional journalism for their cultural commentary, but to this blog editor, this phenomenon is almost too obvious to warrant mention.

Luckily, both the original essay and PopPolitics' commentary elaborate on this phenomenon enough that they prompt a response. The Times' reaction to this "news" is cynically traditional, in my decidedly neophilic opinion. This is the assumption that we're seeing the downfall of meaningful cinema, and I think critics who subscribe to it are the ones going out of date the fastest. Just look at this L.A. Times paragraph:

"But today we're in an era in which shared enthusiasm matters more than analysis, stylistic cool trumps emotional substance. The world has changed. The vanguard filmmakers of the '60s — the era that spawned our last great generation of critics — were Godard, Kubrick and Antonioni, filmmakers under the spell of the intellectual fervor sparked by existentialism and Marxism. The filmmakers with a youth-culture following today, be it Kevin Smith, Quentin Tarantino or Wes Anderson, are largely ideology free, masters of detachment and stylistic homage. Like their audience, they prefer irony to Big Ideas."

This is an unfair appraisal at best, and a spot of messy old-world elitism at worst. Modern cinema is a massive, highly-varied mediasphere with every kind of innovator... from political risk-takers like Michael Moore and Hany Abu-Assad, to passionate storytellers like Jeunet and Aronofsky, to industry personalities like Charlie Kaufman, there's a demonstrable "vanguard" of thoughtful filmmakers at work in the industry.

The fact that these innovators aren't the highest-grossing filmmakers? Irrelevant. In 1968, when Kubrick released 2001: A Space Odyssey, it didn't even make it to the top ten... Planet of the Apes, Rosemary's Baby, and The Odd Couple all beat it out. And do you really think Antonioni's Blowup made it into any top-tens in 1966? Yeah right. The huge junkyard of consumable media is very different from the parched desert of high-art film, and this is how it's always been.

So critics have the choice: on one hand, they could offer their services to the artists, using traditional aesthetic and analytical criteria to isolate the movies that should become genuine classics. On the other hand, they could inhabit the vast world of mass media. That means sorting out and fully understanding the everyday media world of sensory stimulation, rampant reference, and compulsive marketing. It gets messy. I know from experience.

This dilemma is more salient today because the newspaper is losing its mass credibility. Once upon a time, the critics and the newspapers were the only source of authority anyone could depend on, so they had an unrivaled voice of praise or condemnation. Now word of mouth is just so damn available... you can find a massive sampling of opinions, leveled from every preferential and movie-going perspective, and you don't have to depend on the words of a few sanctioned individuals to be your sole source of feedback. At the same time, as the corporate media machine is being lambasted by every political persuasion, the credibility of newspapers is understandably declining. We don't trust reviewers any more than we trust the press corps these days.

So there's a double effect going on: critics are losing popular relevance, and more and more, they're seeing themselves as the sole defenders of artistic integrity. By both their own power and by the sheer volume of modern mass media, critics are being forced deeper and deeper into "traditional cimena" land. The words of L.A. Times critics Kenneth Turan (as reported by L.A. Times writer Patrick Goldstein) are exemplary:

"I'm sorry, but we're not supposed to be applause meters," says Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan. "If you wanted to go to a restaurant for a special occasion and someone said, 'Why not go to McDonald's? More people go there than any other place.' Would that really be enough to convince you?"

And if that wasn't harsh enough, check out this elitist drivel, also reported (not sanctioned) by Goldstein:

Reviewing a collection of critical essays by the long-time Village Voice jazz critic Gary Giddins, Time film critic Richard Schickel contrasted Giddins' work with "history-free and sensibility-deprived" bloggers who regularly "blurb the latest Hollywood effulgence."

Kenneth is right... he, and his fellow reviewers, have an obligation to offer a better perspective than the brute-force box office numbers. But there's a subtext that may or may not be applicable: Turan and Schnickel might also be revealing their unwillingness to see cinema as entertainment. That's how you go from that desert of the avante-garde to the landscape of the popular, and that's how you anticipate, and influence, an ADHD-ridden public. You look at the characteristics, strengths, and weaknesses of a film that make it entertaining.

Everyone who faces a new set of conditions has a choice: change or become outdated. I'm not saying critics should sanction stupid movies, but they have to account for a few new variables in order to stay relevant, and to influence the movie-going public (i.e. in order to do their jobs).

First, they have to expand their reach beyond newspapers, because newspapers are losing credibility... whether they can swim or not, they have to get the fuck off the sinking ship.

Second, if they want to become cultural forces instead of empty voices drifting into the shadows, they have to account for entertainment value and marketing focus. If Kubrick and Antonioni are your standard, you won't be able to tell people what they're going to like.

I'm not saying the film critic has to become a mass media adolescent, but like any character facing a critical juncture, he's going to have to make a choice.

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