Monday, April 12, 2010

The End of Film Criticism?

Short cuts

by Thomas Delapa

Over a century ago, the philosopher Nietzsche infamously declared that God was dead.

In the post-print era, is it past due to proclaim the death of film criticism?

Read it and weep: Film critics across the country are expiring fast, downsized by newspaper and magazines reeling in red ink. Large or small, fewer media outlets even bother to carry regular film reviewers anymore; the latest bad news comes from the Hollywood bible Variety, which cut its longtime critic, Todd McCarthy, supposedly to be replaced by a variety of part-timers. Disfigured by cancer and unable to speak, Roger Ebert may yet become the last critic standing, a symbol of the profession’s agonizing fade to black.

Only a few years ago, we could still stay that film critics mattered. Do they anymore? The singular, onetime sacrosanct, notion of critical opinion and expertise has long been on the retreat, marginalized by an indifferent public and an increasingly fragmented and uber-individualistic consumerism.

For many, if not most, film critics rate a big fat thumbs down: Movies aren’t art anyway, so why bother with hoity-toity ideas of aesthetic judgment? In our era of chain-store DVDs, cable, video-on-demand and the movies-by-mail Netflix empire, the cinema has been fully fed into the consumer universe, to be packaged and sold like Big Macs. The self-serving “Have it your way” jingle is the new cultural order, whether burgers or movie blockbusters.

Of those surviving film critics who actually earn a living, many—or their timid bosses—have tacitly decided that resistance is indeed futile. Bold, informed criticism is as rare today as a socialist at a Tea Party rally. Better to rave about the latest, greatest “thrill ride” of the summer than to be left out in the critical cold. A tyranny of the majority rules on the Internet, exemplified by the soft and squishy Rotten Tomatoes Website, where legit critics are outnumbered by the brave new world of unschooled buffs boyishly (and they’re mostly young guys) eager to add their voices to the buzz of the Internet Babel.

Ultimately, what culture is telling us is that movies don’t matter, aren’t a proper subject of debate and reflection, despite their overwhelming presence in our lives and in the national culture. Surfing through the vast wasteland of cable TV, you can dial in a plethora of politics and sports channels, airing all sorts of outspoken punditry. But when it comes to movies, all you get is either gossip, hype or box-office.

The same polarization that we’re witnessing in American politics may also help explain why the public at large isn’t buying into the old-school medium of film criticism that reached its zenith in the 1970s with the likes of Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris, Stanley Kauffmann, et al. Opinions have hardened, crystallized by bitter, no-nothing cultural ideologies derived increasingly derived from fear and isolationism. “I know what I want and like, and I don’t want to hear anything different” is the new social mantra, otherwise known as “Don’t tread on my movies, Dude.”

As for film critics? We don’t need no stinking film critics.


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