Stop Firing Movie Critics

The late Pauline Kael said it best:  “In the arts, the critic is the only independent source of information.  The rest is advertising.”
 
One wonders what the longtime New Yorker film critic (who died in 2001) would say today about a recent, troubling development:  the gradual, systematic extinction of movie reviewers.  David Carr of The New York Times reports that numerous critics have suddenly disappeared from their dream beats, to borrow the much-missed Gene Siskel’s phrase.  With America in another recession and the newspaper business in serious decline, respected voices like David Ansen of Newsweek, Gene Seymour of New York Newsday and Nathan Lee of The Village Voice have either been laid off or accepted buyouts.  A little while ago, Quebecor, the largest publisher of dailies in Canada, decided to retain all the reviewers from The Toronto Sun while sacking the rest from its sister papers.  All in all, it’s a sad state of affairs.
 
Love ’em or hate ’em, critics in general play a crucial role in democratic societies which makes their growing disappearance so alarming.  In fact, there are three compelling reasons why it’s important they continue to get paid to espouse their strong views on entertainment in newspapers, magazines, on the Internet, the radio and Television.
 
First and foremost, they are consumer advocates.  They screen the dreck so you don’t have to.  Imagine yourself willing to pay to see garbage like Freddy Got Fingered, Big Momma’s House 2 and any dreadfully unscary horror film you can think of at ten bucks per screening.  Terrifying, isn’t it?  But imagine how more terrified you would be if there was no way of knowing beforehand how bad these Hollywood disasters truly are?  Without word of mouth from professional screeners, trailers would be your only insight into a film’s potential.  And we all know how misleading ads for upcoming movies can be.
 
A critic can’t always persuade you of what to see and what to avoid, but when you find a discerning voice you trust, you’re not so willing to waste your money on formula schlock.  Sometimes, no critic will convince you to avoid that movie you’re dying to see.  But if you have doubts about parting with a ten spot, a strong pan can make all the difference in saving you that money.
 
Secondly, critics are tastemakers.  Because they screen and grade pictures before they’re unveiled to the public, they provide the initial feedback.  If you’re an independent filmmaker with a possible sleeper on your hands, across the board raves from reviewers is better publicity than any high-falutin’ marketing campaign.  Just ask Billy Bob Thornton.  In 1992, he co-wrote and starred in the great One False Move.  It was a very small movie and needed a real boost not only to convince someone to distribute it but also to get moviegoers to come out and see it.  As he told Entertainment Weekly in late 1992, “My hero used to be Davy Crockett but now it’s Siskel and Ebert forever.”  The two Chicago-based critics raved about the movie to the point where it ended up on both their year-end Top 10 lists.  As a result, the film made under 2 million, pretty good for a low-budget thriller, and Thornton would go on to win a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for his terrific Sling Blade.
 
Finally, they are talent scouts.  When a new face stands out with a strong performance, critics are the first to take notice.  When Tigerland was issued in 2000, Colin Farrell, the film’s star, received many positive reviews for his acting.  That led to other well-reviewed projects like Minority Report and The New World.  Like Billy Bob Thornton, Farrell is still very much in demand.  And as many actors will tell you, he’s not the only one who’s benefitted from critical respect.
 
Thanks to critical praise from people like Roger Ebert, directors like Martin Scorsese have also gotten a tremendous boost.  When Ebert predicted great things for the Italian-American Oscar winner after seeing his first film, Who’s That Knocking At My Door?, which is worth checking out by the way, Scorsese went on to make Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Last Temptation Of Christ, Goodfellas, a remake of Cape Fear, The Age Of Innocence, Gangs Of New York, The Aviator and The Departed.
 
Sadly, movie critics continuously get shit on far too often by those who don’t understand how important a role they’ve always played in public life.  Thin-skinned entertainers have long resented the terror of the pan.  No one likes having their efforts dismissed in a few hundred words.  But even they have to acknowledge that a scornful assessment of their work at least draws attention to it.  Studios disagree.  More and more, we’re seeing certain titles bypassing the press screening process in order to have at least one good weekend at the box office.  On Ebert & Roeper, it was getting so bad that a new feature was introduced called The Wagging Finger Of Shame, complete with cheesy echo.  Whenever they talked about a title that wasn’t available for a pre-release screening (and therefore, couldn’t review on the show), Ebert would furrow his brow, look directly into the camera and like a hypnotist rotate his finger back and forth in a disdainful manner.
 
It’s not been a particularly good period for truth whether we’re talking about politics or entertainment.  But the climate will get far gloomier if more and more critical voices are snuffed out.  The message is simple:  Stop firing movie critics.  They’re needed more now than ever before.
 
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, April 6, 2008
4:24 p.m.
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Published in: on April 6, 2008 at 4:26 pm  Leave a Comment  

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