Death to film critics? Ebert on the practice of professional criticism
My colleague Roger Ebert chimed in last week with a grim blog post on the state of film criticism. Starting with the alarming news that the Associated Press has mandated that all entertainment writers must write at or under 500 words. Roger links this to what he characterizes as the recent turn toward "celebcult" with the focus of entertainment writing shifting to gossip and away from serious, thoughtful writing about the arts. He bemoans what he sees as the end of serious criticism.
Um, not so fast.
Given the finanacial state of journalism (the Sun-Times and the Tribune in a race to see who can go out of business first, ad revenues in the toilet across the industry, paper and production costs up, film critics and other arts critics being dumped as a cost-cutting measure), it's reasonable for professional critics of film, or heck most of the arts, to be gloomy. And most of the full-time critics I know have become a pretty grim bunch, making gallows-humor jokes about brushing up on our other skills (I'll be selling puka-shell necklaces on the beach somewhere…) and how you can tell when your job is the next on the chopping block.
BUT, and it's a big but, the trends Ebert's piece tracks are not the end of criticism, or the rise of gossip, though that's what he claims. Let's take gossip first. Celebrity gossip has been part of film journalism since almost the beginning of film. As film scholar Richard deCordova and others have documented, even before actors were identified in the credits of short films in the 1900–1910 era, people were curious about the people making the movies. And so, a whole industry of gossip was born. That's not new. The intensity has increased (as Roger asserts), but gossip has always been there in the film industry.
And is serious criticism really dead, or has it just changed addresses? Ebert himself was charged with being the 'end of serious criticism' back in the days when he and his pal Gene Siskel first went on television to talk about movies. A lot of 'serious critics' (that is, print critics) sniffed loudly and turned up their noses then. It seems strange that Roger, who has often celebrated the wonders of film writing to be found on the web, doesn't say anything about Web film writing in his grim prognostication on film criticism's future.
Serious writing about film is, as Vadim Rizov rightly points out on Screengrab, alive and well and living on the internet. You can, as Vadim notes, find incredible writing about film with just a few typed keywords in a search engine. Yeah, you have to get past a lot of badly written, unanalytical crap, but it's out there. For the hardcore film fanatic whose definition of film fanaticism is not "I saw The Dark Knight 14 times" but rather "I like the early work of Tarkovsky better," there are sites like Sense of Cinema, Jonathan Rosenbaum's site and many others.
The change, then, is that serious criticism is for the most part no longer a paid profession. Fewer venues employ full-time critics or allow them to engage in long-form criticism. And, as Vadim also smartly points out, it's not like newspapers outside a few urban centers were exactly fostering an army of smart cultural critics musing on the arts. Dig back through the last 20 years of film reviews at papers in, say, Pittsburgh, Iowa City and Denver (a random selection, I swear, with no offense meant to these cities in particular), and you're more likely to find sloppy plot summary and a simple indication of whether or not you can take the kids to see it.
No, these days a lot of people are writing a lot about film and books and art (and food and wine), but they are doing it on blogs and at websites where there's no pay. What Roger is really bemoaning, it seems to me, is the death of the paid public intellectual (if you'll pardon the use of a term a lot of people flinch at). The fact of the matter is that the audience for serious, thoughtful criticism has always been a subset of the larger reading public, and what's happening right now is simply that the thoughtful critics are either scraping together a living writing for a variety of places (like our old pal Anthony Kaufman) or they are making a living outside criticism and doing their critical thinking in their free time.
That may be a serious change in where and how thinking happens, but it does raise a big question about Roger's assertion that paid film critics are the canary in the coal mine. What he may have missed is that, if newspapers are the coal mine, what may have happened is that we've moved to alternative fuels; While we paid critics chirp in the coal mine, serious criticism has gone to solar.
Editor's note: There's an interesting discussion about this post going on at MenuPages Chicago blog, and Hank's chimed in there as well.