In her article Do We Still Need Film Critics?, film critic MaryAnn Johanson points to a decline in paid positions for film critics in recent years. Two of the factors, she points out, could be the preponderance of amateur online critics (ahem) and that teenaged viewers drive today's film market. Now that she has me thinking about the topic, here are some thoughts about our need, as a culture, for film criticism in general (paid or not).
I lived in Guatemala for three months in the fall of 2003. When I left the U.S. in September, I took just one book with me: Roger Ebert's Movie Yearbook 2003. The book, published in December 2002, contains hundreds of reviews from 2002 and much of 2001, as well as a few essays and selections from Ebert's "Ask the Movie Answer Man" column. I read the book cover-to-cover. Ebert piqued my interest in over a hundred titles that either I had never heard of, or that I had dismissed without seeing. More importantly, I gained familiarity with Ebert's style, his moods, and the sorts of stories that make him sentimental (a boy talking to his dead father in Frequency) or irate (mocking the Prime Minister of Malaysia in Zoolander).
I'm not ready to commit to trying to reach Ebert's caliber, but I still try to apply these basic lessons to my own writing, to make them:
1. Non-narrative. This only becomes obvious to me after I've seen the movie, but his reviews don't just regurgitate the plot, nor do they necessarily recount the plot in the same sequence portrayed in the film. Yes, the reader needs to have a sense of what they're getting into, but we don't want the movie spoiled for us, either. In my own reviews I too often find myself trying to describe the entire plot, just as a foundation, so I can then talk about it. Ebert picks out moments (some insignificant) that prepare the viewer for the film's tone; knowing how the movie will make me feel is much more important than knowing what will happen. And by mixing up the order of events, he decreases the chance that he's spoiling something, because I can no longer compare the narrative of the film, as I'm watching it, to the narrative of Ebert's review.
2. Abstract. I find it difficult to untether my reviews from the literal subject of the movie, but Ebert is inspired. The movie is just a launchpad to say something interesting and meaningful. For uninteresting movies, Ebert does us a service by not limiting himself to the film's subject, and for more original movies, he does a service to the film's creators by attempting interpretation. As a result, his reviews are intellectual, and enjoyable even if I have no intention of seeing the movie. When the critic contemplates the film, we are reminded that we can do the same, that most movies (even the bad ones) are worthy of some thought, some mental post-processing, that makes the experience matter to us. When we reflect on the movie we've just seen, we become thinkers, instead of consumers.
3. Relative. I won't watch horror movies, and if I did watch one, I would pan it. The same goes for a lot of kiddie movies, which don't offer much for adults. Ebert has the ability to consider films within the context of their genre. Yes, he favors some genres, but he doesn't sink a film just because it's not emotionally devastating, or isn't serious. He gives movies a fair chance, and compares them more to their own peers than he contrasts them to his personal favorites.
4. Contextual. Ebert has seen, and reviewed, a lot of movies, and he remembers them. When I read his work, I learn not just about the film being reviewed but about that film's place in movie history, how it compares with the director's or writer's other efforts, and why the film is or is not original. I have seen precious few of the films Ebert references in his reviews, thus his work establishes for me a lattice of previous films, linking this one film to a century's worth of films that preceded it.
5. Personal. Ebert is in his reviews. He talks about his childhood, his various job, his wife, his likes and dislikes. We get to know him personally through the body of his work, adding a cohesive element that would otherwise be absent were he bound entirely by the subject of each reviewed movie. Also, and this relates to my project this year, it makes me more aware of the viewer as active participant in the film process. Movies don't exist in a vacuum; they come to life only through our experience of them. We bring to our theater seat the sum of our personal experience, and that shapes our understanding of the film more than does the director's efforts.
Ebert is an exceptional film critic, but that's not to say that we can't derive similar enjoyment and meaning from other film critics. To Johanson's point, perhaps the internet has created a lot of noise, making it more difficult to find critics worth reading.
I'm confident that the internet has made us hastier. Because we can now all hear each other, we have stiffer competition to be among the first to do something. Why would a reader wait for their local columnist to review a movie when hundreds of reviews appear online the moment the film is released? I'm not sure in what secret location paid reviewers are able to view movies weeks in advance of their release, but this privilege is available to more than just a select few, whether in legitimate form (audience testing, advanced screenings, rough cut sequences shown at conventions, featurette trailers, international access) or not (leaked copies). The "first" phenomenon is, no doubt, confined mostly to amateurs. But since amateurs outnumber the professionals a thousand to one, and, to distinguish themselves, rush to publish their review, the well-written but slow review will be left in the dust.
In a very lazy attempt to support the previous paragraph, I present Clash of the Titans, opening later this week. I'm not one of the cool kids, and so haven't seen it yet (in fact, I'm saving this one until May, when my best friend visits). On Rotten Tomatoes, the film has been reviewed by just three official critics, but by eighty-five amateurs. That's not quite the thousand-to-one ratio I suggested, but it is certainly a disparity, and the gap will only widen once the movie is actually released.