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Are Critics Relevant?

Are Critics Relevant?

It’s fun to be a critic. We get to see movies early, we get free things, we get to make top-10 lists to show off our artsy, cultured tastes. We get angry comments and letters. On occasion we get nice comments and letters, too.

I have to admit, however: criticism is a dying art form. At least in the form it once was.

Not too long ago we all read the same newspapers, magazines and journals. Thus, we got to know and trust specific critics and writers who spoke up and informed us of what we should see or buy. Nowadays, however, no one reads newspapers, and everything we do read is completely pull media. That is, we pull it off a site that we take the initiative to visit. No one is pushing anything on us. No one is telling us what or who to read. There are millions of websites and writers and bloggers and pontificators to fit whatever whim or fancy you—a niche—might have. There is no uniform standard of anything anymore. That’s strike one against the critic.

Here’s strike two for the film critic: everyone is their own Ebert. Anyone under 30 has grown up with enough film savvy to be able to write a film “review,” analyzing things like plot and genre and editing and cinematography. With DVD commentaries (essentially self-educational references for the art of filmmaking) and democratized production (handheld cameras, YouTube micro-cinema), every kid with the initiative can become the next Tarantino (i.e. a film know-it-all/auteur). All of this helps erode the aura of “the movie critic”—making him less and less relevant in a hyper- savvy media culture.

Strike three is the film industry’s argument: the box office. They claim (and I heard this line just last week from a PR guy) that critics are meaningless by mere fact that the average top five box office comprises movies that critics loathe. Occasionally the No. 1 film isn’t even screened for critics. Thus, as the argument goes, a movie’s success (which in Hollywoodspeak means its box office take) is obviously independent of its critical success, at least with a certain type of big-budget, mega-marketed movie. Films, they say, are increasingly “critic-proof.” That is, even the most damning reviews cannot stop a film from being an audience success. Look at critically reviled yet financially profitable bilge like Wild Hogs, Ghost Rider and Norbit. What good is a critic if we can’t stop people from wasting money on this crap?

The answer, I think, is that our job should NOT be to try to keep people away from bad movies. Instead, we should try to keep people from missing the great movies. Sure, I enjoy writing scathing reviews of atrocious films (who doesn’t?), but I’d much rather write about a film that I love. It’ s fun to make a dent in the undeserving monstrosities, but it’s way more fulfilling to give some momentum to the deserving-yet-unknown little guy.

I think the food critic character in Ratatouille (which releases this week on DVD … highly recommended) puts it nicely in his final speech of the movie. He speaks for all critics, I think, when he says:

    “In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that, in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new.”

Indeed, the discovery and defense of something new—something true, beautiful, significant, progressive—is when the critic feels most validated. It’s when anyone feels most validated. Yes, it’s true that the cultural significance of “the critic” is waning. In our bottom-up, user-driven society, top-down suggestion is way less persuasive than peer-to-peer recommendations. We see through marketing and are suspicious of opinions—unless they are from people we trust. And yet to be someone that people trust (more than just your best friends and family) takes some devotion to the critical discipline.

I recently heard someone say that “we are leaving the Information Age and entering the Recommendation Age.” And I think this is very true. We are so overwhelmed with choices in this information/entertainment glut of a culture that we increasingly depend on filters to help sift through it all. Often it is a friend we trust or a blogger who shares our tastes, or an aggregate site ( or that provides a consensus. Sometimes “75% fresh” sells a movie better than one critic’s glowing, four star review.

In any case, the point is that after all I’ve said, we still depend on filters to some extent (and this gives a bit of hope for the future of criticism). In his recent book The Long Tail, economist Chris Anderson describes the increasingly vital role of the “post-filter” who finds the best of what’s out there, elevating the good and ignoring the bad. In this way we might envision the critic as moving from “gatekeeper” to “advisor.”

And I’m certainly OK with that role. I’d much rather be a cultural advisor (helping like-minded friends and acquaintances sort through the massive cacophony of chaff to find the wheat) than a high-minded gatekeeper (where elitist opinions are imposed on the masses). There are unlimited tastes and niches and opinions out there, and any claim to objective greatness of anything is absurd. Thus, we have more and more critics to meet the needs of multitudinous audiences.

If what I say about a movie doesn’t correspond with what you think (or want to think), go Google for someone who does. In cyberspace there are Yes Men for everything. The critic’s job is to be the Yes man for the best.

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