Monday, December 11, 2017

critical quackery

Hollywood's season of unquenchable avarice officially kicked off early this morning - at 5:15 (pst) / 8:15 (est) - when the Hollywood Foreign Press Association announced its nominees in the 2017 Golden Globe race.

It's also a time when working professional critics (mostly in print) become more self-important and petty than usual, exploiting the popularity of the Golden Globes telecast by making derisive, left-handed comments about the Hollywood Foreign Press, questioning the group's "integrity" (or lack thereof) and identifying its members as mere "journalists" (or, worse yet, glorified "fans"), not bona fide critics like the snarky group on the attack.

But wait... A professional movie critic is as much a "mere journalist" as an HFP member from Norway and, the fact is, your average movie critic is no more qualified to comment on film than that HFP writer or, for that matter, some nerdy film buff pontificating on a computer in his parents' basement.

I use the gender identification "his" because most nerdy movie buffs are usually guys.

In a case of misplaced pride, a print movie critic thinks that he/she is somehow genetically superior to everyone else - the Hollywood Foreign Press, bloggers, the average moviegoer or anyone who dares to have an opinion on films - when the fact is, the only real difference is that someone (a newspaper or magazine editor) was smart (or stupid) enough to hire that person to cover the movie beat specifically and pay them. That's all.

But, of course, there's also a difference between an educated opinion and a casual one - and an educated opinion is invaluable and is what a good critic has to offer. I've met and become friends with dozens of movie critics during my years reviewing films and I can say with confidence that most of the ones whose work I admire (if not all of them) had no formal training in film or critical analysis of any sort. We all came from different scholastic backgrounds, we had different majors in college but we shared a passion for film that's been lifelong. We each started life as movie buffs and were blessed that someone was smart (or stupid) enough to hire us.

Our "educated opinions" on film were the result of obsessive moviegoing, repeat moviegoing (way before it became acceptable), reading reviews and books on movies, and "reading" movies themselves rather than just sitting there, passively, watching them. Nope, no "formal training" here.

It was self-education, pure and simple, and it continued on the job as one refined one's writing style and continually (and with much excitement) discovered elements in movies that one's readers might otherwise miss.

Anyone with a deep interest in film (and with the luck of the draw) could accomplish this. Timing is important (and, again, luck). I've known several writers, committed to film, who have dreamed for years - nay, decades - about becoming professional movie critics, a dream that's been evasive.


On the other hand, I've known more than a few newspaper writers who have landed the gig accidentally - plucked from somewhere else in the newsroom (the rewrite desk or sports section) to fill in occasionally and review a film or two - and who ended up with the title, "movie critic."

The good ones may already have had an interest in film or developed one while on the beat. The bad ones simply string adjectives around a movie synopsis - easy, lazy reviewing - and the reader learns ... nothing.

But they get hooked because, hey, movie criticism is a (seemingly) glamorous beat. Pauline Kael once complained that the danger of a bad critic is that, if he/she reviews movies long enough, the readers become accustomed to the critic's byline and writing style and, when this happens, editors are subsequently apprehensive about making a change.

The idea of who or what is a "movie critic" has morphed over the years, first with the advent of the home computer and then with the social-media blitz. Amateur movie critics who churn out opinions (sometimes educated, but mostly casual) on their sites can attract a following and think they're on par with professionals (sometimes they are, but mostly they aren't).

The movie-rating site, Rotten Tomatoes, provides exposure to what seems like thousands of "critics" (I've never had the patience or the time to count) and a wide majority of them are nobodies sharing the same stage as the somebodies, who are clearly in the minority. But there's a chance that some of these nobodies are better reviewers than the somebodies.

This movie-review madness can be traced directly to Siskel and Ebert and the various shows they hosted. There was a time when reviews of film attracted only a small, select group of newspaper readers - people interested in the arts in general and movies in particular. And critics were seen as stuffy professorial types, miserable and unpleasant and deserving of their misery (think Addison DeWitt or Anton Ego). This impression changed rather dramatically with Siskel and Ebert who were two regular guys sitting around talking about movies the way most men talk about sports. Roger and Gene popularized movie reviewing, bringing the profession out of the closet, so to speak.

Suddenly, everyone was an expert on movies and, with the internet providing a bottomless pit of resources, people who were limited previously to verbal opinions were now documenting them on-line as self-described "movie critics" or "film historians," titles never truly earned.

This trend watered down the importance of professional movie critics, exacerbated by Rotten Tomatoes which has legitimized a host of amateurs. Adding tension to the situation is the historic scarcity of movie-beat jobs at daily newspapers (which are the only full-time reviewing jobs where one can earn a living wage and live well). And it's become more acute as papers have reduced the beat from two or three working critics to one - or simply terminated the beat altogether, opting for wire reviews.

Because of the limited number of movie-reviewing positions, there have always been few opportunities for a newcomer to gain entry, largely because the people who held these positions stayed in them until they literally keeled over. Case in point: Roger Ebert, who was at the Chicago Sun-Times for 40-plus years and was still writing days before he passed.

Now, it's almost impossible. There have been no fresh faces among movie critics for a long time, only the usual suspects who have been at it for decades now and will remain in place (until they start keeling over one by one). So, perhaps, their snarkiness towards the HFP is understandable.

Movie critics - cognizant of the rarity of their jobs and the presence of those more than eager to replace them (often frenemies) - have always been insecure creatures. Only it's worse now, with critics having to:
  • feign enthusiasm about the latest unreviewable franchise drivel,
  • keep negativity in check (or run the risk of being accused of not really "liking" movies),
  • exhibit to editors one's "connection" with the readership,
  • demonstrate that connection with examples of hefty reader feedback/emails. 
  • or pray for a myriad of clicks via the paper's tracking, and
  • prove that no one else could possibly do the job as well as you, certainly no fraud with a blog or that unctuous new copy boy.
And, by all means, maintain an acrid, droll writing style that produces acceptable quotes for the display ads. Which, like critics, have dwindled.

Note in Passing: The title of this essay is a used one. On my first day as a movie critic - back in the late 1960s when I was in my early 20s - my editor handed me a slim volume titled "Critical Quackery (Why  Critics Are Guilty of It and How to See Through It)" by Theodore L. Shaw. Which was, at once, intimidating and demoralizing, given that Shaw accused all critics of "humbug," but also inspiring. It leveled me. High from being hired for my dream job, and at such a young age, it was promptly sobering.

Thanks to that editor, Al, and to Shaw.

Regarding Comments: All comments are enthusiastically appreciated but are moderated before publication. Replies signed "unknown" or "anonymous" are not encouraged. Please sign any response with a name (real or fabricated) or initials.  Be advised that a "name" will be assigned to any accepted post signed "unknown" or "anonymous." Thank you.

* * * * *

~George Sanders demonstrating his smirk as Addison DeWitt in "All About Eve"
 ~photography: Twentieth Century Fox 1950©

~The critic Pauline Kael 

~Anton Ego in "Ratatouille"
 ~photography: Pixar/Disney 2007©
~The critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert


Bennett said...

Your column immediately brought back memories of that classic Marshall McLuhan scene in "Annie Hall" when Woody Allen tries to quiet down a guy pontificating in a movie line

Sheila said...

The only critic worse than a movie critic is a food critic. The one who writes for our local paper, who is very popular, seems like such a fraud. And his reviews are hilarious, unintentionally, I'm sure. They read like parodies of criticism.

Kiki said...

It's so eerie that you should mention Addison DeWitt. Although I've seen the movie "Rebecca" more times than I can remember, I finally got hold of the book at the library. Hitchcock followed the book admirably and the disgusting cousin (played, of course, by George Sanders) was spot on. I loved ZsaZsa Gabor for something she said when she was still coherent. When asked what the saddest moment in her life was, she said, "the day I heard George Sanders had died."

Bunuel said...

I appreciate that you address the lack of turnover among the major movie critics who do, indeed, stay the job for decades, leaving little room for fresh voices. I remember that both Gene Shallit and Joel Siegel died on the job, after decades at their respective networks. What's interesting is that neither was replaced at the networks. Movie reviews were discontinued at both

Bill from Philly said...

Yes, the turnover stinks!

van said...

The food critic here is also a joke, but the paper seems to love him. I guess he gets a lot of "clicks." We have a TV critic (whose qualifications are also in doubt), but the movie critic was axed a while back. The paper runs reviews from other papers.

joe baltake said...

Van & Sheila- Yes, food critics are a joke and make no sense, given that no two meals are alike, even if they are ostensibly identical, the same. I would think the quality varies from day to day. I've had terrific means only to be disappointed when I ordered the same entree on the next visit.

And Van- Who needs any qualifications to review television. The idea is absurd. As an editor once said to me, "A monkey could do it" (no offense to monkeys intended).

van said...

Good one. But I'd like to think that a monkey could do a better job!

Paul Gottlieb said...

You mention critics being conscious of not being too negative. I guess it does look bad if a critic dislikes more movies than he likes. It could put his job in jeopardy. But the result is that so many reviewers have lowered their standards and they seem to save their venom for the easiest target. There are few critics worth reading these days.

Franny said...

There are no more Pauline Kaels and Andrew Sarrises among movie critics. And I'm not sure that critics like Kael and Sarris would survive in this age of instant gratification when critics who can't write give grades and when, in turn, grades are the only thing that moviegoers talk about. They don't quote what the critic said; they only refer to the star and number ratings. An A+ or three stars tell me nothing about a movie. People today are movie-illiterate and so are the critics they "read."

Tim K. said...

You're right. The internet created a bunch of would-be and wannabe critics and Rotten Tomatoes has given them unearned credibility. I can understand why the studios are so upset with it.

Gary M. said...

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Walt said...

wow, Joe, what a self-deprecating article you wrote, but you know, almost all of it makes sense...

Who was the guy who produced "The Twilight Zone"? Ah, yes, Rod Serling...

I looked and looked and looked and couldn't find if he really said this or not but in the tongue in cheek reference to critics/writers, he supposedly said:

"Writers are like frustrated actors who act out all the roles in the empty auditorium of their skulls..."

k.o. said...

So you're saying that most critics learn on the job?

joe baltake said...

k.o. - In a word, yes. -J

Erika Pruetz said...

Joe- Haven't you been on Rotten Tomatoes for years, if not decades? E.P.

joe baltake said...

Erika- Regrettably, yes. -J

Doug said...

I see where a critic named Cole Smithee single-handedly lowered "Lady Bird's" 100% rating to a 99 on Rotten Tomatoes.

joe baltake said...

Cole who?

Charlotte said...

Apropos of your comment about the different backgrounds among movie critics, I know that both A.O. Scott of The New York Times and Michael Phillips who reviews for the Chicago Tribune started out as book reviewers.

a.n. said...

Well said Joe. True. I hope you know that you have achieved decades of a job very well done.

zach said...

well said, joe!

Len Richardson said...

what you said about rotten tomatoes is so true; that site has really dumbed down reviewing, even if that wasn't its intention. We live in strange times! (In more ways than one!)

mike schlesinger said...

Armond White loved to give negative reviews just to lower RT scores. TOY STORY 3 sat at 100% until he panned it. He got a ton of shit for that.