The Floundering State of Film Criticism

Ana Rivas sent in this piece on a recent confab at Boston University featuring two film critics – Renata Adler, who for a short time in the ’60s was a film critic for The New York Times and A.O. Scott, who is the current chief film critic for the paper. The conversation contained some interesting points on the current condition of film criticism.

By Bill Marx

Journalists becoming celebrities, the tension between news and entertainment business, an expanding digital medium next to a shrinking print industry and the increasing conglomeration of media ownership present major dilemmas to newspapers in general and to film critics in particular.

Dilemmas for which “I have no answers,” said Orville Schell, Dean of the Berkeley School of Journalism, at a seminar in Boston University. But, he added, ethics is not enough. “Berkeley has this course on Media Law and Ethics, everybody does. But, you know what folks? Ethics is not enough.” On the contrary, “it’s the bottom line” which is why according to Schell “we’re in deep trouble.”

Regarding film critics, we are in “blurbing” trouble, the Editor & Publisher Magazine said in Jan. 2004, when it devoted its “Ethics Corner” to movie reviews. The magazine called it “The Blurbing of America,” referring to words the studios’ ad agencies cut from reviews to paste in promos. “Film critics are packaged by the film studios, aided by newspaper advertising departments hungry for the full-page ads that are part of huge movie budgets.”

But although the advertising blurbs do provide some fame to critics and money to newspapers, they are not the only ethical crossroads a newspaper’s staff critic faces.

Today’s chief film critic for the New York Times, A.O. “Tony” Scott, and his equal in 1968, Renata Adler, took a different approach to the topic in a confab at Boston University three weeks ago. They agreed that the critic’s essential service was to serve as a consumer guide, but also discussed what form reviewing was allowed to take beyond that rock bottom duty.

The conversation approached the dilemmas for film criticism today from the perspectives of Scott and Adler, and, in doing so, suggested some of the ways film criticism and arts journalism has changed over the last 37 years, from Vietnam to Iraq, from that May to the French riots this November, from “Yellow Submarine” to “Chicken Little.”

Are film critics journalists? “Film reviewing has always had an ingredient of reportage,” Adler said in her now famous piece “House Critic” (1980), where she pulverized Pauline Kael, her colleague at the time at The New Yorker magazine.

The staff movie critic’s job, according to Adler’s “A Year in the Dark,” (1969) is closer to the work of the political columnist, who writes about daily events in the public domain, than to the art, book, or theatre critic, who write for relatively specialized audiences. This is because, “alone among the arts, [movies] count as their audience, their art consumer, everyone. (Television, in this respect is clearly not an art but an appliance, through which reviewable material is sometimes played).”

“Movies, people care enough,” Scott said. “Reviewing movies is like reviewing candy bars: people already know what they like,” Scott said quoting her, and added that this may be why everyone feels entitled to question the reviewer judgments, for being elitists, to some, and shallow, to others.

For Adler, the critic’s goal should be to “provide some sort of indication” to the readers, about if they might like to see it or not: “To be able to convey the quality of a performance.”

“That is, perhaps, the greatest challenge,” Scott agreed. But, he said, it is also “a very utopian thing.” Because of the work’s limitations: the editors asking for top-ten lists, space, time, and that you cannot quote a scene in an article –every time he tried, he said he ended up writing a too long description that had nothing to do with the actual scene. “You don’t get to work on a piece for months, they are not going to run the movie for you seven times,” so your job is “not to get it absolutely right, but as right as you can,” Scott said.

“Still, there have to be limits on the form a review is allowed to take,” Adler interrupted him. “It cannot be an attack to the audience that might like the thing.” Pauline Kael, Adler said, did that as a tactic, and humiliated the readers who liked the movies she loathed. “It just doesn’t seem fair.”

“And is not an uncommon practice today,” Scott said. They both also objected critics who instead of giving the reader an accurate account use “strange physical connections.” For example, if they say that a movie is “a ride,” –something it simply isn’t- or that it is “hart-stopping,” –that seems rather painful, but is used as a compliment. Or when critics use phony images like “fiercely hypnotic.” What is that? They asked.

“Any kind of writing has its constraints,” Scott generalized. “What you write is disposable. What you write about is disposable. What you try is to take things as seriously as you can, to be as serious as you can, within the context of speed,” he said. “I see myself trying. And I don’t see myself as unique.”

But for Ray Carney, BU Prof. of Film and American Studies, it doesn’t seem to be enough. “When I asked Tony Scott to ‘blue sky,’ imagine how the reviewing process could be improved, he said he liked it just like it was,” Carney said on an email interview. “That’s what I call being trapped in the system, a system of thought and expression that everyone knows is shallow but that no reviewer apparently has the courage (or intelligence) to confront his editor about and demand a change to.”

Carney said definitions are arbitrary, however. He reserves “the term ‘critic’ for someone with historical perspective and intellectual insight.” In his opinion, most reviewers function less as critics than as consumer product reporters. A definition both Adler and Scott used, but for Carney, “that’s not criticism, that’s glove salesmanship,” and often not even well achieved. “Unfortunately, reviewers aren’t even very good at the consumer reporting side of things. Most function as extensions of the Hollywood publicity machine. They aren’t really critical enough, hard enough, careful enough to tell you what is actually good and bad.”

Is a film critic a defender of the reader from the marketing machine? Scott and Adler were asked.

“That’s a fascinating question for the news themselves,” Adler answered. Newspapers shield people from the pressures of the powerful, and this was so misunderstood that now we see reporters asking for a shield to convey those pressures, where media becomes a tool for the government to convey their PR pressures, she said.

When she was chief film critic at the Times, “there began to be constant rumors that I was fired or had quit, that the industry had applied pressure,” Adler wrote in 1969. “The Times might be besieged, unhappy at moments, conciliating, but certainly it was unpressurable.” Then, she said, “The Times did not give a damn about the industry.”

Scott said he never felt any pressure to say he liked something he didn’t. But he said “the environment of marketing” has other mechanisms to which he “needs to oppose some resistance, as in a status of anticipation.” Mechanisms like placement. “Who says what goes in the front page of the weekend art section? Who says what is important? What happens if you disagree with it? Should you, therefore, ignore it?” he asks. “It’s not even a question of corruption. What kind of newspaper would not cover the Oscars?”

We see that mechanism quite tuned in: every Sunday arts criticism covers display a photograph of the week’s most hyped movie. Let’s guess: “Harry Potter IV” is next Sunday?

“Nobody in film criticism will say that we really want to promote some films, that we are a part of the publicity machine, a superstructure of media covering the entertainment business,” Scott said.

Actually, some of his colleagues might not be that cautious. The National Arts Journalism Program informed in 2002 that 50% of 169 visual arts critics (with approximately 60 million readers) believe that it is generally acceptable to participate in judging artists for prizes and competitions. 45% would generally accept payment for writing in catalogs published in museums or galleries. If film critics are, like the visual arts critics, a diverse group, ranging from full time employers at mayor dailies to part-timers at small community newspapers, they may have an equally diverse conception of journalistic ethics as well.

But according to another NAJP report, “the depth, breadth and sheer quantity of the Times’s arts coverage was unparalleled five years ago and remains so today” The Times reviews every movie that opens in Manhattan. “As it will not consider reviewing … every account field from the UN or the City Hall,” Adler compares.

“Why did you leave early?” Scott asked Adler. The work she left, movie reviewing, is the same he has now, and has had for years. Adler stayed there for 14 months. During that period she got to cover Cannes in May ’68, when the first strikes were taking place on Paris’ Cinématèque, she could enter Cuba while all other reporters from the Times were banned, and received about six letters from readers a day.

Adler answered: “I stayed longer than I expected.”

She watched at least one movie a day and wrote a piece on each, plus a long piece for Sundays. And she realized that “it is no necessary to have an opinion on any single film … Sometimes it is not necessary to have an opinion at all!” She said that a year in the movies “was fine for me, but that it was about enough”

Gerald Peary, director of BU’s Cinématèque, asked the same question of Scott. Peary inquired if Scott had ever thought if that was a silly dilettante way to spend his life. To what Scott answered with another question: “And is that a bad thing?”

He said that there is something on the job of a film critic on a daily newspaper has to do with “manufacturing an opinion.” And that there was something on the work of a film critic on a daily newspaper that happens to be the New York Times that “is a question of power.”

Both critics agreed on the political discontent that movie reviews seem to awake among readers. Adler said she found out that the job had sides she did not quite anticipated, “it turned out to be extremely public.” She even once had to testify in a Congress investigation. When Scott asked her to recall that experience, she did not remember which movie was it all about, but that “one of the minor things that was wrong was that it had the sun rising in the west.”

“Now we are living in an extremely politicized society,” Scott said. He said he would expect readers’ dissent when reviewing “Fahrenheit 9/11” or “The Passion of the Christ,” but that is anywhere. “I get it anyway for reviewing ‘Star Wars.’”

Scott was hired at the Times because of a piece he wrote at Internet has provided young writers the opportunity to reach a readership, and he knows that. But film criticism, somehow remains as a rather selective club. For example, the Online Film Critics Society ( receives hundreds of applications but only a few meets the organization’s standards for membership. Writers who wish to apply must maintain an annual online publication quota of at least 50 professional-level reviews, no less than 400 words per review, of a professional level quality, and comprehensive. The prospective member should offer meaningful contributions to film criticism and the OFCS, and their written work or web site should have outstanding features.

“I see a proliferation of voices,” Scott said, “I see Internet has democratized film criticism a lot.” But he said he still doubts that more reviews may not mean better reviewing. “It is changing, is in the middle of a change … If you ask me what is going to be, I don’t know the answer.”

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