Inside D.C. entertainment

'The semiliterate opinion-mongering of online hacks': On the future of film criticism

March 4, 2011 - 11:36 AM
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A dying breed?

Three years ago, in the pages of Variety, Anne Thompson lamented the firing of film critics as major newspapers slashed their staffs. A year later, the columnist was axed herself, and the same fate recently befell Variety's chief critic, Todd McCarthy. Like their peers, they have landed elsewhere — Thompson at indieWIRE and McCarthy at the Hollywood Reporter — but it's safe to say that in this era of fanboy blogs and opinion aggregation, the state of film criticism is in flux. That's the subject of For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism, a documentary by Boston Phoenix critic Gerald Peary that screens tomorrow afternoon at the National Gallery of Art. The film "tracks down a few of America's long-term, well-established film critics and then asks this question: with newspapers and periodicals downsizing and devoting less space than ever to film criticism, what is happening to critics, especially with the recent glut of online criticism?" I put a similar question to two of those critics, Jonathan Rosenbaum and David Sterritt, who will be in attendance tomorrow. Here are their emailed replies.

Sterritt:

Smart, thoughtful critics obviously remain smart, thoughtful critics whether they’re writing for print or the internet. The speediness with which so many print outlets have dispensed with so many critics over the past few years suggests that neither the publications nor their readers placed much value on knowledgeable film commentary in the first place, and it’s altogether possible that people who seek out a particular critic on the internet care more deeply about that critic’s views than people who happened on the film-review columns in a print periodical they’d picked up for other reasons. Beyond this, the internet has broadened the field by blurring the distinctions between writers and readers, and between so-called experts and amateurs; as I wrote a few years ago, the root of "amateur" is the Latin for "lover" and "love," and amateurs in that sense can have a passion for film that print reviewers sometimes run short of after a decade or so of sitting through sequels, spinoffs, knockoffs, and variegated dreck and having to think up something, anything, to say about the stuff. All of this said, however, informed and experienced film critics deserve steady employment and reasonable compensation as much as workers, including writers, in any other field, and it’s regrettable, to put it mildly, that writing for the internet often means writing for free, and that people with a casual interest in movies often take the semiliterate opinion-mongering of online hacks as the equivalent of carefully considered commentary by professional critics who not only care about film but know its history and its possibilities inside and out. What matters is the intelligence of the writer, not the nature of the venue. The danger is that fewer talented, sensitive writers will commit themselves to film criticism (or arts criticism in general) in the future if the cultural climate continues to devalue it.

Rosenbaum:

I don't know many film critics who have benefited from the Internet more than I have — especially because, during the latter part of the two decades I worked for the Chicago Reader, all of my reviews were posted online, eventually making my audience  international as well as local. And I can happily report that the traffic on my web site (jonathanrosenbaum.com) has more than tripled since it was launched almost three years ago, shortly after I left the Reader. According to Google Analytics Dashboard, it has received 59,475 visits from 43,816 visitors and 96,716 pageviews over the past month, and these visitors use 107 languages and come from 155 countries or territories (and 6,649 cities).

How has this changed me as a critic? Above all, by giving me a better idea of the kind of stateless community I'm privileged to belong to. And also by making me more aware that some of the younger cinephiles welcome challenging films even more than my own generation did in the 60s — or at least every bit as much. A prominent recent example of what I mean would be Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, very much a creature of the Internet.

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