Critical breakdown, Part 2


Film critics are the spotted owls of journalism. They can only survive where people respect subtlety, art, depth, meaning, originality and tradition in movies. The steady progress of million dollar studio marketing machines and the decline in audience taste and patience -- call it Global Dumbing -- have wiped out most such environments. The most recent to succumb was the "Atlanta Journal-Constitution," where veteran critic Eleanor Ringel Gillespie opted for a buy-out. As for the last few artificially maintained refuges for genuine criticism, they will soon be a memory too. Like hapless, toothless polar bears on melting ice floes, film critics are sinking, without comprehension or much resistance, into extinction.

Good riddance, most will say. They deserve it if only for such inexcusable extended metaphors as the one above. One person who will shed few tears will be Peter Bart, erstwhile Hollywood producer and studio head and current editor of “Variety.”  A couple of months ago, noting that films like “300” have made tons of money despite critics saying they sucked, he suggested that the latter “find a new line of work.”

Apparently the line of work he was thinking of was shilling for studio PR departments, as he goes on to say that they should “attempt to tune in to pop culture,” ie, echo the advertising compelling the masses to mindless consumption of movie product. An appreciation for films like “300”, or such memorable Bart productions as “Revenge of the Nerds II: Nerds in Paradise.”

But critics won’t go without a struggle. Take Ronald Bergen’s manifesto in “The Guardian,” “What Every Movie Critic Should Know.” It’s a long list. Here’s a sample:

“They should have seen Jean-Luc Godard's Histoire du Cinema, and every film by Carl Dreyer, Robert Bresson, Jean Renoir, Luis Buñuel and Ingmar Bergman, as well as those of Jean-Marie Straub and Danielle Huillet, and at least one by Germaine Dulac, Marcel L'Herbier, Mrinal Sen, Marguerite Duras, Mikio Naruse, Jean Eustache and Stan Brakhage. They should be well versed in Russian constructivism, German expressionism, Italian neo-realism, Cinema Novo, La Nouvelle Vague and the Dziga Vertov group.”

So much for Hollywood; I would have at least included Alfred Hitchcock and  John Ford, if not “The Three Amigos.” And though I can sympathize with Bergen’s impulse to counter growing irrelevance with intensified erudition, I also suspect Bart might have paid him off to write what sounds like the perfect parody of a pointy-headed critic.

Somewhere between Bart and Bergen, perhaps, lies a happy medium. The “Boston Globe”’s Ty Burr has some useful insights on his movie blog on the subject. What should every critic know? he asks. “How to engage readers. How to make them see the thing afresh, whatever it may, and even more than that the world that contains it.” Or as James Agee wrote about 65 years ago in his first column for “The Nation,” “It is my business to conduct one end of a conversation, as an amateur critic among amateur critics. And I will be of use and of interest only in so far as my amateur judgment is sound, stimulating, or illuminating.”

A conversation, is it? Obviously Agee didn’t have to deal with e-mail (“Dear Splashhead…”). But I get the point. I think the key function for critics is to spur audiences beyond the “white knuckle thrill ride” level of enjoyment, the mindless Pavlovian conditioned response. Maybe get them to watch movies a little more like critics themselves (believe me, it is far more rewarding), and maybe even apply such critical thinking to less important matters, like the upcoming presidential election.

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