Rating the Critic's Role

A panel of reviewers turn the critical questions back on themselves

WHAT impact do movie critics have on filmmakers, the film industry, and the moviegoing public?

After almost a century of motion pictures, you might think some answers to this question would be apparent. But in fact, nobody seems quite certain what the purposes, priorities, and payoffs of film criticism really ought to be.

So it was clever of this year's Montreal World Film Festival to assemble a day-long symposium of film critics, along with some representatives of the film industry, to discuss all this. I was on the panel for its long morning session, and after more discussion over lunch, I attended much of the afternoon session as a spectator.

The panel got off to a lively start when its moderator, critic Peter Rainer of the Los Angeles Times, asked distributor Jeff Lipsky - of October Films, a feisty company that releases many offbeat productions - how reviewers help or hurt his efforts to broaden the cinematic spectrum.

Mr. Lipsky replied that critics are rarely a problem, since they're generally interested in new and unusual works. Rather, difficulties come from editors who feel obligated to lavish attention on the most publicized Hollywood productions.

Not surprisingly, members of the panel were pleased to be commended for their open-minded attitudes. What followed was not a round of editor-bashing, however, but acknowledgment that critics and editors face a common problem: the diminishing amount of space for arts coverage in newspapers and magazines.

Richard Schickel of Time granted that it can be difficult to persuade an editor why a particular low-profile film is more interesting than Hollywood's newest high-budget clone, yet he commended editors for generally aiming at fair decisions. By contrast, English critic Derek Malcolm of the Guardian told of a respected London reviewer who was fired for leading a day's coverage with a gentle Australian drama instead of a hyped Hollywood picture.

Others agreed that such an event is highly regrettable. They also concurred that a key part of their mission is to alert moviegoers to films that would otherwise go unrecognized and unviewed - a task that often means fighting the publicity system and the tendency for many readers (and editors) to be more concerned with box-office returns than reasoned critical analysis.

Mr. Schickel made a lucid argument against box-office statistics (as a guide to decisionmaking) when he noted that many people read book-review sections not merely as a consumer guide for book-buying, but as a way of keeping up with books, authors, and trends that they'd never have time to check out on their own. The same goes for films: Movie fans like to be informed about interesting work even if they know it won't arrive at their neighborhood multiplex.

This tied in with an ongoing question raised by the symposium: How can print critics, with their shrinking ability to develop ideas at length, compete with the high technology and sheer blasting power of instant-opinion broadcast critics?

London critic Hugo Davenport, of the Daily Telegraph, said this problem is symptomatic of the postmodern age, when voices of authority are ever more decentralized and cacophonous. Others on the panel agreed that print criticism is not as potent as it used to be, partly because of TV competition and partly because of dwindling space.

Gone are the days, these critics felt, when scintillating writers like Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael had public debates that were discussed by movie-lovers everywhere. Panel member Brian De Palma, the maker of such controversial films as ``Carrie'' and ``Scarface,'' provided an example of how critical clout has declined.

When his colleague Martin Scorsese made the searing ``Taxi Driver'' in 1976, the studio wanted Mr. Scorsese to cut out its most astringent moments. Scorsese battled the moguls, rallying Ms. Kael to his side. And on the critic's advice, the studio backed down - an outcome, Mr. De Palma insisted, that could not be repeated today.

De Palma made his point in answer to my suggestion that the panel was sounding more romantic than realistic. While he's right that print critics have less public presence than during the 1970s, it's my feeling that movie reviewing never had a Golden Age. There was never a time when great critics were many, bad critics were few, and most moviegoers knew the difference.

For one thing, Hollywood has always fought skeptical critics - often successfully - with promotion and propaganda. For another, criticism is in acceptably good shape today, with a small but solid band of first-rate writers publishing reasonably long articles with a reasonable degree of editorial freedom.

Nor has cinema itself fallen into an abysmal swamp, despite the doleful opinions of some on the panel. There are problems in today's film world, to be sure. It's true that Hollywood movies are less consistent and inspired than at some periods in the past. It's true that a limited number of blockbusters - abetted by journalists who report ticket sales as if they were sports statistics - divert attention from more modest and worthwhile pictures. And it's true that Hollywood's domination of global markets badly diminishes cultural expression.

It's not true, however, that Hollywood pictures once glowed with an intelligence that has abruptly disappeared these past few years. Mr. Sarris, who now writes for the New York Observer, argued on the panel that there has been a dumbing-down of movies along with the rest of popular culture. He cited ``The Fugitive'' as an example, since the climax shows two surgeons having an improbable fistfight with their valuable hands.

That's an idiotic scene, all right. But so are countless moments in countless movies churned out during the past 10 decades. If there is such a thing as a Golden Age of Cinema, its time is not the past or present, but rather the future. And if critics are going to help it arrive, a moratorium on good-old-days nostalgia might be a good way to begin.

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