Is this the Decline and Fall of the Film Critic? asks the Monitor's own

The movies are having a boom time - but is movie reviewing having a crisis?

Many film critics say yes. The first alarm was sounded a couple of years ago in a widely read New Yorker article by David Denby, now a staff reviewer for the magazine. Movie criticism is being dumbed down, he argued, as publications and broadcast outlets take an increasingly superficial view of film's artistic value and social role. Other pundits took up Denby's tone, lamenting a growing tendency for journalists to treat the art of cinema as nothing more meaningful than an excuse for munching popcorn at the multiplex.

Not every critic agrees. Stuart Klawans, film critic for The Nation, warns of a temptation to compare today's scene to a past that wasn't as rosy as nostalgic journalists like to imagine. When he was growing up in Chicago during the 1950s, he recalls, his family subscribed to the Chicago Tribune, which ran all its movie reviews under the byline Mae Tinee - a pun for "matinee," and a clear sign that the paper considered film coverage too frivolous to merit a real writer's name at the top of the column. So much for a Golden Age of Film Criticism!

This notwithstanding, a wide range of practicing critics do feel their profession is in decline. Moderating a panel on the subject at Colorado's respected Telluride Film Festival in 1998, scholar Annette Insdorf cited the distinction drawn by legendary theater critic Walter Kerr between criticism and reviewing. The former aspires to in-depth discussion, Kerr argued, while the latter settles for quick opinions. Panelists acknowledged an escalating conflict between these approaches, and critics today often complain that reviewing is winning the battle.

Evidence includes the proliferation of "thumbs-up" and "star-rating" systems, which ignore the artistic and moral complexities of individual movies. Also troubling is a divide between the reputations of talented critics and their ability to find mainstream outlets. The critical community was shaken in 1998 when the New York Daily News fired Dave Kehr, long admired as one of the profession's most thoughtful members. Eyebrows raised again when the influential New York Times replaced retiring chief reviewer Janet Maslin with two new writers, one of whom has worked primarily as a book critic. Skeptics quickly asked if a paper as rich and resourceful as The Times would hire a nonspecialist to be the art, music, or architecture critic.

Since the answer to that question is definitely no, additional queries arise. Should film be treated as a second-class art form requiring less-rigorous commentary from less-experienced critics? And does this matter to readers - who may not care whether a movie column offers insightful analysis as long as it gives clear, practical information on what's playing and whether it's worth the price of a ticket?

Your view of these issues may hinge on whether you feel movies have a significant impact on individuals and societies, and whether this impact is as worthy of discussion as the entertainment value of the latest releases.

After more than 30 years of writing about motion pictures, it's my strong impression that most critics become interested in film precisely because they consider it not only a diverting form of entertainment but also a social force, a cultural barometer, and a way of expanding our knowledge of the world.

In private conversations, though, critics often speak of the resistance they encounter within their publications when they move away from consumer-guide reviewing studded with celebrity names and snappy-plot synopses. Ironically, a periodical may run editorials deploring Hollywood trends (too much violence, not enough family films) while filling its entertainment pages with articles and photos that serve as implicit advertisements for the Hollywood industry.

At the same time, movies that provide worthwhile alternatives to Hollywood fare - such as overseas releases and films made outside the commercial framework - are granted little or no space, on the theory that everyday readers aren't interested in them. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: Readers aren't interested in alternative movies, so papers don't review them, so readers aren't interested in them. If these movies did receive more widespread coverage, distributors in search of audiences would carry them far beyond the larger cities and university towns where they now primarily play.

Why are many publications so narrow in their view of film's variety and possibilities? One answer may be today's highly competitive atmosphere. Newspapers and magazines compete not only with each other but with a large array of cable-television channels and radio stations, plus the Internet with its growing list of venues and features.

In this environment, papers are tempted to grab attention by any means necessary - and what's more attention-grabbing than the glitz and glamour of the Hollywood entertainment industry? It's easy to fill pages with movie-star profiles and colorful photos from upcoming releases. "I knew an entertainment editor," recalls a veteran film critic, "who said his job description was to find as many reasons as possible to run Sharon Stone's picture."

The first thing crowded out by such trivia is more serious coverage, including in-depth articles and reviews of pictures that aren't on the distribution lists of the major studios. In addition to creating a misleading impression - that Hollywood products are all that matter - this blurs the line between journalism and advertising. Print editorialists have criticized TV networks for allowing news and entertainment to become part of the same media flow. Yet periodicals may think nothing of anchoring a page with publicity shots from a new Hollywood release, thus providing free promotion for a commercial product and allowing coverage to be dictated by graphic appeal (and studio publicity machines) rather than critical judgment.

Moviegoers may see little interest in these critical debates, finding them irrelevant to the day-to-day need for consumer advice. Few critics deny that consumer-guide reviewing has a valid place - capsule reviews and "critic's choice" features are a legitimate staple of film journalism - or that Saturday-night fun is central to the role movies play in our lives. But this doesn't stop critics from worrying that insights and ideas are being literally crowded off the page by journalism's eagerness to jump on Hollywood's glamorous bandwagon.

To protest this trend is not to glorify a mythical "good old days" that never existed. Film criticism that's at once practical, entertaining, and thought-provoking has always been the exception rather than the rule, and the likes of Mae Tinee have wielded more than their share of influence during cinema's first century.

Film culture has changed in recent years, though, and journalism is failing to encourage the most constructive aspects of that change. An ever-greater number of young people are taking courses in film appreciation, gaining more exposure to high-level cinema - and skills for understanding it - than earlier generations ever had. At the same time, the growth of home video has turned rental stores, Web sites, and movie channels into audiovisual libraries where "Citizen Kane" and "The Birth of a Nation" are only a phone call or a double-click away.

Internet reviewers are also expanding discussion of film, and while they're still regarded by many observers as a cacophony rather than a choir, recent developments - such as the formation of an Online Film Critics Society to organize their voices - hint at more positive contributions from this quarter.

In this exciting climate, it's particularly ironic that experienced, knowledgeable print critics are finding their work overshadowed by an increasing emphasis on thumbnail evaluations and flashy photos. If their profession is to reverse its decline and realize its potential in the 21st century, film journalists must keep up with the growing sophistication of American moviegoers - and encourage the filmmaking community to do the same.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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