The Death of the American Film Critic
The last generation of all-powerful US film reviewers is dying out as movie fans turn to the internet, says Christopher Goodwin
The cancer of the salivary gland that has afflicted Roger Ebert, America's best-known film critic, is a personal tragedy. The illness has left him unable to speak and two years ago he was forced to withdraw from his long-running television show on which, with a sparring partner, he critiqued each week's movies.
The show was popular chiefly because of the way Ebert (right), who also reviews films for the Chicago Sun-Times, and his co-host - first Gene Siskel, later Richard Roeper - would bluntly approve or disapprove of each film they reviewed, with either a 'Thumbs Up' or 'Thumbs Down'. The picture of two 'Thumbs Up' became a much sought- after accolade that film companies would, if they could, include on a film's advertising. (Despite the crassness of the thumbs, Ebert is a serious and respected critic.)
But Ebert's illness is symbolic of a greater malaise afflicting the profession of film criticism in the United States. In just the last two years around 30 top film critics, many from leading newspapers and magazines, have been fired or retired.
They include David Ansen, chief film critic for Newsweek, Jack Matthews from the New York Daily News and Gene Seymour from New York Newsday, names well-known to American movie fans, especially in their home cities. Newspapers and magazines are cutting the space devoted to film reviews or running syndicated reviews from elsewhere.
The reason is plain enough: the internet, which is drastically eating into the circulation and profitability of newspapers and magazines in America. Young people have almost completely abandoned print as a way of getting news and analysis.
Anne Thompson, who writes for film trade paper Variety, says that the students who attend her film criticism class at the University of Southern California, "who are film-obsessed and hardly representative of their non-cinephile peers, can't name a working critic other than Ebert." It doesn't help that many of the leading film critics are in their late 50s and 60s and often seem out- of-tune with the much younger people who fill cinemas on opening weekends.
The demise of America's film critics has become a cause for alarm in intellectual circles here. Film criticism, like cinema, has always been taken much more seriously in America than in the UK. No British critic, apart perhaps from Grahame Greene, has ever had the influence of Andrew Sarris, who wrote for the Village Voice for many years, or Pauline Kael (right), who wrote for the New Yorker until the early 1990s.
In the late 1960s, taking his cue from the French magazine Cahiers du Cinema, Sarris coined and popularised the 'auteur theory', that directors were the most important creative force in filmmaking, and thus helped change the balance of power in Hollywood.
Kael was so influential that director David Lean claimed that her scathing review of Ryan's Daughter stopped him from making another movie for 14 years. "Not many reviewers have a real gift for effrontery," she once said. "I think that may be my best talent."
But Kael loved to champion low-brow films other intellectuals scorned and her criticism also inspired many of today's biggest names, including Wes Anderson. Many of the current generation of - aging - critics are direct intellectual descendants of Kael, and known as the 'Paulettes' by their enemies.
Patrick Goldstein, writing about the demise of America's movie critics in the Los Angeles Times recently, nostalgically recalled his own youth, when "critics gave art its context, explained its meaning and guided us to new discoveries".
Now people trawl movie blogs, of which there are dozens, for early information about movies, or swarm to sites that aggregate criticism, like rottentomatoes.com and metacritic.com. With the democratising power of the internet at their fingertips, people prefer to find out for themselves what they think rather than be told. I wonder what Pauline Kael would say about that. ·
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