Who needs critics?

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At a time when professional print film critics are being challenged by bloggers, Sight & Sound looks at the future of criticism itself and asks leading critics to choose the writing that inspires them. Introduction by Nick James

What use are film critics? It might seem an obvious point in Sight & Sound, but ever since the second phase of the internet (web 2.0) began to undermine the print industry's economic base, the question keeps coming up. By film critics I mean what most people mean: writers who review films for a living. The reviewer's trade has always enjoyed its teeth-baring and wound-licking moments of 'crisis', but this time there is real pain. The recent US cull of print film reviewers proves that their market value has declined. Over the last couple of years, a lot of people with that title have been removed from their job (31 at time of writing). They have not been replaced, but their function is performed remotely, by more illustrious colleagues, and by unpaid enthusiasts.
The internet gives users free access to film reviews from a large number of recognised or established sources (from the New York Times to Salon), as well as to an army of opinionated bloggers, many of whom write for free. So why pay to read a newspaper or magazine critic? If a critic is surpassingly insightful and entertaining, you'd hope a publisher would still want to keep her, but that would be reckoning without the web's success in attracting advertising. US regional newspapers are suffering from catastrophic falls in ad revenue as advertisers migrate to the web. Publishers see sacking the film critic as an easy economy, as they try to cut staff costs to an absolute minimum.

Meanwhile print film critics in the UK - not such a numerous bunch - are feeling nervous because their publications are seeing similar revenue drops. So far, the negative impact on them is that they must write extra copy for their employer's websites with no increase in pay. But another indicator of their loss of status is the way some film distributors now think it is OK to bypass many, if not all, UK reviewers. They do it either because the film is a 'critic proof' blockbuster, or it's a dog's breakfast they're trying to smuggle out to fool the public.
The dilemma is clear. There's a welcome increase in free access to writing about film, but the consequence has been a drop in the status of the professional film reviewer (which may, in turn, be a symptom of a general decline in the status of journalism). No one therefore seems to find the critic-dodging of distributors unusual. But the web is not the only culprit undermining the professional reviewer; the other is marketing. Today the language of marketing is a culture all of its own, one currently more powerful and influential than criticism. Not only has it become, under New Labour, the language of government but also, if we can believe Nick Davies' recent book Flat Earth News, it makes up much of the news content in quality newspapers. According to Davies, researchers at Cardiff University found that "a massive 60 per cent of these quality print stories consisted wholly or mainly of wire copy and/or PR material and a further 20 per cent contained clear elements of wire copy and/or PR material."

We live in a culture that is either afraid or disdainful of unvarnished truth and of sceptical analysis. The culture prefers, it seems, the sponsored slogan to judicious assessment. Given that the newspapers are so in thrall to marketing, you might think that they would feel responsible for their own decline. But plenty of veteran hacks claim it was always like this.

So pity the poor professional critic, but of course hardly anyone does. Critics have long been the villains of the arts, loathed (usually) by the talent, and mistrusted by the public. Think of their depictions in cinema; the urbane schemer Addison DeWitt in All About Eve, or cold Waldo Lydecker in Otto Preminger's Laura. Prissy droppers of vitriol they may be, but at least they loom large. Who now makes films featuring critics - and why should they? Never mind that it was a bunch of critics that transformed cinema in the 1950s to create the nouvelle vague, or that another bunch paved the way for Britain's "Angry Young Men" to transform British cinema in the 1960s.

My purpose here is not to rail against dumbing down, but to consider why reviewers seem less useful to the public now than they did in 1950, when DeWitt described himself as "essential to the theatre". I'm going to restrict myself to considering the role of the critic in the UK. The twin advantages of this restriction are the fact that the UK suffers from a high degree of philistinism, so the issues stand out in greater relief, and that Britain was arguably the place where the modern idea of the critic was first formed.

Tensions between the amateur and professional approaches to criticism go back to the late 17th and early 18th centuries, to the moment when literary discussion moved out of aristocratic salons and into the bourgeois public sphere. The idea of the critic developed from the notion of the gentleman observer and commentator as embodied by Joseph Addison (in the Spectator) and Richard Steele (in Tatler). According to Terry Eagleton's The Function of Criticism, that public sphere was "animated by moral correction and satiric ridicule of a licentious, socially regressive aristocracy; but its major impulse is one of class consolidation". In Eagleton's view, "Criticism belongs with a traditional English concept of gentility which troubles the distinction between innate and acquired, art and nature, specialist and spontaneous."

Addison and Steele were of course talking to their equals. The Grub Street professional, in the form of Dr Johnson, was just around the corner, though he too wrote only for his peers. As literacy spread and the reading public grew, so the need for critics to define themselves as experts grew - for they had to separate themselves from the masses they were writing for. (One means was for literary study to be accepted into the academy.) Criticism's fundamental weakness is arguably the dichotomy between the claim of special expertise - an outside perspective - and the wish to speak as a legitimising part of the community. This is roughly the same territory as that disputed between the professional critic and the amateur blogger.

From the British film perspective it's fascinating to see the extent to which aspects of the gentleman amateur critic survived into the 1920s and 30s, when cinema was taken seriously as an art form for the first time. Here is Graham Greene writing for this magazine in 1936: "A critic concerned with an art needs… a mind which… is not prone to quick enthusiasms… He is lucky if two or three films in the year can be treated with respect, and if week after week he produces an analysis of the latest popular film showing how the script-writer, the director, and the camera man have failed, he will soon lose readers and afterwards his job. He has got to entertain and most film critics find the easiest way to entertain is 'to write big'. Reviewing of this kind contributes nothing to the cinema. The reviewer is simply adding to the atmosphere of graft, vague rhetoric, paid publicity, the general air of Big unscrupulous Business."

"The film companies, of course, are not bribing the critics. No one is going to be bribed with a glass of sherry and a cigarette. The motive is less obvious and more kindly. The daily press is to a great extent controlled by advertisers. The film critics are not free to damn a bad film. Almost the only approach possible… is the satirical… to make a flank attack upon the reader, to persuade him to laugh at personalities, stories, ideas, methods, he has previously taken for granted. We need to be rude, rude even to our fellow reviewers, but not in the plain downright way."

The world Greene describes is frighteningly similar to that of today's film reviewers. It's as if the egalitarianism of the 1960s never happened. Greene's heirs can quickly be found: the Guardian's Peter Bradshaw, for instance, who will often resort to absurdist exaggeration when dealing with a very bad film, or Anthony Lane, whose ability to be elegantly mocking and vividly metaphoric in the New Yorker has seen him proclaimed at least once as the industry's favourite critic. In the spirit of Greene's injunction to be rude, I would describe both of them as supporters of the art of cinema but neither as a great champion. Great champions need more opportunities for passionate advocacy of the unknown than come their way.

The problem for the British reviewer in this vein is that the satirist can never get too passionately involved. Many people in the UK disagree with Greene's view that film is an art form (that includes many in the industry) and academic theorists seem happy to see films just as 'texts'. The film reviewer C.A. Lejeune, who haunted the pages of the Observer from 1928-60, announced in 1947 that she was "ready to declare categorically that films are not an art… film-makers should leave all the pompous talk of art alone". This outcry was coolly batted away by one of my predecessors, Penelope Houston, in 1949 (things happened more slowly then). "No amount of debasement can alter the fact of art: if any film ever made can be called a work of art, then we are dealing with an art form."

To their credit, most British reviewers in the 'quality press' continue to consider many films as works of art. As a collective breed, however, they behave in lamblike fashion when faced by the Hollywood blockbuster. Sometimes their editors collude against them. When they give low-star ratings to high-profile films, they sometimes find them altered. When they want to ignore a below-par superhero production and boost a foreign-language film, they are sometimes overruled.

Today's UK film reviewers may be far too nice a grouping to wrest back the respect (and fear) the late Alexander Walker of the Evening Standard, for instance, once commanded. Walker was a right-wing martinet who prosecuted his hobby-horse prejudices with implacable vigour (no-one would dare smoke in his presence), but you couldn't doubt the passion of his advocacy or disavowal, even if you disagreed with him.
With print circulations declining, few reviewers have such power. Peter Bradshaw is said to be perhaps the only one in the UK who can make or break a film. My feeling is that British film reviewers must stop pretending to represent the norm and take a more prominent stand against the Hollywood machine and its avalanche of poor films, and to stand for a broader view of film culture such as you see in the examples of good criticism that follow this article. But it's easy for me to say this.

I am to some extent echoing the most famous essay on criticism this magazine ever published. In 'Stand up! Stand Up' (S&S, Autumn 1956) Lindsay Anderson took issue with the dispassionate English school of film reviewing. Alistair Cooke of 'Letter from America' fame reviewed films in the 1930s, and in a 1934 article for the Listener he said, "However much I might want in private to rage or protest or moralise, these actions have nothing to do with criticism… moral judgements should be presented as what they are - personal, subjective tastes." For Anderson this was the worst kind of English cant. His view, on seeing Cooke's views reprinted in 1953, was "there is no such thing as uncommitted criticism, any more than there is such a thing as insignificant art. It is merely a question of the openness with which our commitments are stated. I do not believe we should keep quiet about them."

This is not a call for critical purity among official critics. Bloggers have the advantage over print film reviewers in really free speech: they have no professional responsibilities, or policy interventions to deal with. They can write at any length and access historical material that once was restricted to library collections. The web offers an opportunity for another golden age of film criticism, as long as its adherents can get access to new films. Today's print film reviewers are luckier than Graham Greene in one respect only - that there are more than two or three films a year to be treated with respect. Otherwise they may collude in their own extinction by becoming bloggers themselves. Whether or not they stay in print or migrate to the web, they will need the support of their editors to become truly distinctive again by making more than the occasional passionate noise.

Join 'Sight & Sound' at BFI Southbank on 8 October at 6.20pm as we present 'The Good Critic' - a discussion of the state of film criticism - featuring Mark Cousins, Mark Fisher and Jean-Michel Frodon, editor of 'Cahiers du Cinéma'.

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012