The story continues. Earlier this year I discussed Gerald Peary's For The Love Of Movies: The Story Of American Film Criticism. The documentary shows the rise and the fall--it wasn't that long ago when being a movie critic was a job that put you in the center of a thriving field, not to mention a thriving debate.
In the past decade or so, as print media has been dying, so has the major film critic. There were a number of pieces bemoaning this fact. Then Andrew O'Hehir, in Salon, told the critics that no one wants to hear them whine.
Now James Wolcott, in Vanity Fair, surveys the debate. He quotes Tom Shone, who wrote a fine books on Hollywood blockbusters, and now claims that critics have become insular and cut off from popular taste:
I think… film critics are blazingly out of sync with the vast majority of filmgoers—just look at the praise heaped on movies like Duplicity, Up in the Air, A Serious Man and Greenberg, all clever, sometimes witty, thematically rich movies with no discernible pulse. In fact, with 75% of film critics giving Greenberg an enthusiastic thumbs up, it might be argued that it’s high time film critics went extinct.
This is a bit harsh. First, there are plenty of middlebrow critics who like many of the same films as the masses. Second, critics see a lot of films and so tire more easily of all the cliches Hollywood throws at them. Third, isn't it sort of the job of critics, even middlebrow ones, to have good taste, and thus disagree with the public at regular intervals?
As for the films he lists: Duplicity was meant to be a crowdpleaser, an international thriller with big stars. It didn't get great notices and, while it made a disappointing $80 million worldwide, it's not like the public shunned it. Up In The Air he may not like, but the public did--considering it's a fairly intimate film, it still made over $160 million worldwide. A Serious Man, without a big name, still managed to make $26 millin worldwide--and it's not like it got wild praise from the critics (in fact, none of these films did). Greenberg was pretty bad and even with a name made almost no money, but, is Shone saying there's no room for character studies with weak plots--even if they're not all gems, and seem to him to lack a "pulse"?
Anyway, it's hard not to have sympathy for all the people losing their jobs, but, it's true, as Roger Ebert points out, there's more being written about film than ever--it's just spread out, mostly over the internet, and often more specialized.
Average filmgoers often mock critics, saying they've got rarefied taste and don't get what's truly entertaining. But the question becomes what lasts? A lot of what's popular disappears. Critics can champion things and get them attention in their time, and help keep them alive down the road. For that alone, it's a worthy avocation.