Why do older movie critics suddenly want everyone off their lawn?

08.11.09 8 years ago 34 Comments

Warner Bros.

I was going to fold all of these articles into The Morning Read, but the more I thought about it, the more it felt like something that deserves its own entry.

Film critics hate you.

You.  Whoever you are, sitting wherever you’re sitting, reading these words… chances are, film critics hate you right now.

Seems unfair, doesn’t it?  After all, what did you do?

You committed the greatest sin against a critic’s work that is possible:  you did not listen.

If you had listened, then “Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen” would have had a $3 million opening weekend, while “In The Loop” would be racing towards the “Titanic” record right now.

So obviously, whoever you are, it’s all your fault.  All those remakes, all those sequels, all those amazing opening weekends for truly terrilbe films… you did that.  And so you shouldn’t be remotely surprised to learn that film critics hate you.

But you might be surprised to actually read that in print.  I was.

[more after the jump]

And I was even more surprised to see who piled onto this conversation in the last few days.  I’m a little saddened by it, to be frank.  Roger Ebert is someone I have enormous respect for, and over the past 12 years, Roger has absolutely been an important supporter at key moments.  Being invited to Champaign-Urbana to speak at his Overlooked Film Festival is still one of the highlights of my professional life.  Sitting onstage with him, talking about movies?  Come on… that’s crazy.  I can’t believe that even happened.

Over the years, I’ve tussled with Roger in print from time to time, over films like “Fight Club” or “Pearl Harbor” or, most notably, “The Cell,” but I’ve always felt that Roger treats anyone who wants to talk about film seriously as a peer, and I’ve always felt like those were welcome conversations.  I think it’s important for a person to allow their own point-of-view to be challenged often and with vigor.

And yet, when I read the first paragraph of Roger’s piece, and I see how his whole premise is built on these two massive fallacies, I’m taken aback.

“Apparently unconnected items appeared within two days of each other in the Los Angeles Times, and together confirmed my fear that American movie-going is entering into a Dark Age. The first was in a blog by Patrick Goldstein, who said: ‘Film critics are in the same boat as evening news anchors — their core audience is people 50 and over, and getting older by the day. You could hire Jessica Alba to read the evening news — or review ‘G.I. Joe’ for that matter — and younger audiences still wouldn’t care.’  The other was in a report by John Horn that despite ‘The Hurt Locker’s’ impressive box office success, ‘younger moviegoers are not flocking to the film, which could limit its ticket sales.'”

Anyone using Patrick Goldstein as a source of reliable information or opinion is, I’m afraid, starting from a losing position.  How does he know that only people who are 50 or older make up the core audience for film critics?  I am in constant communication with my audience, and that’s simply not an accurate reflection of who they are.  I constantly meet young filmmakers who have been reading my work online since high school, and school aged readers continue to discover my work and get in touch each and every year, and they are passionate about reading as many different reviews as they can for things.  I think Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic have helped embed the idea into young readers that the best way to digest criticism is by reading a wide variety of reactions, then gradually honing in on the voices that seem to mirror your own reactions the best, or that challenge you the most consistently.  Many of my readers tell me that they disagree with me frequently, and that’s why they read my work.  They take a pan as a recommendation, and a rave as a stern warning.  And I’m okay with that.  That’s how it should work.

I don’t care if anyone agrees with me.  Ever.  If I worried about whether or not my opinion mirrored what is popular or if I could single-handedly steer people to what I consider good films, I would have crumbled under the stress years ago.  I don’t think the job of a critic is to tell people what they have to go see.  I don’t think the job of a critic is to rail against what is popular, or to insult the taste of the viewing public, or even to question it.  It’s my belief that the job of a film critic is to offer up a perspective on films that is tempered by experience and by a broader film knowledge.  A film critic can describe their own experience, and hopefully place a film into context, whether social or artistic or historic, and if the film critic commits to a real body of work, hopefully the critic over time manages to leave behind a sort of emotional biography, using the films they’ve covered as touchstones along their own personal journey.

The second part of that opening paragraph by Ebert, regarding John Horn’s analysis of younger viewers not seeing “Hurt Locker,” is just plain ridiculous.  First, who out there seriously expected “The Hurt Locker” to be a major crossover hit with young audiences?  The film is rated R, so anyone under 17 has to go with a parent, meaning it’s not the choice when kids are out in groups on the weekend.  And is there anything in any of the marketing or the publicity around the film that would indicate that Summit thought they were chasing the teenaged dollar with the film?


Then what the hell are we talking about?

I mean, it’s not just Ebert.  Like I said, he was one of several voices who seem to have just plain snapped this last week.  A.O. Scott just plain came out and called American filmgoers babies.  Considering he’s about to take over one of the seats on “At The Movies,” I hope this is a temporary feeling, because week after week of someone sitting on TV telling the people at home that they are infants for what they like probably isn’t going to reverse that show’s fortunes any time soon.

And then there’s Jeffrey Wells, who has recently accelerated his slide into full-blown crankhood with his nonstop rants about how essentially every other person on the planet who is not Jeffrey Wells is an ape or a buffalo or some other animal, and how none of them are worth anything.  Think I’m exaggerating?  He really does hate the general viewing public.  In fact, he hates them so much that I sort of worry about him and what he might do.

Look, I get some of this.  There are a lot of critics who have absolutely flipped out for “The Hurt Locker.”  Personally, I like it a lot, but it wasn’t the film that made me jump up and tapdance this year.  I’m not sure it’s in my top five for the year, frankly.  I like it.  I’m glad it’s a smart adult film.  But whatever money it makes is irrelevant to me.  Just as the money ANY film makes is irrelevant to me.  Once a film exists, I don’t really care how it does.  I don’t have profit participation points on the movie.  I don’t get paid if it does well, and no one breaks into my house to kick me in the balls if it does badly.  I’m not invested in the commercial success or failure of the art I like.  All I care about it (A) am I able to see it and (B) did it work for me?  If both answers are yes, then nothing else really matters.  For many critics, though, it increasingly seems that they need the audience to like what they like, and if that doesn’t happen, then they are going to attack the audience and call them out.

Poor form, fellas.  Seriously.

Let’s take a case like “Twilight.”  The series is a commercial juggernaut.  There are obviously millions of rabid fans.  And I’ve seen critics who have felt the need to not only profess their dislike of the film or the books, but who also feel the need to attack the people who like it.  And I’m afraid I don’t get it.  I didn’t really like the first “Twilight,” but I also don’t think it was intended for me.  I think it’s an abstinence fable for girls and for swoony romantic women, and I think it’s very canny in the way it plays to that audience.  I am happy not reviewing the films at all, because I don’t think anything I write is going to really mean anything to the fans of the series or the haters.  It won’t be glowing enough or nearly venomous enough.  In the end, I’m indifferent to the films, so not covering them seems like the best option.  I’m glad those fans are being serviced, though, and I’m glad they’ve found something they dearly love.  I think that kind of passion for ANY art, whether I like it or hate it, is a good thing.

Pop culture in general skews very young right now.  That is not the same thing as saying that it skews very stupid.  I think the remakes and the sequels are all part of a culture that has very young tastes, and right now, they are the demographic rulers of all they survey.  Every studio is desperately chasing one demographic above every other, and so we get a whole lot of films based on toys and video games and other movies that the target audience is too young to remember.  Do I love this current film culture?  No.  Do I wish we could get back to telling original stories and encouraging interesting voices?  Of course.

Is the answer telling the audience that they’re stupid?  God, no.

The only critic I’ve seen come at this thing from a sensible place is the almost-always-sensible Glenn Kenny, who offered up a fairly stinging rebuke to the guys who were all belaboring this point.  Kenny sort of falls in the middle range here.  He’s not the same generation as Roger, and he’s not really a “young” critic, either.  Maybe that perspective is what allowed him to take a step back and observe that this is a cyclical sense of disappointment that Roger and the others are indulging.  Often, the old guard sees the new guard as suspect, their tastes as lacking, and culture waning, no matter what the reality is.  In the end, the thing that disappoints me most is that Roger used this moment to take what I consider a profoundly cheap shot.

Let me make something perfectly clear: there was no deal made, implied or otherwise, when Paramount showed me “G.I. Joe,” and if I’d known before I saw it just how much noise everyone else was going to make, I would have waited seven days to see it at a midnight show.  I am offered screenings every day of the week.  In some cases, these screenings are before other critics.  In some cases, these screenings are after other critics.  In some cases, I am not shown a movie at all before it comes out.  In other cases, I see several different cuts along the way.  It all depends on which studio, which filmmaker, what our relationship is currently like, what kind of movie it is, and a dozen other factors.  But for Roger to write this… well, it’s just infuriating:

“That hasn’t meant no advance screenings. Indeed, the movie was recently scoring 85% on the Tomatometer, although today (August 6) it is down to 65% and dropping. Why so strong at the beginning? The studio screened it (in the words of the invaluable Goldstein, for ‘certified fan-boy zealots’).  While some of them do articulate their reasons (I’m convinced Harry Knowles, bless his heart, really believes what he says), many are simply delighted to deliver an “exclusive early look” to their websites, making good on their half of an implied deal.”

You can use “some” and “most,” Roger, but you’re painting us all with the same brush.  You’re saying that the film was only shown to people who were guaranteed to like it and say nice things, and that’s simply not the case.  I have kicked the ever-loving shit out of Stephen Sommers in the past, and in this particular case, I think he made a little-boy movie that works on the level it was intended.  Wasn’t it you, Roger, who told me in one of our conversations that a critic should never act like every film was made for him, but instead, that you should judge a film based on the goals of that movie and how well it accomplishes those goals?  “G.I. Joe” was not a movie made for me at the age of 39, and I’m fine with that.  I don’t care about the toys or the cartoon, so I didn’t really care about the movie, either.  But I can recognize that the energy of it and the sensibility are all things that would punch me in the pleasure center at a certain age, and I can respect the film for accomplishing that.  My review was not a rant by a “fanboy zealot” in any way.  It was a measured response to a movie that I walked into without any preconceptions.  And if this ridiculous hubbub hadn’t started, I doubt I would have had much reason to write about the film again, but now it’s become an ongoing conversation, and a deeply insulting one.

In a way, the last few weeks has soured me on the idea of any sort of “critical community.”  And it’s not just that I think some of the older guys have finally started to beat the “THINGS WERE BETTER IN MY DAY, YOU WHIPPERSNAPPER” drum, something that’s always sad to witness.  The younger bloggers depress me for a different reason, which is that they seem to be without a formal background in either journalism or film, meaning they have weak situational ethics and a profoundly shallow knowledge of their subject matter.  Even so, I could turn into a guy who spends all his time writing angry columns about what the kids are doing… or I could just focus my energy on writing about movies.  The ones I love.  The ones I don’t.  And the ones I really believe are worth sharing.

That’s all any critic can do.  And knowing that is one of the things that can make the difference between a good critic and a boring blowhard.  Ebert’s a long way from that, but some of these other guys are flirting with true irrelevance if they keep making the same points over and over without ever actually talking about film anymore.

So tell you what, fellas… we’ll stipulate that all these kids today like the rock and roll and the fast cars, and they’re all weird and we don’t get it, and then we can get back to a conversation about film, and let’s stop looking down our nose, okay?  You’re worried that you no longer have any influence with young readers?

Honestly… with the way you write about them… are you surprised?

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