You know film criticism is in trouble when its own publishers start wondering if it has a future. "Who needs critics?" inquires the October cover of Sight and Sound magazine. "Film Criticism in Crisis?" is the less panicky query of Film Comment, which organized a Lincoln Center panel to discuss the matter. "In recent months," write the editors of Cineaste, "American critics, having been fired, downsized, or bought out by a host of publications, are realizing that even making compromises with their corporate employers does not guarantee them a job."
I can testify to that last point. As chairman of the National Society of Film Critics for several years, I've seen the number of real journalistic jobs held by our members drop at an alarming rate. Among those who've recently left their posts are Newsweek's David Ansen, Salon's Charles Taylor, the Chicago Tribune's Michael Wilmington, the New York Daily News's Jami Bernard, and the Village Voice's Dennis Lim, all of whom had earned their readers' trust and loyalty through years of savvy reviewing. It often seems that the smarter, more articulate, and more independent-minded a critic is, the more I can expect an e-mail starting, "As of [insert date] I'll be leaving [insert publication] to spend more time with my family...."
Oops, it's politicians who use the time-with-my-family line; with critics it's usually ""to put more work into my website." Websites are the godsend that lets unemployed critics keep on being critics -- possibly better ones than before, now that corporate compromises are out of the picture. The problem is that many websites don't pay for what they publish. And even if they did, critics who earned their cred in newspapers and magazines are far from unanimous about the virtues of Internet criticism, which many see as a domain of egotistical hacks whose main motivation is to get quoted in an ad someday. Returning the cynicism in kind, some Internet critics see their print counterparts as outdated elitists too intoxicated with their paychecks to realize they're a dying breed.
It's too soon to tell how the web wars will play out, but as Film Comment's Kent Jones has observed, the Internet has vastly widened the critical field by blurring the distinctions between writers and readers. It also blurs the differences between "experts" and "amateurs," which isn't necessarily a bad thing. The latter term, from the Latin for "lover" and "love," can signify a passion for film that print reviewers sometimes run short of - an occupational hazard for people forced to sit through the likes of Saw V and Beverly Hills Chihuahua and then think up something, anything, to say about them.
When I took early retirement from the Christian Science Monitor in 2005, I knew my more skeptical colleagues would hear those words in quotes: "early retirement," yeah, sure, wanna write for free on my website? But honest, folks, I stepped down on my own schedule, and with the Saw V circuit happily behind me, I now get to write about film-related subjects I actually find interesting. I also have more time for reading about movies, and this has renewed my respect for the unexpected insights that eagle-eyed critics can bring, even to a frazzled old cinephile like me.
One of my recent projects has been co-editing The B List: The National Society of Film Critics on the Low-Budget Beauties, Genre-Bending Mavericks, and Cult Classics We Love, just out from Da Capo. It's a book of essays by NSFC members about B movies of every ilk, and working on it brought one revelation after another. A piece about The Rage: Carrie 2 made me realize it's not only spookier than Carrie, it's also 20 times more intelligent. It hadn't occurred to me that the right-wing space opera Red Planet Mars can be read as an allegory of the Rosenberg spy case, and I'd forgotten that Nicolas Cage actually eats that cockroach in Vampire's Kiss! In print or online, it takes a natural-born critic to dig out the overlooked facts and ingenious interpretations that my B List colleagues have surprised me with time and again. So who needs critics? I do. And so does everyone who cares about movies.