Voices in the Wilderness  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   May 2001

Voices in the Wilderness   

Completely overmatched by the Hollywood buzz machine, today's movie critics can do little to keep the masses away from insipid fare. But they can provide oxygen to the occasional art-house sleeper.

By David A. Markiewicz
David A. Markiewicz is a reporter for the Atlanta-Constitution.     

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F RANK GRABENYA KNOWS people envy him his job as film critic for the Columbus Dispatch.
"They say, 'Geez, you get paid to go to the movies.' I say, 'Yeah, what a racket.' I know I'm not going to get sympathy or pity from anyone," Gabrenya says.
Movie critics could use a good hug, though. True, they are being paid for something the rest of us have to shell out eight or nine dollars for the privilege of experiencing. And, yes, they do get to foist their opinions on the rest of us every Friday.
But it's not all weekday matinees and Milk Duds at the Bijou.
It isn't simply the tight deadlines that can require a newspaper film critic to view three or four movies and churn out a reasonably thoughtful critique on each in a matter of a few days. That, after all, is a demand of the job.
It isn't merely the space limitations that reduce some reviews to little more than capsules.
There's also the matter of the film critic's relevance. What, after all, is the place of the serious reviewer in a world chock-full of self-anointed Internet and self-absorbed television movie critics, filmmakers more inclined to produce "Dude, Where's My Car?" than "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," and teenage moviegoers who don't read newspapers, much less the reviews? With all those lowbrow alternative voices to choose from, so many schlocky movies not worthy of serious criticism, and so many movie fans who don't get past the star ratings or the upturned thumbs, do critics even matter?

B OX OFFICE REPORTS suggest they don't, at least when it comes to dissuading moviegoers from going to see the blockbusters. It made little difference, for example, that many critics were disappointed with "Hannibal." A raft of negative reviews couldn't stop the heavily hyped picture from ringing up the highest-grossing non-summer weekend opening ever.
Nor did it matter when critics nixed "The Mexican," which shot to the top of the box office charts in early March thanks to the star power provided by Julia Roberts and Brad Pitt. Consider the attitude of Deborah Crabtree, a movie fan from Alexandria, Virginia, who says she reads reviews but doesn't put all that much stock in them when deciding what to see. "Their views are very subjective," Crabtree says. "A lot of movies that get panned, I love."
When it comes to the big budget films, anyway, critics seem resigned to taking a "let the ticket buyer beware" approach to their work.
"There are people who just want to see the newest movie," says Judith Egerton, who reviews movies for the Courier-Journal in Louisville. "It's the Friday night thing to do. It doesn't matter what the critic thinks."
"I can't stop the commercial, mainstream viewer from seeing something inane," adds Gabrenya. "And I don't care whether I stop them. I'm here to offer advice and a consumer guide. [Readers] can discover over a period of time whether our tastes merge and whether or not to trust me."
Yet, critics don't deny that they feel a sense of accomplishment when they steer moviegoers to a little-known film with considerable artistic merit that might die at the box office without a favorable review. This may be their greatest positive influence.
Jeff Simon, longtime film editor and movie reviewer for the Buffalo News, says, for example, that his endorsement of "Requiem for a Dream" may have helped the little-publicized but highly regarded film survive in his local market. "Requiem," the "best movie ever made about drugs in America," according to Simon, "has been playing [locally] for three to four months now. The theater owners have kept it around. I think the fact that my review was so enthusiastic had an enormous effect on that movie staying. Art-house owners will tell you that. They're very much dependent on movie critics getting the word out on small films."
For that reason, he says, "There's no question in my mind that movie critics have enormous clout, even newspaper critics."
"Requiem for a Dream" is one thing. "Hannibal," of course, is quite another.
"The larger films have a built-in audience," says Jay Carr, film critic for the Boston Globe. "With a film released on 3,000 screens simultaneously, I don't think that any one critic can have an effect."
That's because even with an artistic flop on its hands, Hollywood's advance publicity machine often is powerful enough to deliver a huge audience on the opening weekend, before critical buzz or moviegoer word-of-mouth can scuttle it. By the time the audience realizes it's been fleeced, the dog has been trotted off to the dollar theaters, or shipped out to video stores.
Carr sees value in the movie critic precisely because of the Hollywood machine's power. "You are," he says, "the only alternative to hype. That's why people are going to trust you."

A MOVIE CRITIC'S INFLUENCE can and does extend beyond building the box office for an obscure art-house success or warning people off a Cineplex stinker. The critic also provokes discussion about movies, putting a film in its historical, social and political contexts. This not only stimulates readers who become involved in the critical give and take, but also helps enrich the art form, possibly causing better films to be made.
That might have been more of a comfort to movie critics back in the 1960s, when the so-called "film culture" in America featured arguments between Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris over the auteur theory, and a bunch of promising new directors made their mark with daring and provocative work. But these days, with the film culture widely considered dormant, some movie critics apparently have fallen into a funk.
The editors of Cineaste, a quarterly magazine dedicated to the art and politics of cinema, thought the state of film criticism troubled enough to devote 19 pages to the subject last year. Twenty-four film writers from daily and weekly newspapers and mass market and niche magazines discussed the realities and problems of their job. Although their deadlines, space limitations and readerships differed, their concerns were similar.
The editors wrote: "In the last few years, a number of film critics, especially those who came of age during the Sixties...have publicly voiced concerns about the overall decline of film culture in the U.S., a noticeable dumbing down of both movies and moviegoing audiences, and their own waning influence as critics in such a degraded cultural environment."
Whether serious, influential film criticism can be written in an environment so full of bad movies is debatable. But there's little doubt about the effect of bad movies on the people who have to review them.
John Hartl, recently retired film critic for the Seattle Times, says he left his job in part because he was no longer able to endure sitting through any more awful films. "You go into these Tuesday-night screenings just praying it won't be a bad movie," he says. "Then, 10 minutes into some Freddie Prinze Jr. film you're wondering, 'Why am I here?' "
Hartl isn't the only one questioning his job. In a pre-Oscars column that criticized the sameness of year-end Top Ten lists, Fort Worth Star-Telegram film critic Christopher Kelly asked the purpose of movie critics in general and blasted his colleagues for lacking the interest or energy to tout any but the most obvious choices, like "Gladiator" and "Traffic."
"You start wondering what's the point of your job," Kelly says. "What can you tell me about those movies that I don't already know?" The article, he says, "was inspired by people not doing their jobs."
Kelly finished off his piece by saying that he wasn't sure who would win an Oscar. "But the loser is pretty much anyone still foolish enough to think movie critics have something important to tell us."

U NLIKE THE FILM REVIEWERS seen on network television or published in national magazines, newspaper movie critics generally are unknown beyond the limits of their paper's immediate circulation area. The faces of TV critics Gene Shalit and Joel Siegel are familar to anyone who has watched a weekday morning news show in the last 20 years. Siegel has been broadcasting movie reviews for ABC's "Good Morning America" since 1981, while Shalit is the longtime critic for NBC's "Today."
Magazine critics aren't quite as recognizable, but reviewers for national publications as diverse as The New Yorker and Entertainment Weekly have far-flung if narrower readerships.
There is one exception to the rule of anonymous newspaper movie critics, however. Tellingly, his influence largely came through the popularity of a TV program.
Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert is widely syndicated in newspapers. He's also known for his books on movies. But it is his national TV show, originally cohosted by the late Gene Siskel, that carried his name across America and made him the best-known critic in the country.
A "thumbs-up" or "thumbs-down" from Ebert doubtless affects the decisions of many moviegoers nationwide. Jan Schwalbe, a regular moviegoer from Arlington, Virginia, says simply, "I don't have a lot of respect for critics‹unless it's Ebert."
One measure of Ebert's popularity is the flood of e-mail he receives to the "Movie Answer Man" on his Web site. The volume of questions from hundreds of e-mails a day prompted him to issue several directives. Among them: He cannot read screenplays sent to him; he will not respond to autograph requests; and he will not help out with homework assignments.
Another sure sign of his influence is the almost guaranteed use of a positive Ebert review in a movie's advertising campaign. Says Courier-Journal critic Egerton, "Ebert is the main one people pay attention to."
Newspaper film critics otherwise tend to downplay their influence on audiences. That's just as well, because their individual voices are getting harder to hear amid the din created by alternative movie reviewers appearing on TV, radio and, now, the Internet.
The Flick Filosopher, The Movie Monkey, Three Movie Buffs, The Film Geek, Rotten Tomatoes and Mr. Cranky are just some of the countless Web-based critics.
Their attitude toward daily newspaper film reviewers is probably summed up in The Movie Monkey's motto: "Critics? I'd rather trust a monkey."
Put another way, everyone who goes to the movies has an opinion, and no one's opinion matters more than anyone else's. That can be an alarming suggestion for a critic trying to offer readers a more learned viewpoint, one borne of experience, education and perspective.
Internet reviewers may not have the readership or the prominence of newspaper reviewers. They certainly don't have the paychecks. And their knowledge of cinema may be relatively lacking. But they can be idiosyncratically entertaining.
For instance, Mr. Cranky defines his next-to-lowest movie rating thusly: "So god-awful that it ruptured the very fabric of space and time with the sheer overpowering force of its mediocrity."
Not the sort of review readers would expect to find in their daily newspaper.
Given the clutter of critical voices, it's little wonder that moviegoers don't know whom to trust and whom to empower with influence.

I F FILM FANS DON'T give critics much respect, Hollywood studio publicists give them even less. The studios, critics say, regard them as mere cogs in their publicity machine, tools to be used to sell tickets. This attitude can make the critic's job more difficult.
Publicists, they say, hold back some films from previews in order to avoid bad reviews. They offer interviews with a movie's stars only with the tacit understanding that positive publicity will result. Sometimes they even misquote reviewers in newspaper advertisements, lifting lines from their reviews out of context and running them as promotional blurbs.
Not all moviegoers are taken in by the studios' ads. Jennifer Leach, an avid film fan from Washington, D.C., says she reads reviews, "not the blurbs," which, she says, "are incredibly one-sided. They're taken out of context. Someone will write, 'One of the greatest travesties,' and it will come out in the ads as, 'One of the greatest.' "
Studios also allegedly ply "blurb whores" from less legitimate media outlets with paid-for junkets, eliciting glowing comments about a movie even before the film is publicly released.
Daily newspaper film critics generally don't go for this type of quid pro quo. But there are plenty in the media who will, especially when granted a brief, "one-on-one" on-camera interview with a movie's star.
Not surprisingly, newspaper film critics, fearing guilt by association, shudder at the prospect of seeing their name in these ads. It's hard to avoid looking like a shill, and that only serves to undermine the overall credibility and clout of critics. "You are part of the [publicity] machine if, just by the way things work, you praise a film to the heavens and they quote you in the ads," says Michael Janusonis, longtime movie reviewer for the Providence Journal. "But I don't write for that."
The movie reviewer's job, Janusonis says, "is to give people some idea of whether they should spend their time or money on [a film]."
That might not be the main purpose of film criticism in publications like The New Yorker, and with good reason. "A newspaper critic is writing for people who haven't seen the movie and haven't made up their mind," says Bob Ross, the Tampa Tribune's film critic. "So I'm as much a consumer reporting service as a critic."
Janusonis adds, "A lot of critics will say they want to improve the art. But the public perceives us as a guide to tell them a little about what the movie's about."
The practical realities of daily newspapers make that a common-sense approach. "When you're working for a newspaper, you're dealing in a very limited time and space," Ross says. "I see a movie Tuesday night and my review is due Wednesday. Fifteen inches. It has to be fast and I have to fill the space. I don't have time for dissertations, and neither does the reader."
While most critics acknowledge the need to provide some sort of guide for moviegoers, not everyone believes that should be the main function of the reviewer. "My problem with the consumer guide approach," says Fort Worth's Kelly, "is how does that jibe with my having a strong personal reaction to the film? I don't necessarily consider myself a consumer guide critic. For me, it's important to get these ideas out there. If people just want a consumer guide, there are lots of places to go for that."
Boston Globe critic Carr says that although there is a consumer guide element to movie reviews, watching a film is ultimately still an individual experience. It is, he says, important to "be true to your interaction" with the film. "If it's not personal," he says, "it's worthless."

M OVIE CRITICS MAY NOT have much clout when it comes to preventing people from going to see "Hannibal." But that doesn't appear to matter to newspapers, which have kept film critics on staff even as the industry cuts positions.
The reasons are both economic and practical. Movie advertising is a lucrative and reliable source of revenue for newspapers. Critics and editors say they are not influenced to review movies in a certain way because of the ads. But, editors and critics say, newspaper accountants are aware that it is a financially self-sustaining beat.
There are other reasons to have a full-time film critic or two. "We know readers are very interested in film coverage," says Tim Campbell, co-entertainment editor of Minneapolis' Star Tribune. "It might be the most widely consumed--its audience is broader, and that's the mission of a newspaper, to serve a broader audience."
Newspapers are aware of the public's growing appetite for entertainment coverage and realize that ignoring readers' interests is done only at the peril of diminished circulation. With the number of movies released increasing, newspapers have responded by adding reviewers or by using more wire service reviews, especially on weekends when five or six films might open.
Movie reviewers also offer newspapers the opportunity to cross-promote themselves, on radio, TV or in public appearances. As opinion writers in a widely popular subject area, movie critics have a higher profile than, say, a metro desk reporter.
The newspaper movie critic's prominence in a community is apparent in Wichita, where editors at the Wichita Eagle consider veteran reviewer Bob Curtright a valued asset. Lori Linenberger, leader of the paper's leisure team, which handles arts and entertainment coverage, acknowledges that having a full-time movie critic at a daily with less than 100,000 weekday circulation might be considered a luxury.
"You get 6 million reviews of 'Thirteen Days' on the wire, so why do we need our own?" she says. "But Bob has been the critic here for so long. He's well known and reputable. People put a lot of stock in him. They've come to identify him as the Eagle's critic. We feel we have someone of value. He is very much a personality at this paper. "
Such local celebrity isn't the reason most movie critics signed up for their jobs, though. Nor is it just the influence they might have with moviegoers in their market and the power to direct them to some obscure cinematic gem.
The main reason, critics say, is because it's a chance to combine two things they're passionate about, films and writing. And get paid for it.
Says Fort Worth critic Kelly, "I love what I do. It's a privileged, privileged job."

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