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small green square Yesterday I held forth briefly on public radio's movie reviewers. Today's Slate has an excellent piece by Jacob Weisberg called "Uncritical Critics" on the same general (although non-radio) topic, a response to the Warner Bros. opening of "The Avengers" movie without the usual free pre-release reviewer screening. Here's some quotes, with my reactions:

Reviewers... have a stake in keeping up the pretense that most films are worth reviewing. Were they to acknowledge that 95% of what comes out of Hollywood is eyewash <1>, there wouldn't be much left for most of them to do.

You might argue that movies aren't so bad nowadays. But that would only prove that you haven't spent much time at the multiplex this summer. [list of the summer's film titles] It's not necessary to see these films to know how dismal they are, because they are reiterations of other bad films. To be sure, there were plenty of crummy genre films in the golden age of cinema. And good ones still break through from time to time. But it would be seriously perverse to maintain that mainstream film is a robust popular art form.

Even relatively successful independent films have no distribution beyond big cities, and if you want to see foreign films nowadays, you have to go to festivals. Most newspaper arts editors, not to mention TV and radio producers, understandably want their critics to write about movies advertised in their pages, movies that also happen to be the only ones average people are likely to see. The worst hucksters are the reviewers who spend their weekends on previewing junkets in New York and Los Angeles. They fly first class, stay at the Four Seasons, and get $100 a day for incidentals. In return, they provide the blurbs quoted in advance newspaper ads ("An ending that will knock your socks off"--Tucson Gazette). The junketeers deliver these squibs, which seldom appear in actual reviews, to the studio publicists. In some cases, publicists write the blurbs themselves and find "critics" to accept attribution.

Typically, [movie reviewers] fell in love with movies when movies were better and are trying not to notice that their love object has shriveled into hagdom. They're not overtly corrupt, but their standards are in a condition of collapse. They appraise poor films as good and fair films as great.

I have two theories about why movie critics are so uncritical--one aesthetic, the other economic. The aesthetic explanation is that critics see so many bad movies that their taste deteriorates. The economic explanation is that movie reviewers are really part of the movie industry.

In all but a few places, a reviewer who consistently pans blockbusters is likely to run into trouble with his superiors. Movie ads are a major source of revenue for papers and magazines and TV stations, and editors and publishers don't want some "elitist" reviewer threatening that money. Most critics can tell you stories about the pressure on them to be upbeat and populist.

Well, duh <2> - to me these "theories" are practically self-evident - another case, I suppose, where the cheerfully bubble-headed would label my skepticism as "cynicism", since I consider the sudden grasp of this conclusion as naïve. I really enjoy film, because I've seen many great movies which have changed my life. <3> This is why I get so cheesed off when I'm tricked into sitting through rubbish, and why my brain implodes when confronted with someone who seems to like the garbage, because garbage is all they've ever seen. (Common comment from them: "Just sit back and enjoy it, it's only a movie!") Only a movie? Have you never been moved by a great film, never left the cinema with an inspiring feeling of exhilaration? I guess not, if all you've been fed is a steady diet of slasher gore, sit-com humor, car chases and explosions. "'Poor, ignorant booby,' I thought" - Charles in Brideshead Revisited.
A couple of years ago, Susan Sontag argued in an article in the "New York Times Magazine" that the decline of film quality is a demand-driven problem. What's killing cinema as an art form is the demise of the audience with a taste for serious and challenging films. If she's right, there may not be much reviewers can do. But it would be nice to see them rage a little against the degradation of the medium they're supposed to love. One way to protest would be to follow the "crank" critics in acknowledging that movies such as "Deep Impact" and "Small Soldiers" don't require evaluation. A newspaper that wants to serve its readers well can provide a paragraph-long capsule and a Zagat-style reader rating instead. Critics should address the larger question of why Hollywood thinks so little of today's film audience. And if Warner Bros. doesn't want "The Avengers" reviewed, reviewers should be only too happy to oblige.
Actually I don't see why these free screenings are even necessary. The newspaper (or even the reviewer) should spring for his ticket, to avoid any conflict of interest. Does the "press kit" supplied really provide any information a competent critic doesn't already have? Oh right, that requisite schmoozing - I forgot for a moment all I learned during my LA days about how The Industry really works. As for not reviewing the dross, I'd like to see things taken a step forward - elimination of the crap. Regarding all those wretched films at the video store, which weren't even good enough to be released - why can't those tapes be degaussed? I weep at the soul destruction going on, when people can't find anything "good" <4> at the video store - so they take home instead something that sounded good on the box, but they've never heard of - well there's a reason it's unknown!

small purple square Final note on the feature film, from another review in Slate by David Edelstein:

And there's something reassuring about the fact that 'The Avengers' is so rotten: proof yet again that people with piles of money can hire wizard production designers but can't fake class... As the eccentric master villain who controls the weather, even Sean Connery is flat-out terrible, acting high on the hog. To think Connery once found the Bond films so far beneath him! When he sputters lines like "Time to die!" one imagines Dr. No, Goldfinger, and Blofeld snickering in the wings.
By the way, I have no interest in "The Avengers" movie, having never watched the television show - what little exposure I received was off-putting; too twee for me. In my world the Avengers are a lesser squad of Marvel Comics superheroes (originally led by Iron Man and including Thor, Captain America and the Incredible Hulk) - less than interesting since my own loyalties go with the Fantastic Four; but these days the X-Men are getting all the attention.

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<1>"Eyewash?" Eye-poke is more like it.

<2>Or, as V's older sister would say, "No duh!"

<3>I remember asking a former coworker about a movie, using this expression: "Did it change your life?" He found this amusing - the phrase sounded too deep to him, but he eventually understood what I meant, as I hope you do. See my related discussion on books, where I use the same qualifier.

<4>It's tragic how the "Classics" section is generally overlooked