Everyone’s a Critic…

PROLIFERATION of media film reviewers whose primary qualification is that they watch a lot of movies and interview a lot of movie stars is quickly proving that most of today’s criticism in newspapers, magazines, radio, and TV is buffed-up personal opinion and little else. These so-called critics have apparently convinced almost every American that they too are experts on the film industry and its products. The old responses of “I liked that” or “I didn’t like that much” have been replaced by discussions of box-office strategies, release dates, star and director track records, and critical reaction. Using the Internet, everyone has become a critic, and no one seems to care if anyone is qualified. Yell loud enough and you’ll find an audience.
The media critics and their audiences seem to know everything about the movie industry and very little about the history and aesthetics of film. They are more concerned about industry gossip or box-office potential than the merits of any given film. The worst offenders are the local news movie reviewers who claim a personal relationship with every major star by using the star’s first name whenever possible. They try to hide the fact that most of their interviews are either done by satellite or by inserting themselves into a pre-ordered video publicity release that local TV stations receive prior to the movie’s release. The actor’s answers to prewritten questions are on the video, and all the local film reviewer has to do is record the questions and the video editor takes care of the rest–instant fake rapport between interviewer and celebrity. Even when the local news entertainment reporter-reviewer actually meets the star in person, it is a quick and routine event that the journalist magnifies into a personal relationship. One local reviewer even gives the stars presents on camera to show the viewer how friendly he is with those he interviews. The embarrassed celebrities grin and bear it.
An impartial observer trying to find out what films are worthy of seeing finds an array of words that constantly contradict one another. Two reviewers from one weekly entertainment magazine saw “Moulin Rouge.” One picked it as one of the best films of the year; the other as one of the worst. Neither argument was convincing. An astute viewer can read The New York Times or the Washington Post in the morning and then listen to TV reviewers repeat the same qualms and reservations on their evening newscasts posed by their morning print counterparts. The Internet makes the job easier. Read all the reviews and then make sure your review hits the middle ground, emphasizing the positive and mentioning the negatives to show your expertise.
None of this matters much because, by the time the review appears, the audience often has been conditioned to want to see a particular movie through massive commercials and publicity. Stars of the film appear on the TV morning shows, midday chat fests, and late-night programs to hawk their new picture before the reviews come out. There is an age-old tradition that critics do not review a film until it is released in the theaters. But prepublicity in the form of trailers, interviews and gossip is released months before a film hits the large screens. It isn’t unusual for an audience to think a movie has come and gone a week before it is released.
Reviewers had a problem with the recent “Harry Potter” film. The hype was so strong and powerful that audiences expected a blockbuster long before the movie was released. The picture proved to be popular with audiences around the world, but adult newspaper critics analyzed it as if it were “Citizen Kane” and concluded that it was not a very good film. One frustrated reader was heard to cry out, “But it’s only a children’s movie.” The first of the “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy fared better since most of the print critics praised it. One TV reviewer, however, complained that it was too long and silly. He had never read the books and didn’t intend to. Loyal Tolkien fans were ready to lynch him.
Anyone who has studied film criticism realizes that there are specific criteria that can be used in evaluating film as a work of art and social commentary. But historically, every art form has proven elusive when it comes to specific standards of excellence. Beethoven, Picasso, George Bernard Shaw, and D.W. Griffith were often savaged by the critics of their time. What makes a film memorable and important has always been open to debate. Even when critics get together to vote on the best pictures of all time, the winners will find a barrage of criticism from those who disagree. Reconsiderations of great artists are commonplace. Norman Rockwell’s art is now applauded by serious critics after years of critical bashing. Violinist Jascha Heifetez’s recordings are periodically praised as brilliant virtuosity and condemned as heartless virtuosity. Novelist Ernest Hemingway is alternately called a genius or a fraud. Frank Capra’s films are either sentimental cliches or moving humanistic dramas.
But there should be some criteria for naming someone a reviewer. It would help if he or she had some knowledge of the history of cinema. An understanding of film terminology and aesthetics would be nice. Honesty and integrity would be welcome. Instead, there are either enthusiastic sycophants offering valentines for everything Hollywood creates or snotty overachievers trying to show how clever they are by using the picture for their diatribes. What is lost in all of this are the rare good films that do not boast a box- office star or a big-name director. Few reviewers seem to have time for them. In self-defense, most viewers try to find a reviewer, usually in print, who fits their tastes, who shows a modicum of intelligence and knowledge of film, and who doesn’t insult with toadyism and self-serving congratulations.
Celebrity news and gossip are so predominant throughout the media today that it almost seems un-American to criticize one of our friends’ films or performances. After all, we don’t want to hurt Tom’s or Meg’s or Julia’s or George’s feelings by not liking their movies. What if they stop talking to us?


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