At any given time, there are cognoscenti who will tell you their media of choice is going to hell. Movies fit right into this – you can hear it everywhere: the golden age of the studios is finished; the auteur age is done; the blockbusters aren’t what they used to be… Movies really aren’t any better or worse than they’ve ever been – some are pretty good, and a bunch of them aren’t worth the time it takes to watch. The real crisis is that nobody seems to be writing intelligently about movies lately, and it’s pretty hard to have a good conversation on the subject. That certainly makes it seem like there’s nothing good out there.
Movie critics today are a flimsy lot, and it’s probably not an accident. If we have the democracy we deserve, it follows that we have the culture we deserve as well. Wal*Mart® rules the commercial landscape. The Internet has made it possible for all kinds of people to express their opinions to like-minded individuals – some are erudite, but the majority reflects the least common denominator. The consensus view seeps into traditional media outlets via sinister osmosis. The average moviegoer feels entitled to not only dismiss, but to even disparage anyone who disagrees with their own sacred opinion. The fact that such opinions are rarely considered beyond visceral response (“It was awesome” or “It sucked”) is beside the point. Not many working critics have the resources or incentive to challenge such a culture of idiocy and the consumers who perpetuate it. The iconic critical image of our times is Roger Ebert’s thumb: millions of people don’t want anything more from criticism than to know which direction it’s pointing.
Most people probably think that criticism should reflect what the public values. In other words, if something sells it must be “good;” anybody who doesn’t agree is a snob. The corporations that pay for mass-market criticism know this, and the critics seem to know it too. Today’s critic must see his or her job as that of “audience surrogate” – less interested in the artistic merits of a piece than if the public at large will like it. In this sense, criticism has become little more than a marketing vehicle. Years ago, an arts critic would have hesitated before using the word “boring,” and it was rare to find one that would cop to not understanding something. Critics, and to a large extent the public, understood that some effort was required on their part if the experience was going to be worthwhile. Now “entertainment” is defined as something that makes no demands – if it’s work, it’s a turnoff.
Once it was generally accepted that rigorous intellectual examination of the arts mattered – criticism had consequence because it was an informed starting place for people to begin their own explorations. Critics would champion what was excellent and thereby limit the really bad stuff from achieving wide distribution. Criticism used to be reliable because editors safeguarded the integrity of their publications. First television, and now the Internet have changed the face of today’s market-driven criticism. Now, shorter is better – hopefully just a brief summary and some kind of icon to indicate the bottom line. The icons have become key – star ratings, thumbs, and grades are essential because they allow knee-jerk conclusions and require less consumer effort to process. Most of all, now everybody is a critic – the Internet has ushered in a new kind of democracy where anybody can write whatever they want, and there are no editors in the way. This might be great for self-esteem, but it makes for a lot of bad reading.
Is there anything that can be done about such a slide? Is intelligent movie watching a thing of the past? A revolution is in order. We must re-claim the right to form and defend personal opinions, and we must support art where we find it. If it’s too late to find anything worthy in mass culture, we can still sound the trumpet for what we do find, where we find it. This will require effort on our part – we can’t be content to passively receive what’s being fed at the multiplex. If the unexamined life is not worth living, then unexamined art is not worth spending life’s time on. Folks, let’s expect more.