For years now, the role of the film critic has been a hotly debated topic. While some in the professional community (Roger Ebert, Peter Travers) can argue cultural relevance—meaning their reviews are actually counted on by audiences as guideposts to what’s good and bad - others (including yours truly) are seen as drags on the aesthetic dialogue…especially if you ply your trade on that most misunderstood of ‘mediums,’ the Internet. Web publications are often seen as the first and last bastion of failed fanboys, a blog/vlog outlet for the wannabe filmmaker and the basement dwelling dweeb. Arguably, this is a horribly gross overgeneralization, but the truth remains that criticism is seen as going the way of the dinosaur and the journalist—meaning it was destroyed by a massive meteor striking the once fertile marketplace plain of ideas- - and should be left for extinction.
Yet with the crop of film festivals—Telluride, Toronto, Venice—currently going on around the world, and the equally important ones already past (Cannes) and yet to be (New York), it is clear that there is still a role to be played by the critic. Call it the bellwether to the Best, or the initial groundswell that leads to the year-end wave of awards, but without the tireless efforts of these globetrotting individuals, we would be somewhat lost as to where the cinematic trends are taking us. Argue all you want to about their final choices (look down the list of Oscar winners the last few years and see if you agree unequivocally with all selections) and condemn them for jumping on bandwagons that should have otherwise been left abandoned and unused, but critics are the first to set the benchmark, and the last to legitimize the conclusions.
It all starts with Sundance, where the early buzz builds. Cannes adds in more of the international film establishment while clouding/clarifying the issue. The Summer season is a wash, the studios and suits desperate to make the definitive dime with which they can sponsor “superior” fare, while the Fall finishes things off in a whirlwind of conflicting critical call outs. If you believe the current hype, Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master has an early telltale track. It’s the film everyone wants to see. It’s already garnered several major awards (Venice just gave it director and actor, and would have given it picture too if not for some arcane rules) and it’s got that immediately merited “it” factor, including links to the controversial religion Scientology and the pedigree of the auteur behind the lens.
But this doesn’t mean that The Master‘s cast and crew should be making their Academy Awards reservations quite yet. Indeed, for many, Jeff Bridges nomination (and win) for Crazy Heart came completely out of left field. In fact, few outside the festival circuit had even heard of the film (the seasoned star is said to have benefited from a hefty pre-nomination screener campaign). Similarly, something like David O. Russell’s The Silver Linings Playbook may be non-existent on the average critic’s aesthetic radar, but the raves coming out of Toronto tell of a future filled with a significantly higher profile. It’s the same for something more provocative and compelling as the Wachowskis/Tykwer collaboration, Cloud Atlas.
That’s because film journalists do have a part to play in our larger artistic picture. They are the outside insiders, the faux-cus group who has a huge impact on where certain titles end up come year end tallies. Certainly, there are some whose significance pales in comparison, but for the most part, those testing the time differences in Italy or Canada are coming together to take stock and deliver decisions…and then bring those back to the numerous groups and organizations they belong to. As a result, their influence in said organizations is crucial. They map out the remaining months, taut entries that may not have ever gotten a fair shake, and eventually, sway voting towards ‘givens’ not necessarily part of everyone’s personal purview.
This is not a bad thing. Imagine a world where the only films a critic sees are the one’s Hollywood spins out on a regular basis. A place where Oscar screeners go to the voting membership of the Academy only, and not to the SEFCA, or OFCS, or CFCS. Imagine festivals attended by filmmakers and their fans exclusively, where the critic is forbidden from finding a friendly seat. Add all this together and you get a situation in which films like The Hurt Locker or The Artist may not find a supportive status. Even worse, entries like The Dark Knight Rises and The Avengers, worthy popcorn fare, would end up dominating such a diminished roster.
The reality is that critics continue to matter when it comes to that most meaningful of motion picture problems—rising above the mainstream din. They champion outsiders, bring important issue-oriented documentaries and dramas to their often ill-informed or out of touch readership. They provide a safety net (and a guaranteed gamble) to the untried and the unaffiliated. Sure, they can also fall in love with something that, years later, suffers by comparison and there’s rarely an instance of a total left field find running ramshackle over the more deserving. Still, critics find consensus, rightly or wrongly, guided the conversation until the calendar indicates another 12 months have gone by.
So forget the fact that they rarely agree with you on the value of the latest Adam Sandler/Tyler Perry/Sylvester Stallone film. Ignore the often holy than thou, down the nose approach to their ‘passion.’ Remember that everyone is entitled to their opinion (though as ‘Uncle’ Harlan Ellison argues, only their “learned” one) and that no one is ever 100% right on 100% of the things they see. Then recognize the important role they play in preserving the best (or at least, what’s considered same…at the time) for later consideration, and then call them unnecessary. Sure, they may not have given your own personal favorite the virtual ‘thumbs up,’ but they are privy to the ones that will end up meaning the most to the artform. It’s perhaps their last legitimate role to play.