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Depth of Field: A Critical Misstep

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Monday, Jul 31, 2006

Jay Leno may be a lot of things—a middling talk show host, a rabid car collector—but the one thing he is most definitely not is a film critic. The same goes for writer/director Kevin Smith. Certainly, his View Askew universe is comprised of a fanboy fascination with the ins and outs of everything movies, but the creator of Clerks and Chasing Amy is not, by trade, a critic. So it comes as something of a surprise that both men will substitute for Roger Ebert on his long running movie review series while the famed journalist continues to recover from complications centering around his recent cancer surgery. Ever since his relapse a few weeks ago, speculation has been rampant about what Touchstone will do with that aging ‘At the Movies’ artifact. With Richard Roeper safely stuck in the second seat, a decision was recently reached—a revolving set of guest hosts will sit in for Ebert on the weekly TV show. Leno will appear 4, August, while Smith fills in on the 11th.


Now, the notion of non-professionals taking up the challenge of cinematic deconstruction may raise a few eyebrows, but it’s really not all that unusual—especially with our current perception of post-modern journalism. Big name papers like the LA and New York Times have been lamenting the “blogging” of cinema scholarship as of late, arguing that it downgrades the ‘legitimate’ (read: print) media. Besides, non-insiders like Henry Rollins have used this tactic to deliver outsider takes on the artform. As part of his original IFC talk show, he brought on individuals like Rob Zombie, or a guy who occasionally works on his plumbing, and after some minor chitchat, the duo would get down to discussing the flaws in the latest Hollywood or Indie release. Always passionate, Rollins’ insights were passable at best. With an Internet overflowing with such similarly fervent recreational academics, an implied level of acceptable amateurism has been reached.


But there’s a flaw in this ‘anyone can do it’ concept, something that, not surprisingly few outside the field feel the need to address. Film fandom does not necessarily translate into film knowledge. Just because you enjoy movies doesn’t mean you have the contextual wherewithal to comment upon them. Sure, ever since Gene Siskel left for the big box office in the sky, the duo’s original concept has been reduced to a trademarked stamp of pure consumer advocacy. But when did a lowest common denominator approach (which Leno surely represents) become the appropriate substitute for a Pulitzer Prize winning columnist who’s poured his life into his craft? Seems rather disingenuous to both the writer and his readership. 


Even worse, a clear commercial conflict on interest should surely be avoided at all costs. Nothing destroys the sense of fairness quicker than the appearance of an agenda-based impropriety. Inviting Smith on to discuss the Superman debacle would be wise. He’s an insider (he worked on one of the many Man of Steel projects along the way) and he’s great at turning anecdotes and observations into big picture pronouncements. But is it fair to allow him to rag on, or recommend, a competitor’s product? Wouldn’t it be like asking an ABC spokesman to review NBC’s fall lineup? More importantly, do filmmakers that Smith stomped on get an on-air chance to retaliate? If, hypothetically, he dismisses World Trade Center, does Oliver Stone get the opportunity for rebuttal, and is Smith’s entire oeuvre up for grabs at that point?


Perhaps for the outsider, the audience member looking in, all of this seems like smoke from a foundationless fire. After all, a public pissing match between so-called professionals is usually a scandalous slice of schadenfreude fun. But with the legitimate media downplaying the importance of online journalism at every turn, do we really need famous faces fighting among themselves to further denigrate the importance of real film criticism?


Sure, some critics—even famous, respected ones—can be self-important snobs who tend to treat each movie like an opportunity to show how well they studied their thesaurus, and many are so disconnected from the concept of actual entertainment that they miss the populace appeal of standard popcorn fare. But buffering a bad situation (here’s hoping Ebert a speedy and full recovery) with what amounts to stunt casting seems antithetical to the needs of the medium, the message and most importantly, the messenger. Certainly it will spike ratings (who isn’t interested in seeing Smith put the smackdown on the regularly rote Roeper) and act as a stopgap until a long-term solution is found—if and when one is deemed necessary. In our ‘hurry up and gimme’ culture of instant gratification and access to information, there may technically no longer be a need for such in-depth analysis of motion pictures. But something about this decision feels like the final nail in criticism’s coffin.

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