Critical Confessions: Part 20 – I Hate My Profession and I Want to Die…Sort Of

It hasn’t been a good month for movie critics. At the Movies was finally cancelled, A.O. Scott and Michael Phillips unable to raise the flatlining Ebert and Siskel showcase from an already obvious fate. Todd McCarthy was fired from Variety and that famed contrarian Armond White found himself stuck in the middle of a massive brouhaha surrounding Noah Baumbach and some previously printed comments regarding mothers and abortion. Kevin Smith “tweeted” that film reviewers should be replaced by paying audience members, the aforementioned great unwashed being a better judge of cinema’s value than someone whose made a career out of trashing his talent. And all around Austin, SXSW and its dedicated followers of film fashion continued to give the online writer a decidedly dorky, geeky, fan boy façade.

Really makes you want to get out of bed and head for the keyboard (or screening), doesn’t it. Frankly, the inconsistent fortunes of my chosen profession are disheartening, to say the least. Apply any cliché to it you want – one step forward, three back…survival of the fittest/shittest…the new school overwhelming the old guard – whatever you want, but the truth remains that film criticism is at a crossroads. Actually, it’s been standing at the intersection of ‘reinvention’ and ‘irreverence’ for quite a while now, the universal cyber soapbox known as the ‘Net providing anyone with a blog and a significant amount of BS the right to punditcy. Like finally discovering a like minded audience for your rants and raves, the web is wiping out print media as we’ve come to know it. What will take its place, however, is as frightening as it is flawed.

Let’s look at Smith’s assertion that 500 regular people could do a better job at analyzing film vs. yours truly and 499 of his fellow blowhards. Actually, that’s not what he means. What the king of Clerks is trying to say is that the general public, the people who buy tickets to his and other movies, have a better idea of what entertains them and speaks to their aesthetic than a bunch of film festival favoring snobs who wouldn’t recognize a well-made mainstream entertainment if it stood up and started quoting Shakespeare. Oddly enough, he’s right, within a specific scope. Most critics are not book reporters, meaning they are not hired to spell out the studio-summarized plotpoints and then offer a simplistic “seven thumbs up” rating. They mainly get their position based on two contrasting elements – their knowledge of the artform and their writer’s “voice.”

Smith seems to be suggesting that such unique characteristics are unnecessary, or worse, instantly void a journalist’s commercial credibility. Yes, Joe Journalist can argue appropriately over the latest foreign flop or mumblecore masterwork, but ask them to value the variables in the latest Adam Sandler snickerfest, or Bruce Willis buddy cop comedy, and they instantly fall apart. They start digging through their litany of far too clever comparisons and instantly dismiss what the masses clearly want to see – except, Smith’s movie has barely broken $40 million, and while he can argue all he wants about the press “burying” his efforts, word of mouth speaks louder than any web/blog tattletale.

It would seem odd then that what he’s championing is exactly that – word of mouth. Twitter and Facebook amount to nothing more, and a lot less. I, for one, enjoyed Cop Out, thought Zack and Miri Make a Porno was one of 2008’s best, and found Clerks II to be an eye-opener. So where does that place me in Smith’s personal pecking order? Do I get a pass, or does my profession earn me an automatic reject reputation? With more and more moviegoers ignoring the word of so-called “specialists”, what will he do if his proposed horror film Red State doesn’t get raves? Whose fault will it be this time?

Maybe it will be Armond White’s. We critics have been crowing about the King of Opposite Land for a while now, ever since he became “famous” for taking the dissident approach to almost every universally loved title? Star Trek? Hated it. Transformers 2? Loved it. Pixar’s Up? Awful. The noxious Next Day Air? Brilliant! Get the trend. For most of us, that was where his infamy ended – that is, until a memo was leaked via email, saying writer/director Noah Baumbach was specifically requesting that White not be allowed into a press screening of his latest dramatic downer, the Ben Stiller vehicle Greenberg. Now, this is not the first time a critic has been “disinvited” to a screening. It happens all the time. But this was the first time that the information went public – and the reason for the rejection became a topic of trade conversation.

You see, when discussing his 1998 film Mr. Jealousy, White suggested that Baumbach’s mother should have aborted him. Well, not exactly in those words, but more or less something along those lines. The exact quote, available all over the ‘Net, was initially a subject of great controversy. White flatly denied saying anything of the sort. When the actually PRINTED quote was unearthed, he took it as an opportunity to rail against his persecutors and to rally around his right of free speech. In a world wracked with multiple problems, the pissing match between an artist and his aesthetic overseer doesn’t seem like much. But the fact remains that White’s unapologetic smugness acts as proof that, within their icky ivory towers, film critics are out of touch and unabashedly egotistical.

Or, maybe they’re just a bunch of sweaty, gross fanboys. Indeed, I have been relatively disturbed by the images pouring out of South by Southwest, the annual alternative media showcase that’s as outsider and independent as Cannes, Sundance, or Toronto (insert necessary sarcastic tone here). While almost always about the music, SXSW has also opened its doors to the raging revisionist of Messageboard Nation, embracing the nu-media movie fan with a kind of complicity that suggests incest. Every picture, every promotional by-product offers some puffy post-collegiate expert, offering their born in the ’80s ideals about movies, makers, and how to market to them, uber-ironic t-shirt tattered and almost always covered with the residuals of the night/day/meal before.

It makes me cringe. It’s the same kind of sick feeling I get whenever some dying print pundit argues that all online critics are “lazy, basement dwelling deadbeats” sucking the very lifeblood out of the craft while breaking embargoes, championing chum, and more or less murdering the medium they so desperately want to mimic. Indeed, they paint us all with a brush of unqualified unprofessionalism, arguing that we’re really nothing more than an unwashed mass of misfits – kind of like the collection Kevin Smith wants for his version of the “thumbs up/thumbs down” dynamic. Sigh.

In many ways, this is the beginning of the last epic battle for the heart of film criticism. When the smoke clears and the feigned fury subsides, the necessary shift will occur and a unhappy middle ground achieved. There will be few Pauline Kaels and a lot more Bloody-Disgusting.coms, Smith with get part of what he wants, while blowhards such as White will continue to find work (and trouble). Gone are the days when being qualified meant something. In the not too distant future, being available is all that will matter. Like I said, it hasn’t been a good month for movie critics. Frankly, things have been looking bad for a while.

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