Film critics have been getting whacked lately like they're in the third act montage of a "Godfather" film...BAM-BAM-BAM. They're going down with an unforgiving ferocity that spells danger not just to the craft of film criticism but to print journalism as a whole. Why? Because the local film critic has always been symbolic of the individuality of the American newspaper and magazine.
The latest victim is the stylish and tough Glenn Whipp of the Los Angeles Daily News. He was preceded in the gangland slayings by some other superb writers: Glenn Kenney at Premiere (who, by the way, gave me my share of metaphorical prison rapings when he wrote about my films), Carina Chocano, and Kevin Thomas at the Los Angeles Times, Jonathan Rosenbaum at the Chicago Reader and, well the list does sort of go on and on.
When I was a kid, my heroes were not baseball players nor movie stars. My knights in shining armor were film critics. Sounds crazy, I know. But that's the way it was with me. I loved going to the movies, especially when I was a teenager in the seventies. How couldn't you in what was perhaps the greatest era of auteur cinema? Going to the movies was what the cool kids did back then. It therefore held that those who were getting paid to do so had to be the coolest people on Earth.
Every weekend from, like, 1974 to 1978, I'd trudge over to the Greenwich library, which gathered up almost every major newspaper in the country. I would sit there all day long and read and read and read the reviews. I remember being twelve or thirteen and writing to Judith Crist, Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert. They were all non-pretentious mensches who wrote me back, humoring me.
I came to the conviction that film criticism in and of itself was an art. Kael's sentences, almost every one of them, were little grammatical dances that shimmied and curtsied and sometimes impaled. Her writing was its own creature - something acrobatic, something that had never been done before. Her style was as influential to writers after her as Faulkner or Tom Wolfe were. Kael's bi-weekly column was something to anticipate, something you set time aside to go through. It was appointment reading.
Roger Ebert, even at a very young age, wrote with a kind of home-spun wisdom. He was (and is) straight and direct and delivered his opinions with humor and efficiency and he always had a prediction of exactly what you might experience watching a certain film. Sometimes, like with early Scorcese (his new book about the director is splendid), he'd get behind a film you wouldn't expect and it would get you thinking. More importantly, it would get you to the theater.
Ebert was the best to determine if you should go to a film. Kael was better to read after having seen the movie.
There were plenty of others I looked up to. Rex Reed made me laugh. He still does. John Simon was so cruel that he made the reader seem like a co-conspirator in his lacerations. Charles Champlain was professorial and elegant and you always felt more educated after reading him. Stanley Kauffman was somber and serious and took the whole craft so seriously that he made you realize that cinema - which our parents always regarded as frivolous - was high art indeed.
All these critics worked either for a magazine or a newspaper. They each had a voice. A voice that was as unique as the voices of the filmmakers they wrote about. And that voice translated into being the voice of the newspaper or magazine for whom they worked.
Here is Pauline Kael on "Street Smart":
"Morgan Freeman may be the greatest American actor in movies. He gives the role of a Times Square pimp, Fast Black, a scary, sordid magnetism that gives the picture some bite. Magically, he sustains Fast Black's authenticity; it's like sustaining King Lear inside GIDGET GOES HAWAIIAN."
Roger Ebert on "Taxi Driver":
"'Taxi Driver' shouldn't be taken as a New York film; it's not about a city but about the weathers of a man's soul, and out of all New York he selects just those elements that feed and reinforce his obsessions."
Vincent Canby on "Gandhi" and its Oscar chances:
"To honor a film like 'Gandhi,' a perfectly reverent if unexceptional film, they are paying their dues to the race (human), certifying their instincts (good) and also the belief that movies about worthy subjects can make money."
Here is Jonathan Rosenbaum on my first little film "Deterrence" (He's misunderstanding my intentions, but, bless him, the guy knew how to get a point across):
"Foreigners who argue that Americans are Neanderthal savages can point to this movie as persuasive evidence."
Newspapers have been in a downward spiral for close to a decade now (I blame Craigslist most of all. Classified ads have always been a major source of income for newspapers - but no more). In order to cut costs, management goes first to critics - a bit like how schools slash arts programs. There is something they do not take seriously about them. They find them easily replaceable or, maybe, not needed to be replaced.
When these newspapers and magazines fire the Whipps and the Kenneys and the Wilmingtons, they are hurrying their own demise by cutting out one of the very things that makes them unique: the voice that often prompts people buy the newspaper in the first place (the same thing applies to another budget-slashing victim: the political cartoonist).
You know, it used to be that somebody would say, "I heard that such and such a newspaper loved or hated a movie." That's silly, of course. The newspaper's critic - not the paper itself - loved or hated a film. But because that critic was so identified with the publication, it served the same purpose.
There is hope I suppose. There are several critics I still love to read (I admit, some of the internet guys are pretty good). But, it's not like it used to be - which breaks my heart.