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Does Film Criticism Have a Future?By HENRY P. RALEIGH
July August 2008

I DON’T WANT to belabor this issue, you know, yet, alarmingly it does keep coming up. Not long ago the critic A.O. Scott, in a tribute to a fellow critic, Roger Ebert, put the question right out there — and in the New York Times no less: “Does film criticism have a future?” Actually the same question was asked by another critic, Richard Corliss, in a 1990 essay so you can see nothing has gotten any better. I know how these fellows feel. My own entrée to their beleaguered ranks was via the philosophy of art, a field laughingly referred to in academia as a ‘dismal swamp’. Well dismal it may be, but it’s a lot of fun — so put that in your mortar board and smoke it.

Nevertheless there’s no denying that things are getting tougher. Maybe it’s the recession. Maybe it’s all those bloggers freely spewing their uninformed opinions all over the internet. Mr. Scott in that same Times article revealed that a writer for the Salt Lake Tribune (to show you how far bad news spreads) came up with a list of 27 critics dropped from various publications. I wasn’t on the list, you’ll be happy to learn. But then I’m not on anyone’s payroll, so to speak, and I would bet few of the 27 were either — most being ‘contributors’, the favored term for expendable print writers nowadays. That’s sort of like being thought of as someone who makes gratis contributions to the Red Cross or Good Will and receives heart-felt thanks and that’s about it.

Now I’m the first to confess ours is an imperfect science even though it’s fun. I’ve reported numerous times on the remarkably wide disparity among film critics regarding the best and the worst of any single year’s film productions. I understand and certainly sympathize with your confusion when coming upon quite contradictory reviews of the same film. Take, for example, this Rex Reed review of the recent, “My Blueberry Nights”, that appeared in The New York Observer. Mr. Reed is second to none in tossing out zingers, I can tell you. “Diner drivel”, sneers Mr. Reed. The film’s title “…is every bit as meaningless as the rest of the movie.” On the chance a reader might have missed the point, he goes on to, “…nothing about “My Blueberry Nights” makes any kind of coherent sense.” Never weary of beating a dead horse, the film is, “…boring, pointless and narcotic.” And of Norah Jones’ acting debut, “She can’t act.”

It would be sadistic to include here the entire demolition of Mr. Reed’s accompanying review of “Sex and Death 101” — a sampling should give you the idea: “…jejune, pretentious third grade blather”, a movie that “…just lies there waiting for Tuesday and garbage collecting day.” So would you care to lay out ten bucks to see these films? I ask you?

But hold on a moment. Turn the page in this same issue of the Observer and there is Andrew Sarris’ critique of “My Blueberry Nights”. Mr. Sarris finds the filmmaker, Wong Kar Wai in his first English language feature, has made this venture without “sacrificing his artistic soul and very personal visual style”. Why, Mr. Sarris is more than willing this early in the game to include the film among the 10 best of 2008 — a love story told “beautifully and passionately”. Can this be the same film that Mr. Reed saw? Now it’s true that Mr. Sarris was not fond of “Sex and Death 101” either, yet he was nowhere near as bloodthirsty about it as Mr. Reed, even noting moments of “wit and lucidity”. Where Mr. Sarris cheered Winona Ryder for returning to film “projecting her distinctive personality”, Mr. Reed dismisses her return as “dubious”. Are these people crazy? I ask you?

And as for the aforementioned Mr. Corliss, it’s worth reading his withering analysis of the 1970 “MASH” in his Talking Pictures: Screenwriting in American Cinema 1927-73, this after every critic on the planet had praised the film to high heaven and beyond. To complete the burial he even demolished the critics who had gone for it, signaling our Pauline Kael who had called “MASH”, “…the best American war comedy since sound came in.” It’s no wonder Mr. Corliss was ready to throw in the towel in 1990. Is he crazy? I ask you?

Now can a film audience make anything out of all this? Where is the trustworthy guidance viewers surely must yearn for? The truth of it is, however, that the film audience doesn’t pay one whit of attention to film critics. If they did, Adam Sandler would have been out of business long ago. For the most part film critics are talking to each other and a handful of devoted followers who delight in seeing how wrong they can be, Still, you must admit a good piece of nasty criticism can make you think harder about a film you thought was pretty hot stuff.

Film criticism is a lot of fun as those bloggers crowding cyberspace have found out and it’s perfectly harmless. What other professions are there where you can be as ignorant as a post and make colossal errors of judgment and it doesn’t change a thing? I ask you?