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Death to film critics! Hail to the CelebCult!
November 29, 2008 6:24 PM   Subscribe

Death To Film Critics! Hail The CelebCult! "A newspaper film critic is like a canary in a coal mine. When one croaks, get the hell out. The lengthening toll of former film critics acts as a poster child for the self-destruction of American newspapers, which once hoped to be more like the New York Times and now yearn to become more like the National Enquirer. We used to be the town crier. Now we are the neighborhood gossip."
posted by An Infinity Of Monkeys (37 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

 
We teach test taking, not reading or thinking, in the public schools. This is the result.
posted by orthogonality at 6:35 PM on November 29, 2008 [2 favorites]


It is time for the canary in the coal mine to be thrown under the bus because it has jumped the shark.

Anyway, while I more or less agree with Ebert, this article needed to be written by somebody else. It comes across as lawn maintenance touched off by an editorial policy that Real Writers In His Day Wouldn't Have Put Up With.
posted by DU at 6:43 PM on November 29, 2008


The celebrity culture is infantilizing us. We are being trained not to think. It is about the death of an intelligent and curious, readership, interested in significant things and able to think critically.

I like Ebert's writing, but he seems to be describing something today that started not with the decline of movie critics, but the rise of television. Watching over reading. Is he only now noticing, now that it's impacting his profession? His peers?

I was also disappointed that here he is writing on his blog about the "death" of deeper writing and discussion. It hasn't died, it's just moved online.

I imagine young people read a lot more today than they did 10 years ago. Granted, they're reading a lot of omfgkthxbye... but it's a start.
posted by rokusan at 6:47 PM on November 29, 2008 [3 favorites]


We teach test taking, not reading or thinking, in the public schools.

Teach it, measure success by it, and reward it. We're excellent test-takers!
posted by rokusan at 6:48 PM on November 29, 2008


Is he only now noticing, now that it's impacting his profession? His peers?

No, and what a strange thing to ask. As for whether there will appear critical luminaries to rival those of the past in the online medium, I think there's still nothing close to a verdict. I can't imagine picking up a volume of Chris Gore's reviews in 20 years and questioning if it is, itself, a work of art, or of major cultural insight. We'll see.

Having just finished Sontag and Kael, I tend to think that what we have here is a widening of that age-old gulf between academic writing and popular journalism, with "writerly" mass publications in the middle feeling the stretch. Tragic, given the deep embeddedness in media for the average person which is the new norm.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 6:58 PM on November 29, 2008


Ebert has become a cranky old man.

Too many in the newspaper business assumed that things would never change, and now they're resentful that the golden age is over. Ebert doesn't talk about the most critical factor here: the monopoly held by newspapers during their golden age has been irreversibly broken by the rise of the internet.
posted by Class Goat at 6:59 PM on November 29, 2008


It was a rhetorical question, Ambrosia, meaning "This article is 40 years late."
posted by rokusan at 7:05 PM on November 29, 2008


Ebert has become a cranky old man.

I think he's allowed -- I still don't think he can speak.
posted by lumensimus at 7:17 PM on November 29, 2008


~ Teach it, measure success by it, and reward it. We're excellent test-takers!

The sad thing is that not only do we do what you said, and not only are the tests designed to be hard to fail, but we still aren't great at it.
posted by paisley henosis at 7:17 PM on November 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


tl;dr

Seriously though, I think he missed this with the book critics that went before him.

Newspapers, publicly traded newspapers especially, are screwed. Stock holders want to see increasing market growth, high ROI, and increasing circulation. It's just not going to happen. The market's saturated, and newspapers don't innovate. I was around for the great newspaper debates of '91 and '92 when papers were still thinking they didn't need to go online, could charge for their product if they did, and still plain just didn't get it.
posted by cjorgensen at 7:36 PM on November 29, 2008


Personally, my take– I can't wait 'til Ron Howard makes a film about The Great Newspaper Debates of '91 and '92.
posted by defenestration at 7:45 PM on November 29, 2008


I thought he had already.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 8:01 PM on November 29, 2008


It's not celebrity culture that's killing reviewing-- it's free amateur reviews that are sometimes more informative than the "pros." Let's face it, most people don't read movie reviews for cultural criticism-- they read them to find out whether they want to see the movie or not. An internet rating system and reviews by passionate amateurs can give them that-- without a newspaper having to pay someone to do it.

It's not like reporting which is expensive and time-consuming or requiring of particular expertise like analysis in most instances -- sure, a long analytical cultural critique of film trends is, but again, that's not what you see in most newspapers.

People who have a unique voice that helps others find their way to movies they like will survive and those who can identify interesting strands in culture will do all right and they will probably find a way to get paid for it eventually-- but he's identified the wrong problem here.

The AP move makes sense because they are playing to a strength that's not as easily copied by amateurs for free: reporting.
posted by Maias at 8:24 PM on November 29, 2008


The celebrity culture is infantilizing us. We are being trained not to think. It is not about the disappearance of film critics. We are the canaries. It is about the death of an intelligent and curious, readership, interested in significant things and able to think critically. It is about the failure of our educational system. It is not about dumbing-down. It is about snuffing out.
Who is "we" and "us"? This is BS. There has always been a thriving low brow culture. There are more smart intellectual forms of media now than ever before. People are more educated now than ever before. So yeah your favorite medium the newspaper is on a death watch. Daily newspapers were late to the critics game, the NYT didn't even have a dedicated book review section until the 1890's, prior to that it was in specialty papers like Quotes and Notes. So it's perhaps not surprising they are loosing ground in this area. If people want good professional critics they are not hard to find, it's overwhelming actually how much and the quality. And I don't mean amateur reviews. This whole article is just another old school whine about things changing with some Greater Newspaper Theory of Dumbing Down The Masses.
posted by stbalbach at 8:28 PM on November 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


If people want good professional critics they are not hard to find

Sure, they may not be hard to find, but if you don't know you should look for them, why would you?

I'm not convinced that most people care enough to look further than what's put in front of them when it comes to things as trivial to most people as what other people think about movies. I think it's worth newspapers trying to put the best content possible (content that is alluring yet challenging) in front of people and let them seek out the other, less good things (celebrity porn) on their own. Unfortunately it's hard to sell newspapers that way. Since we have the option between using our WHOLE ARM to move those big pages back and forth or to simply wrist it with a mouse and keyboard, the lazy option is going to win out.

Don't get me wrong, I like using my computer for news just fine, but the internet is really big. It's almost like we need some sort of centralized, meta feed or... like a filter to sift through all the noise.
posted by SmileyChewtrain at 9:07 PM on November 29, 2008


I was also disappointed that here he is writing on his blog about the "death" of deeper writing and discussion. It hasn't died, it's just moved online.

Where? Here, with a link to a critic from traditional media? The only Internet critic regularly cited by rotten tomatoes as a "top critic" who has no tie to traditional or large-market alternative media is James Berardinelli, and I never hear him quoted here. He is certainly not quoted even halfway as much as Ebert is, unless I missed All ReelViews Week here while not paying attention. Otherwise, the only critic who regularly makes the list is Stephanie Zacharek, who writes for the eternally troubled Salon.com and once wrote for the Boston Phoenix.
posted by raysmj at 9:27 PM on November 29, 2008


Ebert has become a cranky old man.

If he was younger he'd be passionate. He's older, so he's labeled cranky. Regardless, if I'm ever his age or in his shape I can only hope to be so fiery.

it's free amateur reviews that are sometimes more informative than the "pros."

You can have the amateur reviews and the mass voting. More times than not, Ebert seems to be spot on. Even when I've disagreed with him, I've often found his perspective enlightening. When he's gone, I'll miss him. Quantity won't replace his quality.
posted by justgary at 9:29 PM on November 29, 2008 [2 favorites]


There will, I think, eventually be some alternative form of major, urban market media created (a la the cooperatives or non-profits discussed here recently), but the idea that blogs have taken over movie criticism for a large audience is a little ridiculous. And no blogger is going to have a career dedicated to film journalism, exactly, will not be able to see nearly all films that win wide release unless independently wealthy, a film student or a young and slacking sort with a good credit card or three or four.
posted by raysmj at 9:31 PM on November 29, 2008


Agreed with stlbalbach. The trend towards desperate tabloid journalism is a trend in modern editorial policies, not a sign of what people actually want. The equivalency of "popular in media" == "what people want" is false. It has a lot more to do with the business end of media outlets and how desperate they are to get people's attention for advertising.
posted by destro at 9:33 PM on November 29, 2008


Beyond the question of whether blogs are replacing newspapers, which they are, I think Ebert nails it. While this kind of thing has always been moaned about, anyone not under a rock must have noticed the overwhelming rise in celebrity porn. I am also finding it harder and harder to find properly constructed sentences or properly constructed ideas, whether in whatever form of media or in real life. This is at least partly because of the internet, where standards are so much more casual, and not to get into popular versus highbrow, because quality gets overwhelmed by quantity. It's been said many times before that when a society is no longer able to express itself properly through language, it dies.
posted by blue shadows at 10:13 PM on November 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


If he was younger he'd be passionate. He's older, so he's labeled cranky.

I was a cranky young man. I hope this means I'll be a passionate old one.
posted by rokusan at 10:45 PM on November 29, 2008 [3 favorites]


I wonder if Ebert could have made it today as a freelance movie review blogger. He's smart, and he knows movies. But he also got his job, as we all mostly do, through connections rather than pure talent. IMO, the internet democratizes everything, radically so. For every talent like Ebert there's are plenty of hacks (like everyone who reviews for the Washington Post these days) who established careers based on climbing the corporate totem pole rather than knowing anything about film.
posted by bardic at 2:44 AM on November 30, 2008 [1 favorite]


The young people I work with are not interested in books, music, art, or movies. If I tell them a movie is considered by critics to be one of the best ever made, they assume they won't like it. They don't go to museums. They don't have access to book reviews (they don't read newspapers), so they wouldn't know if there was a book out there that they'd enjoy; they have all read "Harry Potter" and feel that they have therefore "done" reading. They have the internet, but they go to only a few sites. If I suggest that they expend a little energy to learn about something (I don't care what: jazz, porcelain, anime, food, whatever) and be able to tell good from bad, they say they don't have time. It really does make me despair.

I wouldn't be the person I am today if it hadn't been for people like Pauline Kael and John Leonard. Critics who are enthusiastic about what they like and want you to know what great things are out there are a rare joy. I've watched a lot of things I wouldn't have normally because of Roger Ebert.
posted by acrasis at 7:43 AM on November 30, 2008


It's not celebrity culture that's killing reviewing-- it's free amateur reviews that are sometimes more informative than the "pros."

Yeah, Ebert's mixing a couple of things that are better examined separately: The AP's decision to focus on celebrity news over reviews, and the realization by lots of folks that they can get better information about movies that suit their taste online - at sites like Allmovie, AVClub and Senses of Cinema, as well as at many, many amateur/independents - than they can in the typical newspaper review.

The absolute *last* thing I'll regret when the final mainstream newspaper is hung by the entrails of the final full-page furniture store ad is the newspaper's film reviewers. If there's any thing non-aligned amateurs have consistently done better than newspapers, it's offering intelligent opinion about film.
posted by mediareport at 9:13 AM on November 30, 2008


Dunno about newspapers because I don't read 'em, but the internet is mostly amateur hour in terms of movie reviews. James Berardinelli my god what a putz
posted by dydecker at 9:51 AM on November 30, 2008


the internet is mostly amateur hour in terms of movie reviews

You should see my local newspaper critics.
posted by mediareport at 10:39 AM on November 30, 2008


I don't doubt your locals are bad, but at least the structure of a newspaper guarantees reviews will be edited. Something like a review needs a second pair of eyes. That's not to say all net writers just type it up and hit post--obviously decent writers like Stephanie Zacharek work with an editor--but there and hundreds and hundreds of self-described "reviewers" on the net with no business writing about movies at all. Not many ideas, not much broader context, not much feeling for the art.

I'd even say the Internet has broadened the definition of a movie review (to its detriment): it seems 30% of reviews listed in the search engines are DVD reviews where the guy--and yes it's usually a guy--doesn't bother with the movie and instead judges whether its got extras or not, whether the digital transfer is perfect, etc. Criticism as consumerism.

Such is the Internet i guess
posted by dydecker at 11:14 AM on November 30, 2008


The equivalency of "popular in media" == "what people want" is false.

I don't think that's exactly what he's saying. The AP's clients are not the "people," they're the media. And cjorgenson and Class Goat are right - this has less to do with what people want than it does with the fact that the traditional media "gatekeepers" are no more. Since the papers can't dictate what should be brought to our attention, they have no choice but to race for the middle.
posted by me & my monkey at 12:26 PM on November 30, 2008


Newspaper writers hate, hate, hate the lack of barrier to entry their alleged profession represented by blogs and the wider web. Sorry Mr. Ebert, but centralized information distribution is so very last millenium.
posted by telstar at 3:42 PM on November 30, 2008


Some movies are made to cater towards critics. Some movies are made to try to win Academy Awards. Some movies are made purely for the internet audience. I'm looking at you, Snakes on a Plane.
posted by amuseDetachment at 4:01 PM on November 30, 2008


Granted, they're reading a lot of omfgkthxbye... but it's a start.

Later they'll progress to bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk!

(Finnegan's Wake sample)
posted by ersatz at 4:05 PM on November 30, 2008


Can we just dispense with the "old man" and "get off my lawn" bs, please? These expressions are just thoughtless ways of dismissing ideas that seem to rub in the wrong direction.

Obviously, Ebert's quite aware of the role the internet played in the decline of the newspaper; further, he's also presumably aware of the presence of independent commentators who have worthwhile things to say about film (as mediareport points out).

But I think that many in this thread are whistling in the dark here, while making happy comments about the glorious decapitation of the traditional "gatekeepers." Because there's a problem here that can be avoided only by overlooking what Ebert's actually saying in his essay. His point is that, while brilliant internet criticism will presumably continue to exist, that it will be likely confined to a smaller number of people--basically the people who seek it out on their own.

It's fine to be happy that good criticism may still be available, but it's also worthwhile to ask the question considered by Ebert, which concerns the likely effect of the slow withdrawal of intelligent commentary from the information world of those who don't actively seek out that sort of thing.

I confess, I'm worried about this too. As we come to inhabit a pull-driven media world, divided between those who subscribe to HBO and read The Atlantic, and those who watch FOX and TMZ, what are the consequences for the social polity more broadly?

Maybe Ebert is a crazy old man, and things are going to get better--but from where I stand Sarah Palin and John McCain just almost won the election here in the US. And I cant' shake the idea that many of those Palin-Bush voters are precisely those who have escaped the "gatekeepers," and who manage to consume entertainment that caters to the worst impulses of the mob, purged of the critical thought and attentiveness to dissent that Ebert feels were at least permitted, if not encouraged, in traditional edited print media.

I hope that Ebert's critics in this thread are right about his foolishness, and that his comments are indeed the perennial complaints of the old about the young. But I suspect that his remarks are more perceptive and ominous than I'd wish to believe. In any case, I think that complacency about the relegation of rational discourse to niche-markets is unlikely to be especially useful.
posted by washburn at 6:00 PM on November 30, 2008 [2 favorites]


washburn, I'd buy it if newspapers weren't 95% dross as well. Ebert cherry picks a few names and papers and seems to want us to believe that these are representative of the print media. But isn't Pat Collins far more representative of the kind of movie reviewing one is apt to come across in any given newspaper? Yes, Pat Collins is a television personality and that is exactly my point. Newspapers have been subservient to the tube at least since the early 80's. The web isn't yet in that position, and I'm keeping my hopes up that it doesn't ever happen.

More bad news for newspapers: this thread made me go look at Jim Romenesko's newspaper trade column on Poynter which featured Ebert's piece and also this harbinger: Wall Street Walks Away From Newspapers.
posted by telstar at 6:50 PM on November 30, 2008


Oh yes, bardic, Roger Ebert got his job purely through connections and not, say, experience and credentials as well as knowing the right people:


Ebert received his undergraduate degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he was editor of The Daily Illini[8] and member of the Phi Delta Theta fraternity. One of the first movie reviews he ever wrote was a review of La dolce vita, published in The Daily Illini in October 1961.[9]

Ebert did his graduate study in English at the University of Cape Town under a Rotary International Fellowship. He was a doctoral candidate in English at the University of Chicago. He was a Sun-Times feature reporter when the film critic position was offered to him by the Sun-Times.[8]

posted by raysmj at 7:36 PM on November 30, 2008 [1 favorite]


Screen up to "personal life" for that bit.
posted by raysmj at 7:38 PM on November 30, 2008


"We have more [TV] outlets now, but most of them sell the Bowflex machine. The rest of them are Jesus and jewelry. There really isn't diversity in the media anymore. Dissent? Forget about it."

I think Ebert misses the point. "CelebCult" is just a symptom of the consolidation of media ownership, and media conglomerates go for the lowest common denominator to maximize short term profits. The AP itself is the problem, not their rules. I was startled to read an AP story a few weeeks ago and realize that, for once, it informed me rather than blandly reporting facts without context or causation. God forbid they start doing something crazy like hyperlinking citations to source documents.

I confess, I'm worried about this too. As we come to inhabit a pull-driven media world, divided between those who subscribe to HBO and read The Atlantic, and those who watch FOX and TMZ, what are the consequences for the social polity more broadly?

The larger divide is between those who seek information out and those who passively consume it. Media consumers have always been able to evade thoughtful content by switching channels to watch the Dukes of Hazzard or Mr. Ed.
posted by benzenedream at 11:45 PM on November 30, 2008


Win Ben Stein's mind
posted by homunculus at 7:10 PM on December 3, 2008


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