We need to talk about film criticism
The Internet is devastating the world of film criticism. Is that a good thing?
November 19, 2020, 9:00 am ASTLast Updated: November 19, 2020, 2:08 pm
It was his first day as senior film writer at Toronto’s NOW Magazine. Norman Wilner went to the offices on Spadina Avenue, exchanged pleasantries with his colleagues, sat down and looked at the calendar. “There’s an Edward Yang retrospective at the Cinematheque,” he said, already familiar with the director’s work. “We should do something about that.”
The response to Wilner’s passive comment was almost immediate – “Make it the feature.” Two weeks later, on March 6, 2008, his 800-word breakdown of an obscure Taiwanese filmmaker’s life’s work was published.
“I never had that moment before,” Wilner said, “and I don’t think you can do that now.”
Fast forward 12 years and anyone with a secure Internet connection can think they’re a film critic. On websites like Letterboxd, Twitter and Rotten Tomatoes, millions have shared a public opinion – for better or worse.
Rotten Tomatoes, one of the Internet’s three most popular film review websites, is an aggregate site. This means that reviews are gathered from other sources and put in one place where users can access them.
Richard Crouse, film critic for CTV News Channel, says that aggregates “dumb film criticism down by having a symbol.” It’s either a green splat or a red tomato, a certified pass or a rotten fail.
So, has the Internet affected film criticism? Overall critics agree — but with one thumb down and one thumb up.
What is film criticism?
Wilner defines film criticism as “the act of appreciating, understanding or explaining a given work to the reader.” The critic’s job is to explain why elements of a movie do or don’t work – without spoiling the experience of watching it.
A critic is faced with the impossible challenge of writing about art, a subjective medium. Criticism itself is an artform. “When you read the good stuff,” Wilner says, “the really good stuff, it’s engaging the creator and the art. To lose yourself in the prose, even when you disagreed with the opinion, is the ultimate goal of criticism.”
For CBC News senior entertainment reporter Eli Glasner, criticism is like a form of anthropology. A critic must connect what is happening in a movie’s plot to what is happening in our own society. “The best movies are movies that become a touchpoint for a larger conversation,” Glasner says, “a reflection of what we’re all going through.”
A 2018 study revealed that the time between the announcement and release of a Hollywood movie averages two years, four months and 19 days. Although movies can be made years before release, they find a way to help viewers process what is happening in the current social climate. This, Glasner says, never ceases to surprise him.
Doyle Greene, a co-editor of the academic journal Film Criticism, specializes in cultural and media studies. He has written seven books on popular culture, including The American Worker on Film and Mexploitation Cinema.
After a screening of Peyton Reed’s Bring It On, a 2003 high school cheerleader comedy, Greene raved about the importance of postmodernism and racial politics in the movie. A member of his movie-going entourage couldn’t help but ask, “Does every film have an agenda?” To which Greene replied, “Yeah, pretty much.”
Movies “not only reflect what’s going on in society, but they also influence how people view things,” he says. “We can read Shakespeare and we can read Spider-Man and sometimes the same messages are in both.” Good critics find those messages and reveal them to a general audience.
In 1988, when NOW’s Norman Wilner was writing a film column for the Toronto Star, the newspaper didn’t have star ratings. This fact didn’t stop readers from asking him for one. “If you can’t figure out our opinions from reading our opinions, the stars seem even more of an insult to the writing,” he says. “I want someone to understand me through the words.”
Today’s top three film review websites – Rotten Tomatoes, IMDb and Metacritic – all use a rating system.
Film criticism used to be about the nuanced opinion of a professional critic, someone you could trust to know what they are talking about. Now movie reviewing can be a race to see who can tweet out a 280-character-or-less hot take first.
Before the Internet became the hub for criticism, Wilner would recommend people who wanted to be a critic to just write. “The hardest thing in the world used to be getting someone to read you,” he says. “Getting the platform, getting a newspaper spot or a magazine gig – it was almost impossible.”
This was largely due to leading film critics not letting go of their jobs. Wilner says he used to joke that no one would hire him because none of the film critics in Toronto would die – until that actually happened in 2007.
Now he wouldn’t dare make that joke.
“You can find a place to be part of this community, which is great,” he says. “But it’s also devalued the concept of education and an informed opinion.”
Instead of telling wannabe critics to write, Wilner now tells them to post a blog and build an audience online.
The digital age
The title “film critic” used to come with a university degree or a spot at a reputable news outlet. Now it can be self-assigned by anyone with a domain name, an Internet connection and a movie ticket.
“There have never been more film critics than there are right now,” says CTV’s Crouse. “And there’s never been fewer people making a living as a film critic.”
Crouse believes that the Internet has done wonders for the democratization of film criticism. It allows marginalized voices to be heard and brings awareness to disparate points of view. This also, he says, comes with consequences. He states it plainly: if 50,000 people are willing to do the work for free, those used to getting paid are going to have trouble finding work.
“Film criticism has never been livelier than it is now,” he says. “But quite honestly, there’s too much of it.”
In 2019, more than 7.5 million reviews were published on Letterboxd. The number of movies released in the United States and Canada that same year was 786. This averages out to almost approximately 10,000 reviews per movie on this website alone.
A professional full-time film critic typically writes between two and five reviews per week, or 104 to 260 reviews per year. Traditional film criticism is drowning in the vast ocean of reviews posted online.
The film critic’s decline
In 2008 Wilner became the senior film writer at NOW. Twelve years later, he is still the most recent full-time film critic hired in Canada.
In February 2020, Peter Howell left his position as the Toronto Star’s film critic. He began writing for the Star in 1996 and wrote approximately 6,240 reviews – five a week for about 24 years.
Howell and Star television critic Tony Wong took buyouts early in the year, while deputy entertainment editors Debra Yeo and Garnet Fraser moved to the news desk. In a Facebook post former Star television critic Rob Salem claimed this left the Toronto newspaper with “literally no entertainment department.”
Brian D. Johnson retired as Maclean’s film critic and arts writer in 2014. Liam Lacey retired as the Globe and Mail’s film critic in 2015. And now Peter Howell has left the Star. This leaves Wilner as the only founding member of the Toronto Film Critics Association still writing about film full-time.
Wilner says he is “stunned” by this. He doubts any members saw this coming when the association was formed back in 1997.
Both academics and critics believe that there is a future for film criticism online, whether published in an academic journal, on a news site or in the comments of a discussion board.
“I think that the future of film criticism is healthy, the future of paid film criticism is not,” says CTV’s Crouse. “As long as people are writing from a place of passion and interest – and making sure that they are speaking because they actually have something to say – film criticism will be just fine.”
Walter Metz, a professor of Film Studies at Southern Illinois University, wants to create what he calls “middle-ground film criticism.”
In an undergraduate film criticism class, Metz teaches students to write in a conversational journalistic style. Instead of simply reviewing a movie, they practice academic film analysis – looking at mise-en-scène, cinematography, sound and editing and how they join together to create a whole – while their writing maintains a casual tone.
His criticism is that reviewers are “depleted” of methods used in film theory and film studies, while academics write for “impenetrable” scholarly journals. He hopes for something in between the two.
“Couldn’t there be a place that we would meet in the middle?,” Metz asks. “It won’t destroy reviewing and it won’t destroy academia. It would be nice to have a third outlet that would both be scholarly in method but accessible in execution.”
Professional film criticism is now in critical condition, but there is hope for a new golden age of criticism online. Like a phoenix from the ashes, criticism could be reborn in the image of the amateur, rather than the professional.
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