And I know, I'm generalizing about the magazine itself, but if there were even a single byline on this piece (which IFC's Matt Singer brought to my attention, praise be to him), then I'd take that writer to task, perhaps in private. But no, the Magazine itself has broadly knocked my profession -- going so far as to file the piece under the "Rip-Offs" heading of their "Spending" section -- and so I shall attempt to explain why a few bad apples does not a rotten bushel, or feature article, make. 1. "If you see me on TV, chances are I can't be trusted."
Well, to their credit, SM doesn't lump Ebert & Roeper with the rest of TV critics (though the words 'Siskel & Ebert' are nowhere to be found when they compliment "extended, even passionate, discussion of films up for review").
However, "film critics who ply their trade on the TV infotainment circuit seem to love everything they see" isn't the same as saying "film critics on TV." That's a matter of entertainment reporting more so than film criticism (hairs = split), where the gushiest people tread lightly because A) they tend to be uniformly undiscerning about film, and B) they don't want to bite the hands that feed when it comes to B-roll with Brad.
We know that Gene Shalit's a joke, and we know that Larry King ranks likewise. But to knock Alison Bailes for raving over "big-budget flops like Beowulf"? How was she supposed to know how well the film would perform? And more to the point, why should that have anything to do with her review? I sure as hell didn't like Transformers because it was going to take in roughly $150 million in its first six days of release, and I didn't gush all over Kiss Kiss Bang Bang just to see that rake in $4 million in a total of twelve weeks.
If Bailes had been going against the critical grain, SM might have something, but she had a portion of a 22-minute show with which to justify her stance, but even the article notes the limitations of TV reviewers who probably have more like 22 seconds to touch on any given film. Some critics on TV can be trusted -- I'd argue that James Rocchi, formerly of Cinematical, had a long and level-headed run on San Francisco's CBS affiliate -- but let's make sure that, if you're calling anyone and everyone talking movies on camera a c-word, you're using the right one...
2. "Beware of blurbs."
Believe it or not, I generally agree on this one. "When deciphering film ads, use the law of three-that is, every ad should boast full sentences from at least three media sources you've heard of" -- sound enough advice. "If you're considering a sci-fi or horror flick and the ad offers up blurbs only from genre-specific publications, pass on it" -- well, although those genres may (arguably) churn out more dreck than not, if someone is looking for a sci-fi or horror flick to see, then chances are they'll want to give something a shot regardless. I don't suspect that "Keeps the gore coming!" is going to lure in any unsuspecting gray-hairs by accident.
Yes, most blurbs are exhaustingly hyperbolic, but there's a difference between Roger Ebert gracing the print ads for Knowing and notorious hack Earl Dittman ranking right below him. (Other names to keep an eye out for: Shawn Edwards, Pete Hammond, and the father-son duo of Jeff and Ben Lyons -- the more you see them, the less you ought to trust 'em.)
Some films need effusive reviews to draw a crowd, so if the blurbs on the ads are from reputable sources as noted above, then it's probably a safe(r) bet. Since we are talking about the best praise in the biggest print, though, that's why it's always a safe bet and never a sure thing...
3. "If you want to win the office Oscar pool, don't listen to me.""Film critics dote on quality (no matter how exotic their idea of quality may be), whereas the Academy tends to reward monetary success." -- Yes, because The Dark Knight (i.e. the second-highest domestic-grossing movie of all time) certainly proved that little maxim to be true. I'll confess at not being the strongest at either box-office predictions or awards prognostication, but there are people out there who are (cough), so to say that the best thing to do when critics like something is to assume the opposite seems reactionary at best. Sorry if I'd rather heed the advice of those who have sat through hundreds of movies and thousands of performances a year than that of Dave over in accounting.
4. "Hanging out with the star of a film could never affect my review of it!"
This one's tricky. I can really only speak for myself on this point above all others, but I would like to think that I know the distinction between associating with filmmakers and being biased towards their work.
Now, to get the hypocrisy out of the way: When Roger Ebert all but publicly denounced the snap-happy behavior of one Ben Lyons, I agreed on all points and cheered him on. Then, when I tagged along with Scott to the Observe & Report press day at SXSW, we got a picture with Seth Rogen after the interview that was immediately taken to task by a commenter who cited Ebert's same blog. I can see where anyone is coming from -- what purpose does it serve other than boasting? -- but it was a spur-of-the-moment decision that didn't make us like the film we saw any more (not that I think we could).
In contrast, I drove down from Orlando to Miami in order to both visit some family and take part in the press day for Reno 911!: Miami -- a film which I had been disappointed by the week before -- back when I was a coughman in college. I figured the least I could do was take some pictures during the interviews if the paper needed them, and afterwards, the publicist encouraged us to take a group shot, seeing as I'd come down all that way. So I have a picture with half of the Reno 911! crew to go with my two-star review of that film.
If I hang out with filmmakers in real life (rare) or banter with them on Twitter (more common), it's because I liked their films, and not vice versa (despite dealing with editors who pine for celebrity coverage, whether or not a film has screened). A healthy portion of junketeers can't discern a conflict of interest ("B-roll with Brad" and all that), and the day I feel that I can't review someone's film fairly, that story goes to someone else. I suspect that many of my colleagues follow a similar train of thought, but it's those whorish few who tend to bring our credibility down a notch.
5. "I could say a film's 'about a lovable misfit,' but I'll go with 'it limns alterity.'"
I can't remember the last time, or even the first time, that I slipped mise-en-scène into a review, nor roman à clef, nor schadenfreude for that matter. The internet has admittedly allowed film critics to approach the medium somewhat more casually (though spazzy fanboys can often take this too far the other way -- enough with the exclamation points!). If anything, that degree of elitism seems to be falling by the wayside. That isn't to say that there aren't some terrific full-blown essays online that break down a film with a most analytical approach, but that is no longer the example by which we're led. Look at The New York Times and their cadre of critics (that means "group," SM) -- their reviews often strike me as having a nice balance of being readable and being informed, and if that means occasionally looking up a word like "alterity" over reading a review that opens with "dude," then so be it.
6. "Don't bother going to the movies in February or September."
There is a sea change happening here, mild though it may be, in which more and more decent films are slipping out in the well-established dumping ground of early winter and late summer. Taken and Coraline this past January and February, Burn After Reading and Ghost Town last September, Cloverfield the January before that, and 3:10 to Yuma the September before that -- see, it's not all expanding awards fare after all. But there's something off about SM claiming that this is something movie critics won't tell you, which is to say that I've never heard a colleague claim that they would intentionally ignore the fact that these periods are often dead zones of entertainment. If anything, the increasing quality of releases has at least led me to note how appreciated the good stuff is in a typically tough time of year. We're hiding this? Not at this rate.
7. "You probably don't want to hear this, but you need me."
You'd never hear a critic say this because that's a downright snobby claim for any professional to make in any field. Again, it's a matter of tone, SM -- instead of saying "Critics are helpful to consumers," you're suggesting that critics are crucial to consumers, and as an $80-million opening weekend for the savaged X-Men Origins: Wolverine prove, that's clearly not the case. You can also watch sports games without commentators to boot, but we likewise think that our perspective can help expand appreciation of the medium.
The air of supposed elitism comes down to the gap between people who, say, like the occasional sweet and safe rom-com and those who have to sit through a dozen of those a year. Some people merely want their opinions validated; if you liked it, you liked it, and no one can stop you. Others just want to know what movie is most worth their money and time, and while some critics do serve as consumer reporters of sorts, I'd rather (ideally) dedicate myself to examining what one might get out of any movie at any time and at any cost. You may not need me, no, but I'd like to think you'd have me, whether or not we agree, because even if you still go see a dud, you can read between the lines that it might just be your kind of dud.
8. "Sure, I'm a bellwether of taste -- my own."
Critics don't say this because they shouldn't have to. Of course my review is subjective as all get-out -- it's MY review -- and as SM actually addresses, there are enough of us still around for you to know whose tastes on Rotten Tomatoes you consistently align with. Am I biased against maudlin tearjerkers? Probably, but I'd like to think that I'm giving every movie a chance when I sit down to watch it. (I can count the number of times I've walked out of a film on both thumbs.) How else would one ever be pleasantly surprised? Of course Goose on the Loose looks like phenomenal ass, but unless I watch the whole thing for myself, what weight can my opinion truly hold? And as far as objectivity goes, just because one can verify that Hannah Montana: The Movie is ideal for its target audience doesn't preclude us from noting what a lazy movie it was.
At the end of the day, it's still just my opinion -- again, none of us are stopping you from buying that ticket to Dragonball Evolution -- but hopefully, with the help of Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic (as recommended by SM), at least some of us might be leading you in the right direction.
9. "It's gotten so bad, I actually prefer television to most movies."I can only speak for myself in saying that my television viewing's only gone down in the past couple of years, that I don't catch up with as many full seasons on DVD as I'd like to, and that this really has no bearing on what think of movies. If I'm going out to a movie, I'm going out to a movie. I won't tell you that I prefer TV or that I prefer books, because I don't, but that doesn't mean I don't touch the stuff. Seriously, SmartMoney -- this is the best you can come up with?
10. "My top-10 list is full of movies nobody's seen."
Again, what critic wouldn't admit as much? This 2007 study from the MPAA offers up the most concrete number I could find on the average amount of movies seen by the common moviegoer: 8.5/year. Compare that to something like 300 films (personal guesstimate) seen a year by any given critic. It's inevitable that at least one of our ten picks will end up being something that was either overlooked by the masses or underexposed outside of NY/LA. And if you think it's a struggle seeing those year-end awards bids outside of NY/LA, just try seeing them in time to make your list, in order to possibly put that film on the radar of those who haven't yet gotten wind of it. It's only a wait if they know there's something worth waiting for out there, and critical support sometimes helps determine just how wide a film might eventually open.
It's ultimately not our call, though, and sometimes DVD is the way to do it. Wouldn't you rather know to catch it then than not at all? Even SmartMoney admits as much -- "These lists are an excellent means of sussing out upcoming DVD releases of movies that never made it to your neck of the woods." -- and maybe that shows that us critics aren't so withholding after all.