Yesterday, Howard Kurtz wrote
a sad-sack column about the death of the legitimate entertainment critic. “It can be revealing to find out what people like you, uncredentialed as they may be, think about the new Meryl Streep movie, Philip Roth novel or noodle joint down the street. But why does that supplant the need for full-time reviewers?”
Kurtz’s column follows hot on the heels of a smiley-weepy piece by A.O. Scott in the New York Times
, entitled “A Critic’s Place, Thumbs And All.” His conclusion is that arts criticism will always be around, since “The future of criticism is the same as it ever was. Miserable, and full of possibility. The world is always falling down. The news is always very sad. The time is always late. But the fruit is always ripe.”
It is linguistic Hegelian dialectics like that A.O. Scott paragraph that tell us why “mainstream” criticism is dying: who the hell wants to read that crap? Kurtz’s piece is whinier, but at least it has the merit of clarity. He hates the common man, and he thinks that even though the common man may give you better advice on whether or not to see a movie, that common man is still common. There’s a refreshingly honest elitism in Kurtz’s commentary.
For Scott, it’s all about being vague enough to never be quite wrong (or quite right). It’s about not having to take a stand. Take, for example, his review of Date Night this week
. “It must be said that ‘Date Night’ … is superior to most recent movies of its kind, the marital action comedy.” So I should see it, right? Not so fast. “This is not saying much: better than ‘The Bounty Hunter’ or ‘Did You Hear About the Morgans?’ is not quite the same as ‘good.’” Okay, fair enough, so I’ll skip it. But wait – not so fast. The movie “does have moments of pleasant mischief.” But it also “tread[s] water for 90 minutes.” In the end, we’re left with a sense that Scott doesn’t really feel we should see the movie, but he’s not going to just tell us that straight out.
Which is, of course, all we really want. When we read critics, we want to know the answer to one simple question: was it worth spending my money? That was the charm of Siskel and Ebert – they told us in a simple manner whether we should go see a movie or not. Thumbs up or thumbs down. Not thumbs sideways, with a touch of wiggle in the first knuckle.
The truth is that Scott is not nearly the worst practitioner of this trade. There are others who make him look positively Manichean in his movie views (see Turan, Kenneth, who is fond of words like “droll,” “diverting,” and “elliptical” and phrases like “dark pearl” -- blech).
The bigger problem even than critics’ refusal to criticize
is the elitism that Kurtz represents. Three words: Lost In Translation
. Nobody has ever liked that movie. Ever. Nobody. In the history of mankind. Not a single human being. I have a review for Lost In Translation
that is actually shorter than the title of the movie itself. Two words: living death. It tells you all you need to know. You shouldn’t see it, and if you do, you should ensure that you have a defibrillator on-hand.
So what did our esteemed critics think of Lost In Translation
? Among RottenTomatoes.com “Top Critics,” the movie received a 98%
positive rating. By way of contrast, RottenTomatoes.com “Top Critics” gave Casablanca
86% (granted, the sample size is far smaller). The insufferable Richard Corliss of Time
said that Lost In Translation
“revels in contradictions. It’s a comedy about melancholy, a romance without consummation, a travelogue that rarely hits the road.” Or, more accurately, it’s a comedy without laughs, a romance without love, and a travelogue without travel. Only critics love the internal contradictions of banality.
David Rooney of Variety
agreed with Corliss, however: “the film’s deft balance of humor and poignancy makes it both a pleasurable and melancholy experience.” Peter Travers predicted, “Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson give performances that will be talked about for years.” Not so much, Peter – the only performance anyone still talks about with regard to that piece of dreck is Johansson’s butt’s performance during the opening credits.
It is judgment like this that leaves us breathless for the blogosphere. We want recommendations from people who actually watch movies for the pleasure of watching them, not from people who watch movies so they can brag to their friends about how subtle and nuanced they are.
Good criticism doesn’t have to die. It requires only the courage of conviction, and even more so, honest critiques that reflect the movies reviewed rather than the self-aggrandizement of the reviewers. After all, the movie business isn’t about the critic – it’s about the movies and the viewers. The moment critics lose sight of that all-important fact, they cease to be of value.