Commentary: The wane of critical thought
July 27, 1999
By Reviewer Paul Tatara
(CNN) -- My editor at CNN.com recently asked me to write a piece about the dwindling influence of critics on the filmgoing public, and I was more than happy to oblige. Upon further thought, however, I've come to the conclusion that the subject needs to be approached from a slightly different angle. It doesn't seem that "influence" is the right word to describe what good critics are up to.
I've read movie reviews for most of my life, even before I was old enough to get into a car and drive to a theater on my own. Starting with the readily accessible pieces in Time and Newsweek when I was in junior high school, I then moved on to the more intense and enjoyably conversational ruminations of people like Pauline Kael (The New Yorker) and Andrew Sarris (The Village Voice, The New York Observer).
The overtly theoretical writings of the French New Wave -- coming from critics like Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, who would soon become brilliant filmmakers in their own rights -- were reserved for my college years, when I'd built up enough background information to properly deal with their esoterica.
Kael, in particular, is a writer whose style always appealed to me, even on those occasions when I thought her logic was a great deal less than adequate. But I never, ever looked to her to find out what I was supposed to think about a film. Instead, I read her pieces in The New Yorker to gain a little insight into a particular film and jump-start my own thought processes.
Thinking for oneself
In effect, she invited a conversation, then I saw the films that most interested me and pondered why I reacted to them in similar or dissimilar ways from the writer I most respected. I read the critic, whether I agreed with her or not, in order to hone my own critical faculties. After all, she was an audience member just like I was. And I was wholly capable of defining which elements gave my favorite movies the psychological depth that, for me personally, informs great art.
And that's where a lot of people today fail to understand the critic's role in the filmgoing process. It also, quite sadly, illustrates the central failing of modern audiences. Today's filmgoers can't be bothered to expend more energy than it takes to accept every film -- no matter how poorly constructed or thematically obvious -- as good "for what it is" (i.e. a commercial con game with at least five amusing catch phrases and the required amount of fleshly ballast).
The rule has always been "give them what they want," but it's high time that we as an audience figure out that we've simply been taking what they give us. That's not the same thing.
Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert were godsends to me when I was growing up because I got to see a few choice clips and hear a couple of informed people argue the merits of a movie. It was unique at the time. What ultimately became problematic, however, was their wrap-up; the thumbs-up or thumbs-down encapsulation of their criticism.
Most viewers simply tucked the direction of those thumbs into their cerebellums, neglecting to take the extremely important step of transferring that movie-related repartee into their own living rooms. You could argue that that's the same as "listening" to a critic, but lesser critics than Siskel and Ebert (and even they turned out to be pretty watered-down booze, once they caught on) soon started assigning a happy face and a pat on the fanny to everything that hit our screens.
That many of those endlessly positive critics worked -- and still do work -- for huge conglomerates that actually make the films they're supposed to be reviewing never sank in. In fact, I'm one of those critics, writing as I do for a Time Warner company. I have to depend on my mix of both negative and positive comments to demonstrate that my reviews are free of any corporate influence.
But if all the notices are to some extent glowing, and you're not inclined to apply your own critical thought when you're processing the information in a review, then every movie is "good." And criticism, much more than critics, suddenly becomes obsolete.
Screening the '60s
In the late 1960s, American audiences were arguably as discerning as they've ever been when it came to judging a film of true artistic value versus one that's designed solely to work you into a lather and rake in some bucks.
There was a new intellectualism that got its start with somewhat obscure directors like Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini and the New Wave auteurs, but also sprang from a worldwide coffeehouse aesthetic. Not everyone was taking acid and rolling around in mud, regardless of what kids who recently poured into corporate-sponsored Woodstock soirées were told.
The '60s were a time of digging beneath surfaces, of looking for something more than meets the eye, not that there was always more to be found. By now, though, the ever-cranking machinery of the mass media doesn't allow time for anything but pretty surfaces. And anybody who bothers to demand more than mere skin and firecrackers in their movies is viewed as something of a spoilsport.
That's why no one seems interested in taking up well-considered conversations with a sincere critic. Delivering an opinion that springs from the heart somehow ruins everybody's 2,000th helping of cake and ice cream.
The "first weekend" rule that now drives the motion picture industry says that if a movie doesn't pull in $20 million or $30 million in the first weekend, it's best to withdraw further advertising and cut your losses. That may be the most insidious example of where this has led us. Nothing is taken for granted by the big movie studios. And I mean nothing.
Gearing down for profit
I'm also a screenwriter, and I once had dealings with a producer who, within the course of a couple of days, downshifted from plans to make a biting satire about America's obsession with fame to whipping up something "a lot like 'Tommy Boy.'"
Why the sudden change of heart? That's easy: "Tommy Boy" made $30 million in its first two days of release. If America wants nothing more than a big fat guy banging his head against a wall, then, by golly, we'll give them a big fat guy banging his head against the wall. From here to eternity, if that's how long our production deal runs.
I repeatedly hear the argument that wafer-thin movies like this summer's "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me" and "American Pie" are breaks from the deeper, more profound forms of entertainment that are out there for our scrutiny. I'm not saying there's something inherently wrong with a ridiculous comedy; I'll watch "Animal House" (1978) in a second, given the proper mood.
But if everyone is taking this well-deserved break from heavier movies, why do more cerebrally provocative films like "The Sweet Hereafter" (1997) -- roundly praised by concerned critics and anybody who took the time to actually watch it -- founder and sink at the box office? If an "Austin Powers" sequel comprised mostly of repeated in-jokes from the first film can make $180 million, then surely to God "L.A. Confidential" (1997) for all its hard-hitting appeal, can make $100 million. Wouldn't you think so?
Slack in the seats
Again, the audience has simply stopped trying, and so have many of the critics. It's interesting to think that brilliant movies like "Taxi Driver" (1976), "Chinatown" (1974) and "The Godfather" (1972) were released more than 20 years ago with an eye toward awards and big box office. And they often succeeded on both counts, although not on the scale of something like "Star Wars" (1977) or "Men in Black" (1997), two films I fully enjoy, by the way.
The studios aren't selling movies anymore, they're selling thermoses, backpacks and progressively outlandish knickknacks. And we stand in line to gobble up their theater-based advertising reels.
It's a shame that Robert De Niro, the man behind such iconic creations as Travis Bickle ("Taxi Driver"), Jake La Motta ("Raging Bull," 1980) and Vito Corleone ("The Godfather: Part II," 1974), is currently starring as Fearless Leader in a big-screen version of "The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle."
And there's a solid chance you're sitting there thinking that it'll be really good. It's our fault as much as it is his.
Review: Vengeance in a town full of grief in 'The Sweet Hereafter'
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