The Death Of Film Criticism

For the most part, all the film criticism I read is online. Occasionally, over morning coffee, I will sit and read a print review. Recently, after reading a review of Gaspar Noe’s Enter The Void, I became very frustrated with what I was reading, not because the review was particularly badly written but because it was not a review. The critic in question spent the majority of the review summarizing the film, going so far as to discuss the final shot. It was a pointed reminder of why I stopped reading print reviews quite some time ago.

While the person who wrote the review is considered a film critic, can one truly be a critic if their sole job is to summarize a film and provide a slight negative or positive take, almost as an afterthought.

This is not uncommon; in fact, it is rare to find a print review that is a true critique of a film. One should not expect all print reviews to be in-depth analysis but as reviews have become summaries and the only marker of quality is the number or star rating, the death of film criticism is on the horizon.

The beginning of the decline of film criticism is hard to pinpoint as it seems to have many points of departure. For some, the internet is the reason why film criticism is not what it used to be. Certainly, if you ask famous contrarian critic Armond White, he would agree. However, I do not see the internet and blogging as the real enemy. The decline in criticism started much earlier, as reviewers began to use stars, numbers and thumbs up or down to give their final word on a film.

Of course, this is the norm now, but as I see it, the number rating is the root of all evil in terms of film criticism. It reduces criticism and analysis to such a degree that the rating is completely meaningless.

A critic may dislike an accomplished but difficult film, but enjoy a mediocre comedy. If you were to follow the number ratings, it is fair to say that nine times out of ten, the mediocre comedy will be rated higher. While I have immense respect for Roger Ebert, and do not put all the blame on him, his famous thumbs up review system is completely flawed.

Film, no matter the quality, deserves and requires discussion far more advanced and generous than a simple one out of ten rating. This approach to film criticism does a disservice to both the film and the reader, as those reading it do not get a real sense of the quality of the film. If someone is looking for a quick take on a film, these number ratings may be the easiest way. However, it is killing film criticism. Unfortunately, with the popularity of websites like Rotten Tomatoes, a change is not looking likely.

I do not mean to dismiss all print reviews, as there are dozens of great writers still working in print. That being said, in general, there is a noticeable decline in the quality of film criticism in print newspapers. The lack of real criticism in film reviews is not necessarily the fault of the critic, but rather a result of what most people want. If people are just looking for a quick rating out of ten, then the reviews that accompany that number aren’t going to be in depth looks at the film.

Real film criticism can be an art of its own, as in depth dissection of film can result in beautifully written and thoughtful pieces. The death of film criticism may already be upon us. That does not mean we shouldn’t strive to change this horrid trend of summary disguising itself as criticism, and return to the days of beautiful and meaningful film critiques.

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5 Responses to The Death Of Film Criticism

  1. David says:

    You make a very valid point, one that has frustrated me for some time. Half the time, a review tells me all about what happens in the movie, and if it shows any trend towards liking or disliking it, it does it on who is in the film or who made the film. Often times, this results in director bashing, or actor bashing, which comes across snotty and is useless if thats the only “criticism” of the film.

    Have you ever read the NYTimes reviews? I find those to be the most negative bunch of film goers ever. I feel like every review from them is negative for some reason or another (I’m sure not all are, but it seems like it to me at times). Perhaps many have forgotten why they used to love movies.

  2. Ross McG says:

    youre completely right. it’s getting to the stage now where if there is a film you are definitely going to see you just have to avoid all major reviews of it. I think often the problem is that editors demand that writers do such a lot of copy on a film review that sometimes the writer fills space with plot revelations.

  3. Joe says:

    I completely agree with you. A while back I felt my film experience was being dictated by what critics were saying and actually also by trailers. So I stopped reading reviews and I minimized as many advertisements for the film as possible. I wanted to go in fresh without knowing anything and not being being familiar with the visuals and I found the movie watching experience to be a little bit more enjoyable. So it sounds like the state of critical writing hasn’t changed since I last left it.

  4. MP, idFilm says:

    There’s a moment in his Notre Musique where Jean-Luc Godard is asked by a film student if he thinks digital has changed film-making; looking down at his feet, he says, “Just because an artist is given a pencil doesn’t mean he can draw.”

    Digitalisation hasn’t just affected film-making itself (I wrote a piece on that here: http://tinyurl.com/4kpmele), it’s affected the nature of responding to films too. “Everyone’s a critic”; this is as true now as it has ever been, but the difference these days is that anyone can write to be, in theory, read by everyone. Things catch on; traits become fashion. Beware the star rating.

    I come across a lot of film reviews that go along the ‘check-list’ route: acting, visuals, direction (“it was well directed…” though I remain doubtful that these reviewers are familiar with directing films as an artistic process). This can have its merits, of course – it depends on who’s ticking the check-list – but it’ll often be at the expense of engaging with the film’s actual substance. It’s more an ‘aesthetic’ approach, I guess, and it neglects a discussion of the actual issues the film contains, its meanings, etc.

    I’ve experienced a renaissance of sorts recently, aided I think by my discovery of Google Reader and the ability to subscribe to selected film critics, those reliable sources to whom I return; it’s not a case of always agreeing with them, it’s a case of knowing they’ll offer you something infectious and substantial to which you can respond either way.

    Do you ‘do’ message boards? They’re a good format for debate; the forum associated with our own film blog is here: http://idfilm.proboards.com/index.cgi

  5. David says:

    FYI – Roger Ebert is fully aware that “Thumbs Up” is a flawed system.

    “All ratings are silly anyway ” – Roger Ebert

    start at 5:05

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