Friday, April 04, 2008

Will the last film critic please turn off the projector?

Forget the polar bear, it's time to add movie critics to the Endangered Species List. At least, the professional kind that writes for old media. Newsday, Newsweek, and The Village Voice are the latest publications to lay off critics like Detroit autoworkers. I think, in large part, newspapers and news magazines feel they can afford to shed film scribes because there's often a huge disconnect between reviewer and reader anyway. Not even Michael Bay's ego could fill the gap between the tastes and views of ordinary viewers and the rarefied, discerning opinions of professional reviewers who, let's face it, might strike readers as jaded or distant or haughty in their critiques.

That gulf may be a lot narrower at, say, cosmopolitan metropolitan institutions such as The New Yorker and NYT, publications where movie critics seem to have a brighter future. In the meantime, amateur critics will continue to proliferate on the Web where, Variety's Anne Thompson notes, peer-to-peer recommendations are more relevant to younger auds.

But I wonder how many of those younger blog critics can provide the sort of context that comes from a deep encyclopedic knowledge of film that encompasses bygone eras and international cinema? They may know their Luketic, but do they know their Lubitsch? Professional film critics skew older in age and have the advantage of decades of cinema-going to draw upon, whereas a younger set of critics will struggle to keep up with the hundreds of releases in any given year, let alone keep up with Netflixing films that fall beyond the scope of a good film-course curriculum. Quentin Tarantino once said he learned everything he knows about cinema from reading Pauline Kael. Can any up-and-coming director make the same claim about Harry Knowles?

I like what Ty Burr, formerly of EW, is doing over at the Boston Globe. Burr is astonishingly good as a critic and if he doesn't net a Pulitzer one day then the committee isn't paying attention. (Oh, and talking of encyclopedic knowledge: there's a reason why EW picks up the phone to call Burr every time it needs a historial obit piece.) Not only is Burr's writing a witty and literary delight in every piece – even if the movie is a non-hazard-pay assignment such as "Bratz" – he's also able to offer really thoughtful critiques that make one see each work in a fresh perspective. Take, for example, his clear-eyed critiques of "Junebug" and "Anatomy of Hell."

He clearly understands where the average Globe reader is coming from and engages the reader by making him or her feel as if he's talking to them, not above them, as a critic. He's educating his audience about film, but gently doing so in a way that the reader feels part of a colloquial conversation. It's the difference between the kind of professor that holds a seminar with his students on the college lawn and the bow-tied one that dictates to a class from behind an auditorium podium.

The Globe's movie site has a nice video feature in which Burr and talented second critic Wesley Morris do an Ebert 'n' Roeper routine each week – always nicely done. And I really like their blog, too. It's the model of what critics, if they're to survive, will need to do to form a personal relationship with their community of readers.

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