The war against movie critics

So the editor of Variety thinks film criticism is pointless elitism. Does he speak for the moviegoing public -- or the Hollywood studio execs and corporate media bigshots who'd like to ditch the critics?

Published January 13, 2003 9:00PM (EST)

Sometimes I think the day-to-day lives of most movie critics could be summed up by a line Amy Madigan speaks in "Streets of Fire": "Everywhere I go, there's always an asshole."

The winner of that distinction this week is Peter Bart, editor in chief of Daily Variety, who, in the Jan. 6 edition of that Hollywood trade publication, published a remarkably misinformed little screed targeted at film critics. Regarding the year-end 10-best lists that most critics have just published, Bart asks, "How could anyone conjure up such a mixed bag of cinematic effluvia?" He goes on to identify three schools of critics.

First, there's the "pop culture is yucky" school, meaning critics who reflexively reject any movie that has found mass acceptance. Most critics file their reviews before movies open and therefore don't know whether a film will be commercially successful or not, a detail Bart neglects to address. Second is the "obscurantist" school, critics who protect their air of authority by only praising obscure movies no one else has seen. Third, there's the "I admit to brain damage school." Apparently this is the category I fall into, since I fit Bart's criterion for brain damage: I praised Brian De Palma's "Femme Fatale." But since Bart admitted that the Guy Ritchie/Madonna "Swept Away" would have been on his own 10-best list, I don't think I'll be getting that CAT scan anytime soon.

The categories may be new but the arguments are the same tired horseshit dragged out every time some blowhard feels the need to condemn movie critics. Big bad Bart huffs and he puffs, but he can't come up with anything more original than the idea that critics are elitist by nature, snobs who can't stomach anything popular, who will only praise the most esoteric, unheard-of movies, and who bear such a heavy workload that their judgments cannot be trusted.

It's the second school, the "obscurantists," who particularly get under Bart's skin. Two of the New York Times' movie critics, Elvis Mitchell and Dave Kehr, come in for his special ire for including "Warm Water Under a Red Bridge" (Mitchell and Kehr) and "Morvern Callar" (Mitchell) on their 10-best list. These choices, obscurities according to Bart, are a defense against a "civilian" challenging their opinion. "There's no way to contradict a critic if his favorites were shown only at the Ouagadougou Film Festival." Bart doesn't bother to mention that Mitchell, Kehr and their Times colleagues A.O. Scott and Stephen Holden also list such "outré" choices as "Chicago," "Catch Me If You Can," "About Schmidt," "Adaptation" and "Gangs of New York." (In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I know all four of these critics, and Mitchell and Scott are good friends.) But facts, as we shall see, are inconvenient things to Peter Bart.

The best way to judge the alleged obscurity of both "Warm Water Under a Red Bridge" and "Morvern Callar" is to simply list the facts. In 2001, "Warm Water" played at the Cannes Film Festival, as well as the Toronto, New York, Chicago, and Palm Springs film festivals. Theatrically, it played in -- brace yourself -- New York (including Long Island); Hartford, Conn.; Boston; the San Francisco Bay Area; Houston; Durham, N.C.; Honolulu; Los Angeles (and surrounding suburbs); Cleveland -- hey, Pete! Just give a shout anytime we're in the neighborhood of Ouagadougou! -- San Diego; Minneapolis; Laramie, Wyo.; Las Vegas; Seattle; Portland, Ore.; Wilmington, Del.; Rochester, N.Y.; Albuquerque, N.M.; Chicago; Columbus, Ohio; Indianapolis; Juneau, Alaska; Scranton, Pa.; Milwaukee; Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; New Orleans -- embarrassing, ain't it? -- Bismarck, N.D.; Miami; Burlington, Vt.; Rehoboth Beach, Del.; Des Moines; and Tucson, Ariz.

So much for only critics being able to see it.

In addition, the film's director, Shohei Imamura, has, in the course of a long career, been nominated five times for the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival and won twice. Bart doesn't bother to mention this -- if he's even aware of it -- since Imamura's acclaim and stature would be at cross purposes to his argument.

As for "Morvern Callar," the film opened a few weeks ago in selected cities and will be opening across the country in the coming weeks. It didn't make it to Ouagadougou (isn't he the kid in "About Schmidt"?) but, in 2002, it was in the Director's Fortnight in the Cannes Film Festival, where it was awarded the prize for best film, and it played the Chicago, Toronto, Telluride, Edinburgh, San Sebastian and Mill Valley film festivals. The "obscure" star of this "obscure" film, Samantha Morton, was nominated for an Oscar for Woody Allen's "Sweet and Lowdown" and co-starred last year in Steven Spielberg's "Minority Report." And the next project for director Lynne Ramsay is adapting that "obscure" little novel "The Lovely Bones."

How did Bart miss all this? Especially since Variety covers film festivals and reviews every movie that opens in the U.S. Are we to assume that the editor in chief is simply unaware of the contents of his own publication?

The real answer, I think, and the real subtext of his article, is that if a movie isn't released by a major studio, if it's foreign or independent, it isn't worth your time. Insisting that it is proves you're an elitist snob. If Samantha Morton stars in a movie by Allen or Spielberg, it shows up on Bart's radar. If she stars in a movie by Lynne Ramsay, it's obscure and elitist.

It seems that the one thing Bart cannot tolerate is a diversity of opinion. Quoting Newsday critic John Anderson's contention that the diversity of movies given awards by critics' groups has blunted critics' impact on the Oscar race (which never amounted to much), Bart suggests that critics prove their unreliability by offering different opinions on which movie is the best of the year. It doesn't occur to him that a moviegoer might see that diversity of opinion as offering an array of movies to check out. When you consider the movies that have won the recent round of critics awards -- "Chicago" from the Dallas-Fort Worth critics and the New York Online Film Critics; "About Schmidt" from the Los Angeles critics; "The Pianist" from the National Society of Film Critics and the critics in Los Angeles and Boston; "Far From Heaven" from the New York critics -- it simply blows away Bart's argument about critics championing movies no one else has heard of.

At this point, it might be useful to consider just who Peter Bart is. Before becoming editor in chief of Variety, Bart was a production executive at MGM and Paramount. His own contributions to the art of movies include producing "Revenge of the Nerds II" and the Rob Lowe hockey drama "Youngblood." It may be more pertinent to his arguments to note that he also appeared as himself in the 1998 movie "Junket Whore."

Clearly, this is a man who has never left the mind-set of studio executive behind. And he is precisely the wrong man to attempt to address the question he does, "What purpose do critics serve?"

Bart's search for the answer is comical. To find out what purpose critics serve he turns to "three top studio ad execs" -- which is like asking the Detroit automakers what purpose consumer product safety groups serve. After talking to these pundits, Bart comes back with the answer that critical quotes in advertisements are little more than "felicitous decoration." Oh, really? Is that why Sony invented a movie critic to provide blurbs for "The Patriot"? Is that why it was once common practice for studio publicity departments to concoct quotes that they would then attempt to get real critics to put their names to? Is that why every holiday movie ad is top-heavy with critical quotes?

Were this the Warren Report we could simply dismiss Bart as the Lone Ignoramus. But the significance of his blast is more insidious than that. Given his attitude toward movies that fall outside the mainstream, it's no surprise that Bart dismisses the "traditional defense" of critics as writers who help readers discover overlooked movies. (There is no such thing as an overlooked movie in Peter Bart's mind-set -- just ones we've all heard about and deservedly obscure ones.) It's not surprising that this former studio exec doesn't mention one of the most important functions of movie critics. In a culture increasingly dominated by promotion, where "making of" TV specials are little more than commercials for an upcoming release, and where Sunday supplement interviews are advance publicity for a star's new movie, critics are the only thing that stand between moviegoers' wallets and the studio publicity departments with their kazillion-dollar ad budgets.

By taking the line that critics serve no purpose Bart is -- intentionally or not -- doing the bidding of the studios, which, while maintaining a blasé public attitude toward critics, would love to be rid of them. What industry chief doesn't dream about being able to market his product in an atmosphere where the public has no information save that provided by the manufacturer? That's why, whether you like us or hate us, agree with us or think we're full of bull, you as consumers need movie critics. When the editor in chief of the publication known as "the Bible of showbiz" takes this public stand against critics, it's a fair bet that Hollywood is no longer feeling shy about making its true feelings about movie critics known. That's why, as moviegoers, you should feel nervous about Bart's article.

But if Bart is bringing New Year's cheer to the hearts of studio execs, he is also speaking the thoughts of a good many newspaper and magazine editors and publishers. In 1975, François Truffaut wrote, "Every person on the editorial staff of a newspaper feels he can question the opinion of the movie critic. The editor in chief, who shows careful respect to his music critic, will casually stop the movie critic in the corridor: 'Well, you really knocked Louis Malle's last film. My wife doesn't agree with you at all; she loved it.'"

Nowadays you'd be lucky to find an editor who knows who Louis Malle is. A critic is more likely to get called into his editor's office because he didn't like "Men in Black II," as happened to a critic I know. Or he's likely to be stopped by an editor who tells him that his 11-year-old daughter thinks "The Sixth Sense" is the best movie she's ever seen, as happened to another critic of my acquaintance.

These are rotten times to be a movie critic. In a bad economy, an independent voice delivering judgments on a multibillion-dollar industry that represents a tremendously lucrative source of ad revenue is likely to be perceived as a detriment. It has become increasingly common for critics to be pressured by their editors (who themselves may be under pressure from the sales department) to change their opinions. Pressure that no paper would think to bring to bear on their Op-Ed writers is routinely applied to movie critics. This has nothing to do with the quality of a critic's writing but solely with the content of their opinions, the area where a critic is supposed to be given free rein.

It risks the elitist label to say that critics should know more than their readers about movies, but it's really just common sense. Don't we expect a foreign correspondent to know more about the Middle East or equatorial Africa than the readers do? Do we second-guess our plumbers about our clogged drains, or our doctor about our clogged arteries? But expertise in an area where everyone assumes they are an expert is assumed to be snobbery. That proceeds from the assumption that a critic is telling his or her readers how to think instead of helping them to think for themselves -- whether or not a reader's conclusions are in sync with the critic's.

So we have incidents, as happened a few years ago at a New York paper, where an editor tried to pressure a critic to take the foreign films off her year-end 10-best list because, he claimed, readers would not have heard of them. And the assumption behind that is that the only purpose of a critic is to tell people what they already know. In any area of journalism, that spells death.

To Bart and to the people he is speaking for -- editors and publishers as well as studio execs -- a world in which only highly promoted movies would be covered and praised would be paradise.

In the current climate, where many local critics are being replaced by syndicated writers (in effect standardizing opinion), where critics are under pressure to praise the big movies, where so many media outlets share the same parent company with Hollywood studios and where conglomerates are trying to get the Federal Trade Commission to relax its antitrust laws to make even bigger conglomerates possible, I would propose that the truest measure of any newspaper or magazine's commitment to the free exchange of ideas and to journalistic ethics lies in the freedom it allows its movie critics.

It may be that the only reason movie critics still exist at all in many newspapers is that it allows the editors and publishers to cover themselves with the fig leaf of journalistic ethics. In the back of their minds they may well have entertained the thought of how many people would be happy -- themselves, their advertising department, the studios ready to spend those ad dollars -- if there were no critics at all. The people who don't figure into that equation are the readers.

The most common type of letter my colleagues and I get from readers is from someone who has seen a movie and come home to search out reviews. Whether they agree with us or not, the fact that they want to read criticism tells me that Peter Bart and his ilk are dead wrong about the purpose critics serve. And the power to make sure that outlets accord their critics editorial independence lies with you, the reader. Let publishers and editors know that you value movie critics, that you want critics to operate free of advertisers' interference.

Bart ends his piece by saying, "I'm not a film critic. And I intend to keep it that way." A statement of pride for him, it should come as an enormous relief to everyone except studio execs. For critics and moviegoers, being told that Peter Bart has no intention of becoming a movie critic is like being told that Frank Abagnale isn't managing your mutual funds. But the voices Bart speaks for are increasingly influential in journalism, and should be revealed for what they are -- forces who want to do away with the only independent monitors of a hugely profitable industry.

Some years ago, the dance critic Arlene Croce penned a line about the relationship between critics and the people they write about. It can also stand as the definitive summation of the relationship between critics and their critics: We are frequently wrong about them. They are always wrong about us.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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