"The best essay I've read all year!" "Thumbs down!" Readers sound off on Charles Taylor's "The War Against Movie Critics."

Published January 16, 2003 8:00PM (EST)

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I'm sorry. I feel bad that your breathing is hampered under the weight of that fierce, bestial ego of yours, but I do not think that is any excuse for you to be a condescending, egomaniacal ass. No, Charles Taylor, I do not "need" you or your opinions (I "discovered" all of my favorite films on my own, thank you very much); your whining about the "pretentiousness" of art and artists is simple entertainment. And no, I am not a studio exec. I'm a 21-year-old slob who is steadily tiring of the stricture of art critics.

There is a related topic at Plastic.com about Stephanie Zacharek and her rant against "Adaptation." About two people agree with her; most of the other posters dismiss her whining as the oblivious drivel that it is. If there is a "war" (yawn) against critics (I can't help but wonder what Taylor and his ilk would say about this melodrama if an artist had written a tome about "the war against art"), it is not from conspiratorial studio heads, but rather from people like me who are increasingly disillusioned with the insecure, hypocritical rants of adult-children who dish out criticism, but are unable to receive it.

-- Peter Green

Thank you, Charles Taylor, for your eloquent and thoughtful defense of those misunderstood, much-maligned and completely necessary media creatures called film critics. In a world ruled by mainstream marketing and corporate catchphrases, only the critics stand between the culture of consumerism and the art of cinema, then try to perform the Quixotic task of elevating the public's appreciation beyond, "It blowed up! It blowed up reeeeal good!"

-- Dann Gire, President, Chicago Film Critics Association

As a moviegoer, I appreciate being able to read about a film in advance of seeing it as well as reading others' opinions about a movie I've just seen. In the first case, as ticket prices climb, I like to have some idea of what to expect and whether or not to shell out the cash for a film. In the second, I appreciate the opportunity to gather others' opinions about a movie and see if they match or challenge my own.

In any case, however, it behooves me to know the critics and their styles, likes/dislikes, idiosyncrasies, etc., in order to judge the value of their criticism in affecting my actions. For instance, the Salon movie critics and I usually agree on technical aspects (acting, writing, etc.), but we usually disagree on philosophical points (so that, when the Salon critic complained that "Monsters, Inc." wasn't dark enough, I knew what they meant, and I figured I'd like the movie very much).

So I disagree that movie critics are useless. But like anything in life, caveat emptor. Everyone has agendas and vested interests. A responsible consumer, moviegoer and reader figures out what the critics' interests are, and works from there.

-- Laura Graham

It was great to read Charles Taylor's vitriolic response to Peter Bart's attack on the institution of film criticism. One of the most interesting aspects of the middlebrow arts is the way in which they are constantly caught between pop mass media and the obscurity of the academic/high art worlds. The joy of film criticism, I think, is the way it straddles that divide. Certainly, there are some really lousy critics: people who fall all over the basest of Hollywood tripe and others hopelessly lost in irrelevant iconoclasm. There are some really great ones, though, too, and even when I disagree with them (and it happens pretty often), I count all of Salon's writers among them.

And Taylor is right: It might be a cliché, but critics do help to expose us to movies we might not otherwise seek out. Last year, I probably wouldn't have seen "Morvern Callar" (which I didn't like) or "Time Out" (which I did) if it hadn't been for film critics.

I think that critics serve another function, too, besides the immediate appraisal of a picture: They help canonize films, and, in the process, preserve the history of cinema for amateur filmgoers who might not go to film school or have immediate access to a strong film archive. Thanks to critics, I've sought out Mizoguchi, Sirk, Godard and Ray, and my life is incredibly richer as a result. While film writers might not save lives or change the world, any profession that can have that kind of impact on people deserves at least a modicum of respect.

-- Chris Wisniewski

Doesn't Peter Bart realize that the blockbuster directors of today -- Sam Raimi, Peter Jackson and even, in his day, George Lucas -- started their careers at the Ouagadougou Film Festival? His anger at critics, though stupid, is understandable. His disparaging of the movies they champion is incomprehensible.

-- Bridgett Taylor

Another great article by Charles Taylor. I agree with him about the usefulness of film critics to moviegoers -- I for one read film reviews (in Salon and elsewhere) religiously, both as entertainment and as recommendation.

However, I do recognize an interesting dilemma for film criticism specifically, one that New Yorker (and ex-Village Voice) art critic Peter Schjeldahl has voiced repeatedly: The function of film critics differs from that of art, dance, theater or literary critics because film is fundamentally successful as a medium. That is, everyone loves movies, everyone sees movies, and as much as films have changed and are changing (in terms of new technology, the culture of marketing, etc.), the cinema is in absolutely no danger of extinction, loss of audience or lack of opinions.

So film critics do fulfill a necessary and healthy sorting function for the enormous number of movies released annually, but they don't share the art, dance, theater or book critic's responsibility -- deserved or not -- to inform a largely uninterested and uninformed public, or to act as a cheerleader or advocate for a limping or unsuccessful medium. I suppose that's both a blessing and a curse for the unlucky film critic.

-- Brendan Greaves

Oh, good God almighty!

Mr. Taylor writes that "critics are the only thing that stand between moviegoers' wallets and the studio publicity departments" and "as moviegoers, you should feel nervous."

At the same time, he says, "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."

In other words, most engaged filmgoers don't read the reviews before going to the movie, and I certainly will not. So how are critics protecting the wallets of this cowlike herd again?

While we cannot defend the character of establishment film conglomerates, it isn't much of a stretch to regard the "community" of critics as leeches and hangers-on. This three-page diatribe in Salon by an insecure writer fails to convince us even of its own value.

-- T. Klay

Charles Taylor is dead on. I'm writing, as he suggested, to voice my support for Salon's film critics. I feel they are some of the best, if not the best movie critics writing today. Their erudition, strong opinions and good writing consistently add to my enjoyment of a movie or challenge it and force me to think about what I've seen. I frequently read their reviews before and after seeing a movie. I hope that Salon can keep such excellent criticism going and continues to allow its critics the freedom they need.

-- Axuve Espinosa

Charles Taylor is absolutely right. Though I've disagreed with his reviews time and time again, I'm in full agreement with his stance on the need for critics, especially in the popular arts. When mere hype is billed as a "recommendation" and every movie referred to as a "hit," it makes it impossible to determine what's quality and what's not. And whether something is good or not is subjective; losing critics means that only the projects with the most money behind them get realized. I doubt the movie "Secretary" would have gotten the attention it has if critics (like the ones at Salon) had not treated its subject with the seriousness and care it deserved. Charles Taylor is right when he says readers need critics, and though we don't share the same taste in movies, we share a belief in the importance of film criticism.

-- Daniel Krow

I can only imagine this critic penning a three-page response to Bart's criticism because the barbs strike close to home. I have found Charles Taylor to be the most exasperating, disappointing and frankly wrongheaded critic operating today. Taylor manages to fit both the obscurantist and the reflexive anti-pop culture stereotype he tries to knock down. Bottom line: I have learned not to expect Charles Taylor's opinions to be near enough to my own to provide valuable insight into prescreening my film choices, and at risk of overgeneralizing, I believe most Salon readers feel the same way. Ditch this guy.

-- George Chidi

The real issue here is that we need more movie critics who are literate and educated and even more elitist. Giving the people what they want, so to speak, was the impetus behind Disney and created the prolonged infantilization of the moviegoing public. Get a good dose of Godard for an antidote.

-- Lucia Adams

I have seen the enemy, and he is Peter Bart. Most critics pan most mainstream Hollywood movies because most of those movies are brain-dead. Just look at "Catch Me if You Can." On the other hand, don't bother. Steven Spielberg has no clothes, and all the hype from Variety and the other hucksters won't clothe him. As for me, I'm looking forward to seeing "Morvern Callar," even though the commercial theaters in my town only show Peter Bart-approved Hollywood schlock-fests. Thank God for videotape and cable.

-- John Mize

Thank you for Charles Taylor's forthright article on the Variety/studio Hollywood attack on movie critics. Especially interesting for me were the comments about editors, et al., who claim to know as much as or more than the critics. The same thing holds true in live theater, not only for critics (held in less esteem than movie critics at most newspapers, hard as that is to believe), but in all realms of theater, from board members in the not-for-profit sector to administrators in educational theater. In fact, at a number of papers that do not use syndicated movie critics, the jobs are combined. At one otherwise praiseworthy East Coast paper in the mid-'80s, the movie/theater critic was an employee who was a Guild member and had reportedly washed out in all other departments of the paper. On a panel in a major Southern city, I was astonished as a critic asserted that his lack of training in theater -- or even theater-going experience prior to taking his current job -- improved his work as a critic, since it "makes it possible for me to respond from the same standpoint as the average audience member" (a debatable view of the "average" theater-goer in today's society).

However, even Taylor's comparison to consumer advocates reveals part of the problem. In most media, both movie and live theater critics are asked, if not merely to puff the already popular, simply to tell a reader when a play or movie is worth spending their money on; hence the stupid "grading system" used so often, where a "B+" is supposed to convey some quantifiable information. Too little attention is spent on the possibility that it may sometimes be worthwhile to see something that makes you uncomfortable, confuses you, or takes a standpoint you may find offensive (even temporarily). The charge of "elitism" is prevalent, indeed.

It has been suggested to me on a few occasions to apply for open positions as a theater critic. The challenge of trying to explain to editors and artistic directors (some of whom I know very well socially) that being supportive of the art does not equal praise has always deterred me.

-- Walter Bilderback

Great essay! One of the best of the year!

-- Earl Dittman, Wireless magazine

In all honesty, I did think Taylor's essay was right on target. I have no idea what Bart was thinking.

-- Todd Leopold

I remember taking a class on film criticism back in film school. Yes, there are different types of film criticism. Charles Taylor and Peter Bart fall into the realm of the Journalism Critic, or rather, the Film Reviewer. They like to think of themselves as critics, but they are merely journalists writing about movies, many of whom have little, if any, film training. They are movie reviewers.

In a way, Bart is right, and Taylor is right. Movie reviewers tend to put on this air of elitism while half of them would give me a blank stare if I asked them what "mise-en-scène" meant. What bugs me about movie reviewers is how they have created this obsession among filmgoers to make blanket judgments on every movie they see. People don't talk about what a movie was about or what it was trying to say. They're more inclined to reduce it down to a thumb direction, a count of stars or whether the whole thing is hot or not. And movie reviewers themselves cling to this adolescent notion that their opinions are absolute.

Journalist Critics also tend to pronounce these judgments on movies by not treating them as movies. They treat movies as if they are books. Film, they don't understand, is a separate medium. I actually read a reviewer once complain about lack of character development in a T-Rex.

Now, a movie reviewer may respond that it's only her opinion. But her opinion gets published and broadcast more widely than the majority of the population. That, by definition, makes her elite.

-- Joe McPherson

In response to Charles Taylor's defense of movie critics I have to say that he's both right and wrong.

Taylor is right to say that movie critics can serve a vital purpose in bringing lesser-known films to the public's attention. In addition, their educated opinions can assist filmgoers in appreciating some aspects of movies that they might otherwise not notice and help them to a better overall understanding of the medium. Ideally, critics ought to provide their own opinions in an educated and defensible way that enlightens their readers both about the specific film and the art form as a whole, and when they do this, film criticism can be a wonderful thing.

The problem is that film criticism so often fails the ideal. My chief complaint is that very often film criticism is riddled with carelessness and error. I stopped watching or reading Roger Ebert's reviews because he is such a phenomenally sloppy reviewer, to cite just one prominent but non-unique example; I can't count the number of times I've seen him make simple, factual errors in his reviews (for example, getting dialogue critically wrong or missing vital plot elements altogether, or even describing actions that don't ever occur in the film). I understand that he's a busy man with a lot of irons in the fire, but when he makes factual errors in describing the movies, whatever opinions he may have formed based upon those errors are rendered invalid.

I don't mean to pick on Roger Ebert specifically, even though he is the highest-profile critic in the country and therefor ought to do a much better job than he does. Rather, the sort of sloppy, careless journalism he represents gives critics in general a bad name. If critics wish to be taken and treated as serious journalists, they must hold themselves to serious journalistic standards.

-- Gregg A. Helmberger

By Salon Staff

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