It’s always a good year at the movies, even if the great films can be counted on a few digits and never get mentioned at the Academy Awards. That’s why we need film critics—to help us understand the state of movies, our cultural life, and our general moral and political being. On the occasion of the New York Film Critics Circle’s Seventy-Fifth Anniversary and Awards dinner, my duties as the circle’s chairman led me toward one unavoidable fact: The practice of critical thinking about film is under assault.
It seems that film critics, as a breed, survive even though so much else in our culture is moving further and faster away from intelligence, individuality, morality, and literacy: As the filmmaker James Toback put it, “the deterioration of life as we know it.” Still, film critics persist, just as great movies—such as Jan Troell’s Everlasting Moments, Michael Jackson’s This Is It, and the Coen Brothers’—A Serious Man—persist, in the face of technological changes that leave little room for art, reflection, or human expression.
Those activities and qualities need our attention in order to be nurtured and preserved. But how—unless there’s true critical guidance? When the film circle was founded in 1935, its first chairman, Frank S. Nugent (who eventually went on to be a screenwriter for the legendary John Ford on such classics as Wagon Master and The Searchers), wrote about the circle’s creation and, in a New York Times article, quoted the circle’s constitution: “to represent, as an impartial organized working unit, the profession of film criticism; to recognize the highest creative achievements in the field of motion pictures and thereby to uphold the dignity and significance of film criticism.”
After seventy-five years, belief in that constitution has declined. There are few examples where critical practice exhibits those basic principles and ideas. Most editors and publishers today cut out or limit criticism’s traditional media function. Journalistic standards have changed so drastically that, when I took the podium at the film circle’s dinner and quoted Pauline Kael’s 1974 alarm, “Criticism is all that stands between the public and advertising,” the gala’s audience responded with an audible hush—not applause.
Over recent years, film journalism has—perhaps unconsciously—been considered a part of the film industry and expected to be a partner in Hollywood’s commercial system. Look at the increased prevalence of on-television reviewing dedicated to dispensing consumer advice, and of magazine and newspaper features linked only to current releases, or to the Oscar campaign, as if Hollywood’s business was everybody’s business. Critics are no longer respected as individual thinkers, only as adjuncts to advertising. We are not. And we should not be. Criticism needs to be reassessed with this clear understanding: We judge movies because we know movies, and our knowledge is based on learning and experience.
“Truth is the first casualty of war,” runs an old axiom of journalism. In the current war between print and electronic media, in which the Internet has given way to Babel-like chaos, the critical profession has been led toward self-doubt. Individual critics worry about their job security while editors and publishers, afraid of losing advertisers and customers, subject their readers to hype, gossip, and reformulated press releases—but not criticism. Besieged by fear, critics become the victim of commercial design—a conceit whereby the market predetermines content. Journalism illogically becomes oriented to youth, who no longer read.
Commerce, based on fashion and seeming novelty, always prioritizes the idea of newness as a way of favoring the next product and flattering the innocence of eager consumers who, reliably, lack the proverbial skepticism. (“Let the buyer be gullible.”) In this war between traditional journalistic standards and the new acquiescence, the first casualty is expertise.
By offering an alternative deluge of fans’ notes, angry sniping, half-baked impressions, and clubhouse amateurism, the Internet’s free-for-all has helped to further derange the concept of film criticism performed by writers who have studied cinema as well as related forms of history, science, and philosophy. This also differs from the venerable concept of the “gentleman amateur” whose gracious enthusiasms for art forms he himself didn’t practice expressed a valuable civility and sophistication, a means of social uplift. Internet criticism has, instead, unleashed a torrent of deceptive knowledge—a form of idiot savantry—usually based in the unquantifiable “love of movies” (thus corrupting the French academic’s notion of cinephilia).
The popularity of movies used to be celebrated during the 1960s pop-art era, when popular culture was considered a new form of mass, democratic communication that united all classes and was open to heterogeneous creative temperaments. Hollywood always catered to a populist impulse that seemed, in itself, to call for outbursts of excitement or vitriol.
This is the source of the witty riposte or sarcastic put-down’s being considered the acme of critical language. The Algonquin Round Table’s legacy of high-caliber critical exchange has turned into the viral graffiti on aggregate websites such as Rotten Tomatoes that corral numerous reviews. These sites offer consensus as a substitute for assessment. Rotten Tomatoes readers then post (surprisingly vicious, often bullying) sniper responses to the reviews. These mostly juvenile remarks further shortcut the critical process by jumping straight to the so-called witticism. This isn’t erudition; as film critic Molly Haskell recently observed, “The Internet is democracy’s revenge on democracy.”
By dumping reviewers onto one website and assigning spurious percentage-enthusiasm points to the discrete reviews, the Internet takes revenge on individual expression—the essence of criticism, if not a definition of democracy itself. This shows an oddly anarchic tendency in pop culture to vulgarize professionalism—to distrust it. As surely as the Rotten Tomatoes fanboys rabidly anticipate high percentages for the Hollywood blockbusters geared to their adolescent taste, this distrust demonstrates our journalism’s failure to encourage cinematic literacy.
Art appreciation—once a staple of a liberal-arts education that taught music, literature, and fine art—derives from knowledge of a form’s history and standards, not simply its newest derivations or mutations. Movies also must be given the acceptance and protection that distinguish them from television and equate them to the other fine arts. Only critical expertise can provide this grounding and guidance.
But it cannot happen in an atmosphere that is hostile to the idea of learning, reflection, and personal (rather than herd-mentality) expression. Personal expression turns average journalistic criticism into its own justifiable work of art. Disrespect for expertise and personal response in criticism comes down to a vulgar, if not simply craven, attack on intelligence, taste, and individual preference. All opinions are not equal; the opinion most worth disseminating is the informed opinion, based on experience and learning. If criticism is to have a purpose beyond consumer advice, it is important that critics not follow trends but maintain cultural and emotional continuity—a sense of mankind’s personal history—in their reporting on the arts.
Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker received this year’s top awards from the New York Film Critics Circle, her Iraq-war action film offering another instance of the circle’s acknowledgment of topical relevance in popular art. It wasn’t my personal choice, but I accept it as proof that politics are an important component of the understanding of art—and increasingly so in this era of polarizing political and moral positions. It is the film critic’s constant struggle to get filmgoers and filmmakers to understand that politics and morality are still part of the artistic equation, even at the movies.
Without using morality, politics, and cultural continuity as measures of value, there is no way to appreciate the state of the culture or to maintain intelligence. Without criticism, we will have achieved naivete.
This essay is adapted from a speech given by Armond White, chairman of the New York Film Critics Circle, at the group’s annual awards banquet on January 11, 2010. With movie luminaries such as Meryl Streep, George Clooney, Jeff Bridges, Mo’Nique, Kathryn Bigelow, and others in the audience, White’s remarks were met with stony silence.