Mainstream film critics are the last people who we should be listening to about anything.
As we’ve seen before, some people think that we shouldn’t speak ill of the dead, even if they’ve been dead for over a decade and spent their careers judging the work of others. We are going to speak ill of several dead people in the following article, so the more sensitive should probably stop reading now.
If there is one certainty in the world of film criticism, it is this: history will not look kindly at their opinions. Not all, of course – there has always been great and incisive film writing out there. But particularly in the case of the critics who are employed to spout instant opinions on the week’s new releases that have been seen in refined screening rooms surrounded by their peers, slightly pickled on free drinks, the list of great movies dismissed and long-forgotten movies praised to the sky is endless. The pomposity and arrogance of the traditional film critic, offering his or her pearls of ill-considered judgement from a place of moral indignation or cultural snobbery can never be overstated, and history is rarely kind to them. Be it Derek Hill in Sight and Sound saying that Hammer‘s The Curse of Frankenstein was “immediately reminiscent of concentration camp atrocities”, the vitriolic attacks on Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (the ever-reliable Hill commenting that “the only really satisfactory way to dispose of Peeping Tom would be to shovel it up and flush it swiftly down the nearest sewer”), the booing of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me or countless other examples between and since, mainstream film critics have long signalled their reactionary, short-sighted lack of imaginations and cultural snobbishness. When these critics rise from the swirling masses of anonymity to achieve some sort of fame, their sense of self-importance seems to grow exponentially.
For some, that self-importance is further fuelled by the frothing adulation of fans and the fawning of fellow critics who, after all, not only believe that what they do has huge importance but also hope for some of that adulation for themselves. Roger Ebert was one of those mainstream critics – others include Pauline Kael and Mark Kermode – who developed a slavish following of obsessive (sometimes fanatical) admirers, admittedly often amongst other film writers or those who aspired to be film writers and saw him as an aspirational role model. These writers are evidence that you really can become a celebrity – of sorts – by being a film critic, and for a certain type of person, that’s the thing that matters most. Some of us write about movies because we love movies, some do it because they can make a living from it – but some are driven entirely by their own need to be important. Be it Twitter likes, gushing praise in comment sections or being thrown assorted bones by distributors and filmmakers that they can boast about to the great unwashed, the need for attention is the overriding motivation, much more so than any actual love of movies; that is often a superfluous requirement that can be acquired or simply faked. Even the more infamous critics – the Christopher Tookeys and the Michael Medveds of this world – seem to point a way forward for some. If you dose your reviews up with politics, moralising and fanaticism – from either side of the political divide – and a certain sort of celebrity can be yours. You probably don’t even need to believe what it is that you say.
Growing up, there were two things I knew about Roger Ebert. One was that he’d written Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, which frankly gets a person quite a large pass against anything untoward that they might do in the future. The other was that, alongside his At the Movies co-host Gene Siskel, he’d been a prime agitator against horror movies in the 1980s. While the entirely talentless Siskel had been by far the worst offender – at one point actually encouraging readers of his Chicago Tribune column to write protest letters not just to the producers but also the star of Friday 13th, which is nothing short of despicable – Ebert had eagerly joined in with a vitriolic condemnation of everything from I Spit on Your Grave to Silent Night Deadly Night, calling for censorship and boycotts. These were moves that went far beyond mere criticism and seemed especially odd from a man who wrote a film that opens with a woman having a gun forced into her mouth and who had previously expressed affection for Last House on the Left. The long debate and outrage in Fangoria magazine was my only awareness of Ebert’s work, and I assumed him to be a reactionary US version of the infamously awful British TV film reviewing blowhard Barry Norman, a man who we might call the worst British mainstream critic of all time if he hadn’t been briefly replaced on his TV show by Michael Parkinson, who will forever live in infamy for this extraordinary ‘review’ of Paul Verhoeven’s Flesh + Blood:
As an actual writer, Ebert didn’t even enter my consciousness until shortly before his death, when he began to post his reviews online, dating back to 1967. I would come across these from time to time and was forced to admit that Ebert sometimes had a powerful way with words, even if his actual opinions on films not only seemed often far removed from my own but also was often spectacularly clueless, missing the entire point of a movie that he was overly keen to sneeringly dismiss. It brought up the question about critics of any sort that is hard to answer: given that their job is to express opinions, can you still admire their writing even if those opinions are more often than not ‘wrong’? Is a good turn of phrase enough compensation for spectacularly missing the point? Or, conversely, is reading something that you agree with more important than reading a well-written argument that you ultimately disagree with? I’m still not sure. I can accept a considered opinion that I completely disagree with; I’m less forgiving if it is a tossed-off dismissal. Danny Peary, author of the Cult Movies books and the still-essential Guide for the Film Fanatic was a fine example of the former; practitioners of the latter are too numerous to count.
Ebert was famous enough to warrant a documentary based on his autobiography, both called Life Itself, which probably makes him the role model for and envy of every attention-hungry hack – how many journalists of any sort have that honour? The film was entirely caught up in the adulation and cult of personality surrounding the writer. It’s not completely a hagiography, but it’s not far short, and any flaws that Ebert might have had as a person are either brushed aside or elevated to some major personal battle. So the story takes us from him being the life and soul of the bar scene to entering AA meetings without much sense of the journey between those places, yet seems to want to make his professional rivalry with the appalling Siskel into something grander than two bloated egotists in bad jumpers battling for attention on local TV. I’m not knocking egotism – it’s ego that drives us all. I’m writing this review now in the egotistical belief that some people will actually care about my opinion. But it’s hardly the stuff of great drama.
Ego is what makes the worst film critics so awful. The ones who have to attend every major festival – and have to let everyone know that they are there – swanning around as if they are someone of significance rather than just one of thousands of jobbing hacks with press accreditation, expecting filmmakers and distributors to grovel at their feet in the hope of a few words of approval and ostentatiously booing films at Cannes – always showing ostentatious outrage towards the best, most adventurous films that their parochial mindsets, narrow morality and lack of imagination can’t cope with. They are the people who make a point of telling us that a film didn’t have a press preview and that they had to – gasp – pay money (not even their own money, we should remember) to attend a public screening with the peasants. For many critics, the lack of a press preview is a sign that a film will be awful (and cynics might suggest that they have written their review already at that point) – but why should distributors waste time and money showing a movie to critics who they know will hate it? As Bob Guccione gloated when Caligula was released, the critics were all going to tear the film apart anyway, but at least they had to pay him for the privilege of doing so.
In truth, I’ve never really got the cult of the film critic, and I say that as someone who is one from time to time. There have been some genuinely great film writers – people with insight, passion, outrageous but well-argued opinions and a flair for the written word. Some write what feel like definitive film histories and add to our understanding of cinema. Some of my favourite writers are people who write about film. You’ll note, I hope, that I’m making a distinction between film writers and film critics because while the line between them is often blurred, it nevertheless exists. The film critics working on newspaper or TV show deadlines to spout opinions about the week’s new releases are often jobbing wordsmiths – sometimes people who don’t even care about movies very much and simply took the film critic job because no one else on the staff wanted to do it. Sometimes, they don’t even watch the movies they review – it was an open secret that Barry Norman didn’t even go to all the press previews, instead sending a researcher to tell him how awful the horror film that he would then summarily dismiss on-screen was. Norman, we might remember, once described Dawn of the Dead as “a film for people who put cotton wool in their ears at night to stop their brains falling out”, an attitude so wrong-headed even at the time that it beggars belief.
Of course, Roger Ebert’s finest moment by far – and his real claim to movie credibility, above and beyond more or less all of his rivals – was his work with Russ Meyer. You might think this would be a subject worth exploring, but there’s little in his book and even less in the documentary, where one of Ebert’s TV producers does all but hold her nose while discussing Beyond the Valley of the Dolls while his anonymous work on later Meyer films like Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens and Up! goes entirely unmentioned. His involvement in these movies – by far the most significant thing he ever did – seems to be a dirty little secret, yet his friendship and connection to Meyer is a much more interesting a story than anything he did openly, and the conflict of this respectable and censorial film critic moonlighting on X-rated sex and violence extravaganzas is arguably the most interesting aspect of his career. That is the movie that someone needs to make, and indeed people keep talking about it – but always as a knockabout comedy rather than a serious study in secret lives and hypocrisy.
In a world where film critics are a dime a dozen, we might be seeing the last of the celebrity film critic – the current generation of smooth media luvvies and determined Personalities could be the last gasp before it all slides into online anonymity and specialist deep dives where an actual interest and level of expertise is needed. Good riddance to the hacks, we say. The power of the critic to make or break a film – a shameful power that certainly fed into the swaggering arrogance of many critics – seems long over; even widely vilified films can now find audiences. Perhaps this is why some critics seem ever more determined to be Important – the booing, the dramatic walk-outs and the vitriolic campaigns against any film that upsets them feel like pathetic cries for attention.
The easiest way to spot a lazy conformist hack is to see how much they continue to follow the herd – even decades after a film’s original release – by sticking to the rigid code of what is good or bad according to the massed collection of critics on original release; conversely, what used to be seen as bloody-minded contrariness (which it never was) is now more understood as considered individualism. Opinions, after all, are like arseholes: we all have one, and no two are exactly alike. Mainstream film critics have long acted as though they were Star Trek‘s Borg, all thinking and acting alike with everyone terrified of stepping out of line and being the one to praise Showgirls or say that Citizen Kane isn’t actually all that. For years, most film critics were jobbing hacks who took on the role because it was easy and they weren’t good enough to do any proper journalism; the demise of that form of conformist thought from hacks who only went to previews to get free drinks is long overdue.
At their best, film reviews are informative, provocative and entertaining, offering new perspectives and telling you things that might enhance your understanding of a movie; at their worst, they’re quite the opposite – arrogantly smug attention-seekers tossing off perfunctory commentary with as little effort as they can manage. You should never skip a film because critics have slammed it, or watch it because they all love it. Even if those critics are writing for The Reprobate. Perhaps we all need to bear in mind the infamous (and yes, not entirely accurate) quote by playwright Brendan Behan: “Critics are like eunuchs in a harem: they know how it’s done, they’ve seen it done every day, but they’re unable to do it themselves.”
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I particularly love the way Kermode reveals plot details on air days before us “civilians” have the chance to see the film.
I assume he’s still doing it – I stopped listening years ago.
There’s one factor you’ve not considered, which is the marketing value of a quote on a movie poster. Mainstream critics are often expected by their editors to praise a film that is guaranteed to be a hit so that the magazine/paper/website gets free ‘below the line’ publicity as part of the movie’s promotion. In that respect, mainstream critics’ views of blockbusters are largely predetermined.
As a child in the 90s, in the UK, I only knew Ebert through his tour features on the Cinemania CD-ROM, which were quite entertaining. I was rather confused when he turned up (sort of) in the ’98 Godzilla movie as the mayor…
The Good Doctor Kermode is actually a strong opponent of the excesses of censorship, with Horror his favourite film genre. He once appeared in front of a video appeals committee as an expert witness protesting against 16 seconds of cuts in the film ‘The Last House on the Left’. After his testimony he explained that the number of cuts were in fact doubled in the eventual video release, with ‘Blue Peter’ editor Biddy Baxter of all people, a member of said committee.
I was at that hearing. The whole thing was a farce.
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