|Criticwatch 2008: War, Peace and Every Man In Between
|by Erik Childress
Greetings from the grave. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to be saying these days? It would be if I were to believe all the headlines preaching “The Death of the Film Critic.” Not that I’m THE film critic, but with a collective ego amongst all of us believing that our opinion is the one readers should be following, you would think that most of us would be fighting back with all our muster. The guy being carried out from Monty Python pleading that he’s still alive sounds like Carly Smithson compared to the whining you’re hearing out of the print camp. But in true old media fashion, they buried the lead and transferred the dying out of the newspaper business to the demise of film criticism. The Chicken Littles were back talking about how many titles studios were withholding from critics while those who have done nothing but criticize and try to keep down the onliners write articles trying to dematerialize the very demographic who look for many of us each Friday on Rotten Tomatoes to read our reviews. But why through all of these firings and buyouts of the old school have we not learned to fight the real enemy? Instead of criticizing those trucking out their reviews (for better or worse) on websites and blogs or rolling over on the apparent bone stuck in the other end and playing dead, where is the outrage over those who make all of us look bad? Do you think I enjoy sounding like a broken record? Well, it’s not broken yet. And when we have quote whores and scoop sluts sounding off on the criticism they so rightly deserve, it’s time for all of us to fly off into a Droopy-inspired rage and throw their carcasses on the cart.
Over the past few months, there have been three articles about film critics that have caught my eye. Belonging to a film critics organization myself (the Chicago Film Critics Assoother varietciation) whose initial basis promised never to use itself as a forum to award one another, it’s still nice to see the occasional one interviewed in-depth just as Rotten Tomatoes has been doing recently with their new “Meet A Critic” series. The most recent and most refreshing example has been A.O. Scott’s piece on Roger Ebert. It was a reminder of not just who and what a film critic is supposed to be, but a statue-worthy champion for the world of cinema and the journalistic integrity those who grew up reading him have hoped to achieve. The other two are equally extensive, but that’s where the equal adjectives end. For no one would stoop to use the word integrity with either Shawn Edwards or Pete Hammond.
INTERVIEW WITH A WHORE (VOLS. 1-2)
No less than a half-dozen colleagues brought to my attention Hammond’s contribution to the Rotten Tomatoes series in-between screenings at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. The recently fired “critic” from Maxim magazine was one of the very few in an impending string that was an instant cause for jubilation amongst the lot of us who saw his presence on a record 88 ads last year as a cancer seemingly too rooted to excise. Yet Jen Yamato (a colleague whom I’ve shared great times with on the festival circuit) gave him their best shake for a fair exchange to set the record straight on his potent quotables and where someone like him fits in with the future of criticism.
One lesson I learned early on in this business, when writing film reviews it serves little purpose to criticize other people’s opinion of the same movie as a means to defend your point. Use other movies as references if need be but don’t draw generalizations based on colleagues who “don’t get it” or hate torture porn. This is a lesson the quote whore of the species has never learned and they love to whip it out as the reason they are so easygoing on the films they see. Hammond says, “Some critics I see in screening rooms just seem to want to hate the films. If I came in with that attitude I would slit my wrists.” Don’t tease us, Pete. When you go back to the interview I conducted with Earl Dittman many years ago, he told us that “in the film critics or film journalist community, there’s a tendency to be snobbish.” Alan Scherstuhl last month got Shawn Edwards for a five-page piece on Pitch.com and the 2007 Whore of the Year wondered “What’s the point of having critics if we’re all supposed to like the same thing? Most critics talk to each other, not the people. They’re trying to out-intellect one another.”
Snobby. Attitudes. Intellect. Either the poster tagline for any collective of film critics or the perceived nature of our ilk that comes to light when one of our readers disagrees with us. Doesn’t the above sound eerily familiar to Mike Judge’s Idiocracy where Luke Wilson’s “average” hero has a smart-sounding voice and is deemed “faggy?” (“Shit, I thought there were two of you.”) As you can see, there are more than two that think this way and it’s a wonderment in this society how any speck of intelligence or cognitive thought can be scorned so vociferously. When Bill Maher recently spoke of his bitterness at George W. Bush being in office “because shit-kickers voted twice for a retarded guy they wanted to have a beer with, and everybody else had to suffer the consequences,” it’s a mere lateral move to apply it to what these guys are saying.
Don’t immediately jump to send me e-mails now. The moviegoing public at large is not exclusively to blame for the rapid downfall of American cinema, nor am I saying that critics are always right and they are always wrong. There’s always room for dissention, but it’s the manner of its discussion that makes it a worthwhile process. But in Edwards eye it’s his personal dissention from the ranks that is cause for celebration. He quit the Kansas City Film Critics Circle because he “didn’t feel comfortable interacting with some of the critics.” In his interview with Scherstuhl, Edwards continued saying, “I thought there was a lack of diversity and openness and a little bit of snobbery. If you didn’t like what they thought was good, you weren’t cool.” His prime example: saying that DMX gave one of the best performances of the year for Never Die Alone. Despite getting some support from Roger Ebert (who saw the film at Sundance and whom Edwards has compared himself to in the past as a bastion of critical importance), the film has only managed a 26% rating at Rotten Tomatoes. “I should be heard and I shouldn’t be laughed at,” said Edwards. Well, he’s half right. If that’s to be read as snobbery, then so be it.
“I take great pride in keeping it real.” – Shawn Edwards
Didn’t Chris Rock do ten minutes years ago on the type of people who “keep it real?” What is “real” to Mr. Edwards, anyway? When asked what sets him apart from the snobs, aside from wishing to be called a “reviewer” instead of a “critic”, he said it’s because he talks to the everyman on the streets and the barbershops. His Fox 4 morning show segment “The Screening Room” isn’t done for “hardcore cinephiles.” “We’re doing it for that mom who’s trying to get her kids ready for school that morning, for that person who’s getting ready to go to a job that they hate.” Of course, because those are the only people watching most of those crappy morning shows. Construction guys who call him Popcorn Man “really get gung-ho about action and horror movies. And when I'm at my mom's church groups, they only want to know when the next Denzel movie is coming out,” said Edwards. So, the difference between the “hardcore” and the “everyman” is the anticipation of genre films and the next project from one of the biggest moviestars in the world? Color me a bit confused. Be reminded of the fact that this is the guy who advocated Friday being on AFI’s list of the greatest comedies of all time.
"Are you really telling me that this entire list doesn't have one representation from Richard Pryor or Eddie Murphy?" he asks. "They're arguably not only the most entertaining and popular but also the most influential comedians ever! Are you really trying to tell me that Friday couldn't make that list? Friday's universally loved,” said Edwards!
I would have been shocked at that too. Until you peruse the list and do a little research to see both Silver Streak and Beverly Hills Cop on the list (plus Blazing Saddles, for which Pryor has a co-writing credit) before making such an inflamed and misinformed statement.
Let’s go back to Pete Hammond.
“I think I am closer to the average moviegoer who is hoping to have a rewarding time at a film,” says Easy Petey. “I am keenly aware when reviewing a film of trying to relate its plusses and minuses to the audience I am writing for. I may see some virtue in some 17th century costume drama but I am not so sure the average Maxim reader would.” Isn’t this EXACTLY the type of snobbish condescension these guys are talking about? While one group of critics is trying to elevate the level of cinema beyond the grass roots of stale ideas and incompetent execution (in every genre), here we have guys like Hammond and Edwards assuming their audience is one who has no interest in hearing a perspective that may reach beyond being blown through the back of a theater. And they are the first to dismiss critical thought when their intelligence is questioned. Yet, “he that is good for making excuses is seldom good for anything else.” Well said, Benjamin Franklin.
Counter, Mr. Hammond?
“Reviewing movies isn’t about Pete Hammond’s ego.”
He said as he speaks in the third person to get his name into quotation marks. In the same article, Scherstuhl asked me about Edwards’ man-of-the-people routine to which I responded that “the average Joe doesn’t recommend as many movies as these people do. And even when the regular moviegoer disagrees when some highfalutin critic pans I Am Legend, more often than not they will usually go, ‘It wasn’t that bad’ or ‘That was all right.’ Not ‘The best movie of the year!’” Those are words I stand by. Some of them might even expand on their contrarian viewpoint only to abruptly add, “of course, I’m no critic.” Something ol’ Shawny The Reviewer will never cop to officially. But what makes up a critic that separates him or her from the “everyone” of the classically coined phrase? Where is the divide between highfalutin, the average Joe and the collapsible bridge in between that blurbmeisters like Edwards, Dittman and Hammond represent?
EVERY MAN IS AN ISLAND, NOT A WHORE
The natural pinpoint is the box office receipts. It’s also commonplace to label many of the seasonal tentpoles as “critic-proof”, meaning no matter what the press says (print, radio or online) the people are going to show up and let their own word of mouth dictate the dollars. But the whores are arguing snob vs. the everyman, so let’s look at the highest grossers from 2007. Strip away the critic’s influence to bring films like Once or Away from Her into the national consciousness and we’ll go just positive vs. negative. With 28 films last year hitting the $100 million mark or greater, 17 of them (or 60%) rated “fresh” (or 60%+) at Rotten Tomatoes. Of the 11 that ranked “rotten”, nine of them were below 50% (including one, Ghost Rider, not screened for critics) and six of those were sequels. If comedy truly is the most subjective of genres, then it’s not hard to imagine both Wild Hogs and I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry ranking the lowest on the list with a less than 18% approval rating. But going back to the positives, seven of the top eight rated amongst the group could be labeled comedies (Knocked Up, Juno, Enchanted, Hairspray, Ratatouille, The Simpsons Movie and Superbad.) Does that dispel the misconception that our preconceived hateful attitudes prevent us from laughing once in a while? These are also the same out-of-touch critics who just made Iron Man a guarantee to be one of the best collectively reviewed films of the year.
Now, let’s go back to the negatives. Way down to the negatives. The complete opposite of the eight box office smashes to garner more than 85% approval. Give or take 18 wide releases in 2007 couldn’t even hit a 10% approval. That means nine out of ten critics at Rotten Tomatoes told you to stay away from it. Those are Dentyne numbers in the bizarro world. Still, between Pete Hammond, Shawn Edwards, Earl Dittman and Jeffrey Lyons – six of those eighteen got positive notices.
Are We Done Yet?, Blood and Chocolate, Daddy Day Camp, The Number 23, Premonition and The Reaping.
Did you go see any of those? Catch up with them on DVD, did you? Would you recommend them to anyone even as a goof? Hammond, Lyons and Edwards recommended two apiece. Dittman went on record for three of them. Let’s go up a level to the 10-19% margin. Lyons Sr. went for September Dawn. The Dittman gave it up for The Messengers and Awake. Edwards liked I Think I Love My Wife and Georgia Rule. Hammond also praised September Dawn. As well as The Condemned, Revolver, Hannibal Rising and Wild Hogs. Wow, he really is an everyman isn’t he? Care to comment, Pete?
“I don't think you have seen my name on the true crap Hollywood churns out. Sometimes I am just astounded that they can find ANYONE to give a good notice to movies like The Brothers Solomon or Awake or Perfect Holiday or Are We Home Yet? or Daddy Day Camp or Saw 2, 3, 4 etc etc but somehow there always seems to be someone out there to quote (usually from sites with names like bloodydisgusting.com or CHUD -- places like that).” - Pete Hammond
Elephantitis has got nothing on this guy’s balls. Or has Hammond developed the rare case that actually inflates his head to the size of a Tyrannosaurus Rex? Giant head, small brain. Maybe it don’t mean all that much considering that even myself can be accused of recommending both Georgia Rule (19%) and The Amateurs (13%). With only 21 reviews for the latter at Rotten Tomatoes and three of those positive (including mine & Peter Travers), I’m convinced if more people saw it and wrote reviews, that percentage would at least triple. I know at least three critics personally in Chicago who thought the movie was great. But I’m not here to back myself up with excuses. I’ve already backed up those numbers with words, and words of the written variety, not half-cocked reasoning that either casts doubt on other professionals or to align myself with some fairy tale justification in my own head that I’m speaking for the Everyman. Like the worst of politicians, they are selling themselves at your expense when their methods and decisions are questioned.
THE EMPIRE OF WHORES STRIKE BACK
Take Jeffrey Lyons, a long-time staple of Criticwatch whose frequent quoting has always been the result of a softer sensibility than outright whoredom. Part of the Johnny-Came-Lately team (with Rex Reed) who took over the Sneak Previews brand when Siskel & Ebert became brand names themselves, Lyons has been in the game since 1970 and probably doesn’t feel the need to justify himself to the young whipper-snappers calling him out each month. Back in January though, Lyons received an unexpected surprise when he was on the air with Chicago’s Mancow Muller discussing the Oscar nominations. Muller’s regular film critic, “Pete the Movie Guy”, is another Chicago regular and contributor to this very site, eFilmCritic. Peter Sobczynski was brought on for his weekly slot while Lyons was still being interviewed. Mancow asked Lyons if he had heard of Peter, to which he said “no.” Peter then responded that Lyons knew one of his colleagues though. When asked to elaborate, Peter filled him in on Criticwatch (although not bringing up Lyons’ second place finish to Whore of the Year in 2006) which Lyons first denied any knowledge of. It’s a fact that not only have critics in his neck in the woods had conversations with him about Criticwatch, but Jeffrey has even asked for the site to be pulled up on the nearest laptop. Lyons’ coup de grace on the subject that morning was that I must be “one of those guys who is jealous that he doesn’t get quoted.”
“I later found out it was some pseudo local radio reviewer in Chicago who is obsessed with people who get quoted a lot (obviously HE doesn't so guess that makes him mad).” – Pete Hammond
Obsession. And more jealousy.
“Resentment's a bitter pill, pal. I am sorry that I turn up in print in Orange County, San Jose, Philly, Cleveland, wherever, and Chicago on occasion, thus pushing your dream of Ebert glory further beyond your reach.” – Roger Moore, Orlando Sentinel
“He doesn't appear to care for most critics -- or even movies -- for that matter…” – Pete Hammond
Doesn’t like movies. Personal glory
“If he didn't make crap up, nobody would ever notice him.” – Roger Moore, Orlando Sentinel.
Now, I can take my hits as well as I can give them. When partaking in a job whose primary function serves to offer nothing but criticism, it would be disingenuous to not assume a few lumps are coming your way with those offering a contrary opinion. But is this the best these guys have to offer? Roger Moore’s diatribe against me after I named him a “whore to watch” for 2008 after recommending such films as Because I Said So and The Seeker: The Dark is Rising in ’07. At first, the clueless dolt included both on his blog and in an initial attack on Jeffrey Wells’ Hollywood Elsewhere that I didn’t do the whole blurb tally thing as well as that guy as Hollywood Bitchslap. He even linked to a piece in question, and being the astute journalist that Mr. Moore is, never bothered to notice who actually wrote the article he said did it “better.” That portion was quickly edited out of his blog.
“You can't even master the pretentious pose you're trying to evoke, endorsing crap such as Anchorman, Art School Confidential, panning Kite Runner, Sweeeney, Stardust, Michael Clayton, Transformers” said Moore on Wells’ site. Quite an eclectic list of films he used to blast my particular taste, adding Knocked Up and Clerks II on his own blog, I guess to make me out to be some sort of half-wit fratboy who like pee-pee humor and can’t digest the deep underpinnings of The Kite Runner’s majestic prose. He could have come down on me for panning Zodiac (which I was in the distinct minority on), but instead he chose The Kite Runner (twice) to make his point. Cause we all know that to dislike that film is an endorsement of the Taliban and child rape. I jest, of course, but look at his list again. I mean, it’s really all over the place. Serious Oscar bait, visionary musical, a whimsical fairy tale, biting legal drama and a big, loud summer blockbuster. Why, Mr. Moore, you aren’t trying to prove that you’re an “everyman” with that list, are you?
“I have to suggest to you something your momma plainly failed to. You ain't that bright. Plainly you aren't qualified to be the arbiter of such lists. You're a never-will-be on lower-end-of-the-Arbitrons Chicago radio. Part time. You can't even master the pretentious pose you're trying to evoke…. For God's sake, get a date, find a little joy. Go to grad school. Your little list has created you, a coward writing out of fear, sniping from the bushes.”
Says Moore. Anything to add, Mr. Hammond?
“If you know the dude in Chicago tell him to lay off and get a life before he wastes his own being so angry.”
Counter, Mr. Moore?
“Your opinions are apparently worth exactly what you're paid for them. You've turned yourself into just the sort of craven little coward you would have us all be. And have somebody explain what a "douche" is. You read like a juvenile lives-in-moms'-basement type who wouldn't know much about female hygiene.”
Moore’s professional journalistic response was provoked, in part, to an accusation I had made about him doing nothing to help out his fellow Orlando critics who routinely get later screenings than him. Naturally, he avoided the subject (“Am I seeing movies nobody else gets to see? Not that I know of.”) and then continues to brag about how he got to see Iron Man earlier than just about everyone else.
Going back to the origins of Criticwatch, which focused on guys like Peter Travers and Jeffrey Lyons, critics in positions of power (thanks to television and nationally known publications) who not only seemed like the wrong guys for such lucrativity but proved it with such base observations about film and easy-to-publish one-liners for the marketing departments. Whatever longevity or luck put them in such a position, one can hardly blame them for looking out for the colleagues looking up (at them, if not TO them.) But compare them to guys like Roger Ebert who endorsed James Berardinelli as one of the leading web critics. Or Dann Gire (President of the Chicago Film Critics Association) and Nick Digilio (from that lower-end-of-the-arbitrons Chicago station known as WGN Radio – 50,000 watts, 38-state syndicated, web-streaming, Cubs broadcasting, #1 in the ratings lower-end radio station), two local critics who didn’t have to take me under their wing, but did and supported my work for the past ten years. Nick, in turn, has been a 20-year veteran of WGN thanks to local legend, Roy Leonard, who once brought aboard this “young punk” (Nick’s own words) to review horror films back in 1985 and now has celebrated the 10th anniversary of his own show. Yet Moore has not lifted a finger to help his Orlando brethren.
THE ANSWER TO SURVIVAL?
Guys like Moore are a-dime-a-dozen (and probably overpaid at that), but even if it's mere indifference to getting involved, he’s not the only one smothering the evolving critical landscape. On April 8, Patrick Goldstein wrote a piece for the big ol’ Los Angeles Times using his nine-year-old son as a template for “the end of the critic.” When he asked his son, Roger Moore, (I kid) about a bad review for the latest baseball video game, the boy responded how he didn’t care because his friend had it and liked it. nine-year-olds. Goldstein placates the critical scene, citing the renaissance period with names such as Pauline Kael and Lester Bangs, and then quickly shifts to the recent downsizing of the respected David Ansen and Michael Wilmington (to mention just a few.) As David Poland responded in his blog:
“The firing of film critics - like film columnists who haven't done well in research studies for their papers - has NOTHING to do with the relevance of film critics or the quality of film critics. It has to do with cutting budget in the quite-ill business of newspapering.”
Students Goldstein interviewed at the USC School of Journalism, they brought up the value of sites like Rotten Tomatoes while others “tend to be wary of anything that seems over-hyped, whether it's by critics or over-advertising.” Tomatoes. He even quotes Bill Wyman who speaks directly about Rolling Stone Magazine. “In the music industry press, you are frequently discouraged from writing negative reviews. It’s considered uncool to say that a lot of pop music is terrible. You’re not supposed to tell readers things they don’t want to hear.” (See: Peter Travers) After admitting that “the best critics have always done exactly the opposite,” Goldstein finishes his piece by saying that “maybe it’s time critics, like many artists, realize they should pay more attention to their audience.”
Finally, the solution. We must all set aside our approach to critical thought, skewer our perceptions of a film’s quality down to its box office potential like Variety and The Hollywood Reporter and give our readers big, capital-lettered, three-adjective reviews with an exclamation point. You know, like for a nine year-old. Another Variety contributor, Timothy Gray, who never met a Criticwatch piece he couldn’t lift from for a half-assed piece of his own jumped onto the critic debate with all the hoopla over the new Indiana Jones film premiering at Cannes this year. Comparing the impending screening at the time to what The Da Vinci Code faced after its first showing, Gray literally makes a mountain out a mole hill (much the way Crystal Skull opens itself.) Since Da Vinci, Gray says, “no Hollywood film of that magnitude has screened for the fest crowd.” Yes, way back in that long lost year of 2006 when Hollywood was so naïve that they didn’t think a bad movie could mean bad reviews. Two years ago, people. Anyone with any base knowledge of the Cannes film festival knows this was hogwash, but let’s give another shout-out to David Poland who put it into words:
“Not only is it not true that studios shied away from Cannes after the (massively successful, but unpleasant) Da Vinci launch two summers ago, but in fact, the May 19 slot movie (within a day or 4) has premiered out of competition at Cannes EVERY SINGLE YEAR SINCE 2001. Shrek, Star Wars II, The Matrix Reloaded, Shrek 2, Star Wars III, The Da Vinci Code, Shrek The Third, and now Indy.”
Our apologies to Mr. Gray that we didn’t have those facts listed for him so he could easily grab them. On a side note, The Collider’s Steve Weintraub is going to be offering his own brand of Criticwatch by calling out Variety and The Hollywood Reporter every time they fail to credit an online site with breaking a story. But back to Timothy Gray and the Kingdom of the Thick Skull. After a throwaway fact about press not being invited to any Indy parties (oh, boo-hoo), Gray brings out the gems. “Like "Da Vinci," this is not a film aimed for critics,” his way of saying “critic-proof” ignoring the fact that the sequels were mostly well-received and that Raiders of the Lost Ark was named as AFI’s 60th greatest film OF ALL TIME! Counter, Mr. Gray?
“But after "Da Vinci," "Indy" proves Exhibit B in the ongoing battle whether critics matter. The Cannes screenings are for industry professionals, whose opinions theoretically carry weight. (The everyman bloggers will get their say when the film opens worldwide May 22.)”
There it is. There’s that word. The Everyman. Notice how Gray associates the word with the “bloggers” in an effort designed for no other reason than to knock down the medium as inferior to guys like him who fudge facts, invent stories like this and then prop up further negative and misleading tales such as the early reviews of Indy that apparently came from exhibitor screenings. (And what theater manager was going, “oh, I don’t know” about booking Indy 4?) The New York Times ran with this story, calling it “Indiana Jones Is Battling the Long Knives of the Internet”. Gray never mentions the New York Times by name, but six paragraphs before getting to this aspect of his story, he asked “With all the perils and with the film guaranteed a huge opening, why is Indiana Jones entering the Kingdom of the Critical Knives?” until finally getting around to the pre-backlash of the film’s Cannes premiere. Note to Gray: You can’t have a backlash if it’s the first review. There’s nothing to backlash against except anticipation.
THE FIGHT TO BE #1
You can see what those in power think of the Everyman. They’re your best friend if they can coddle up to your middle-class routine to defend themselves, but throw you right back under the bus as an insult to prop themselves up above the rising tide of truth and common sense. Of course, there are onliners and bloggers who do the new media zero favors with grade-school level writing and the desire to ignore embargoes and take scooping to the next level. Take the case of one Eric Kohn from IndieWire. He was in Cannes for the Indiana Jones press screening. While those of us stateside anxiously awaited our Nooners on Sunday, May 18, the Cannes press and their pesky time zone were getting the first look. Despite getting a taste of Todd McCarthy’s “opinion” on the film (posted as a two-paragraph “review coming soon” piece on Variety’s front page) I didn’t want to know anything. It’s a good thing I didn’t see this
A complete logline of the entire Indiana Jones experience, typed out live from the screening and posted online before anyone was able to give it a second critical thought. The internet was awash with criticism for this stunt. Kohn defended himself by saying it wasn’t about being “first.” He just needed an outlet to “funnel the emotions” of the “unbridled energy” of the room that he was drawing from, which contradicted his sense of basically how much excitement there should be for a mindless summer popcorn flick. Bullcrap. It was all about getting the word out there as soon as possible, not about suggesting “a possible direction for a new kind of film analysis that allows direct contact between the spectator and an outside observer.” What’s new about it anyway since our own, Rob Gonsalves, unearthed a similar tactic used by Kohn back in 1981 to live blog the first showing of Raiders of the Lost Ark (…). Naturally this piece is intended for comic effect, but I secretly hoped to see The NY Times or Timothy Gray run with the piece as fact, foregoing the knowledge that text messaging or cell phones hadn’t been invented yet.
Kohn does deserve credit though for owning up to this tactic and being able to laugh at himself through Gonsalves’ parody. I applaud you, sir. Despite all my Banner-like anger at such a blatant representation of one of the many annoyances filmgoers have to go through at any daily screening, let alone one that professional critics should never have to experience at a press screening – being the WiFi-intensive festival circuit or otherwise – way to man up. Perhaps studio publicists can take a cue from this whole story as they try to wedge film critics into evening promo screenings in the hopes that such energy and laughter will rub off onto their reviews through babies crying and cell phones ringing. Not that we don’t enjoy seeing a movie with a well-behaved audience or one enjoying the film as much as we are, but the risk of the opposite effect is too great to gamble on the Everyman theory.
If only other critics and journalists out there can take a page from Kohn’s book and man up. No, I’m not expecting the Hammonds and Edwards to admit anything since largely their damage to the world of criticism is a matter of opinion, albeit one that would register about a 98% on Rotten Tomatoes. We’re talking about that 98%. The ones who commiserate at the film festivals, sharing laughs and opinions; one collective coming together with the same access and the same issues. Instead, print journalists are trying to knock down onliners a peg. Internet writers are scrambling to out deadline day-old news from the newspapers. Is it going to take Sinead O’Connor ripping up a picture of Shawn Edwards saying “Fight the real enemy!” for everyone to get on the same page here?
“Fight amongst yourselves,” John McCain quipped in an SNL skit over supporting Democratic voters not to make a decision on Obama/Clinton too soon. For someone who similarly changed his tune to whore for his own party over the last eight years, don’t be surprised if you see Pete Hammond and a large chunk of the Broadcast Film Critics Association at a McCain rally this summer. The Chicago Film Critics Association, meanwhile, has been fighting the good fight for its own members. In 2007, they negotiated terms with 20th Century Fox who were unnecessarily withholding screenings from 90% of the membership until the day before opening, while the Tribune, Sun-Times and our junket press would see it early enough to meet their deadlines. Print, radio, online, no matter. Professional criticism need not be defined by the manner in which they are heard or the size of the audience that reads them. Those that would use the argument of how widely they are syndicated (because certain markets are too financially strapped to spring for their own critic) to justify their worth are the same that would say Transformers is better than Rescue Dawn because it had a bigger budget. Sometimes literally the same.
JOIN US IN THE 20TH CENTURY
Several studios (or, at least, their representatives) continue to live vicariously in the time when the internet didn’t exist and their job of containment was almost no job at all. Today their worst nightmare has become a reality with all the mediums transitioning, reforming or streaming towards the collective consciousness of what Senator Ted Stevens refers to as “a series of tubes.” What are they to do when print goes online and then begin behaving in the clichéd manner to which eventually branded the internet as a place where “you can’t believe everything you read?” Why, they stick their fingers in their ears and LA-LA-LA-LA-LA themselves to sleep with the tune of the internet not existing. And they do this by condemning the medium as a whole instead of doing the time-honored tradition of accrediting those who produce results and follow the rules. And guys like Goldstein and Gray are helping them to do it.
In a recent conversation the Chicago Film Critics Association had with a studio regarding their A-B-C classification of their members, a representative told them point blank, “You cannot trust onliners because, sooner or later, they’re going to break the embargo.” Really? This came two days after nearly every major Chicago newspaper ran their Indiana Jones reviews on Monday (three days before opening.) Special case to be sure with the Cannes coverage, but no less ironic. Flavor was added to the conversation when a trio of local online writers were thrown under the bus as “embargo breakers” despite a track record that proves beyond the shadow of a doubt otherwise. Of course this is a studio that was more concerned with us onliners busting the embargo on a pregnancy flick than the rebirth of another off-colored monster, so consistency is hardly their bread and butter.
Which is why education, negotiation and the proliferation of trust between critics and the studios has never been more indispensable. Onliners will never gain the respect of the studios if they continue to flaunt their rules. In turn, they’ll never gain the encouragement of much of the print regime until the high-profile ones stop acting like little geekboys and compromising their position with conflicts of interest and a general lacking in critical observation. One step at a time though. If we wait for a nationwide collective to straighten up and fly right, we’ll never see it happen. If critic’s groups around the country though take a cue from Chicago and begin engaging their local and regional studio representatives, perhaps the shift to the new age can begin in a peaceful and controlled setting. If it takes a little compromising to turn both publicists and critics into professionals, then so be it. But there’s no reason it can’t be done.
COME TOGETHER. RIGHT NOW!
It’s in a critic’s nature to engage in a knockdown, gloves-off battle for opinionated dominance. Patrick Goldstein quoted the late critic Kingsley Amis, "If you can't annoy somebody, there's little point in writing." So, harmony might be against the very epitome of what a critic stands for. If we all like or hate the same thing, what’s the point? But can’t we all just suck it up for once and agree communally on two things: (1) The distinction of the “online critic” is now and forever meaningless since everyone is now on the internet. (2) The quote whore junket press belongs in no category of respectability and must be called out at every opportunity.
Let’s take the first part first like Herbert Stemple. With the exception of quote whores, just about every critic can be found online. But, not every critic can be found in “print.” So there’s an obvious distinction there and an easy one for studios to derive invite lists from. Those Embargo Breakers From The Series Of Tubes are noted as such for their opportunity to instantly jump online after the promotional screening they’ve attended and post their random thoughts until their brain drips away or maybe write something colorful enough to make a studio ecstatic, although they’ll never let you see through their poker face. You rarely see anyone punished for publishing a positive review early. But it IS an advantage for anyone with access to a hard drive, keyboard, message board or even as part of an actual film coverage site.
Traditional printosaurs don’t have that luxury. You see, they have to take their time and write up a review that is representative of their position. No hyperbole or giant capital letters. They have to craft a tropical storm of Pauline Kael-like luminosity, then send it off to their editors jacked and jolted on Jolt and Jack to beat their deadline so it can make it into the papers two days later... two days after those internet bastards beat us to the punch. Ah, but now they have the toy tubes to play with. They can go right to their blog and tell you how much they liked Iron Man three weeks early or post a two-paragraph semi-mini-review on their Indiana Jones thoughts directly after the screening at Cannes like Todd McCarthy did.
What do you think the repercussions would be for someone like me if I went so far? Maybe they wouldn’t care. It seems most studio reps are too busy to go policing every critic on their list, but if they’re not dishing out demerits to those eager beavers then what’s all the fuss about? It’s a free-for-all! Post away. If we catch you, fine. If not, we have a 50/50 shot at it being positive and we’ll take those odds. They never have to worry about their junket invitees because they’re only going to get positive quotes and know they can’t write. But cross back over to the other dividing line for a moment and studios must realize they cannot have a line if there are no reinforcements in place when someone crosses it. We’re living in a digital age where print and online are storming the line like the Battle of Falkirk while studio reps sleepily sit up on a hill like tennis line judges ruling in favor of the print side simply because they are older as if they were parents championing the first born. Just once it would be nice to see them make like the Cosby household and slap the print media for not giving into the onliners’ cry for equal treatment. “Why don’t you give it to her, don’t you hear her YELLING?!”
How is the next generation of critics going to strive if the Kryptonian elders before them don’t find a way to support (or, God forbid, mentor) those coming up behind? Recently retired critic for the Chicago Reader Jonathan Rosenbaum told me on that lower-end, 50,000-watt radio show that he is more often impressed with the newbies than not and suggested their advantage over his own peers for the fact that their unprecedented access to films of the past on cable and DVD is a better education in their path to film criticism than all the matinees in the world he had growing up. How many of the new bloods utilize this particular school of thought on a regular basis probably separates the good from the bad and the fugly. A.O. Scott said of Mr. Ebert:
“His criticism shows a nearly unequaled grasp of film history and technique, and formidable intellectual range, but he rarely seems to be showing off. He's just trying to tell you what he thinks, and to provoke some thought on your part about how movies work and what they can do.”
That’s a breakdown that any film critic would be happy to have bestowed upon them. For whatever anyone thinks of Mr. Ebert’s star ratings or the “thumbs” approach simplified for the Roman audience, no one would ever question Roger’s love of film even with a track record of panning Blue Velvet, Fight Club and Die Hard. Is that where Pete Hammond might go if Ebert were ever to call him out as a blight on the ass of film criticism? Twice Hammond evoked the name of Pauline Kael in his interview with Rotten Tomatoes. Once advocating his hope for a renaissance of critical discussion of movies from the ‘60s and ‘70s (“Great critics came out of that era.”) wondering if we’ll ever see “the likes of a Pauline Kael and her ilk again.” And a second time where he pleads for her to come back in a “dwindling breed” of fine critics. Anyone else re-imagining the scene where Johnny Depp’s Edward D. Wood Jr. meets Orson Welles?
That era Hammond refers to, of course, was one of changing times. From JFK to Woodstock through the heart of the Cold War where European cinema was coming stateside while such giants as John Ford and Howard Hawks were directing their final projects in the midst of George Pal, Harryhausen and Space Odysseys planting its seeds in the minds of movie audiences everywhere to where we’ve been and what the future holds. Oh, how much there must have been to write about those days. Today, nearly all the films have been made and all the tricks have been pulled and savvy audiences know it. What better opportunity to open their eyes to the so-much-more that exists within every movie from the biggest blockbuster to the what-were-they-thinking-programming-that-at-Sundance-indie dramas? When, if not now, to adapt to a generation of fresh perspective mentored by thousands of written essays and reviews from decades of print? Why is the most important question not being posed to studios and the ad agencies with their supposed best interests at heart? “Why?”
Why do print and online critics continue to be lumped into a hierarchy when:
- (A) Everyone is online now?
- (B) Print critics (and their online doppelgangers) have proven to be as big (if not greater) embargo breakers than the online critics out there?
- (C) No one (print or online) seems to be held accountable for the one rule that comes with the invitations?
- (D) As long as everyone abides to those rules, what difference does it make how early they see the movie?
Invite everyone to everything. You might give them time to write something substantial and interesting about your film. Instead of hyperbole, maybe you can grab a well-written and thought-provoking paragraph that you can put on a theater standee instead of resorting to Peter Travers all the time. (Do you know anyone that reads Rolling Stone for the MOVIE discussion?) Perhaps a little extra time will inspire a critic to expand on the positives on a movie they’re panning instead of dolling out one-word profanities to describe it. And speaking of goddammit, the only thing worse than having to endure a deus ex machine on screen is having to witness a live one in the middle of a screening. On more than one occasion in Chicago (and we can’t be the only city to experience this) a chunk of critics will only be invited to the last possible screening and watch as the projector busts, the sound fails or any number of other interruptions that (professionally objective or not) is going to weigh upon that writer’s psyche when it comes time to rush through a review. We’ve had such problems here over the last few years with screenings such as The New World, Zodiac, 1408 and, most recently, You Don’t Mess With The Zohan, which online critics in this town were kept out of it during a screening on May 28 and instead invited to one on June 4 (two days before opening) that inspired this review from our own Peter Sobczynski (also a board member for the Chicago Film Critics Association). He does a far better job of relating the experience than I ever could here and hopefully it will offer a wake-up call that its better to be safe and invite everywhere (at least, certainly, plan multiple screenings) than to be sorry and suffer a force majeure that, incidentally, may be a higher power trying to tell you something. God forbid you may want to coddle a few fragile egos, big brains and (some) even bigger babies. You do it for the junketeers. If all you wanted was their positivity, you could get the same things from the IMDB user comments. Unless, of course, those are your plants.
TIME TO GET OFF THE EDGE OF OUR SEATS
I admit being a little off-base in advocating the firing of Pete Hammond last January. The joyous recognition that 2008 wouldn’t be filled with nearly 90 quotes of maddening simplicity boasting his name was a little too much to contain. But in the increasing public police state of public opinion that we live in, I will take no further pleasure in someone being removed from their position over the perception of something they have said or written. This is America, after all, and the beauty of this country is that people have the right to speak their mind and the other 99.99% of the population has the right to point at them with any number of fingers and tell them they’re wrong, they’re stupid or they suck. They’re just being critics, right?
So while critic bashers like Peter Bart from Variety launches his own blog after numerous pieces condemning the digital age (and used three of his first four posts to include anti-critic verbiage) and select print media find ways to bash their online peers, why is it only Criticwatch pointing the fingers at the true downfall of American criticism? I see the message boards in agreement. I read the e-mails about fighting the good fight. I hear the jokes in the screening rooms of Chicago and all the way from New York. But aren’t the print media insulted enough by guys like Hammond and Travers representing them to take a stand? I guess they consider them inconsequential enough to just flick off their shoulder like a dandruff flake, but why arm themselves against a group of writers who are, at least TRYING, to carry on a tradition that spans back to the days of peeing on a hieroglyphic. (Thank you, Mel Brooks.)
The better question is, where are the onliners in this fight? There’s a lot of light out there to be shone if they can only get themselves into it. How do they do this? Well, commitment and scribing ability alone clearly is not the answer. And if the studios and publicists are solutions-oriented, then ignoring them is also not the most advisable solution. Why you choose to scorn those who have done nothing but subscribe to your rules is a question for the Gods, but maybe we can finally start to change your minds. No doubt, it will take a level of commitment that many onliners aren’t used to. I would like to see the Online Film Critics Society (which I’m also a member of) begin a state-by-state, continent-by-continent campaign to boost confidence in its members within the studios (or the publicists – there’s always a Catch-22, pass-the-buck confusion as to whom we’re really dealing with.) Hold them to embargoes. Prove they can survive zero tolerance and that ten days is far more worthwhile to writing a review than two or three.
If you’re an online critic and belong to your local critic’s organization (provided THEY allow onliners – and, seriously, who is still holding out these days?) talk to your leadership. Ask them to help get you out of the on-deck circle. See if they’ll vouch for you with the local reps. Talk to THEM directly. Form a relationship (if you don’t have one already) and ask THEM to go on the record with the studios for you. After all, if they truly are beholden to blanket studio decisions and aren’t deciding things for themselves, this shouldn’t be a problem. If they won’t, well, all bets are off and you are exasperating the issue instead of massaging it to sleep.
Staying on the massage topic – Mr. Moore, I don’t want to fight you. I called you out this past January because you got quoted on some bad movies. Some really, really bad movies. Play past it. You don’t like my taste. I don’t care for yours. We can agree that we’re not looking to each other for film recommendations. But consider again your position; the resume you felt necessary to provide while suggesting I was out for a glory beyond my reach. A journalist with such power and prestige might be able to set a trend down in the southeast tip of the country. Could start with a simple question – “where are my fellow Florida critics?” When you get an answer, follow-up with “Why?” and take it from there. Get a meeting going with the Florida Film Critics Circle. Small moves. Wield that influence. There’s no reason this has to be difficult. Let me tell you this though. How you choose to respond this will say a lot about your character. You can write another poison pen letter in your blog (to which I can already see you saying “thank you”, condescendingly, for permission); one which the only comments that appear five months later are the ones that you allow to seep through. Such as Pete Hammond’s. Forget all that though, Roger. The peace pipe is offered. A hand is extended. Please take it. Then offer your other one to your fellow Floridian movie lovers. If they play by the rules you should still be able to say what you saw in the blog and still be out in front. If they don’t – well then smite them with your mighty sword, Longshanks. But I suspect that by giving the minions just a little taste of the simplest of scraps, that loyalty will follow and they will prove themselves to be full-fledged movie critics – and not “reviewers.” It’s a new day. Make it a new dawn so we can all feel good.
I’d now like to give the next to final word to Mr. Hammond. He already went out of his way (unless it was Mark S. Allen since it was 1-of-3 people whose e-mail address we’ve listed at Criticwatch) to call me “a waste of space” on Mr. Moore’s blog. Anything else to say about me, Pete?
“The guy needs an editor, that's for sure. He's not from the 'Windy City' for nothing.”
Bravo. My apologies to anyone who ducked out on this call-to-action after word 1,214 and to anyone disappointed that this didn’t contain the usual smorgasbord of whore quotes. I promise we’ll have one for you once they’ve had their way with the summer movies, but whore production is down compared to 2007. Utilizing stats from this year’s top 32 top sluts & whores, a near 10% decrease just on them alone. Factor in Bill Diehl, Maria Salas, Greg Russell and a few others still yet to get a quote in 2008 and the number is down nearly 20%. Maybe Goldstein and Bart can point their blogs in their direction for a change instead of throwing respected critics out with the trash just because of their word geography. And perhaps Pete Hammond should be reminded that with the Windy City comes the Chicago way. We don’t just give up the fight. We take it up a notch. And since you’re such an obvious fan of simplicity and brevity, well, F.U.
link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=2501
originally posted: 06/11/08 11:40:40
last updated: 10/29/08 14:57:11