TWO weeks ago I went to Atlanta to give a talk at a conference devoted, in part, to “The Future of Criticism.” The gist of my remarks was that there is one. This was a contrarian, and perhaps also somewhat self-serving, position to take. After all, the countervailing evidence is hard to avoid.
Variety, the leaky flagship of entertainment reporting, had recently let go of its senior film and theater reviewers, Todd McCarthy and David Rooney, further thinning the ranks of critics employed by daily and weekly newspapers and magazines of all kinds over the past few years. (Even so, it is at least possible to picture us forming ranks — the surviving full-time classical music, dance and even literary critics might have trouble filling out a bridge game.)
The loss of print jobs is only one aspect of a dire overall picture. A senior figure in the critical firmament — Richard Schickel, long of Time magazine — told a panel last month that the whole enterprise of film criticism was pretty much worthless and always had been.
Not everyone would go that far, but the film world is rife with lamentation and accusation, echoing from the filmmaker Kevin Smith’s Twitter piece to the pages of New York’s combative free newspapers. Maybe criticism mattered once, but the conventional wisdom insists that it doesn’t any more. There used to be James Agee, and now there is Rotten Tomatoes. Rotten movies routinely make huge sums of money in spite of the demurral of critics. Where once reasoned debate and knowledgeable evaluation flourished, there are now social networking and marketing algorithms and a nattering gaggle of bloggers.
Or — to turn the picture on its head — a remnant of over-entitled old-media graybeards are fighting a rear-guard action against the democratic forces of the Internet, clinging to threadbare cultural authority in the face of their own obsolescence. Everyone’s a critic! Or maybe no one is.
“The news is really very sad,” sings Abbey Lincoln in a song aptly called “The World Is Falling Down.” “The time is late. The fruit is bad.” That’s the general mood, but down in Atlanta, I was having none of it. Hold the eulogies! Stop the funeral! All appearances to the contrary, I insisted, criticism is alive and well.
That was before my own brush with the grim reaper.
Shortly after my visit to Atlanta, I was in Chicago, sitting in a small office at the local ABC affiliate station. Next to me was Michael Phillips, film critic at The Chicago Tribune and, since last September, my co-host on “At the Movies,” the long-running movie-review program started by Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert on Chicago public television in the 1970s and syndicated by Disney for the past quarter-century. Across from us was the Disney executive who had hired us and who had flown in from Burbank to tell us that the show had been canceled. After the current season is over in mid-August, “At the Movies” will be a memory.
The news, which occasioned an outpouring of grief on the Internet — as well as some confusion among once-loyal viewers who had no idea that the program was still on the air —did not come as a great surprise. From almost the moment we signed on, Mr. Phillips and I were aware of the faint ticking of a doomsday clock. Along with the production staff in Chicago, we had spent most of the winter fretting about ratings and doing what we could to raise the show’s profile.
But in the current media ecosystem, a half-hour syndicated weekly broadcast looks like a freak of nature — or, as a Disney lawyer put it, indiscreetly but accurately, during my initial contract negotiations, a dinosaur. When the studio first picked up the show, syndication was a gold mine.
Nowadays specialized programming catering to the esoteric pursuits of enthusiasts survives on cable, or sometimes on public broadcasting, and the larger viewing public is fractured, fickle and increasingly likely to satisfy its tastes online. “At the Movies,” dwelling in odd time slots in some markets and moving around in others, had a hard time finding or holding onto a big enough audience. But even if it had done better in the ratings, a 30-minute chunk of non-prime-time air was never going to be a very lucrative proposition. Which was what the Disney corporate statement confirming the cancellation meant when it called the program “unsustainable,” a word more commonly used to describe destructive farming or fishing practices. We were a very small fish or maybe a cash crop planted in dry, degraded soil.
I’m sorry “At the Movies” is over. I had a good time doing it and wish it could have kept going, but I have no scores to settle, no blame to assign, no might-have-beens to explore. Maybe if Mr. Phillips and I had agreed less or fought more, we could have replicated the combative, thin-line-between-love-and-hate dynamic that had characterized the Siskel-Ebert partnership. Maybe if we had stuck closer to the old format, or discarded it entirely, or been better looking, or liked “The Blind Side” ...
Or maybe not. As the eulogies for “At the Movies” flow into the larger threnody lamenting the death of criticism, it is worth remembering that the program, now inscribed on the honor roll of the dead, was once implicated in the murder.
Movie criticism on television? Movie criticism with thumbs? You can’t be serious! That was more or less the message of an impassioned, anxious essay by Richard Corliss, published in Film Comment in 1990 (and reprinted, with characteristically impish generosity, by Roger Ebert in an anthology of his own work). The article was called “All Thumbs, or, Is There a Future for Film Criticism?,” and Mr. Corliss’s point was that sound bites, video clips and glib quantification threatened to dumb down the critical enterprise and to dilute the impact of thoughtful analysis and good writing.
Twenty years ago, the agent of that decline was a kind of television program — two guys trading opinions on the movies of the week — that now, in its twilight, looks exalted and heroic. The threat Mr. Corliss identified has migrated to the Internet, where self-credentialed commenters snark and snipe and where the simple binary code of the thumbs-up or thumbs-down voting that Mr. Siskel and Mr. Ebert trademarked has been supplanted by the crunched numbers of the Metacritic score.
So was “At the Movies” — which was also called “Sneak Previews,” “Siskel and Ebert,” “Ebert and Roeper” and other names during its long, storied run — the start of a slippery downward slope or the summit of the critical art? Neither, of course. The circumstances in which the art of criticism is practiced are always changing, but the state of the art is remarkably constant.
Which is to say that, from a certain angle, the future of criticism is always bleak and the present always a riot of ill-informed opinion and boisterous disputation. Some gloomy soul will always wish it otherwise and conjure an idealized picture of decorum and good sense. Early in the last century, T. S. Eliot wrote that “upon giving the matter a little attention, we perceive that criticism, far from being a simple and orderly field of beneficent activity, from which impostors can be readily ejected, is no better than a Sunday park of contending and contentious orators, who have not even arrived at the articulation of their differences.”
A hundred years before Eliot, Samuel Taylor Coleridge thundered that “till reviews are conducted on far other principles, and with far other motives; till in the place of arbitrary dictation and petulant sneers, the reviewers support their decisions by reference to fixed canons of criticism, previously established and deduced from the nature of man; reflecting minds will pronounce it arrogance in them thus to announce themselves to men of letters, as the guides of their taste and judgment.”
Both Coleridge and Eliot, who were writing about print, sound uncannily like ranters against the Internet and television. And, like present-day old-media scourges of the blogosphere, they had a point. But they were also projecting an impossible and self-undermining wish, because it is only through the confusion and noise of the public sphere that criticism has advanced, discovering its principles and best practices, preserving tradition and embracing the new.
I don’t go back into the archive of Siskel and Ebert’s reviews to find out how they voted, or for consumer advice, but rather to hear the two of them argue. And in our own brief tenure in their chairs, Mr. Phillips and I found argument to be the biggest challenge and the greatest satisfaction.
“One minute for the cross-talk, guys,” the producer would say, using the show’s term of art for the back-and-forth that follows the scripted reviews. How can you do a movie justice in 60 seconds? You can’t, of course — or in 800 words of print or in a blog post — but you can start a conversation, advance or rebut an argument, and give people who share your interest something to talk about.
And that kind of provocation, that spur to further discourse, is all criticism has ever been. It is not a profession and does not stand or fall with any particular business model. Criticism is a habit of mind, a discipline of writing, a way of life — a commitment to the independent, open-ended exploration of works of art in relation to one another and the world around them. As such, it is always apt to be misunderstood, undervalued and at odds with itself. Artists will complain, fans will tune out, but the arguments will never end.
So I’ve come full circle. The future of criticism is the same as it ever was. Miserable, and full of possibility. The world is always falling down. The news is always very sad. The time is always late.
But the fruit is always ripe.