The Chronicle Review

The Death of Film Criticism

Chronicle photograph by Bob McGrath

February 28, 2010

"It sucks," decrees an Internet movie critic, sharing the most common aesthetic reaction in contemporary film criticism. In the viral salon of bloggers and chat-roomers, the finely tuned turns of phrase crafted by an earlier generation of sharp-eyed cinema scribes have been winnowed to a curt kiss-off. In cyberspace everyone can hear you scream. Just log on, vent, and hit send.

The transfer of film criticism from its print-based platforms (newspapers, magazines, and academic journals) to ectoplasmic Web-page billboards has rocked the lit-crit screen trade. Whether from the world of journalism (where the pink slips are landing with hurricane force) or academe (which itself is experiencing the worst job market since the Middle Ages), serious writers on film feel under siege, underappreciated, and underemployed.

The ballast of traditional credentials—whereby film critics earned their bones through university degrees or years at metropolitan dailies—has been thrown overboard by the judgment calls of anonymous upstarts without portfolio but very much with a DSL hotline to Hollywood's prime moviegoing demographic. In film criticism, the blogosphere is the true sphere of influence.

A sure sign of the bleak diagnosis for the ink-and-paper crowd is the arrival of the sympathy cards. While tanking as a viable livelihood, American film criticism is up to its eyeballs in affectionate, retrospective tributes. In 2006, the Library of America bestowed its seal of approval with American Movie Critics: An Anthology From the Silents Until Now, edited by Phillip Lopate, a professor of creative writing and literature. Scenes of Instruction: The Beginnings of the U.S. Study of Film (University of California Press, 2007), by the film professor Dana B. Polan, and Inventing Film Studies (Duke University Press, 2008), a collection of metacritical articles edited by the film scholars Lee Grievesen and Haidee Wasson, focus primarily on the academic institutionalization of the discipline of film studies, but both also track the deep backstory of a practice as old as the nickelodeon. Forthcoming (April) from Santa Monica Press, the film critic Jerry Roberts's The Complete History of American Film Criticism lives up to its title with a quick march through every top-billed byline from the Kinetoscope to Blu-ray. Finally, just out in DVD, For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism (2009)—a documentary mash note directed and written by the critic-scholar and now filmmaker Gerald Peary, a professor of communications and journalism and longtime film critic at The Boston Phoenix—sounds last call at the wake.

The history lessons are revelatory, both for uncovering the long tradition of discerning film criticism in America (it didn't start in the 1960s) and for the surprising number of brand-name writers who have slummed as movie reviewers: Carl Sandburg, on the silent screen in The Chicago Daily News in the 1920s (on Garbo: "slim, pale, like willows turning yellow in autumn"); John Updike, who took to the pages of The Boston Globe to defend the Goldie Hawn-Kurt Russell rom-com Overboard (1987) (on Goldie: "a semicomic valentine surrounded by tumble-dried blond hair").

Turn-of-the-(last)-century critics fixed on film early on as a canvas to mull over and carp about. Watching the Life and Passion of Christ (1903), Joseph Medill Patterson wondered, "Is it irreverent to portray the Passion, Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension in a vaudeville theatre over a darkened stage where half an hour before a couple of painted, short-skirted girls were doing a 'sister act'?" More than one of the pioneers used his perch as a steppingstone to the other side of the screen. D.W. Griffith's racist hallucination, The Birth of a Nation (1915), was co-written by the film critic Frank E. Woods, though the guild might want to keep quiet about that one. The future playwright and screenwriter Robert E. Sherwood—The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)—first caught Hollywood's eye for his prescient film commentary. Writing under the heading "The Silent Drama," he knew the curtain was coming down on pantomime after one listen to The Jazz Singer (1927). "I, for one, suddenly realized that I shall have to find a new name for this department," he proclaimed.

Yet throughout the formative years of 20th-century cinema, most workaday film criticism was dominated by newspaper hacks recruited from the sports beat or trade reviewers with tunnel vision on the ticket window (Variety on Sergey Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin (1925): "utterly devoid of entertainment and box office value"). Not until the late 1930s did film critics begin "to break free from the limitations of the traditional film review and explore film criticism as a type of expansive and deeply personally artistic practice," Haden Guest, director of the Harvard Film Archive, writes in Inventing Film Studies. Among the first standard bearers were Otis Ferguson at The New Republic ("the first working film critic who put everything together," avers Lopate); Manny Farber (whose paeans to underground films and "termite art" elevated B movies to A-list status); and the poet, journalist, screenwriter, and critic James Agee (to writers on film what Edward R. Murrow is to broadcast journalists).

Appropriately, a congenial place to sample American film criticism is at the movies. Peary's For the Love of Movies grants film critics star billing. Begun as an homage, however, it plays more as a requiem for the heavyweights of a dying vocation, a film-geek version of The Way We Were. Like Lopate's anthology and Roberts's survey, the documentary rewinds the forgotten prehistory of film criticism, but its narrative spine is the legendary grudge match between Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael, the Tracy and Hepburn—or maybe Trotsky and Stalin—of American film criticism. Kael threw the first punch in her scathing 1963 attack on the cult of the director as auteur, "Circles and Squares," an essay that launched two birds with one screed—her own as a hit woman not to be crossed, and her target's, who suddenly found the obscure pieces he published in the low-circulation Film Comment the manifesto of a new credo.

Each corner had a claque of fierce camp followers (dubbed "Paulettes" and "Sarrisites") who shadowboxed for their mentors. "We made each other, we helped each other," Sarris admits. "We established a dialectic." Yet the fact that Sarris speaks for himself in For the Love of Movies and Kael appears only in archival footage creates an unfortunate disequilibrium; the pair were nothing if not evenly matched. Peary started shooting in 2001, by which time Kael was too infirm to participate. (She died of complications from Parkinson's disease later that year.) Denied the romantic-comedy ending—Andy and Pauline falling into each other's arms—the viewer is also denied the sight of the lions clawing at each other in winter.

By the 1970s, with the blistering auteur wars ending in a TKO for the Sarrisites, the veterans regrouped just in time to man the barricades for the Second Golden Age of Hollywood. Kael was firing on all cylinders at The New Yorker, defending the kiss-kiss bang-bangers Brian De Palma and Sam Peckinpah, Sarris was obligatory reading in The Village Voice, championing cinephilic New Yorkers like Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese, and across the nation, dozens of newspapers and magazines lent copious space and splashy cover stories to long-form think pieces analyzing filmmakers happy to be hailed as great artists.

Lopate's collection gives a fair sampling of the gems—Richard Corliss and Richard Schickel at Time, Molly Haskell at The Village Voice, Vincent Canby at The New York Times, and Susan Sontag anywhere. Of course the gauzy flashbacks to a time when voracious moviegoers devoured erudite essays by equally passionate critics is as romantic a conceit as any released by MGM. But the box-office returns accrued by offbeat hits suggest a symbiotic relationship. Cheek-to-cheek, film and film criticism thrived.

Even when Hollywood turned to high-budget but lowbrow blockbusters in the 1980s, film criticism maintained its sharp edge and upward arc. Reviewing the decade, Peary, Lopate, and Roberts all give due regard to the salutary impact of Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, the Chicago-based tag team whose television point-counterpoint, which made its debut nationally on PBS in 1978, brought a new level of film smarts to a video forum long dominated by dolts in turtleneck sweaters. "At their best, Siskel and Ebert's lively talks were marked by the immediacy, drama, comedy, intelligence, and surprise of live theatre," argues Roberts.

Then a different kind of termite art burrowed into the house that film criticism built. In the mid-1990s, the wide-open frontier of the blogosphere allowed young punks who still got carded at the multiplex to leapfrog over their print and video elders on user-friendly sites with hip domain names. If the traditional film critic was a professorial lecturer who lorded his superior knowledge and literary chops over the common rung of moviegoer, the Web slinger was a man-boy of the people, visceral and emotional, a stream-of-consciousness spurter with no internal censor or mute button. Listen to the war cry of the Internet Movie Critic ensconced at "What sets me apart from the Siskel & Eberts of this world is a simple truth: I don't read books!"

The poster boy for the fanboy-as-critic is the bearded, gnomish taste master Harry Knowles. In 1996, Knowles executed an Internet end run around print film critics by setting up his own aisle seat at Ain't It Cool News ( Soon his site was as coveted an imprimatur as the opposable thumbs of Siskel and Ebert. Knowles boasts two and a half million readers a day—though maybe "hits" is a better measurement—which explains why Hollywood ads are now more likely to quote from Web sites than from print critics.

Predictably, the old guard sees the newbies as semiliterate troglodytes who prowl the viral veld grunting out expletives. "The Internet has made the proliferation of these people possible in a way that it never was before," rasps Rex Reed in Peary's film. Schickel concurs: "What I see of Internet reviewing is people of just surpassing ignorance about the medium expressing themselves on the medium." Many film critics would agree with the condemnation of "the spectacle of 22- and 23-year-old boys taking 40- or 50-year-old artists to task without being able to show a sign of technical knowledge." (Actually, the Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels said that last bit after banning uppity critics from Reich newspapers in 1936.)

Defenders of the bloggers, texters, and tweeters laud the democratization of opinion and the instant access to inside dope. (Many Web-based critics have few qualms about pirated scripts and studio screeners.) Untethered to the industry and not co-opted by plush press junkets, the argument goes, the unpaid fan-bloggers are more independent, more honest, and more in sync with the mass audience than the jaded sexagenarians. Moreover, purely as a media forum for cinematic analysis, the widescreen Net blows away the printed page, offering unlimited space for analysis, links to like-minded sites, and photo "captures" and streaming clips for illustration. The bloggers get the info out first and fast, the readership bookmarks its own comfort zones, and critic and reader begin a two-way conversation that collapses the distinction between interlocutors. The print-bound critics are lumbering dinosaurs grousing about their own extinction. Survival of the fittest, gramps.

To watch their backs and retain their 401(k)'s, most print critics have been forced into sleeping with the enemy. As a form of ancillary outreach, blogs, podcasts, and chat-room discussions have become a required part of the job description for print reviewers. Or maybe the print part of the gig is now the ancillary outreach.

Feeling the same heat, academic critics have also plunged into the brash new world. The film-studies panjandrum David Bordwell—think Knowles with chops in postmodern theory—runs one of the most closely watched blogs at David Bordwell's Website on Cinema ( The impact of the academic bloggers on Hollywood's box-office gross is negligible (sorry, David), but the online work of the digital hordes is already making a substantial contribution to film scholarship—in the spirited parry and thrust of the dialogues, in the instant retrieval of past research, and in the factoid jackpots provided by the film databases.

The problem, however, especially for graduate students and younger scholars, is that the powers that be in academe still have not sussed out how to calibrate the value of online work in decisions about hiring, tenure, and promotion, how to weigh the contributions on Web sites like Sense of Cinema ( and FlowTV ( against peer-reviewed brands like Cinema Journal and the Historical Journal of Film, Radio, and Television. Is heavy Web-site traffic the modern version of frequent citation from respected colleagues? Is a year in harness as a conscientious Webmaster equal to the publication of a scholarly article? Not yet, but the hoary admonition to "publish or perish" may soon morph into "post or perish."

For the print-minded film critic who refuses to evolve, the writing is on the digital wall. The jacket cover for Lopate's anthology shows a pair of analog antiques: a creaky 35 millimeter projector and a clunky manual typewriter. The freeze frame closing out Peary's film shows Sarris, clutching a cane, and Molly Haskell under a theater marquee, as if about to enter their last picture show.

Not good omens for a craft rooted in the literary grace and humanist sensibility of the revered Agee. "The Italian made Shoeshine is about as beautiful, moving, and heartening a film as you are ever likely to see," he confided to his readers in 1947, in full swoon over Italian neo-Realism. "I will review it when I am capable of getting more than that into coherent language and feasible space."

Coherent language within feasible space—words to write by, even when the prose is no longer bound by linear rhetoric and finite column inches. The demise of that tradition of film criticism would really suck.

Thomas Doherty is a professor of American studies at Brandeis University and author of Hollywood's Censor: Joseph I. Breen and the Production Code Administration (Columbia University Press, 2007).