Movie critics have been worked up into a lather recently over some of their colleagues getting in pissing matches, others losing their jobs and all of us getting a poke in the eye from a filmmaker. So why should you care about our little world? Because it has more to do with yours than you think. ---
It has indeed been a lively couple of weeks for those of us immersed in the insular world of film criticism. First there was the dustup between Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman and New York Press critic Armond White, prompted by White’s exclusion from a press screening for the film Greenberg over White’s history of bashing Greenberg director Noah Baumbach. Then there was the news that movie-industry trade paper Variety was laying off its one remaining staff film critic, Todd McCarthy, and claiming that “readers wouldn’t notice a difference.” And then there was the recent Twitter-tirade by director Kevin Smith, in which he lambasted critics for the reviews of his recent Cop Out and claimed he’d never permit free advance screenings of his movies for critics again. Throw in a self-loathing essay by erstwhile music critic Steve Almond about the evils of knocking down a piece of art that others love, and for all the flurry of critics’ chatter you’d wonder how we ever had time to see any actual movies.
I’m not interested in making the self-serving “why critics matter” case. But it strikes me that there’s something more profound at work here, something that cuts to the heart not just of arts criticism, but to American civic life, as well: We’ve become a nation actively antagonistic towards discernment.
This, sadly, isn’t exactly breaking news. We’ve been shouting at each other rather than talking to each other for some time now, with the current health-care hurricane as just the most obvious recent example. This political landscape, however, reinforces the idea that opinions are actually absolutes—that there is nothing to be gained by engaging in a dialogue other than attempting to win. Thoughtful writers on any subject never reach their most important audience—those who begin with a different point of view—because we have collectively decided only to listen to those who reinforce what we already believe.
The assault on film criticism—even by other critics—is just one symptom of this larger cultural crisis. We have become a nation of Americans who have no idea how to look at opposing arguments on anything—a band, a movie, health-care reform, immigration—and see the ideas of merit that can be synthesized into their already-existing points of view, and we're raising the next generation to be more of the same. If a public school system is for anything, isn’t it for teaching our children citizenship in the fullest sense of the word? And doesn’t real citizenship demand the ability to discern? Demagoguery flourishes because we’re all too easy to distract and frighten, and because we’re unwilling to engage in arguments on their merits. American life itself has become one great big Internet flame war, except there’s no excuse for millions of adults acting like anonymous teenagers.
If my job goes the way of the cart and buggy some day, maybe it only matters to me and my colleagues. But if it happens because our citizens have all grown too infatuated with their own arrogant single-mindedness to allow someone else’s informed words to inform their thinking, we’ve got hella bigger problems.