Film Fund-amentals: Gathering Darkness?

It’s a bit tangential to our usual focus, but I can’t resist responding to Roger Ebert’s blog piece from Aug. 6 In an article subtly entitled “The Gathering Dark Age,” the aging master of the thumb has just determined that the quality of movies are in steep decline because the intelligence of the younger generation is wretchedly abysmal. Why? Because the little whipper-snappers don’t read daily newspapers and their ignorant oversight is forcing film critics into the unemployment line, which is leading us to cultural decline and an impending dark age of fear, superstition and countless Rocky sequels.

Yep. Same thing happened to the Roman Empire. Once they laid off Paulinus Kaelimus, the whole place hit the skids.

So where do we begin (and what does it mean to us)? First, we need to answer the perplexing question as to the decline of the modern daily newspaper. Unfortunately, the answer is easy. They have made themselves irrelevant. Sure, the increased competition from the internet has taken a toll. Likewise, the pursuit of younger readers has been a notable failure, with many papers looking like a plump middle-aged man in a cheap toupee chasing after high school cheerleaders. But most of all, most daily newspapers have become mere shills for corporate interests and have lost any point for existing (outside the vested interests of their greedy owners).

Which may explain the other problem. Many daily newspapers are owned and managed by nitwits. It’s as simple as that. Sure, there are still many fine, outstanding reporters out there (unfortunately, they are the ones who are mostly getting laid off). But many of the publishers and senior editors are the sort of people who couldn’t successfully run a brothel in Tijuana during a visit by the 7th Fleet. Heck, I once free-lanced at a daily with a senior editor who went to see The Crying Game and couldn’t figure out what the twist was in the movie.

But let’s return to the subject of film critics. Who needs them? Better still, what is their function? At this point, I must make a confession. I was once a film critic. Even in those depraved days of bombastic commentary (unlike now, when I simply make sense), I found myself wrestling with these same issues. OK. It was a short match.

The main reason any paper has film reviews is that the publisher is attempting to use it as an inroad to getting movie ads. Nobody is paying the critic for his or her fine, erudite opinions. The reviews are (and always have been) a marketing ploy. That’s why most film critics focus on mainstream, high-profile movies. It is all about marketing.

The only other function the critic has is to try to attract readers through a breezy (hopefully) and snappy (if possible) writing style. The critic can even be a rude smart-aleck, as long as they don’t actually piss anyone off. Tap dancing is not required, but wouldn’t hurt.

So what is the critic’s function? Virtually all of them (Ebert included) will tell you that they provide a sense of critical knowledge and connoisseurship that enables readers to make wise, enlightened decisions about what movies they should go see. Of course, this is just a crock. Few people go to see a mainstream movie because of what any critic says. People did not flock to see Titanic because of any reviews. They went to see Titanic because…well, I never did figure out why anyone went to that movie, but they did, and it had nothing to do with critics.

What critics can do – and mostly they don’t – is provide some attention to small films that otherwise will never get a lick of newsprint. Once the weekly elephants from Hollywood are cleared out of the way, most critics could press for some focus on small, independent movies that would otherwise go sight unseen. I know from experience that this can be done. I also know that it works. You even get new readers, some of them actually young.

At his best, Ebert did this occasionally. The vast majority of critics have never made the effort, and many small, independent movies have suffered from their neglect. At this point, blog sites and self-appointed reviewers on the Web have become a more promising arena for small films than any collection of mainstream critics.

So oddly enough, the loss of mainstream film critics has nothing to do with the possibility that young people are too dumb to read anything more than the download instruction to their iPods (and truth be told, I find these instructions pretty hard to follow). I’m not even sure that young people are really that dumb, though Ebert is loading his own site with YouTube clips of some pretty wild moments among the bubble-brain brigade. But I do know that many film critics have been pretty full of themselves and need to take a harder look into the mirror.

As for the perceived loss of influence that many critics are now complaining about, I can only refer to the modern philosopher Greg Behrendt: They’re just not that into you. OK.