At the tail end of 2014, Canadian director David Cronenberg bemoaned the demise of legitimate film critics due to the proliferation of self-proclaimed online experts. In an article written by Victoria Ahearn, Cronenberg’s industry peers weighed in on the worth of these cultural gatekeepers. A flurry of articles appeared in response. While opinions varied, a consensus emerged that suggests we are at the end of an era.
The rapid rise of social media and the thumbs-up-thumbs-down culture has shaken important pillars of the cultural hierarchy. Professional film critics have not been spared. They have seen their power diminished by populist film rating platforms manned by avid movie-goers, cinephile blogs and reviews crafted by unpaid writers.
In Ahearn’s article, Cronenberg points to the popular Rotten Tomatoes platform as an example of what’s wrong with contemporary criticism. He slams the new breed of critics who “can’t write” or, if they can, reveal themselves to be “quite stupid and ignorant”. He contrasts these hacks to the platform’s top critics “who have actually paid their dues and worked hard”. In the same article, Canadian film critic Richard Crouse notes that few critics today have the “cachet” of legendary greats like Pauline Kael, Robert Ebert and Jay Scott.
Two weeks later, Anne Thompson and Ryan Lattanzio, and Matt Brennan tackled the topic in TOH!. Covering all the key ‑isms—criticism, elitism, contrarianism, populism and dilettantism—they attempted to answer a simple and important question: do critics still matter? The answer. A highly qualified “yes”.
Although thorough, the debate didn’t answer some of my own questions: How did the greats pay their dues and earn their cachet? Can they still be held up as models? In a post by Jason Bailey, the film editor at Flavorwire went a long way towards answering those questions. Bailey also made an excellent point about how all writers need to start somewhere.
“The problem is that no (or, at the very least, astonishingly few) film writers — or writers, period — come out of the creative womb at full speed. Good writing is the product of practice, via thousands of hours spent hunkered over the keyboard, banging it out and learning by doing.”
Clearly, Cronenberg, a graduate of the school of hard knocks whose name is synonymous with “independent”, knows this. Despite his frustration with self-proclaimed film experts, Cronenberg did acknowledge that “[s]ome voices have emerged that are actually quite good who never would have emerged before, so that’s the upside of that.”
The root of the word “amateur” is the Latin verb “to love”. With countless platforms now available to them, amateur film critics will continue to express their love of film for better or worse. As a result, professional critics might have to work a bit harder to earn coveted cachet. Ultimately though, film lovers will make up their own minds about which films are worth watching, which critics worth reading.
Photo Credit: David Cronenberg at TIFF