If you have been reading movie reviews in newspapers and magazines the last few years, you are well aware the movies have gone to hell. The critics whose job it is to see 150-250 movies a year explain with painful regularity that a great percentage of the pictures coming out of Hollywood represent the shriveled imaginations and market-minded proficiencies of a generation of film school gnomes and moral pygmies.
Yet if you have read the box office figures, you also know that the movies are making more money than ever. Despite sharply rising costs and bookmaker's odds, Hollywood seems to be setting new records each year when the studios tote up their loot.
Which suggests, if nothing else, that the relationship between America's film critics and its moviegoing hordes, not to mention the people who make the movies, is quite possibly a distant one.
Take, for example, the sentiments of Mark Crispin Miller, an essayist on Hollywood for the Atlantic Monthly and the editor of a new anthology, "Seeing Through Movies." Miller had this to say recently about the state of the cinema: "I wish somebody could convince me that the movies are not just about over. They're so sensationalistic, they're so empty, they're so cruel, they're so fast-paced. The only thing that convinces me I've been to the movies is that I'm sick to my stomach."
But while many of our most eloquent film critics have reached similar states of alarm, the movies are being plugged, encapsulated, numbered and rated with increasing vehemence by a swelling chorus of less-exacting TV personalities whose thumbs-up/thumbs-down style has spread to the print media as well and moved Time Magazine critic Richard Corliss to ask in an essay in the journal Film Comment, "Is There a Future for Film Criticism?"
Indeed, almost no movie today is too dimwitted or dreadful that it cannot collect a few testimonials from someone somewhere whose idea of an opinion is to shout, "BREATHTAKING!," "HEART-STOPPING!" or--a new favorite--"THE FEEL-GOOD MOVIE OF THE YEAR!"
The fact is, there are more people now engaged in various forms of critical commentary or puffery about the movies than at any time since D. W. Griffith passed his first winter in Southern California. The lure of fame and money are partly responsible, elevating mere journalists to the status of celebrities in cities and towns across the country and in television offering reviewers a chance to make as much money as the film folk they pass judgment on. Who would have thought it possible even 10 years ago that two Chicago newspapermen (Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert) would become millionaires chatting about the week's new releases?
But the mere size of these armies of the \o7 noir\f7 and legions of the upraised thumb led by the totemic Siskel and Ebert may not be the truest indication of their rank and independence in Hollywood. Amid the soaring influence of marketing and the lowering of literacy, there are signs that serious criticism is losing its impact while the rest of what passes for criticism moves closer to becoming an adjunct of the studios' publicity departments.
Is it possible that the influence of critics is declining as their numbers increase? Are their opinions felt at the box office? Do the directors, screenwriters, actors and other leading industry players read the critics or listen to them? Has a film student ever learned anything from Gary Franklin?
Paul Schrader, the screenwriter, director ("Taxi Driver," "Cat People") and former film critic, is one who believes that criticism has been minimized by the avalanche of "light journalism" devoted to movies in TV programs like "Entertainment Tonight" and the shelf full of new magazines led by Premiere that "focus on issues relating to gossip as opposed to issues regarding the caliber of films."
If, in general, reviews count for so little, then why do movie companies continue to rely so heavily on quotes from critics in their advertising campaigns and in the process boost the reputations of the more prickly critics like Pauline Kael, David Denby and Stephen Schiff, as well as such otherwise insignificant blurb manufacturers as Joel Siegel, Rex Reed, Pat Collins, Gene Shalit and Michael Medved?
"They do it for the filmmakers," a leading studio publicist says about quote ads. "A quote only means something (commercially) if it comes from Siskel & Ebert or one of the national TV critics like Joel Siegel who is beamed into hundreds of cities. But if a filmmaker gets a good review in The New Yorker, he wants everyone to know it. Part of it is just ego."
Schrader and others make the case that the increased visibility of critics through television and advertising has simply become a way for the studios to co-opt and control critics. "What the studios and the conglomerates have done," observes Schrader, "is to make a contract between the marketing departments and the audiences and to somehow get the critic out of the influence business."