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The Role of the Critic? |

Roger Ebert, one of the most famous of the dying breed of the classic newspaper film critic, writes about the decline of the classic profession:

Why do we need critics? [snip] A newspaper film critic should encourage critical thinking, introduce new developments, consider the local scene, look beyond the weekend fanboy specials, be a weatherman on social trends, bring in a larger context, teach, inform, amuse, inspire, be heartened, be outraged.

Sure, that’s one role that critics serve for a particular type of audience. However, critics have different roles and purposes for the different groups that they serve:

  • For the professional critics themselves, the purpose is an engaging and rewarding career with competetive pay.
  • For the reader or the consumer, the purpose is entertainment. Some consumers want serious critical thinking that is intellectually engaging and offers insightful commentary on social trends and the bigger picture of life itself. Other consumers want mindless entertainment that provides instant and effortless amusement. Both those purposes are wildly subjective and dependent or personal quirks and tastes.
  • For an profit-seeking company to hire a critic, such as a newspaper or web site, the purpose is to convert the reader’s interest into revenue: either directly through subscription fees or indirectly through increased reader loyalty and publication status.

The celebrity culture is infantilizing us. We are being trained not to think. It is not about the disappearance of film critics. We are the canaries. It is about the death of an intelligent and curious, readership, interested in significant things and able to think critically. It is about the failure of our educational system. It is not about dumbing-down. It is about snuffing out.

The news is still big. It’s the newspapers that got small.

First, the newspapers aren’t getting small, they are getting run out of business and are disappearing. And if movie critics are the early warning canaries, they are several decades late on calling it.

I’d argue that there are more intelligent and curious fans of movies, games, and cultural media than ever before. There are more movies, more games, more cultural content, and more demand for discussion and critical analysis of that content. There are also far more avenues for discussion and availability of critical discussion. There is more intelligent discussion (what classifies as intelligent is highly subjective), more headline-grabbing click-bait, and more of everything in between.

What’s changed is that the days of having small concentrated numbers of big name, formally trained “critics”, that had attractive life-long stable careers based on nothing more than quality movie analysis skills are over. Today, some of the best media critics and some of the best political commentators have no formal training in media or journalism and many contribute on a completely volunteer basis as a personal hobby. There is still a demand for critic personality and semi-celebrity, and there are tons of ways to make money in the news and review business, but it’s more competitive, more efficient, and more spread out among a larger group of people.

So what do you think? Is our culture becoming infantilized? Are we really witnessing the death of the intelligent and curious audience? Or are we just picking on an easy target?

  • I once asked my dad what they did when they were young. What did they do when they got together with friends for an evening? The answer? Talk. They talked about stuff. They talked about politics. About religion. About their jobs. Whatever.

    What does our generation do? Watch a movie. Play a video game. Go to the mall. Scoff at others’ dress or haircuts. Post vlogs about totally inconsequential stuff.

    I’m not saying we don’t talk anymore. I’m not saying we don’t think anymore. I wrote the above two paragraphs to provide a contrast. But I do think that in general, people in our generation think less critically than they used to. I worry about who the leaders of our country will be in 20 years.

    That said, I hardly think that movie critics are the bastion of intellect in our society. The Acadamy Awards have been an annoyance to me for years. All those actors and producers getting together to pat themselves on the back for creating so much junk. Movies are a fluffy form of entertainment at best and a morbid reflection of our society’s debauchery at worst. Movies that actually make you think without resorting to the baseness of the human condition to incite argument are few and far between.

    Personally, I take movies and games for what they are – entertainment. No more (generally) and no less (hopefully). If you want to critique a movie or game for me, tell me whether it is entertaining enough for me to spend money on. But please don’t try to tell me how they reflect the human condition.

  • George

    One difference between Roger Ebert’s time and today is that now anyone and everyone can be a published critic. IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes for example; I rarely rent or buy tickets for a movie without consulting those resources. I may ignore their advice if I think I’d still like the show, but I do consult.

    Is our culture becoming infantilized? I don’t think so. We may not get up early to ready a newspaper any more, but instead we use tools like RSS readers to strip away the cruft and show the information. I’d like to think that is progress.

  • mpz

    I think when he was talking about newspapers ‘getting small’ is their tendency to be filled with trivial nonsense and popularist bullshit rather than thoughtful and critical comment. Sounds about right to me. There probably is more critical comment than ever before, but it is drowned out by the mountains of rubbish it competes with.

    And I think for every “Henning’s dad’s group” out there, there were probably a fair few that didn’t get together and talk too. But definitely, it seems to be a different, less thoughtful world out there. It is hard not to colour the past with golden lenses but certainly it is my impression that in the 50’s or so the world was more excited about science and education and the future than it was about the life of some singer or actor. In the 60’s it was more concerned with social utopia and human progress than it was with lawyers and intellectual property. The 70’s was probably the inflection point, where it was more concerned with the life of the brady bunch than it was with world affairs (even when some really big things were happening, like the oil and food crises), or perhaps the 80’s when the obsession shifted to worshipping money as the sole life-achievement worth working towards. Even now there are plenty of ‘thinking people’ who do seek out quality news and comment and have no interest in the amount of cellulite on the arse of some made-up ‘celebrity’, but they aren’t in a majority – and probably never were.

    It is interesting in fact that a movie critic made this observation. Movies and other mass media are really at the core of this intellectual decline, although television is really the peak of achievement and greatest enabler of it. For example it’s pretty hard to name even a single movie where science is part of the plot where it isn’t ‘the bad guy’ – either because it causes something nasty, fails to stop something nasty, or is just some four-eyed joke to laugh at. Also remember that hollywood has been the primary driver in the whole ‘intellectual property’ idea – that ideas put to screen are worth more than physical products. As far as I know, the US economy’s primary external income source is now ‘intellectual property’. The US economy has transformed from a manufacturing one to a consuming one – enabled almost solely by mass media. And we all know how well that’s worked out for them …

    There is even some leftist conspiracy theorists that say the education system has been systematically sabotaged in an attempt to reduce the ‘thinkingness’ of it’s graduates – and if you stand back and have a look there may be some weight to their argument. Particularly with secondary school students who are constantly bombarded with facts and rote learning – they are intentionally not trained in critical thinking skills. They are merely trained to be obedient workers who will work all their life in the vain hope that they’ll ‘make it big’ ‘in the land of opportunity’. The faux democracy under which they live gives them a false sense of empowerment and keeps them docile. Any ‘thinkers’ learn at a young age to keep their thoughts to themselves, less they be marginalised for being non-conformist, or ‘elitist’ – and thinking will rarely get you any marks (since you’re apparently ‘too young’ to have any valid ideas of your own yet). This seems to be particularly bad in the US, but is probably true of most societies – teachers like conformity since it simply means less work, and they’re not really trained to deal with anything else anyway.

    “Television is the drug of the nation”. Well it is. And sport. Keep everyone penned in and control all aspects of their entertainment, lest they get out of control. I attended a baseball game whilst in Chicago last year – it was actually rather horrifying how controlled the whole experience was. No spontaneous chants or cheers. Everything seemed completely controlled and scripted – everyone even had a little ditty to sing when they were allowed to. After having spent a day or two at the cricket – where the aim seems to be to see who can drink the most beer, chant the most abuse at the players (of both sides), or whistle the loudest at passing girls – it was quite a shock. The (very) few hecklers in the crowd really stood out.

    Anyway i’m getting a bit off topic here – although there’s more, such as the rise of religion and alternative medicine and the suppression of science, or the labelling of intellectuals as ‘elitist’ as a negative. It’s all intertwined. The Simpsons is pretty good at nailing the whole thing really (South Park too to some extent, but it hasn’t reached the mass-market appeal which turns it into a truly poetic self parody of itself).

    Back onto the role the internet is playing to replace ‘critics’. The problem with the internet is you no longer know who to trust. That comment from some irate customer who had a bad experience with ‘x’ product may well have been paid by a competitor to say it. Even whole blogs can be bought in this way. Or even started that way – clumsy efforts by Coke (to sell their `black-label’ diet coke) or Sony aside. Whole comment systems can be gamed and corrupted (e.g. slashdot). Previously you could go on the reputation of a given paper or journalistic ethics to trust that what they were giving you was at least impartial. Now you have nothing really to go on – if you are inclined to even care, which the general population doesn’t seem to. Even when papers are ‘caught out’ these days, journalists rarely resign or are forced out.

    Wikipedia is completely corrupted by interest groups (‘NPOV’, apart from being a terribly annoying acronym, is entirely relative anyway) – read any controversial topic and you simply wont get a valid, impartial and reasoned view of it. News services push their own agenda (e.g. newscorp), or these new mega ‘news-wire’ services which seem to provide the base news to most of the world (even bloggers) can be gamed and tampered with when all they do is pay by word-count. And most news services publish this cheap news source with little or no critical appraisal, particularly when they’re after as many page hits as they can get – quantity over quality almost always wins.

    It all comes down to critical thinking skills. And basically the whole US economy is based on the fact that consumers don’t have them. Otherwise they wouldn’t spend outside of their means – but without unconstrained spending, the economy would stagnate and shrink. They wouldn’t buy crap they were lied to about (again and again) – marketing wouldn’t work otherwise, and that’s what pays for all the TV in the first place. Or waste their lives and destroy their bodies in-front of the TV every night – which not only keeps the punters ‘off the streets’ (which has been made out to be some scary place full of criminals – the culture of fear is another whole book-worth of related material, and directly enabled again by lack of critical thinking skills, and driven home by tv shows and movies) it provides the catalyst for whole ‘health and well-being’ industries – more crap to spend money on. Or keep voting in corrupt politicians who’s only interest is to serve their paymasters with ever-draconian laws against the interests of their own citizens.

    Lets face it, this mass ignorance has made quite a few people extremely bloody wealthy – and even as the world economy collapses, they are still raking it in. And money is the only power that works.

    (we’re entering some interesting times though – the next 4-5 years. I know one thing, I’m not sure i’d like to be in a country full of lazy incurious people taken off their drug of consumption – when there’s so many guns about).

  • Darrin

    Wow, mpz, monster post! I don’t even know where to begin…

    I’m a lot less worried about the decline of science. Sure, if you look at the tabloids in the grocery store or listen to fundamentalist religious groups, it’s easy to draw conclusions that no one cares about science any more. I’m taking upper division science classes at my local university, so I see tons of people who are passionate about science. From my perspective, science is very much alive and well, probably more so than it ever was. Science may not be the big headline grabber of the day, but who cares. Our society (U.S.) has a very high level of respect for researchers, tenure-track professors, and successful entrepreneurs.

    Also, as Henning said, movies definitely aren’t the pinnacle of achievement in our country. Not too long ago, there was a common sentiment among the cultural elite that movies were trash that were destroying books and poetry.

    Maybe I’m an optimist, but I agree with George: we are seeing positive progress overall. Media and arts are improving, the review and analysis of media is more democratic and efficient and flexible than the old days, and I would even think science and productivity are growing at accelerated rates.

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