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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?