Letting Go of Criticism

April 6, 2010
By | 6 Comments

At the Movies, the one remaining television network show about film criticism, is cancelled and the hosts A.O. Scott (the New York Times’ film expert) and Michael Phillips (the Chicago Tribune’s film expert) have until this summer to enjoy the power and privilege of television publicity. On April 4, Scott used the New York Times to publish a eulogy to his own show and this piece of writing doubles as a eulogy to the whole enterprise of popular film criticism. Is popular film criticism dead or, worse, can anybody make money out of film criticism anymore?

The few, which include Scott and Phillips, are a dying breed, a group of often academically trained critics who tend to place film within histories, industrial traditions, aesthetic structures, and broad social and political concerns. They are being replaced by a new generation of young technocrats whose sole expertise seems to be to summarize, to decide whether they liked the film or not, and to put together websites. I think I know where these young technocrats come from.

Some of us suspect, and Scott let’s on that much, that Siskel and Ebert, the creators of At the Movies, were the beginning of the end. With their attempts at creating criticism for the masses who apparently needed the final dictum to be a binary sign, the “thumbs up” or the “thumbs down,” Siskel and Ebert redefined criticism. Who could imagine that a film critic, a master of words and images, would resort to the crudest form of communication to do final praise or condemnation? Siskel and Ebert, who perhaps mistook their task to popularize as a task for diluting the intellectual and affective power of criticism, benefited from this and their thumbs became the brand of their intellect.

Why did they allow it? Who would want her/his intellect to be represented by thumbs up or down? For years, these thumbs affected box office success and were reproduced in other media to signify film curatorial arbitration. These thumbs made careers and broke them, but their power went beyond; these thumbs came to be equated to film criticism.

For roughly ten years I have taught film classes in three fine institutions of higher learning (University of Texas at Austin, Southwestern University, and University of Virginia) and in all of these institutions I thumb-wrestled with Siskel and Ebert and, too often, they won. My students have regularly reduced the task of criticism to making flipping remarks on taste and writing petulant evaluations of film quality based on gut-feelings, a la Romanesque. My job doubles, for I not only have to teach to understand criticism as the intellectual practice of locating a film text into historical and contemporary contexts, but I also have to help my students unlearn the vices and schemas about criticism that they have grown up with, thanks to popular film criticism.

I am sorry Scott. I also thumb-wrestle with you and I do not feel particularly sorry for having your show cancelled. But of course, I did not win. The technocrats won.

Metacritic.com is one of the most popular places for people to go and make sense of movies. I cannot call it criticism; not even the creators of metacritic.com can. But it performs this role just the same; with simple signs and colors, metacritic.com scouts a world of signs and evaluates them using algorithms and mathematical formulas that end up signifying taste. From 0 to 100, they have 50 times more subtlety than Siskel and Ebert.


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6 Responses to “ Letting Go of Criticism ”

  1. Rachel Thibault on April 6, 2010 at 8:33 AM


    I’m a bit concerned, about how you discuss popular criticism, without also addressing academic film criticism and the spaces in between.

    It’s true that At the Movies provided popular film criticism with some short cuts to evaluation that did not exist before. And it’s easy to blame the thumbs up, thumbs down tradition as “dumbing down” film criticism’s value and intellectual bent.

    These critics are there to serve the public, and do so with various modes of popular film criticism. What is wrong with that? You say that At the Movies and metacritic.com make your job harder, and that you have to “undo” the work of popular film criticism. Isn’t it our job to teach students to be critical of all things “popular?” Popular film criticism is for film audiences, not just college students. We have thumbs on TV and percentage ratings on metacritic.com and rottentomatoes.com, but we can’t forget popular film criticism has also given us the likes of Vincent Canby and Pauline Kael. Some film critics cross the divide and also figure as scholars, intellectuals—for example, B Ruby Rich spent time early in her career in “popular criticism” at the Chicago Reader, and the recently retired but still active Jonathan Rosenbaum (another Chicago Reader critic) has made an immense contribution to the landscape of global film criticism (and cinephilia.)

    But, as media scholars, isn’t it our job to help students navigate and interrogate popular culture and entertainment, in which film criticism is also part? I must admit that I am still a young (well, not so young, but relatively new) academic, but my students have always understood, or at least noticed, the distinctions between popular and academic film criticism, and I’ve tried to teach them about the gray areas in between. The rise of film blogging and web film reviewing certainly adds to the gray area, but it also provides a rich opportunity for pedagogy, in which we may ask our students: what is film criticism? Is it merely evaluation? Should criticism simply consider aesthetics or should it explore social, political, and cultural issues? How do taste hierarchies develop through film writing? The possibilities are endless! It’s also why I’m so drawn to film criticism as an area of research. In this era of media convergence, film criticism is no longer taken for granted; it becomes an object within film study rather than simply peripheral to it.

    • Hector Amaya on April 9, 2010 at 1:03 PM

      Very good points Rachel, and you are right to be concerned. Our job is indeed to help students and, in some way, critics do the same with broader audiences. Perhaps, however, our jobs do differ in the institutions in which they exist. While our mission should be educating students to be critical viewers, aware of aesthetics and history, ethics and politics, critics like A.O. Scott are suffering because their institutions are not allowing them to do that anymore . What we have seen, then, is a demise of popular film criticism due to institutional abandonment. Criticism used to be represented by the likes of Kael, Sarris, and Scott; today we have a type of populist criticism that is less capable of doing the heavy lifting that Scott and others have done. I actually read Scott, as I read Kael, Sarris, Kauffmann, and others. I miss them.

  2. Mary Beltran on April 6, 2010 at 9:34 AM

    I’m glad you wrote about this important topic, Hector. I also noticed Scott’s article in this weekend’s New York Times and found it quite moving and thought-provoking. While I won’t miss At The Movies’ thumbs-up or thumbs-down critiques when the show goes off the air, I agree, that they have already made their mark. And I wonder at the impact of the cutting of film critics from newspapers around the country and thus of trimming the possibilities for in-depth critiques and public discussions related to film. For my own part, it was a love of in-depth, nuanced, and provocative film criticism that brought me to study film and media. I find the current status of film criticism dispiriting, to say the least.

  3. Brad Schauer on April 6, 2010 at 10:33 AM

    Surely students will always be reluctant to set aside their instinctive reaction to a film — this seems like an obstacle endemic to the study of any popular art. I’m not sure it’s fair to blame this attitude on pop film reviewers. A.O. Scott might raise the question of whether or not S&E were “the beginning of the end”, but he then concludes that they weren’t. They might be an easy target, but S&E never intended their banter to be the last word about a film, given the limits of the format, but rather a conversation-starter. Neither Siskel nor Ebert ever really “won” the argument.

    Sure, one can reduce S&E to their thumbs — or Metacritic to its “metascore”. But behind the thumbs was a conversation, a full newspaper review, and in some cases, longer columns and books of criticism. Beyond a film’s metascore there are links to dozens of professional reviews, available at the click of a mouse. People who today just glance at the metascore (or the thumbs) were never going to read Sarris or Kael in the sixties anyway.

    I’m also not convinced by the popular argument that moviegoers are becoming more ignorantly opinionated and less film-literate as a result of a perceived decline in film criticism (which is really just a decrease in the number of paid film reviewers.) If anything, young cinephiles are now introduced to a much wider variety of films (and intelligent opinions on films) through Netflix, bittorrent, and the many outstanding film criticism sites on the web. Of course the net also provides a forum for many uninformed, knee-jerk opinions as well, but are a significant number of people influenced by random net reviews? It seems like a film’s ad campaign and its competition on opening weekend are much more important in determining a film’s fate in the marketplace.

    The larger question is — when was the last time good reviews really mattered for major studio films? Bad reviews can still sink an indie or art film, but haven’t people already made up their mind about a major film before the reviews hit? Blockbusters are often called “critic-proof”, but isn’t nearly every film “critic-proof” today?

    • Hector Amaya on April 9, 2010 at 12:53 PM

      I totally agree with Brad, who makes a great point at noting that popular film criticism meant many things, including the written form (my favorite) and access to more ways of learning about film. My own suggestions were meant to highlight the more simplistic forms. And Brad, your last paragraph is excellent and goes to the most important issue about criticism today. Can it be relevant to film production? Thanks Brad.

  4. Ethan Thompson on April 7, 2010 at 2:42 PM

    I share the ambivalent feelings mentioned about Ebert/At the Movies…Criticism does not equal thumbs up/thumbs down. However, those initial reactions can be an excellent entry point into more in-depth discussion/understanding of film, and no doubt there was a Siskel/Ebert stage in the transition to cinephile for many of us. Ebert’s blog/twittering of late is truly rich, btw.

    Ultimately, though, I think what the demise of At the Movies signifies is not the end of popular film criticism, but its morphing into different, more taste-driven forms. One of my non-scholarly creative activities is producing/co-hosting a movie podcast, and I have been amazed by all the people around the world eager to engage in conversation about movies–not just hear a thumbs up or thumbs down. I think that popular film criticism is one area of media culture where we are seeing an altering, in Henry Jenkins’ terms, of media flows. Rather than getting film criticism from a one-size-fits-all TV show, viewer/fans prefer an ongoing relationship with a program/podcast that speaks/responds to them. Such sources are unlikely to achieve At the Movies popularity, but there will be many more of them.