Peter Bart: How To Build A Film Critic For The Post-Pandemic Age

Are film critics extinct? Two of the most prominent practitioners, Ken Turan and Todd McCarthy, abruptly posted their “fade out” notices last week. They were well timed, because the movie marketplace is a black hole that defies coverage at the moment.

But consider this: A veritable torrent of films will hit theaters in the fall – festival films that have lost their festivals and summer tentpole films that have lost their summers. Hence, thoughtful, informed voices are needed to guide us through the cinematic tsunami and overcome the tyranny of the Tomatoes.

And the media must figure out how to cope: The New York Times last week gave its prime space to a review of Ernst Lubitsch’s 1931 comedy The Smiling Lieutenant, and buried its brief slam of Netflix’s high-profile action film Extraction, which drew most attention from viewers.

Turan and McCarthy have faithfully served filmgoers and filmmakers over the years, pushing through fervid festival crowds, knowing that audiences there would give standing ovations to movies that perhaps deserved a polite groan.

The classic dilemma is that critics have the numbing task of seeing too many movies. At Cannes one year I foolishly commented to a critic that the spring weather was lovely, and she replied, “I feel it’s miscast, badly shot, the story sucks, and there are too many close-ups.” Her life, I realized, had become a movie.

Still, we clearly need young cineastes like this to succeed the Turans and McCarthys and to guide us through the fall melee. In entrusting the newcomers, however, filmgoers might be justified in assigning them some important new missions.

For one thing, they have a tacit obligation to scout the landscape for bright young filmmakers –those who would have become the “discoveries” at festivals that never happened. This entails touching base with the indies but also with the myriad streaming platforms here and abroad. Much of the streamers’ work is aggressively pedestrian, but some show a “roll the dice” daring not on display in mainstream movies. Diversity, too, has to be key to this mission – identifying women auteurs and filmmakers of color who need a broader platform.

Aside from becoming talent scouts, the new critics should also rethink their worshipful reverence for filmmaking icons of the moment. A key reason filmgoers read reviews is to answer the obvious question: Is this a film worth seeing? A concise analysis might be of more value than yet another career tribute to the auteur of the moment.

Veteran critics understand that “hanging” with filmmakers can be a trap; Pauline Kael was such a fan of Robert Altman that she screened his films (at his request) prior to release, supposedly to elicit her helpful “notes.” Also her good reviews.

Further, critics cannot simply sign off at the first flicker of a superhero movie. “Every filmgoer is entitled to his or her own level of enjoyment, as a look at the studio revenue streams reminds us,” Joe Morgenstern, the smart critic at the Wall Street Journal, has reminded us.

In advancing these rules, I should point out that I have never been a critic and should never be allowed to become one. Having weathered many years presiding over studio production slates, I’ve survived too many battles with filmmakers over budgets (they were always too high) and final cuts (always too long) to render an objective judgment. In short, having played the “bad guy” too often, my sentiments now reside with those courageous filmmakers out there who are actually braving the storm. They need all the encouragement they can get from the “good guys.”

Of course, disqualifying myself opens up the troubling question of who else should be disqualified. No one to my knowledge has established a list of criteria for wannabe critics. I always enjoyed my early encounters with Roger Ebert but was late in understanding his craftsmanship and his zeal for doing his homework.

The marketplace is re-inventing itself, and so must the filmmakers of the moment. Along with the critics.

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