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Thinking on Film

The way the wind is blowing for newspaper movie critics.

May 18, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 33 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
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In the past three years, three dozen film critics have been told by the struggling newspapers and alternative weeklies for which they work that their interpretations of the latest Hollywood and foreign fare are no longer part of the business plan in a business that no longer has much of a plan except to hold off the Grim Reaper as long as possible--which, in the words of the deranged ex-CIA agent Vince Ricardo in The In-Laws, "could be about an hour."

Indeed, it is likely that by the time the year is over, only the top 10 or 15 papers in the country will have a movie critic on staff. The rest will rely on freelancers or wire service reviews. The death of the newspaper movie critic has been the occasion for much weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth among .  .  . newspaper movie critics. If you live in one of the cities in which the local critic is no more, you may not even have noticed the difference.

If you have worked for a newspaper in the past 20 years, and have had the fascinating misfortune of attending one of the innumerable focus groups convened to tell you what is right or wrong with your paper, you will have learned many awful things.

One is that many people are stupid. The other is that nobody pays attention to the things professional writers care the most about. They don't look at bylines; they don't know the difference between wire copy and staff-written material. They like (or used to like, before the Internet came along) sports scores and stats boxes, TV listings and stock quotes, and weather maps. They adore weather maps. They are keenly interested in the supermarket ads and the movie ads.

What do all these things have in common? They are not written.

There is a story told about a major American newspaper that was among the first to do a huge readership survey in the early 1980s. The survey cost several million dollars. And in those days, the editors expected to learn that their lead political columnist was the most popular in the paper, that people really followed the sports columnists, and that the area rose and fell with the opinions on the editorial page.

To their absolute horror, what the editors discovered was this: No more than 5 percent of the readers looked at the editorials. The lead political columnist was one of the least-read. And the most popular item was "Walter Scott's Personality Parade," a column of questions and answers about celebrities which appeared not in the newspaper itself but in Parade, the independently published Sunday supplement.

And nobody, but nobody, knew the names of the critics. This was at a time when the paper in question had two movie critics, two theater critics, two television critics, two book critics, a dance critic, a rock critic, a classical music critic, and an architecture critic. It took the paper nearly three decades to get around to it, but the lead critics in all but one of these fields have taken buyouts and are not being replaced.

The question raised about the cashiering of criticism at the nation's newspapers is not: Whatever will happen to the people who are paid to watch movies for a living and write 300 words about each one? It is, rather, what harm is being done to the national cultural conversation (assuming there is such a thing) by the fact that there are fewer and fewer voices participating in it.

The first answer, of course, is that there aren't fewer voices, but many, many more. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of working critics on the Web in all fields. There are book bloggers and film bloggers and dance bloggers and music bloggers. The only difference between them and the professionals is that they don't get paid, except for a few dollars a week from Google ads.

Movie criticism has been a feature of American newspapers for a century, and sadly, one can count the standout critics throughout that time on maybe two hands. Many of these jobs were filled by reporters or editors who didn't get another plum assignment and were thrown a bone by a gruff but kindly managing editor. Nothing much good was going to come of that.

This deprofessionalization is probably the best thing that could have happened to the field. Film criticism requires nothing but an interesting sensibility. The more self-consciously educated one is in the field--by which I mean the more obscure the storehouse of cinematic knowledge a critic has--the less likely it is that one will have anything interesting to say to an ordinary person who isn't all that interested in the condition of Finnish cinema. Amateurism in the best sense will lead to some very interesting work by people whose primary motivation is simply to express themselves in relation to the work they're seeing--a purer critical impulse than the one that comes with collecting a paycheck along the way.

John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is THE WEEKLY STANDARD's movie critic.