In a column published on the ides of March 2007, the ever cantankerous editor-in-chief of Variety exploded a spray of buckshot into the hindquarters of the nation’s elite film critics who’d been temerariously roasting the pandering likes of Norbit, Ghost Rider and Wild Hogs – this in spite of the fact that these clumsily jammed together "entertainments" were destined to ring up over $300 million worth of admissions (and counting). Not content to merely rile up the intelligentsia by pointing out what they already knew (i.e. that many Americans will all-too-readily pass over their hard-earned cash to watch recognizable stars in low-aiming tripe*), Bart, fiendishly twirling the handlebar mustache he’d inexplicably spirit-gummed to his upper lip that morning, further suggested that these killjoy critics take a sabbatical until September "when movies aimed at their quadrant magically reappear". This so offended Lou Lumenick at The New York Post that he blogged in an unmistakably resentful tone about it, while Glenn Kenny of Premiere.com also leapt into the fray (his piece is well worth reading if only for his clever counter salvo to Bart’s claim that physique-envy lay at the root of their 300 pans).
Next thing you know, we’ve a full-scale critical donnybrook goin’ on, with freelance opinion mongers like Lewis Beale scrambling off the bench to speciously recommend editors henceforth assign some sort of everyman to review all Hollywood product devoid of artistic aspirations, a move that would effectively knock excellent writers like Manohla Dargis and Joe Morgenstern right off the front page of their respective Arts & Leisure sections (as if freeing their beautiful minds from considering Have We Not Yet Arrived, Dear Father Ice Cube? would somehow magically allot them more column space to ponder the new Lucas Belvaux movie). This was followed by an admirable, but not-terribly-helpful suggestion from The Guardian‘s Ronald Bergan that film critics be experts in their chosen field (that’s the admirable part), which, by his criteria, would require a working familiarity with the work of Mrinel Sen (whose movies are screened in the United States almost as often as The Day the Clown Cried). This cheesed off The Boston Globe’s Ty Burr (short version: "I’ve got your Mrinel Sen right here, sucka!"). and, to a lesser extent, Jeffrey Wells of Hollywood Elsewhere (short version: good luck with that).
Enough! Finally, Mr. Pulitzer his damn self, Joltin’ Joe Morgenstern – several weeks late to the fray thanks to The Wall Street Journal‘s strict anti-blogging policy which remains unchanged since 1908 – offered up his definitive retort to Bart in the "Memo To" style that’s made the Variety curmudgeon an even more unbearable pain in the tuchus over the years, and it’s a measured evisceration that, unlike the previous harangues, reminds us how poorly reasoned and thoroughly dishonest Bart’s essay was in the first place. Though he may be more beholden to the studios than the talent they mistreat, Bart is a closet cineaste who helped usher in the 1970s American film revolution alongside Robert Evans at Paramount. If pressed, he’d surely admit that Hollywood moviemaking is, quality-wise, at an all-time low; after all, even the major power players in the much-maligned 1980s – Spielberg, Simpson/Bruckheimer, Guber/Peters – were, more often than not, employing talented filmmakers to helm their would-be seasonal blockbusters.
Today, however, the burgeoning Joe Dantes and Tony Scotts and Tim Burtons of the industry, if they even exist, are being shoved aside in favor of careerist incompetents like Brian Robbins (Norbit), Adam Shankman (The Pacifier), and Marc Lawrence (Sandra Bullock’s rom-com generator). These guys don’t have a point-of-view to distract them from doing the studio’s bidding, and they keep getting work because they’re okay with their movies being calibrated in development to make money. And their kind will only flourish because Hollywood is lousy with soulless types eager to hit as many quadrants as possible in order to secure that next gig. At least old school studio animals like Arthur Hiller and Mark Rydell had relatively good taste and collaborated with good writers to make pictures that entertained without being completely brainless; nowadays, the studios crunch the numbers beforehand to minimize their risk, order a committe of writers to incorporate a veritable shopping list of marketable elements, and then hand the script over to their new school "director" lackeys, who call action for a few months until the whole soulless endeavor is ready to be pieced together and ultimately supplied to the megaplexes, where audiences will pay for two hours of white noise replicating the beats of the comedies and dramas they enjoyed in their youth.
This is why real film critics, even the ones who haven’t seen a Mrinel Sen movie, matter more than ever. In an age when it’s in no one’s interest to make quality motion pictures so long as the numbers check out prior to pre-production, somebody who still gives a shit about this medium has got to, er, stand athwart film history and yell "Stop!", because the progress currently driving the industry is lowering the mainstream’s standards for entertainment to a depressing level. For every Talladega Nights – which was both profitable and an honest-to-Sturges satire even if some of the folks I’m defending missed the point – there are far too many Clicks, and it’s the critic’s job to elucidate the failings of the latter while celebrating what films like the former do right. Yes, people pay to see Click and, while checking out at the grocery store, might impulsively buy it on DVD, but I honestly believe they retain next to nothing from it. When’s the last time you heard your co-workers quoting Click around the office? Right. Now when’s the last time your buddies batted around lines from Talladega Nights? Most likely, that just happened.
Critics and the populace they ostensibly serve have one thing in common: they both watch a lot of movies, so they instinctively know what a well-made picture looks like. That said, the populace, for lack of viable options, will settle. If the television ads for Wild Hogs wallpapering timeouts during the NCAA Tournament promise a mild diversion toplined by stars they’ve liked in previous, better movies, people will check it out opening weekend if only to get out of the house for a few hours. But when they return home unfulfilled and fifty dollars lighter in the wallet, I’d like to think that someone in their ranks might exclaim, "God, that Wild Hogs was worse than Norbit, Ghost Rider and the last time I had sex with my wife combined! I wonder what that highfalutin’ critic in yesterday’s Daily Gazette had to say about it." And on that day, some insurance salesman or real estate broker – i.e. one who isn’t so financially secure that he’s hot to have his pockets picked by a committee of Hollywood hotshots every other weekend – just might discover the value of film criticism.
*There is high-aiming tripe. It’s what typically wins Best Picture in February.