Extinctions 

Why Film Critics are Obsolete

Yesterday, I sat through a screening of the new Robert De Niro movie, 15 Minutes. It won't open for several weeks yet, but its distributor, New Line, has requested that no reviews appear before the film opens--and with most weeklies and daily papers printing reviews on late Thursday or Friday, that effectively means there will be no advance comment on Fifteen Minutes. (In fact, you'll have to wait five days after the film's premiere to know whether I like the movie or consider it a ludicrously written, histrionically acted, utterly ridiculous, and hypocritical piece of garbage.) MGM hasn't even done us the courtesy of requesting a delay in writing up Hannibal; the most anticipated big studio film of the season wasn't shown until after our deadline had passed.

This behavior of blacking out the press, long standard for films in which the studios have little hope--beyond a strong first weekend fueled by incessant ads--has increasingly become standard practice for even high-profile releases. Not, I'm convinced, because Hollywood is desperate to avoid bad reviews, but because the big producers have sat down, weighed the costs and balances, and finally come to the realization that film critics are wholly expendable.

That may seem a mercenary conclusion, even for Hollywood, but film critics have made it an easy one to reach. Film sprang up as a demonic art, initially without even the division between balconied gentry and rowdy groundlings that defined the theater; washerwomen and magnates alike peeped through the same nickelodeon. As a result, film criticism has always been less of a debate than a consumer guide. Opinions on a film's merits were given, but more important, all the information was laid out in a convenient fashion for you, the moviegoer, to determine how your money could best be spent. I have never read a book review that suggests you wait for the paperback, or one for music that advises picking up the CD when it hits the secondhand stores, but "catch it on a matinee" is practically a mantra for film critics.

Stuck in this mindset, it became natural that the only films that mattered were the ones that had just opened. No matter that a particularly intriguing reading of a movie may have suggested itself after a second viewing some weeks later, or that a film is just so daft and empty-headed that there is no good reason to notice it at all; the only criterion for getting a movie reviewed is that it has begun to play in theaters. No one expects a review for every book, yet each Friday it is considered obligatory that each and every film, be it arty documentary, or buddy-cop shoot 'em up, be accorded a plot summary, a studio-selected photo of the movie's stars, and a line or three of analysis.

The one defense we film critics could use to justify our continued existence--our knowledge, our access to information--has grown increasingly irrelevant. Anyone can be a critic, as fans have always grumbled when reading a slam of their favorite movie. Now, for the first time, the platitude is true. This, however, has so far been a salutary development; for all the jokes one hears about illiterate posts on web sites such as the Internet Movie Database or Amazon, the majority are quite thoughtful, well-written, and engagingly advocatory--not to mention far less beholden to marketplace priorities.

It is now a matter of a few moments of clicking and pointing to learn that Fifteen Minutes is the work of the former TV hack responsible for 2 Days in the Valley, that the film's release has been delayed many times (never a good sign), and that the plot on its surface seems fairly ludicrous. We're fortunately long past needing me or anyone else to point these things out to you.

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