Monday, February 11, 2008

Criticism vs Publicity: Or, is There a Difference?

I think the question becomes what is the critic's job. The critic is certainly a publicist but I doubt that most critics think of themselves in that way, or think of themselves primarily in that way. I would posit that it's reasonable to assume that a critic as populist as Ebert is reviewing films for people who are interested in the cinema primarily as a means of entertainment. I think the highly intellectual and analytical approach to film-making that you and our peers take is unique and not for everyone. Given that, I think it's fine that he reviews movies that people can see. That's his job. Anyone really into cinema will seek out Bordwell and go to the one week run of Lake of Fire, but most people go to the movies as a luxury and don't really look to the cinema as a place to get a rigorous mental workout.
I attempt to offer that with no value judgment on whether one is better than the other, but merely as a description of the state of affairs. I understand you'd probably like to change that, but you have to ask yourself do you really want to watch an intense eastern European film with a bunch of tweens who are texting the whole time?

The above is a blog comment by a trusted friend - a person, I should add, who is one of the most personable, reasonable, and intelligent that I know. I think it might be appropriate to respond to these comments in the blog proper, as opposed to being relegated to the response section. While I certainly take to heart his common sense and populist sensibility, our current critical situation strikes me as more problematic and insidious than he might think. Allow me to address a few bullet points:
What is the critics job?: Here's a definition that is certainly a doozy of a question: how to define something so personal and subjective? I can only suggest a response in the negative: a critic of anything, at least a critic of any value, cannot be a publicist. The two are, by definition, mutually exclusive. This is a confusion of terminology, and not a recent confusion, I might add. Roger Ebert is a publicist, not a critic, regardless of what he might think about himself. Even a cursory glance at his weekly reviews tells the tale: a reasonably gifted writer and film buff who has relegated himself to the role of plot synopsizing, and nothing more. Do people respond to this? Certainly; they happen to not be reading genuine film criticism.
Anyone really into cinema will seek out Bordwell and go to the one week run of Lake of Fire:
This comment strikes me as counterintuitive: how is anyone supposed to "be into cinema" when there are no mainstream critics/reviewers to point them in the right direction? Certainly, anyone who knows of David Bordwell, Dave Kehr, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Kent Jones, Amy Taubin, Gavin Smith, Mark Peranson, Robin Wood, Noel Burch, etc. doesn't need such guidance: we've already found it, the hard way. Part of my position is the radical notion that it might not be so difficult for future generations of movie fans to discover these writers; indeed, discovering these thinkers strikes me as essential to maintaining a viable cinephile culture. As it stands, anyone reading Ebert and his supposedly "everyman" approach to film art is missing out on a great deal of what is stimulating/satisfying/essential in today's global film going. There is also an assumption operating here: that a level playing field exists. This is absolutely not true. Roger Ebert, Jeffery Lyons, Peter Travers, Larry King, and others have made a mint selling their movie reviews on the AP: this is business, not love of an art form. Ebert objected to the delayed Chicago premiere of Persepolis because his reviews can’t run in other markets until they’ve first been published in the Sun-Times. My friend’s post suggests a kind of obtuse benevolence, neglecting the mingling of ignorance coupled with commerce. Unfortunately, when it comes to the arts, there's no such thing as matching funds:

I think the highly intellectual and analytical approach to film-making that you and our peers take is unique and not for everyone. But why can't it be for everyone? It is not necessarily based on education: most of my favorite films, ones that might be considered difficult, or at least non-mainstream, are largely visceral, physical experiences. I’m certainly not asking every writer to be “intellectual” and/or “analytical” – I’m suggesting that they might put their own style of writing, what ever that may be, to product they normally find it easy to ignore. I might ad that Hollywood and its publicists, whether technically on the pay roll or not, have a vested interest in making sure that their product is the only game in town. I’ve spoken elsewhere about the major studios creating their own “indie” divisions: it’s a matter of corporate branding. Magazines do essentially the same thing – assuming what people are interested in and proceeding accordingly. My point, once again, is that people can’t be interested in what they don’t know exists. Entertainment Weekly gave a decent amount of space to a long review of “4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days”, so good for them. They also relegated Hong Sang-soo’s “Woman on the Beach” to about 40 words, even though it was given an “A” rating. Where is the sense in giving a film they certainly liked less page space than “The Hottie and the Nottie” or “Meet the Spartans”? You might suggest that it is an editorial decision and not up to the individual writer. I would assume that this is true, and that it is an inherent flaw in marketing art as consumable goods, one that we must struggle against (hence my constant Ebert baiting).
Ebert reviews movies that people can see: This is another fallacy: he reviews the mainstream movies that people can see. Putting aside, for the moment, what people might be inclined to seek out, anyone living in the city of Chicago could, this very evening, seek out films at Facets, Doc Films, Block Cinema, The Film Center, Chicago Filmmakers. etc. So, the notion that Ebert is reviewing films that people "can see" should really be qualified by noting that there are only certain films he is willing to see and report on. Furthermore, the notion that he is merely reporting on the films that people are interested in is a kind of circular argument – if he reviewed non-mainstream film, wouldn’t those films then become “movies people can see?” Feel free to correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems to me that Ebert and his ilk are reporting on less than you might expect. It seems that not too long ago, critics like Andrew Sarris, Vincent Canby, and Andrew Sarris could vacillate quite easily between mainstream and more demanding film. These days, you have Manhola Dargis and The New Yorker boys doing the same thing (to a lesser degree). The problem seems to be that these critics are in major cities, New York and L.A., and are either preaching to the choir or written off as intellectuals or elitists – four letter words in our cultural climate.
I hope you'll excuse this surly and perhaps poorly argued response: I just really, really dislike Ebert, as well as the notion most people have that he is the be-all-end-all of film criticism. The fact that he has won a Pulitzer Prize is particularly disheartening. You might reasonably suggest that these problems are simply endemic to our culture. This is undeniable, and the notion that my ranting and raving is going to change anything suggests either extreme hubris or stupidity. But hey, you gotta start somewhere, even if for now I’m just preaching to the choir myself. And no, I don’t want to watch Bella Tarr’s “The Man From London” with a bunch of texting tweens. But I remember stumbling into a screening of Bresson’s “Au Hasard Balthazar” as an 18 year old on the prompting of a favorite professor and having my life changed. So…


Jake said...

Very well put, I think.

Yes, you are preaching to the choir (especially in regards to us and our shared views), but what I feel cannot be discounted (re: the role of a critic and also the affirmation the importance of your blog) is the difference between knowledge and experience.

I'm not referring to the ‘Descartes-ian’ model of sheltered intellectualism vs. wisdom through living (book smart vs. wisdom, if you want it...) but rather the very experience of knowing something (perhaps even abstractly) deep inside oneself only to later have it crystallize before one's very eyes. For instance, I certainly knew that American culture (MEDIA!!!) played a strong role in race and gender identity issues, but watching a film like Ken Jacob's Star Spangled to Death so articulated that role, that it changed both my outlook (in the very distinct Avant-Garde sense of that word) and my life almost immediately (

It's a unique experience and to a certain degree, you've given it to me/us here, Dan.

I'm not a critic. I'm not a theorist. I'm not a writer. I'm not an intellectual (although I've desperately wished to be all of these things for the majority of my life). I am only an artist. And as an artist I can say that having (or being given) voice through critics, theorists, writers and intellectuals (all equipped with radars programmed to pick up distinct frequencies) is INVALUABLE in establishing a healthy, evolving culture. The very culture you and I have both spent our lives dreaming about, but which will remain elusive until we begin taking cinema (and indeed, all of the not-fine arts) seriously.

“Let’s all go to the lobby.
Let’s all go to the lobby.
Let’s all go to the lobby!
And get our-selves a snack!”

A. Dowd said...

I think there may be a rather serious contradiction in all of this.

You say, and I quote:

"a critic of anything, at least a critic of any value, cannot be a publicist. The two are, by definition, mutually exclusive."

Yet several paragraphs later, you point out that:

"I’m suggesting that they might put their own style of writing, what ever that may be, to product they normally find it easy to ignore."

And, of Ebert:

"Furthermore, the notion that he is merely reporting on the films that people are interested in is a kind of circular argument – if he reviewed non-mainstream film, wouldn’t those films then become 'movies people can see?'"

It would appear to me that your problem is not with critics playing publicists, but with the films they are playing publicist for. Much of what you have written here suggests that our film culture would be in much better shape if critics gave a little time, energy, and space to movies that aren't backed by the Hollywood studio machine. "How is anyone supposed to 'be into cinema' when there are no mainstream critics/reviewers to point them in the right direction?" In other words, if Ebert and his ilk played publicist ("whether technically on the pay roll or not") to smaller, off-the-mark cinema, then you'd be more forgiving of their efforts?

Make no mistake, Rosenbaum IS a publicist. He is drawing attention and (one would hope) attendance to movies he personally feels deserve a better shot at a bigger audience. His idea, not unlike your own, is that people would see a wider range of films if they simply knew about them, or were exposed to them more regularly. That burden of responsibility he gladly puts on himself. What if Rosenbaum doing when he puts a collection of Pedro Costa films at the top of his Best Of list but saying to his audience "watch this"? That is, by definition, publicity.

Now there is an important distinction here: Rosenbaum is playing publicist because he idealistically believes that some movies NEED the extra help-- they can't sell themselves, so he's helping sell them. Ebert, on the other hand, has a vested financial interest in the success of Hollywood cinema. He's just a cog in the machine. One does it for the sake of art, the other for commerce, but both are, in their own unique way, publicists.

Maybe I misunderstand your point, but it would seem to me that your initial statement denies the very real role that publicity plays in a film critic's career. One of our bigger goals is to give props to the movies we love and help them "find their audience," right?

Sorry to be on the offensive here, but I thought this point needed to be addressed.

Daniel said...

Hey there buddy. No need to apologize for "being on the offensive" - I welcome the opportunity to clarify/refine my argument, and hey, conversation is part of the fun, right? With regards to your (well thought out) points, I suppose I'm willing to concede that part of being a critic might be the capacity to publicise something. So perhaps I should amend my formulation to something along the lines of a critic can be a publicist (among other things) but not vice-versa. However, I think my initial argument stands in as much as I'm assuming certain things. For example, I assume when using the word publicist that it implies a professional who makes money from promoting a specific product. In this case, Hollywood films. Certianly, Rosenbaum is a paid professional. So perhaps it is a matter of degrees or inclination: rosenbaum's collected output of criticism and published books is an exploration of the history of the moving picture. Ebert's collected output is like a cottage industry, centered entirewly around his cult of personality. Really, what's the use of publishing a collection of entirely negative reviews of long forgotten Hollywood tripe except to make a few bucks off of your reputation. But even that, I think, reinforces my point - even the worst films Hollywood has to offer get more press, and longevity, than the best cinema from around the world. So yes, if Ebert and his ilk played publicist to smaller, more off the cuff work,I would be happy. And in that case, there would be nothing to forgive - they would be doing their job.

A. Dowd said...

Sorry, a bit late to respond back about this. You clarified well, though. A critic can be a publicist, but a publicist cannot be a critic. The issue is tunnel-vision, and while cogs-in-the-machine like Ebert serve their relatively inoffensive purpose, they might better serve a burgeoning film culture by actually giving some serious ink to some truly on-the-fringe pictures.

Now, what I might actually be interested in is an Ebert collection devoted to his attacks on more well-regarded films, wherein his negative opinion actually offered a contrarian, dissenting view on the work in question. I don't care why Rog hated the Deuce Bigelow films, but I am interested in his rationale, however flawed, for trashing The Taste of Cherry or Dogville.

Now, what was the question? Oh, there was none. Fair enough, I'm done then.

A.A. Dowd said...

I realize this discussion is sooo last month, but I thought I'd drop an irritating affirmation of your point. Check this out:,,,00.html

Clooney's apparently quite mediocre football comedy (which EW straight gives a 'C') gets a full review, but the new films from Wong Kar-Wai and Hou Hsiao-hsien, superstars of international cinema, get a meager three sentences each. The latter even got an A-, though I might pompously suggest that Lisa S. probably didn't fully wrap her brain around Hou's headier conceits.

Can one even write a real review in three sentences? That's likely all Owen and Lisa are spared on movies like 'Flight' and 'Nights.' EW needs the extra space to promote (or, ahem, publicize) junk like Clooney's latest. A 'C' review given the full two-page spread is likely to drum up more tickets than an 'A-' given a truncated paragraph in the corner (Nobody puts Wong in the corner-- sorry, couldn't resist). Imagine what might happen if the lead review was a 1200 worder on 'Flight.' Boggles the mind.