Everyone is a critic (literally)!: 'FJI' in conversation with Manohla Dargis, David Rooney, Peter Debruge, Alonso Duralde and more
Defining themselves as either “consumer advocate” or “industry insider” has little currency among film reviewers. They’re neither, or combinations thereof, or something else altogether. Likewise, their audiences are broad-based and fluid.
“I assume readers know more than I do in general, but I know more about movies than they do,” says Manohla Dargis, New York Times co-chief film critic. “Who spends as much time in the dark as I do, except other crazy movie reviewers? I think of myself as a mushroom in the dark. I don’t think of movies as ‘product,’ but rather art and culture. I’m a journalist. I’m certainly not an industry insider. I’m an outsider and keep myself separate from friends who are industry insiders. My role has not evolved and I’m happy to be working for a paper that’s committed to criticism.”
Other film reviewers—from dailies to trades to alternative outlets—are not afforded the same freedom as Dargis, though they are less restricted than one might think even as the 24/7 digital landscape has created many platforms—websites, podcasts, video-essays, YouTube and beyond—for everyone and his brother to offer an opinion.
Wanting to be heard and vying for an audience is the name of the game among reviewers that include nitwits, knowledgeable amateurs and a fair number of professionals formerly employed by publications that have “restructured” them out of jobs, while decimating if not scrapping their cultural departments altogether.
Whether democratization has raised or lowered the bar, well, the jury is still out on that one, but most of those I interviewed think the former. Thanks to competition, they say the best critical voices will rise to the top, enhancing criticism across the platforms.
David Rooney, chief theatre critic and staff film critic at The Hollywood Reporter, equivocates on this topic, suggesting the waters have become muddied and traces the pollution to retailers inviting their online shoppers to write reviews about their newly acquired toasters, carpets, etc. “Everyone is a critic now,” he notes, deadpan.
And then there’s Arianna Huffington opening the floodgates at Huffington Post to unpaid reporters and critics—a practice that exploits newcomers who view it as an opportunity to be seen and also the pros who in the process have become redundant and replaceable. “It was a terrible trend to encourage people to write for free,” says Rooney.
No one is sure what impact any reviewer—now or in the past—has on the financial success of a film. Many viewers don’t read reviews at all. They flock to movies on the basis of who’s starring in it and or personal predilections, while others get their marching orders from friends on Facebook or aggregates like Rotten Tomatoes (a source of distress to many critics). And, of course, some do read favored reviewers to determine what they’ll see or avoid.
Either way, as a byproduct of vast choice and ready accessibility, the marketplace for film discussion—criticism, but also news, trends and especially gossip—has grown exponentially. New niche publications are cropping up and the old standbys have evolved to accommodate wider audiences.
Cultural criticism—viewing the film as a work of art and/or placing it in a broader social context—is often part of the package and has largely replaced thumbs-up/thumbs-down reviews and speculation about movie grosses. It’s a marriage of aesthetic philosophy and Darwinian survival.
Even at a longtime trade publication like Variety that is still very much targeted at exhibitors, distributors, festival heads and agents who want to know what and who is happening that’s worthy of their attention, the outlet now draws many other readers as well and its film criticism reflects that change.
Remember its leading nutshell paragraph in boldface that quickly summed up what the film was about, whether it was good or not, and how it would do at the box office? That’s gone and so is its notable jargon (e.g., “pix”), though some of it has entered the vernacular (e.g., “helmer” comes to mind). Indeed, its reviews are not all that different from what you might read in any weekly or daily whose readers are conversant in films. Critics now get bylines, a personal voice is allowed. Earlier that was not the case. Still, there are Variety shadings.
“I don’t like to be called a critic because of its negative connotation,” says Peter Debruge, Variety’s co-chief film critic. “I prefer the word ‘champion.’ We all love films and sit through too many bad ones in order to find those special films so that we can share our enthusiasm. A Variety review can play a significant role in the fate of a film. Most of our reviews come out when films are first shown at a festival and they’re among the first reviews [if not the first] out there. There’s a certain care you take. That doesn’t mean we pull our punches. But we’re not cavalier. Other critics have the luxury of being witty or snide or harsh without having to worry about the fate of the film.”
The plethora of films that are shown at festivals—not to mention the vast number released each week—is yet another task all reviewers (or their editors) face. Even at The Times with its substantial resources, covering the 20 to 30 movies that come out weekly is not viable. All concur it’s daunting to pick and choose ink-worthy films, especially among those movies that have limited, if any, theatrical runs, which means some fine films headed straight to DVD or streaming platforms may get lost in the shuffle. Finding the gems is a reviewer’s challenge and also gratifying when it happens.
Being well-versed in television—specifically the better cable programs—is yet another part of the job now, says Rooney. “There is such cross-pollination of writers, actors, directors in all three media, including theatre, you need to see everything in order to appreciate the artists’ work,” he asserts. “Cable television—‘Master of None’ or ‘Girls’—is a fertile breeding ground. There’s greater pressure today to keep up with what’s happening. Criticism no longer caters to purists.”
Rooney’s beat beyond New York theatre is largely the festival circuit (in Berlin, Cannes, Toronto, Sundance and Venice) and the indie film scene. He admits frankly that blockbuster movies are not usually to his taste.
“I still love films of the ’70s—Spielberg, Ashby, Altman, who made socially engaged movies with interesting actors—and I have not revised the way I view films. The Post couldn’t be more relevant. Given the times, it’s a corrective. It also evokes nostalgia for the way newspapers worked before the 24/7 news cycle killed them. It’s great to see a film that ennobles the press.”
At the resold and eviscerated LA Weekly (a West Coast Village Voice), former film reviewer/cultural reporter April Wolfe says arts coverage is more political than ever; indeed, in light of the times it has to be. Her mission has always been to ferret out those films that gave voice to the voiceless, she notes.
Eric Kohn, deputy editor and chief critic at Indiewire—a 20-year-old site that specializes in independent films—defines his role as consumer advocate and industry insider, but most important as a booster for smaller, exciting films that tend to be marginalized by the industry yet deserve attention and distribution.
“I’m caught between looking at independent films and at the same time taking the temperature of the mainstream film world,” says Kohn, who also serves as the chair of the New York Film Critics Circle. “As Indiewire has grown and become more ‘consumer-facing,’ we want to get as many people in as possible and not alienate anyone. No, that does not mean we won’t do negative reviews. But it does mean we might choose to ignore tiny bad movies that no one is going to see anyway. At the end of the day, it’s not whether anyone likes a film, but whether it’s worth discussing.”
The eight-year-old The Wrap focuses its lens on the business of the entertainment industry; nonetheless, its film critic Alonso Duralde doesn’t write about box-office profits in Eastern Europe or the home-video market in his pieces.
“I view a film as a cultural, artistic object and I’m writing for people who understand film,” he says. “I love to put films in context and if viewers want to buy a movie ticket, so much the better. But I’m not sure that what’s good for the business of movies is good for criticism. The online world has not changed what I write or how I write it, except maybe writing shorter paragraphs because they look better on the website.”
Kenneth Turan, film critic at The Los Angeles Times, is aware of the online world, but doesn’t pay that much attention to it or worry over analytics or demographics. His audience runs the spectrum from the not so metropolitan to the highly sophisticated. But, at bottom, he is expressing his views. “I am first and foremost a writer,” he declares.
Almost all critics have a social-media presence—some are more engaged with it than others—saying it keeps them on their toes and in touch with what their admirers (and detractors) are feeling. If you dish it out, you’ve got to be able to take it. Social media is not for the thin-skinned, they say.
Rooney, who remembers a time when it was considered bad form to interact with readers, admits he has neither the energy nor bravery to tweet. But if he were launching his career now, he’d be pressured to do it.
“You’re in the line of fire and readers can turn brutal within nanoseconds, especially if you’re talking about their favorite actors,” he says. “People were calling for my death when I gave a less than glowing review to Robert Pattinson. We’re not referencing Good Time, which I loved. But anyone who tells you it’s not important to be out there branding yourself and driving traffic to the site is lying.
“There is a mandate to write catchy headlines and subheads, preferably with a star’s name in it, coming up with super-optimized terms for the search engines,” he continues. “Of course, reviewing big blockbuster films will drive traffic to the review, certainly more so than some small European or specialized art film.”
Asked if any of it boosts advertising or the subscription base, he says the correlation is anecdotal. He also acknowledges that it’s a slippery slope when assessing the value of a review—or any piece of journalism—becomes a popularity contest, counting the number of clicks a piece receives.
“Yes, but everything is a popularity contest,” he points out. “If you’re a writer, it’s all about being read, being seen as relevant. This is America. You don’t want to be a loser. As much as I hate the word, it’s a cardinal sin in this specific cultural moment.”
None of the critics recall reinterpreting a film (in any substantive way) or rewriting a review because of a comment appearing on Twitter or Facebook. But most concede becoming more sensitive in their use of language, especially if the topic is minorities.
In reviewing a movie about Native Americans, one reviewer used the word “savage,” leveling the barb at the white characters. Nonetheless, charges of racism poured in. His review was not read in its entirety and the offending word was not placed in context, he emphasizes. Nonetheless, it was an eye-opener for him.
Likewise, another critic wrote “chitlin circuit,” in discussing a Tyler Perry film. “Chitlin circuit” is a legitimate term originally referring to performance venues that were safe for African-American performers during segregation. Today it references theatres across the country that stage shows for audiences that are largely black. It’s not racist at all, but protesting voices were raised. From that point on, the reviewer hyperlinked that and any other “questionable” or obscure words/phrases to Wikipedia to avoid future donnybrooks.
On a personal note, I was called on the carpet for using the word “Muslim” in a film story, though no offense was intended and it was a precise use of language. Nonetheless, I was threatened by one reader and so, coward that I am, I changed “Muslim” to “Middle Eastern”—though the story was specifically about the experiences of Muslim filmmakers in Muslim countries, thus losing clarity in translation.
Cultural sensibilities evolve and so do the prisms through which critics review films. In the past they did not think about diversity onscreen or withhold their opinions on a female actor’s physical appearance. (They could use the noun “actress”). Within a visual medium, they felt attractiveness was on-point. A shared idea of beauty also prevailed.
A major shift has occurred throughout society and movies reflect that. Leading men and women are not necessarily conventionally beautiful. The line between character and leading actor has blurred. Critics also mirror new malleable aesthetics and sensibilities. Some call it political correctness, a phrase disliked by most of the critics I spoke with.
“It’s a reactionary term people use to excuse themselves from being sexist and racist,” Duralde asserts. “It’s as if being forced to be considerate of other people’s feelings is somehow putting a burden on them. I don’t censor myself in a review, but I try to be considerate in the same way that I would want a straight person to look at a gay movie and recognize that they may not get it all. If a man is reviewing a film about or by women, he should acknowledge that he’s coming to it from a position of privilege.”
A brouhaha erupted this past summer when New York’s David Edelstein made what some viewed as leering comments about Gail Gadot’s scantily clad body instead of acknowledging how Wonder Woman, directed by a woman to boot, was an original departure from macho-land and empowered (there’s a buzz word for you) young girls.
“What was once seen as an innocuous observation is now viewed as objectification,” notes Kohn.
Consider plastic surgery. That topic is so sticky it’s usually avoided altogether in a review. Admittedly, it’s not always an established fact that cosmetic procedures have taken place, so it’s poor journalism to state that an actor has had it (even if it’s obvious). But more to the point, it’s usually, though not exclusively, a woman who has been nipped and tucked. Charges of insensitivity and sexism can run amok.
Nonetheless, there are encoded ways the topic can be handled, Debruge says. Without ever stating that the actor in question has had “work,” he recalls writing that her face seemed less expressive.
Dargis emphasizes that she doesn’t watch a movie with a checklist, but she’s also a human being who lives in the world. “I believe in equality and I’ve written a lot about the problems women face in front of and behind the camera in terms of representation,” she says. “That’s not being politically correct. That’s being mindful about the world.”
On the emotionally charged topic of critiquing an actor’s looks, she says reviewers tend to forget they’re writing about people with feelings. Nonetheless, she will discuss appearance if it’s relevant to the film.
“I just wrote about how badly and unflatteringly lit Kate Winslet was in Woody Allen’s Wonder Wheel. It was germane to the story. The character she plays was very badly treated in the movie.”
From a somewhat different angle, Rooney is equally troubled by Allen’s depiction of the Winslet character, a 40-something woman with whom a younger man (Justin Timberlake) has an affair but ultimately dumps for a nubile 20-something. Rooney contends that Allen had the perfect opportunity for showing a young man falling—and staying—in love with an older woman, but chose instead the expected—some would say more plausible—narrative outcome.
“How could Allen be so oblivious?” Rooney asks rhetorically. “There are benefits to political correctness, though I find the phrase tiresome. It’s good to see that people are ‘woke’ and not expressing misogynistic or homophobic attitudes in reviews.
“I don’t go to a movie with an agenda, but if I see something off-kilter. I’m going to say it,” he continues. “I did not review La La Land, and it was a film I enjoyed, but like many I was turned off by the white hero instructing a black musician on how jazz should be played. If I had reviewed it, I would have mentioned that.”
Many of the reviewers cited George Clooney’s Suburbicon as especially off-putting in its presentation of African-Americans, an irony all the more pointed in light of Clooney’s effort at being inclusive. Indeed, his film attempted to depict racism in 1950s suburbia, USA. But its multi-narrative threads from as many film genres coupled with a crime caper left the black characters serving as backdrop. “In the end it was just a silly, mixed-up movie with a tacked-on racial story,” Rooney opines. “It was trivializing and insulting.”
Kohn, who was no fan of Suburbicon either, nonetheless points out that some critics may be in danger of missing a movie’s larger themes in their determination to be PC. “Representing something onscreen is not the same as endorsing it.”
Debruge says this: “There is something trendy about the critic as a social justice warrior who evaluates a film by tying it to the moment, using the review to weigh in on the current political scene. A review should reflect today’s concerns, but also be relevant to readers 20 years later.”
The hot-button issue right now for film critics is the art-vs- the-artist conundrum: Can they—should they—separate the two and assess a movie as an artistic entity divorced from other considerations? Most feel that not referencing an actor/director’s transgression—or alleged transgression—is simply bad reporting.
To what extent an artist’s misdeeds inform the critic’s assessment of a film and take up real estate in the review depends on many factors, not least where on the hierarchy of villains the predator lands. Mel Gibson has been given a pass, while Louis C.K. and Kevin Spacey have been banished. Rooney believes Trump’s America has made anti-Semitism acceptable, while Wolfe says that much of it has to do with timing. If Gibson were carrying on today with his anti-Semitic rants and domestic abuse, he’d be held far more accountable, he’d be part of the current “reckoning.”
The same is true for Roman Polanski, say some reviewers who are nevertheless stunned at his career longevity despite his sexual misconduct with an underage girl. Likewise, Woody Allen poses a host of conflicts for many critics.
In her review of Wonder Wheel, Dargis writes, she resists putting artists on the psychiatric couch, but by virtue of Allen’s subject matter he is almost forcing her hand. The film can’t help but bring to mind his relationships with his romantic partners Mia Farrow and her adopted daughter Soon Yi. Dargis suggests that to make matters worse, Allen is winking at his audience.
Kohn believes an artist’s past is only one ingredient in reviewing his work and it shouldn’t pre-empt the work itself. “It’s very scary to think we might ignore a new work of art on the basis of who created it.”
Rooney doesn’t want to reassess his beloved old films either—such as Chinatown or Annie Hall—in a light of a filmmaker’s bad behavior. “There seems to me to be a lot of revisionist thinking going on, reviewers claiming they always had problems with certain films but only now feel free to say it. Why couldn’t they have said so when the movies came out?”
All agree critical perceptions do shift with allegations against some artists. Most reviewers say they can’t look at anything with Spacey, while a few hope that in the future they’d have the opportunity to view the Spacey scenes that were cut from All the Money in the World; others have no such impulse and don’t think it’s likely anyway. Either way, the ink shed on the topic is unremitting and will be until (just as meteorically) it isn’t.
The future of film criticism is up for grabs. No one has that proverbial crystal ball, but there are concerns, not least the fate of newspapers in general and the fact that in rough times cultural reporters and critics are the first to go, with the odds of their being replaced unlikely. A floating rumor has it that one well-known entertainment magazine may do away with critics entirely and employ a message board where readers will serve in that capacity.
Duralde does not want to speculate on the film critic’s future, but can’t imagine a time when professional movie critics will cease to exist. Indeed, he is heartened by the number of film-savvy youngsters who are interested in seeing art films, are comfortable conversing with critics, and write knowledgably to him on the topic.
Turan, who in addition to reviewing films for The Los Angeles Times is a professor at USC, also talked about being “heartened” by the number of students in his classes who want to be critics and have ability.
Kohn notes that the New York Critics Film Circle now has 42 members, the largest since the organization was formed in 1935. “A lot of new people with new sensibilities are joining the group, and that’s a microcosm of what’s happening across the country. It’s constantly evolving.”
Simi Horwitz has won multiple journalism awards for her stories appearing in American Theatre, Backstage, Forward, and three for her critical pieces published in Film Journal International, including the National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Award, the Los Angeles Press Club Award and the Society for Feature Journalism Award. Most recently, she was a 2017 finalist for the National Arts & Entertainment Journalist of the Year Award.