Brands Upon the Brain

Philip French

Over the weekend it was announced that Philip French, long-serving film critic for the Observer, is to step down after 50 years in his post. French has written for the Sunday paper since 1963, in addition to providing articles for The Times and Sight & Sound and writing a number of books, including Westerns: Aspects of a Movie Genre.

His well-deserved retirement at the age of 80 comes not long after the death of Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert, who was and may forever be perhaps the most well-known and popular film writer in the world. Far be it from me to draw a crude line between the death of one writer and the retirement of another. The pairing is simply to highlight the staggering longevity of each of these writers at their respective publications.

In this day and age, to consider anyone embarking on an equally prolific and lengthy stay on a broadsheet newspaper is altogether unthinkable. The primary reason for this is the certain doom staring the print industry square in the face. Online and tablet browsing is on the rise; while the magazine industry is still relatively safe – high-end publications circulate in the hundreds of thousands – it’s the newspaper industry, losing rapid amounts of money year on year, that has little gas left in the tank.

In magazines and online, no one man can steer the ship despite editorial authorship. The blogs of Richard Brody and David Bordwell are trusted and checked with regularity, but on a site like Slant, or a magazine such as Sight & Sound, the broader duty of film criticism is understandably shared between large numbers of writers. In 2010, Variety fired Todd McCarthy, chief film critic for over 30 years, citing a new focus on a spread of freelance talent.

With around eight films per week to review, there’s more than enough to go around, especially considering extra duties to fulfil in the forms of obituaries, awards coverage, culture news, blogs and features.

Outside of this mishmash of diverse and trusted opinions, there exists across sites like Letterboxd, Flixster, imdb and Twitter, an opportunity for amateur opinion to construct an instinctual spectrum of often unhelpful, vehement responses. Film is forever a democratic medium; unlike with theatre, a film feature plays far and wide, enabling audiences to come together online and sound off about what did and didn’t work for them.

It’s therefore fashionable to assume that just because film criticism is continually under siege from PR and the public alike, its eventual end is nigh. Although, as the proliferation of opinions on the internet mounts up, it’s inevitable that those with more discerning palates will soon enough tire of carbon-copy, shallow summations and erroneous, character-led hatchet jobs.

Human nature dictates our helplessness in turning to a form of leadership for cultural guidance. Some attribute a psychoanalytical explanation, explaining our need for a source of authority to assume the role of protector from our formative years. Far more pertinent to the subject of film culture is the idea of the film writer as a cinematic figurehead, insofar as attention to their views gives one a greater understanding of cinema’s intricacies.

Critics' Circle

During a Critics’ Circle centenary event at the V&A just over a week ago, Observer critic Jason Solomons said that the key role of the critic is to ‘nurture the consumer’; that is, to steer them towards the underrated gems and thereby crush the wheels of industry. To do just this, one must ideally be that ‘leader’ with ample influence to wield. So, why does anyone want to read your review? What do you bring to the table that can’t be found elsewhere?

Critics Round Up is a new site set up in reaction to the overcrowding on other review aggregates, with a preference for quality over quantity. Its goal: “To provide an alternative to the aggregated numbers of more popular sites. Rotten Tomatoes is good for people who want to see the highest number of critics included, but standards need to be applied. Not everyone should be counted.

In an age of the internet attention span, our neural pathways are constantly being tailored by the unending abundance of information, digested in small nuggets as our personal time allowance permits. We typically spend about one minute per average on each page – often moving on after reading the first paragraph – so it’s difficult for writers to grab us by the jugular unless we arrive to their articles with a full intent to read the entirety. With Critics Round Up, we see the distillation of valued viewpoints into the easily digestible list format that internet-users crave so much (especially when it comes to film). The ostensible cream of the crop is here, all in one place.

But what’s interesting about the layout of Critics Round Up is that when you look at the list of individual ratings underneath a film, the first thing mentioned after the score is the name of the publication, and then the name of the critic. It makes sense; in our 21st-century capitalist milieu we’re far more instinctively likely to identify with a brand than a person – and my preference of, say, Salon over MSN exemplifies this – but it’s nevertheless a strange process when centred around an art-form that entails the auteur theory.

Richard Brody, Calum Marsh, Nick Pinkerton and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky are just a few of my favourite contemporary writers. I’m convinced that certain individual critical voices such as these will forever stand out amidst a cacophony of less articulated responses – consistency, taste and knowledge being but a few of their qualities. What I’m not sure about is whether we’ll again see the mainstay likes of Ebert and French in the near future. In an increasingly web-centred world, it falls to no few chosen people to re-popularise film criticism and introduce people from all walks to underappreciated cinema. Then again, does it really matter, or is this simply an egocentric mourn?


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