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June 1, 2004

Online vs. Print vs. Critic vs. Reviewer

Posted by Mike on June 1, 2004 8:50 PM

The Christian Science Monitor has tackled the question of online vs. print film critics/reviewers with faithful reportage on the predictable levels of eyebrow furrowing and credential waving that must ensue.

I've done a little thinking about this matter, and I was lucky to get to take a class in it just last year. The big point that's being missed in the article through a conflation/confusion of terms is the whole "critic" vs. "reviewer" angle. The two serve different purposes. Reviewers go for content, critics tackle the form. Critics doing scut duty as reviewers seem to deemphasize content in favor of form, either out of sublimated resentment at their lessened status as "smart shopper goes to the mvoies," or an ignorance of what their audience is there for.

Here's the nut graf:

"...the freedom of the Web to print anything - no formal credentials or editor required - has set off a debate over whether the proliferation of online reviewers has strengthened the overall state of film criticism or weakened it."

Most online film reviewing isn't having an impact on "film criticism," because the phenomenon this article addresses, the rise of Dark Horizons, Ain't It Cool News and Film Threat, isn't about people becoming film critics... it's about consumer self empowerment. So the accurate question is what they're doing for film review, and I can't help but think the effect is entirely salutary.

Consider, for instance, this quote from someone over at Hit and Run (where I found this article in the first place):

I enjoy a good action film as much as the next guy, but I don't understand what a reviewer could write about one mass market action film, for instance, that would make me want to go see another mass market action film instead. The bad guy's gonna lose, you know, and the good guy's gonna get the girl.

The point being that the author has just as much as admitted that he doesn't like a good action film as much as people who really, really like action films and have no problem at all differentiating between all sorts of "mass market action flicks." If Roger Ebert or whatever reviewer he goes to each week says "this film didn't offend, even if there wasn't much there," that's probably good enough for him. Most mainstream print reviewers were singularly ill-equipped, for instance, to discuss the disastrous Matrix trilogy, because it all looked alike to them. Even Ebert, who's supposedly a populist reviewer, completely missed Star Wars because he was over-concerned with its formal elements and blind to the parts of its content that people responded to. It works much the same way with long-standing "Star Trek" critics who have no problem rating episodes on a scale of one to ten. To someone familiar with and well-disposed toward Trek, a four star scale might make some sense, with "Amok Time," of course, being a four star that threatens to shatter the ceiling, and "Who Mourns Adonais" being a clear one-star effort. But ten stars? It speaks of a level of Trek obsessiveness that beggars the imagination of anyone who doesn't say "warp 5.5" when talking about the old national speed limit.

The bigger point being that the average enthusiast reviewer who draws a large audience is probably obsessively concerned with the genre he's considering. Where Roger Ebert tends to assign a friendly and non-committal three stars to anything with space ships or a gun fight that seems to demonstrate some craft, online reviewers break that "gentleman's three" down into fine differentiations. Their audiences sense that they're qualified to discuss why, for instance, "Five Deadly Venoms" is superior to "Iron Monkey" despite the latter's obviously better production values. To an outsider, they're both "martial arts flicks" or, as one person I know calls them "fight films."

Print reviewers can't touch that differentiation, because they aren't paid to try. They're paid to get out there and act as an early warning system for working folk trying to figure out where to spend their movie dollars on a Friday night. They turn out two or three real reviews a week, maybe offer capsules of a few more, and that's that. They might demonstrate a certain depth in a specific genre, but it's not likely. And they're not very likely to have the populist touch that being a sci-fi or action aficionado requires, because when you scratch most film reviewers, you find a wannabe critic: Someone who doesn't want to be doing "Consumer Reports of the Cineplex" for an ungrateful and disinterested audience. Someone who wants to talk about the art and language of film, and doesn't care if you're left hopelessly unable to tell if it's worth actually watching.

Hm. Out of steam sooner than I thought. But that's about that, anyhow... When confronted with a genuine enthusiast reviewer, I'm much more comfortable figuring out whether the movie under discussion is worth my time or not than I am when confronted by a generalist with the advantage of a degree and an editor. A few typos and weak composition are secondary considerations.