Critics vs. Influencers, the Eternal Struggle
Plus: Soderbergh assigned!
I recently re-watched Ronin, John Frankenheimer’s wonderful end-of-history spy thriller, and midway through was reminded of one of my all-time favorite lines of film criticism. This is from Anthony Lane’s review in the New Yorker, as compiled in his collection Nobody’s Perfect: “As Robert De Niro stood up on the front seat of the speeding black Audi and poked the upper half of his body through the sunroof, the better to rest the rocket-launcher on his shoulder and aim it at the car in front, I arrived at the mature conclusion that Ronin was, all things considered, a rather enjoyable film.”
Set aside the fact that De Niro’s character was in a Mercedes (the Audi had been requisitioned by someone else on his team), and this is a pretty perfect line: deadpan and slightly winking, yet utterly serious and useful to the reader as a piece of service journalism.
The line came to mind not just because I was watching Ronin (the new Kino Lorber 4K is really wonderful, by the way, like watching the film on a brand new 35mm print) but because film criticism writ large is going through one of its periodic soul searches. Writing in the Guardian, Manuela Lazic worries that critics have been replaced by “influencers,” and that the entire machinery of movie reviewing has been subsumed into the marketing apparatus by 11-figure companies making nine-figure movies.1 Whereas the critic aspires to educate, the influencer exists only to excite, to create buzz.
As Lazic notes, a decent number of film writers seem to have more or less accepted their role as part of the buzz-generating ecosystem: When the WGA and SAG hit picket lines, some critics and movie bloggers fretted that their reviews constituted “crossing a picket line” since it amounted to “marketing” a movie, and the actors and writers have been forbidden by their unions from marketing struck movies. I don’t know what to tell you: If you’re worried about a review being perceived as “marketing” by either the studio or your readers, you’re not a critic and you should probably surrender your Rotten Tomatoes verification.
Rotten Tomatoes itself is at least part of the problem here, given the outsized importance studios and audiences alike place on the number next to the red or green jpg. As Vince Mancini noted last month in an essay about his growing exhaustion with the critical ecosystem, RT scores become cudgels for fandoms and those fandoms are one of the key components of any marketing campaign. “People can have opinions and discuss them with each other, perhaps furthering their own understanding in the process. Fans can only stake claim to territory and fight to the metaphorical death defending it. Which makes disliking certain movies tantamount to telling someone that their identity is wrong,” Mancini wrote, channeling Agent K.
There’s a somewhat circular nature to all this: Critics provide the RT scores, which excite the fandoms, who are exploited by the marketers, who arrange the next round of preview screenings for the critics. All of this is accentuated by buzz from “influencers” on TikTok and Instagram and Twitter, whose goal is to make sure that you feel like you’re missing out if you don’t partake by wearing your pinkest outfit to Barbie and snapping a selfie for Insta, bae. The whole sordid cycle exists to keep showbiz in business.
To a certain extent, criticism has always been useful to marketing; there’s a reason studios arrange preview screenings. But the critic’s first responsibility is to his readers, not to marketing departments or to the Hollywood guilds. And that brings me back to where we started, with Anthony Lane and Ronin. His line about the movie is great, but maybe it only really works if you’re used to Lane’s style in the first place, if you’re familiar and in sync with his likes and dislikes. Set aside the responsibility of writers. This is what readers should be aiming for: direct relationships with critics who can help them understand a work or decide if it’s worth seeing in the first place rather than abstract relationships with aggregation scores that vaguely fumble toward an idea of watchability.
This is one of the reasons I love writing on Substack and on Twitter and on Letterboxd: I feel as if I have a direct relationship with my readers and can moderate which responses I see in such a way as to insulate myself from the vicissitudes of fandom. It is, perhaps, a smaller sort of thing than the heyday of Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert. But, hopefully, some find it useful. And it beats subsuming oneself fully into the PR machine.
William Friedkin, who died on Monday, was one of the all-time greats, and not just because of The French Connection and The Exorcist. I don’t know if we did him justice on this Friday’s Across the Movie Aisle, but we tried. I hope you give it a listen.
For more on William Friedkin, check out Bill Ryan’s obituary.
Richard Rushfield’s thoughts on Friedkin are also well worth reading, in large part because they serve as a reminder that everyone in Hollywood today aside from Quentin Tarantino is too scared to say what they actually think, which impoverishes the industry as a whole.
The Last Voyage of the Demeter has many of the component parts of a good movie—good acting! Good cinematography! Good score!—and yet is not a good movie. I tried to explain why in my review.
RIP Johnny Hardwick, the voice of Dale Gribble on Mike Judge’s long-running Fox series King of the Hill.
RIP Robbie Robertson, frontman for The Band and an indelible presence in The Last Waltz.
Disney’s Galactic Starcruiser attraction has to be one of the more disastrous failures in Disney Parks history, right?
Assigned Viewing: Full Circle (Max)
I’m assigning this new show from Steven Soderbergh and Ed Solomon because we’re going to be discussing Full Circle on Across the Movie Aisle this week and also because I liked it quite a bit. Six episodes, between 40 minutes and an hour each. You can watch it all before Tuesday’s episode drops. I believe in you.
As David Poland briefly noted on Twitter, this isn’t new, precisely: studios were flying critics out to tropical paradises for press junkets before the MCU was a gleam in Tony Stark’s iron eyes. The rise of Ain’t It Cool News and the nerdosphere only accelerated some of the dodgier ethical implications of film writing and the relationship between critics and studios. Things have only gotten crazier: Every couple of months I see some movie blogger bragging about getting, I dunno, a literal household appliance from a studio to promote some dumb new show or movie and I wonder how they can live with themselves. Then I realize they don’t know any better because they didn’t come up in an organization with, say, any ethical standards. Society has failed them.