Everyone's A Critic

Pauline Kael, bygone titan of film criticism at the New Yorker, once said,
"I regard criticism as an art, and if in this country and in this age it is practiced with honesty, it is no more remunerative than the work of an avant-garde film artist. My dear anonymous letter writers, if you think it is so easy to be a critic, so difficult to be a poet or a painter or film experimenter, may I suggest you try both? You may discover why there are so few critics, so many poets."
I've tried both and I have to agree with Ms. Kael on this one, it's pretty damn tough to write a quality review. In my case, it's not about film but literature and frankly, I don't think I have ever been able to satisfy myself, never mind a cache of readers. But I don't think her last remark still rings true.

Film Critic Pauline Kael
Back in Pauline Kael's day there were a smattering of influential critics who, it could be argued, were actually able to change the paradigm of art, whether it be in film (Kael, David Denby, Rex Reed, Siskel and Ebert) , theater (Frank Rich), or literature (Malcolm Cowley, Harold Bloom). Today, in the advent of Amazon, Facebook and Twitter, everyone is a critic. Across the internet anyone can post their opinion about practically anything on a variety of highly visible websites, not to mention the ubiquity of weblogs like this one.

So what does that say for the realm of well informed criticism? There are still a number of savvy commentators working for any number of e-zines, magazines, newspapers, radio and TV stations. Two of my favorites are Maureen Corrigan, book critic of the Washington Post and David Bianculli, television critic of tvworthwatching.com. I can listen to both of them on NPR's Fresh Air podcast. Both bring a wealth of knowledge and wit to their craft, making for enjoyable and enlightening reviews to read or listen to. Another notable critic is Anthony Lane in the realm of film. Mr. Lane writes wonderfully insightful and humorous reviews in the New Yorker magazine.

But are there any opinionated voices out there today that tower over all others. Who, nowadays can influence the path popular film will take besides the money paying public? My wife and I often watch and comment on older classic films that were vastly popular and critically acclaimed at their release like Coming Home, Shampoo or The Deer Hunter, saying: those films would never get made today. Why? Because teenage girls and their moms determine what will make money today, like the top grossing film this weekend, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part I.

In the recent past there have been precious few icons of influence. Oprah Winfrey comes to mind immediately. After all, she, single-handedly stimulated a vast audience to readership. Her 'Oprah's Book Club' picks became an emblem coveted in the publishing industry and indeed became its own brand, meriting whole sections in bookstores across the continent. Glenn Beck propelled Mormon, W. Cleon Skousen's anti-communist screed The 5000 Year Leap to the best seller lists in 2010. In fact it spent several months at number one on Amazon.com's government category top sellers list. But I think I can safely say that neither Oprah nor Beck are what any sane individual would call literary experts.

People, in general, are too busy to listen carefully to critics with a modicum of expertise these days since  those 'eggheads' are likely to take some time to relate intelligent, thoughtful commentary sans catch phrase or tag line. Although there are still many discerning critics working today, none will ever reach the level of influence as, say, Pauline Kael once attained. Perhaps the best response to that bit of ineluctable augury is to consume as much art, film, literature, music etc... and become your own best critic.