Anghus Houvouras presents a theory on the death of film criticism…
That headline is incendiary. Designed to elicit a reaction from you, the reader. Because we live in an age where audiences must be engaged within the first sentence or they won’t even bother to click a link to read the subsequent article. I’m guessing by the time you’ve finished reading it, you’ll either think it’s an interesting and engaging theory or that I’m a complete idiot and should be banned from ever writing about film again. Because that’s the kind of reactions you get in an era where everything is judged only as success or failure. And that’s because of the following phenomenon.
Everything is a “0” or a “1”
To walk you through this paradigm shift, you have to understand that all critical thought has been reduced to a pass/fail mentality. Nuance has been murdered in favor of a cold, calculating metric determining value. Good/Bad. Right/Wrong. Worth/Worthlessness. Everything is a masterpiece or a piece of shit. This is the core of what i like to call “Binary Theory”.
The information age has reduced everything to a simple, definable value. And the blame rests squarely on the shoulders of Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel.
First off, let me say that at one point I was a fan of Siskel & Ebert, and don’t consider them malicious or complicit in the murder of film criticism. No more than you could blame the first man who split the atom, Ernest Rutherford, for the bombing of Hiroshima. While you can easily draw a line between the two events, their was no intent or ill will involved. It is merely a byproduct of the initiating act. I doubt Gene Siskel or Roger Ebert even understood the gravitas involved when they first started reviewing films and took their dog and pony show global. And yet, it had a profound and defining impact on the medium.
Like many of you I watched them reviewing movies every week during a time when there were few options for film fans to see movie reviews. There were the weekly write ups in your local newspaper. If you were fortunate enough to have literate parents you may have been privy to the works of Pauline Kael or reviews found in magazines like Time, Newsweek, or (God forbid) People. However, for a vast majority of Americans you were limited to the local paper and Siskel & Ebert once a week on TV.
For those of you unfamiliar, here’s a little history. Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel were Chicago-based film critics who had found some success on Public Television reviewing movies. They were both strong personalities and generated an ample amount of friction discussing whatever films were released that week. Like all good television it was equal parts informative and entertaining. It was good television to watch them discuss a movie they loved. It was great television when they disagreed. Watching them trade blows over a divisive film was the highlight of every broadcast.
They parlayed this gig onto the national stage with “At the Movies” which became a mainstay on Public Television before jumping into syndication and becoming a cultural staple. While Siskel and Ebert were the personalities behind that fueled the success, it was a simple metric that helped define the show: Those damn thumbs.
Thumbs up. Thumbs down.
One convenient gesture that would tell audiences whether or not they recommended a movie. Sure, there were six to seven minute conversations that preceded their Caesar-like final judgment. It wasn’t as if they weren’t going into detail about the film before reducing it to a brutal pass/fail methodology. However, that’s what stuck. Everybody wanted to know if it was a thumbs up or a thumbs down. “Two thumbs up” was the equivalent of critical praise. Studios slapped it on print ads and announcers loudly trumpeted it on television commercials.
Siskel and Ebert contributed greatly to the popularization of film criticism. In fact, they are probably the most responsible for turning film criticism into water cooler conversation. However, they are also responsible for the vitriolic attitudes and tabloidization of modern movie criticism.
Those thumbs, their weapons of choice, were intentionally incendiary. The thumbs were cribbed from the Colosseum of ancient Rome where the fate of a fallen foe would hinge on the crowd’s vote. A thumbs up from the crowd would spare a man’s life. A thumbs down would result in his bloody execution. Of course, this gesture took on far less sinister overtones in subsequent centuries, but their choice of this ‘live or die’ method of recommendation helped foster the mentality that all movies were either worth watching or worthless. Intentional or not. That mentality has snowballed in the internet age where guys like Gene Siskel would seem downright courteous compared to some of things you read on film websites.
Siskel and Ebert were to film criticism what McDonalds is to the hamburger.
Most people have probably had a McDonalds hamburger. After serving billions, that’s probably a safe assumption. While there’s nothing wrong with the McDonalds hamburger I doubt few people would refer to it as the crowning example of the formula. There are better hamburgers out there, but McDonalds has the most popular.
The McDonalds hamburger is the reduction of the food to its simplest state. It has all the pieces: meat (supposedly), a bun, and some rudimentary fixings slapped together in a paper wrapper and mass produced for high quantity consumption. Siskel and Ebert reduced criticism to the same state. Simple, easy to understand and palatable for the masses.
And much like the hamburger, popularizing it and transforming it into something convenient did little to improve the quality.
It feels like we need to take a moment to review. You have two film critics, a popular tv show, and a marketable hook with the thumbs. Pass/Fail. “0” or “1”. Siskel and Ebert brought the art of debating cinema to the suburbs and reduced every discussion to a simple metric. How exactly are Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert responsible for killing criticism?
The real impact of this wasn’t felt until well after Siskel passed away and the show faded from pop culture mainstay to a forgettable, oft repackaged mess. It was those influenced by Siskel and Ebert who stepped up and became the modern day film critics. The ones who launched websites, or in the early days took to BBS boards. These were the film critics of tomorrow. Average Joes who didn’t learn about film in a classroom but from a video store. Analysts who dictated from a place of common sense and shed the traditional trappings of actual film criticism in favor of stripped down, frills fee approach. A generation of film and entertainment writers inspired by the fast food film criticism of Siskel & Ebert.
Initially the online film movement seemed to shepherd a focus on discussion. That the content of the written review as making a comeback. Long, inspired discussions would take place on internet bulletin boards and chat rooms. Hours could be spent dissecting even the most trivial of topics. Websites became the new water cooler for film discussion where even the most microscopic of topics could find willing participants.
And yet, there was still a strong focus on reducing these opinions to a simple, definable metric. Mostly in part because there were so many voices vying for your attention. In the early days of television film criticism, Siskel and Ebert’s “Two thumbs up” was a way to separate themselves from the other similar shows that sprung up in the wake of their success. It didn’t matter how many talking heads had taken to television discussing movies or what they were saying. They were the ones with the thumbs.
Once again there was a need for simplification. To cut through the clutter and place everything into a convenient easy package. Thus was born sites like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic and a popularization of the simple metric which has become commonplace on the sites and apps used by people to find films. Websites like Fandango, Moviefone, and Flixster.
The problem is that the ‘clutter’ is in fact the nuanced and formulated opinions of film critics and bloggers. Reducing those thoughts back into a pass/fail mentality only helps further the failed notion that movies are either massive successes or epic failures.
Twitter has continued this trend: the reduction of complex thought into 140 characters. Film criticism continues to die one tweet at a time. Twitter is where discourse goes to die. And anyone claiming they’ve had quality discussions on Twitter probably aren’t the best conversationalists.
The problem with Binary Theory is that art should never be a pass/fail proposition.
I can’t speak for any other writer out there, but i know that 75% of the movies I see each year are neither masterpieces or complete disasters. They exist in that nebulous, gray area where good critics often flourish and bad critics often drown: the middle.
I’ve heard critics say before how easy it is to write a review for a movie which they are passionate about. And i’ve heard others declare that seeing a terrible movie may be the easiest review to write. The ones where the bile and the venom can be spewed in a hate fueled rant guaranteed to generate some page views. Those who adhere to that school of thought will also tell you writing a review for a mediocre movie may prove the most difficult because there is no passion to move them or hate to motivate their words. That only the best films and the worst films are worthy of inspiration.
When did it become so difficult for critics to review an average movie? Why is their only motivation in the best and the worst? When did film criticism become an exercise in praise and annihilation?
Maybe it was right when Siskel and Ebert started dolling out those thumbs.
Fortunately, for those willing to look beyond the tomato-meters and the tweets, there are interesting discussions to be had. For many, they will be content with simple, extrapolated math to tell them whether or not what’s showing in the cinema is worth seeing, that every movie is either a “0” or a “1”. As a film writer, I find that troubling.
Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert helped popularize film criticism, but they are also the most responsible for its deterioration as an art form.