Monday, December 1, 2008

Death to film critics! Hail to the CelebCult!


A newspaper film critic is like a canary in a coal mine. When one croaks, get the hell out. The lengthening toll of former film critics acts as a poster child for the self-destruction of American newspapers, which once hoped to be more like the New York Times and now yearn to become more like the National Enquirer. We used to be the town crier. Now we are the neighborhood gossip.

The crowning blow came this week when the once-magisterial Associated Press imposed a 500-word limit on all of its entertainment writers. The 500-word limit applies to reviews, interviews, news stories, trend pieces and "thinkers." Oh, it can be done. But with "Synecdoche, New York?"

Demise of the ink-stained wretch

Worse, the AP wants its writers on the entertainment beat to focus more on the kind of brief celebrity items its clients apparently hunger for. The AP, long considered obligatory to the task of running a North American newspaper, has been hit with some cancellations lately, and no doubt has been informed what its customers want: Affairs, divorces, addiction, disease, success, failure, death watches, tirades, arrests, hissy fits, scandals, who has been "seen with" somebody, who has been "spotted with" somebody, and "top ten" lists of the above. (Celebs "seen with" desire to be seen, celebs "spotted with" do not desire to be seen.)

The CelebCult virus is eating our culture alive, and newspapers voluntarily expose themselves to it. It teaches shabby values to young people, festers unwholesome curiosity, violates privacy, and is indifferent to meaningful achievement. One of the TV celeb shows has announced it will cover the Obama family as "a Hollywood story." I want to smash something against a wall.


In "Toots," a new documentary about the legendary Manhattan saloon keeper Toots Shor, there is a shot so startling I had to reverse the DVD to see it again. After dinner, Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe leave the restaurant, give their ticket to a valet, wait on the curb until their car arrives, tip the valet and then Joe opens the car door for Marilyn, walks around, gets in, and drives them away. This was in the 1950s. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have not been able to do that once in their adult lifetimes. Celebrities do not use limousines because of vanity. They use them as a protection against cannibalism.

As the CelebCult triumphs, major newspapers have been firing experienced film critics. They want to devote less of their space to considered prose, and more to ignorant gawking. What they require doesn't need to be paid for out of their payrolls. Why does the biggest story about "Twilight" involve its fans? Do we need interviews with 16-year-old girls about Robert Pattinson? When was the last time they read a paper? Isn't the movie obviously about sexual abstinence and the teen fascination with doomy Goth death-flirtation?

The age of film critics has come and gone. While the big papers on the coasts always had them (Bosley Crowther at the New York Times, Charles Champlin at the Los Angeles Times), many other major dailies had rotating bylines anybody might be writing under ("Kate Cameron" at the New York Daily News, "Mae Tinay" at the Chicago Tribune--get it?). Judith Crist changed everything at the New York Herald-Tribune when she panned "Cleopatra" (1963) and was banned from 20th Century-Fox screenings. There was a big fuss, and suddenly every paper hungered for a "real" movie critic. The Film Generation was upon us.

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