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The Past and Future of Film Criticism at Cinema City

The Cinema City film festival in Novi Sad, Serbia, hosted a panel discussion on the future of film criticism with director Gerald Peary, following the screening of his documentary, For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism (2009). The film offers a useful summary of the different roles of the film critic over nearly a century: plot summarizer, star rating authority, moral adjudicator, artistic assessor, layman film buff, and even, more recently, undercover promoter. Along the way, it turns a spotlight on the founders of the profession in America, names which will be strangely unfamiliar to many viewers, even to film critics. More recent stars of American film criticism are far better known: Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. The documentary keeps its talking head interviews short and entertaining, which makes the film an easy watch. It is organised chronologically at first, but as it reaches the contemporary period, the film’s final sections attempt to answer questions about the future of criticism: as the industry puts more pressure on the media to publish favourable reviews, and as traditional print publications decline in favour of web-based resources, what is the future of the professional critic as an independent film expert?

Although the film contains some entertaining interviews, useful information and interesting observations, stylistically it is mediocre: reminiscent of the 80s TV documentary, it seems immune to more recent trends in the genre. To be fair, this film was a 9-year labour of love, a documentary on the topic of film criticism being understandably difficult to finance. I found myself asking, though, who this film is for: it takes a subject that will be of interest to a specialised, intellectual audience but treats it in a manner calculated to appeal to the mainstream. Although it asks some interesting questions, it does not discuss them in enough depth to satisfy those with a genuine interest in the subject.

For this reason, it was useful to have a panel discussion, where the director could expand on his impression of the film critics’ profession and its future. My fellow critics from the FEDEORA (The Federation of Film Critics of Europe and the Mediterranean) jury commented on the film, and there was just enough time for questions and comments from the audience. The topic of most interest seemed to be the state of film criticism today, weighing the benefits and drawbacks of the internet. Strangely, the gradual decline in jobs available for critics, and decline in film critics’ authority, has coincided with the rise in film studies courses at university. This ought to provide some comfort to those who worry that blogs democratise the profession too much, allowing anyone to publish their opinion on film, however poorly informed. Arguably, today’s public should be more film-literate than ever before, but Peary lamented that the majority of students on his film studies courses seem to forget what they have learned the second they leave campus. Like the film itself, the panel discussion took neither an entirely positive nor negative view of the influence of the internet: the important factor, in both cases, is to be aware of the different influences at work.

 

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