It may be James Agee v Rotten Tomatoes, but it doesn't all have to turn to mush … Photograph: Fernando Bustamante/AP
Few people would deny that film reviewing is in crisis. One hears the wailing and gnashing of teeth everywhere in the English-speaking world. Panel after panel, discussing "the Future of Film Criticism", has come to the conclusion that there isn't one.
AO Scott, the respected reviewer on the New York Times, has weighed in with his thoughts on the axing of his TV programme, At the Movies. He writes: "There used to be James Agee, and now there is Rotten Tomatoes. Rotten movies routinely make huge sums of money in spite of the demurral of critics. Where once reasoned debate and knowledgeable evaluation flourished, there are now social networking and marketing algorithms and a nattering gaggle of bloggers. Or – to turn the picture on its head – a remnant of over-entitled old-media graybeards are fighting a rear-guard action against the democratic forces of the Internet, clinging to threadbare cultural authority in the face of their own obsolescence."
As Scott intimates, the days of pundits pontificating unchallenged are over. However, he doesn't recognise that the only ones who mourn this situation are film reviewers like himself. The general punter doesn't give a toss.
A post from a blog about the sacking of long-time Variety film reviewer Todd McCarthy, probably sums up the consensus. "Couldn't care less if all film critics lost their jobs. I just don't see why people waste their time reading or listening to what some stranger thinks about a movie. It doesn't matter what other people think, at all. They have their tastes like everyone else. We don't need people to be paid to do something that anyone would gladly do for free. It doesn't take any talent at all."
I believe that we have no choice but to embrace the cinemagora. Yet, in all the vigils at the bedside of print film reviews, rarely has the quality of the professional reviews been questioned. Judging from the many blogs and websites by "amateur" film reviewers, the latter are as good or as bad as most professionals. No wonder readers of film reviews get the impression that "it doesn't take any talent at all". (I make a distinction between film reviewing and film criticism, which is a more scholarly and academic pursuit. Unlike film reviews, film criticism is more concerned with form rather than content.)
Indubitably, there are excellent reviewers around, some with a devoted following, but most are indistinguishable from the unpaid ones. Anybody can tell you what happens in a film. There is no difficulty in describing the "whatness" of a film, but there is more trouble with the "howness" and the "whyness". Most reviews are starstruck and anecdotal, the writers being more comfortable with narrative than narratology. The worse a film the better they like it, because it's easier to be amusing at the expense of a bad film than to explain the ineffable qualities of a great one. Although film is, above all, a visual medium, they seldom tell you what a film looks like unless it contains special effects. Neither do we get any analysis – even on a superficial level – of the style or grammar of the film.
Some time ago I wrote a blog called "What every film critic should know", suggesting that reviewers should have a basis in film theory and a wide and deep knowledge of film history. I was accused of being elitist and out of touch with popular taste. While proudly confessing to the accusation, my purpose was only to suggest that the bar be raised a little higher. Is it asking too much for film reviewers to be as educated about cinema as classical music, literature or art critics are about their own subjects?
If professional film reviewing is to survive, then critics have to know more than their readers. This shouldn't prevent film reviewers from still writing
entertainingly, wearing their erudition lightly. But they should not be modest in displaying it. They should write with authority without being patronising. Instead of dumbing down, film reviewers should smarten up. Readers should go to reviewers as much for their opinions as with the desire to learn something. They should enjoy being challenged by them.