Is Everyone Really A Critic?

Listen to this 'Talk of the Nation' topic

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hide captionCriticism, it seems, is getting more and more thumbs down.

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In 2002, film critic Roger Ebert was diagnosed with papillary thyroid cancer. Since then, he has undergone several surgeries. One of them, on his salivary gland, made it almost impossible for him to speak. Earlier this month, he penned a letter to his readers and viewers:

Are you as bored with my health as I am? I underwent a third surgery in January, this one in Houston, and once again there were complications. I am sorry to say that my ability to speak was not restored. That would require another surgery. But I still have all my other abilities, including the love of viewing movies and writing about them.

Ebert will continue to write reviews for the Chicago Sun-Times, but he will no longer co-host At the Movies with Ebert & Roeper.

Two weeks ago, A.O. Scott, a chief film critic for The New York Times, tipped his hat to Ebert in a piece about the state of film criticism today: "For those who labor beside him in the vineyards of criticism [his retirement from At the Movies with Ebert & Roeper] is an incitement to quit grousing and pick up the pace."

That's a tall order. More and more newspapers, eager to cut costs, are cutting critics. In the last three years, 27 newspapers have said "goodbye" to their film reviewers. Yes, there are commercial constraints, but there is also new competition. Websites, like Rotten Tomatoes, aggregate reviews. Hundreds of amateur film critics post their thoughts on blogs. Nowadays, you don't need a master's degree in film criticism — or a thorough knowledge of La Nouvelle Vague — to be a movie critic. (You can look it up on Wikipedia, like I did.)

A.O. Scott will join us today, at the Newseum, to give us his thoughts on film criticism. Margo Mealey, alias DCMovieGirl, who blogs at dcmoviegirl.blogspot.com, will be there too. And we'll talk to Ken Otterbourg, the managing editor of The Winston-Salem Journal. In 2006, the newspaper said "goodbye" to its movie critic.

Before you see a movie, do you read reviews? If so, who do you read? If you don't look at newspaper reviews, do you go to websites or blogs? What do they offer that print critics don't?

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I frequently read the paper's movie criticisms, but I have been to exactly three movies in the last two years. Based on the reviews, I generally come to the conclusion that I don't want to see the movie and ticket prices are far too high!

I enjoy reading the criticisms for the literary value (I realize this sounds silly) but Roger Ebert is a really good writer!

Sent by Rebekah Sims | 2:59 PM | 4-30-2008

I still miss Gene Siskel. I always knew I would like a movie he liked.

Sent by Mary | 3:12 PM | 4-30-2008

I haven't actively looked for film criticism since Siskel and Ebert. But they steered me to great fims, like Carlos Saura's Carmen. The last time I paid any attention to any film criticism was when the LA Times ran a piece in 2004 or 2005 about the 100 "must see" DVDs for any film fan. WE moved to a rural community, gave up TV and are still working the top 100 list via online rentals.

Sent by Eileen Bertie | 3:13 PM | 4-30-2008

Here in movie-mad Portland, I,m not sure what many of us would do if we did not have the Oregonian's Shawn Levy to agree or disagree with. He is a true student of the cinema and I know in advance how early to arrive for a Friday evening opening based on how much he liked the film. He does have an impact.

Sent by Edward Hershey | 3:18 PM | 4-30-2008

I'm sorry for the Edelstein fan. One of the major spoiler kings. I saw the Simpsons Movie at 9:30 am opening day - and thankfully managed to miss the Edelstein description of what he himself called the most visually brilliant piece in the movie. WHy doesn't he understand people want to see the best parts on the screen - before they're spoiled?
thanks WTD

Sent by wtdavidson | 3:26 PM | 4-30-2008

I enjoy the various reviews I hear on NPR. Both reviews of new releases and reviews of older movies on programs like Fresh air and Talk of the Nation are guides for me. I find the coverage to be usually non-bias and insightful. Many of my favorite movies are ones that have been ones that I caught wind of via reviewes on NPR programs.

Sent by Katherine Smith | 3:27 PM | 4-30-2008

My favorite source for all things cinema is the podcast of "Filmspotting," which is also heard as a public radio program out of Chicago. The hosts of the show approach their work as fans first, allowing their passion for movies to show in all their pursuits. Since the show runs in excess of 1 hour, they can really analyze and dissect a number of topics on each show, from new releases to classic films of all genres. As a newspaper reader who lost his local critic a few years ago, I credit this podcast with reigniting my love of movies.

Sent by Mike Nilsson - Louisville, KY | 3:28 PM | 4-30-2008

I use rottentomatoes.com. It aggregates dozens of reviews from newspapers and websites around the country and creates a "freshness" number, a percentage of positive reviews. For movies that get mostly bad reviews or mostly good reviews, it's easy for me to decide quickly whether them movie is worth seeing.

Sent by Paul in Flint MI | 3:28 PM | 4-30-2008

I am a critic, and after the month mag I wrote for folded, I started my own website. I co-founded and am the Asst. Director and past Director of the local St. Louis Film Critics Association. Even when I go outon the web to get other critics opinions of a film I haven't seen, I look for the professional writer or critic because I want a polished and thoughtful opinion of the film before I spent my money, too, and I think a professional can provide that for me much better than the first person to weigh in on the site's blog. To define professional, I look at the style and quality of not only the writing but the comments. Also, there is a distinction between a critc and a reviewer. I'd like to write more but I have to leave to teach a class!

Sent by Sandra Olmsted | 3:53 PM | 4-30-2008

Say it isn't so. No more Ebert on Ebert and Roeper?!?

Sent by Paul | 4:12 PM | 4-30-2008

Hello:

This show on film critics was informative and interesting!

I do read reviews before going to films. Our film critic at the Des Moines Register was dismissed a year or so ago. I miss his reviews, although I do read blog reviews too.

I have a blog on which I blog about lots of things, including reviews on films, theatre, art, and music.

Keep up the good radio!

Jules Joyce
http://julesjoyce.blogspot.com/

Sent by Jules Joyce | 5:04 PM | 4-30-2008

I do often rely on movie reviews to determine films that I "must see", but I find myself more often going to aggregator sites like rottentomatoes. I generally would favor individual critics like Ebert, but the internet has made it much easier to "take the broader temperature" of a film.

However, there are three factors that are increasingly undermining film critics:

1) Often, my movie selection is going to be limited to what my friends are going to be watching. Movie watching (despite the fact that you're sitting in silence for two hours) has become a social event, sometimes the primary (sober) social event for many people and certain groups will go to The Transformers no matter how widely panned it is and people will skip Atonement despite the highly lauded cinematography, for the same reason why groups of friends may end up more often at a standard burger joint (safe cuisine) than at a sushi place ("exotic" cuisine).

2) The core revenue demographic of movies is young and getting younger, and this is a group of people not inclined to care much about literary reviews.

3) "Movies", like it or not, are not really a high-brow activity. The film industry for all its pomp acts as such, but the Oscars (outside of SFX awards, say) almost exclusively honor films that were financially tepid (or failures!). Oh yes, it's the "No Country"s that get the gold, but the "Spiderman"s and "Pirate"s are funding the industry. One might say that reading is a more "high-brow" activity, but I'd venture that even the high-brow "literate" film buffs would still challenge or outnumber the "literate" readers, so film critics have maybe a slightly greater cultural influence than a book critic, outside of the people who load up a review to scope the star rating.

Sent by Andrew | 6:00 PM | 4-30-2008

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