Online vs. Print vs. Critic vs. Reviewer

June 1st, 2004  |  Published in Uncategorized

The Christian Science Monitor has tackled the question of [online vs. print film


with faithful reportage on the predictable levels of eyebrow

furrowing and credential waving that must ensue.

I’ve done a little thinking about this matter, and I was lucky to get

to take a class in it just last year. The big point that’s being

missed in the article through a conflation/confusion of terms is the

whole “critic” vs. “reviewer” angle. The two serve different

purposes. Reviewers go for content, critics tackle the form. Critics

doing scut duty as reviewers seem to deemphasize content in favor of

form, either out of sublimated resentment at their lessened status as

“smart shopper goes to the mvoies,” or an ignorance of what their

audience is there for.

Here’s the nut graf:

“…the freedom of the Web to print anything – no formal credentials or

editor required – has set off a debate over whether the proliferation

of online reviewers has strengthened the overall state of film

criticism or weakened it.”

Most online film reviewing isn’t having an impact on “film criticism,”

because the phenomenon this article addresses, the rise of [Dark

Horizons](, [Ain’t It Cool

News]( and [Film

Threat](, isn’t about people becoming film

critics… it’s about consumer self empowerment. So the accurate

question is what they’re doing for film review, and I can’t help but

think the effect is entirely salutary.

Consider, for instance, this quote from someone over at [Hit and

Run]( (where I

found this article in the first place):

I enjoy a good action film as much as the next guy, but I don’t

understand what a reviewer could write about one mass market action

film, for instance, that would make me want to go see another mass

market action film instead. The bad guy’s gonna lose, you know, and

the good guy’s gonna get the girl.

The point being that the author has just as much as admitted that he

doesn’t like a good action film as much as people who _really,

really like_ action films and have no problem at all differentiating

between all sorts of “mass market action flicks.” If Roger Ebert or

whatever reviewer he goes to each week says “this film didn’t offend,

even if there wasn’t much there,” that’s probably good enough for him.

Most mainstream print reviewers were singularly ill-equipped, for

instance, to discuss the disastrous Matrix trilogy, because it all

looked alike to them. Even Ebert, who’s supposedly a populist

reviewer, completely missed Star Wars because he was over-concerned

with its formal elements and blind to the parts of its content that

people responded to. It works much the same way with long-standing

“Star Trek” critics who have no problem rating episodes on a scale of

one to ten. To someone familiar with and well-disposed toward Trek, a

four star scale might make some sense, with “Amok Time,” of course,

being a four star that threatens to shatter the ceiling, and “Who

Mourns Adonais” being a clear one-star effort. But ten stars? It

speaks of a level of Trek obsessiveness that beggars the imagination

of anyone who doesn’t say “warp 5.5” when talking about the old

national speed limit.

The bigger point being that the average enthusiast reviewer who

draws a large audience is probably obsessively concerned with the

genre he’s considering. Where Roger Ebert tends to assign a friendly

and non-committal three stars to anything with space ships or a gun

fight that seems to demonstrate some craft, online reviewers break

that “gentleman’s three” down into fine differentiations. Their

audiences sense that they’re qualified to discuss why, for instance,

“Five Deadly Venoms” is superior to “Iron Monkey” despite the latter’s

obviously better production values. To an outsider, they’re both “martial arts flicks” or, as one person I know calls them “fight films.”

Print reviewers can’t touch that differentiation, because they aren’t paid to try.

They’re paid to get out there and act as an early warning system for

working folk trying to figure out where to spend their movie dollars

on a Friday night. They turn out two or three real reviews a week,

maybe offer capsules of a few more, and that’s that. They might

demonstrate a certain depth in a specific genre, but it’s not

likely. And they’re not very likely to have the populist touch that

being a sci-fi or action aficionado requires, because when you

scratch most film reviewers, you find a wannabe critic: Someone who

doesn’t want to be doing “Consumer Reports of the Cineplex” for an

ungrateful and disinterested audience. Someone who wants to talk

about the art and language of film, and doesn’t care if you’re left

[hopelessly unable to tell if it’s worth actually


Hm. Out of steam sooner than I thought. But that’s about that, anyhow… When confronted with a genuine enthusiast reviewer, I’m much more comfortable figuring out whether the movie under discussion is worth my time or not than I am when confronted by a generalist with the advantage of a degree and an editor. A few typos and weak composition are secondary considerations.

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