Film criticism has had an interesting career: at its beginning, it had little audience appreciation. Then a gradual shift to public acceptance took place in the ‘60s, and finally it has arrived at a point when anyone with wireless internet and 10 minutes of free time can elucidate their thoughts on Avatar. The abundance of accesible reviews in this digital age, the rapidity in its delivery, and the public’s ceaseless desire to always be in the know has made the once well-regarded ideas of the film critic a small fish in a sea of opinions. On Friday January 20, the Bell TIFF Lightbox hosted a Q&A with the members of its Cannes Critics Week Panel in order to get a better idea of the state of film criticism industry today.
“There are two types of people who set out to be film critics” says Liam Lacey, critic for The Globe and Mail. “Those who set out to be film critics and those who are too old for the rock beat.” Cinema gurus Lacey, Jonathan Rosenbaum (former critic for the Chicago Reader), Fabian Gaffez (Positif), and Toronto’s own Peter Howell (Toronto Star) were all smiles as they greeted a small audience of aspiring and established film reviewers alike. Between them, these film virtuosos have more than half a century of critic experience. Although they sat down to discuss the specifics of their careers, their insight showcased just how much change has come about to the practice and reception of film criticism in the last 50 years.
“I’ve been pretty lucky that I’ve been able to get paid for my two biggest passions in life — movies and music — and that probably makes you all jealous,” say Howell. Howell, now chief reviewer for the Toronto Star recalls his days as a journalism student at Carlton University. “I remember all of us [students] anxiously awaiting the arrival of the newspaper, hoping to be the first to be able to read the reviews,” remarked Howell, a comment that pushed the panel to discuss their thoughts on the role of the film critic. Rosenbaum, the veteran reviewer in the group, remembers seeing every film that came to the chain of theatres his grandfather owned in Florence, Alabama where he grew up. Even after developing from these rural cinematic roots, Rosenbaum insists that the role of the film critic is to “assist in the discussion of film and to improve and shift the level of discussion,” and Gaffez similarly feels that the critic is “a go-between —a boatman between language and film.”
Besides expressing their disdain for being forced to judge films with a rating system, the panel has a pretty positive outlook for this industry that seems to be eroding with every click of the mouse. Even after lamenting about reviewers and critics forcibly let go (J. Joberman, formerly of The Village Voice), Howell says that “there are so many things [happening] on the Internet, and it makes sense to be afraid —but also to be excited.” The panel points out that online authorship has allowed for authority to be eradicated, and now anyone can have their thoughts about a film heard just as loud and fast as any publication-certified critic. Howell says that the film reviewer’s job is to “be a resistor, to persuade your editor and people of your picks,” and with this transgression of authority through the Internet, it may be that the role of the modern day film critic is getting back to what it was once all about: reading in between the lines.