Movie Reviews, Schmoovie Reviews

The death of local film critics has contributed to the decline of interest in independent films


Over the past several years, as old media has crumbled around us and new media has struggled to find its footing, critics were the first to be sacrificed. Film critics in particular.

One after another, long-established, well credentialed critics from newspapers and magazines were put out to pasture. It was a no-brainer. Replace full-time, relatively well-paid staffers with wire reviews from AP or other services. Or simply don’t review the ’smaller’ films.

To some degree, the death of local film critics has contributed to the decline of interest in theatrically released independent films. “If the media doesn’t care, why should I?” It also doesn’t help the case for independently released American films that their ad budgets have declined dramatically since the 90s, not to mention the creativity gap that I wrote about recently.

A handful of woebegone critics have landed on their feet. David Ansen, for instance, Newsweek’s main film critic for decades, was hired as Artistic Director for the recently renamed LA Film Festival. Some have chosen to retire and others are simply fading away. (Peter Brunette, long-time film critic, author and lecturer, died (last week) while covering the Taormina Film Festival in Italy.

Incredibly, none of the major media outlets has had the foresight or imagination to remake media criticism. A few new media entrepreneurs have a taken a stab, but none have the leverage or reach to really make a go of it.

But how much do film critics really matter anymore? It’s a little like the chicken and the egg. Film criticism came into its own in the US throughout the 60s. The Italian neorealists yielded to the Nouvelle Vaguewho yielded to Germany’s New Wave; Japan’s Suzuki, Hani, Oshima and Imamura were breaking out worldwide; Bo Widerberg and Ingmar Bergmann dueled for Scandinavian supremacy; Easy Rider was shaking up Hollywood and John Cassavetes was inventing American independent cinema.

Compare that to what’s happening creatively in the 21st century. Pretty much a big snooze.The audience and the critics in the 60s grew up in cinema together. They loved movies, they loved adventure and discovery and they relied on each other for insights and validation. Unanimity may have been rare, but respect wasn’t. Each respected the other and distributors and exhibitors played their roles accordingly.

Today, the opposite is true.

So someone’s got a rare and exciting opportunity to remake the relationship. Until they do, film criticism will continue to languish. But it can be fun in the meantime! For instance, check out the following comparative reviews of Matt Porterfield’s “Putty Hill” written by Ronnie Sheib for Variety and the late Peter Brunette for the Hollywood Reporter:


“This curious blend of documentary and narrative, held together less by any plot device than by rigorous aesthetic, proves all the more effective for being in service of casual naturalism.”


“Points must be awarded for nerve, but virtually every aspect of this misbegotten film misfires.”


“Unfolding in long takes in informal-seeming but skillfully composed tableaux,  these extended moments, developing organically in real time, impart a certain serenity and integrity to the figures grouped within the frame, who never come off as ‘other’ in their working-class bluntness.”


“A wake is to be held, and the film, using a mix of implausible interviews and unconvincing dramatic scenes, documents the feelings of the various participants that have come together in Cory’s honor.

“Via this slice-of-life, apparently random wandering through these people’s lives, director Porterfield seems to be seeking a kind of truth. Alas, we end up knowing no more about Cory than we did before, apart from cliches like ‘he was a good guy.’ Various people connected to him, mostly young, are interrogated by an unseen and inexplicable interviewer who insists on posing the most banal questions he can think of. The few “dramatic” scenes in the film seem completely phony.”


“Thesping is remarkable, particularly by the putative star Sky Ferreira, whose wonderfully inflected gestures and tangled long locks weave stories of their own”


“Porterfield seems to be overly ambitious rather than merely inept. But he forgets the core truth of the cinema verite method, that meaning must gradually gather through the slow accumulation of incremental, apparently meaningless detail. Instead, people talk, or are artificially interrogated by the unseen interviewer, and all that results is banality. The director also seems to forget that non-professionals “acting” in a film aren’t necessarily interesting in themselves, but must be made so by the shaping, if invisible, hand of the artist.”


“With independent cinema becoming less reliable as a source of quirky, feel-good small films, will it leave room for raw, youth-oriented and carefully crafted minimalist mise-en-scene exercises like ‘Putty Hill’?”


“Festivals which vaunt themselves for showcasing “cutting-edge” cinema will gobble it up, but following that brief flurry, a quiet but quick death will ensue.”

I saw "Putty Hill" recently and lean much more toward Scheib than Brunette. It’s certainly above average compared with what’s happening on the scene today. The film’s been on that vaunted festival circuit all year and if you’re in Chicago or Edinburgh, Scotland later this month I recommend you check it out.

Light an uncritical fire.