Woodstock Film Festival - Film Criticism & Journalism - Oct. 3, 2009
Woodstock Film Festival
Saturday, October 3, 2009
Is the issue of where film criticism and journalism going still an important and relevant topic? Absolutely. Should it be constantly beat over the head with a stick? Not necessarily, as there are lots of other interesting topics that could be explored on a panel discussion. Some of the usual suspects and a few new ones made up what could have been yet another tedious panel, however Aaron Hillis’ questions brought up even more questions and points from the panelists themselves offering a bit of a healthy and professional debate, and lots of underlining in my notebook, so this was one of the best film criticism and journalism panels The Film Panel Notetaker has covered. Please enjoy highlights of this discussion below.
Aaron Hillis – Editor of “GreenCine Daily,” and writer for the “Village Voice” and “LA Weekly” among others. He is also the Vice-President of Benten Films.
Godfrey Cheshire – Filmmaker (“Moving Midway”) and film critic
Owen Gleiberman – Movie critic for "Entertainment Weekly”
Karen Durbin – Film critic for “Elle” Magazine
Eric Kohn - Freelance film critic and entertainment journalist
Karina Longworth – Editor “SpoutBlog”
Hillis started by asking everyone how they got into film criticism:
- For Cheshire, he started writing for an alternative paper in Raleigh, NC, then moved to New York City where he worked for The New York Press, which he said was good back them, and he won’t make that claim now. Now Cheshire is making films, and still writes a column in the monthly North Carolina Metro Magazine.
- Gleiberman has been a critic with Entertainment Weekly since its inception in 1990. Before that, he wrote music reviews in his college paper in Michigan. He found it difficult to write words about music, and easier for the visual medium of film. He landed his first job at the Boston Phoenix, noting that a lot of great film critics came out of the Boston scene such as David Denby. In the last two months, Gleiberman has become an online blogger in addition to his print duties at EW.
- Durbin said one of her first jobs was as the politics editor of The Village Voice in the early 1970s. She was involved with the Women’s Liberation Movement, and wrote essays from the feminist perspective. She took over the film section in 1980 and tried to make the film section a more collaborative process with then Voice critic Andrew Sarris. Durbin brought in critic J. Hoberman, who eventually became the paper’s lead critic. In 1989, she was invited to be the Arts editor of Mirabella Magazine until the publication went under in 2000, and she was later hired at Elle Magazine, which never had a film critic before.
- Hillis said he works between print and online. One of his first gigs was writing for Premiere Magazine. He points out that it’s interesting that there are people now who only write professionally online.
- Kohn said he grew up in Seattle, WA., and went to NYU for Cinema Studies. He writes for indieWIRE, New York Press, and other places as a reporter and critic. He mentioned that despite so many writers/critics struggling to make ends meet, there are so many options now.
- Longworth who grew up in Los Angeles, was interested in film by default and wanted to be an actress until she discovered punk rock. She would read magazines like EW and Premier, and would even writes book reports about them to her dad. She went to art school and thought she’d be making films. One day in a bar in the East Village, she met a guy who asked her if she’d write for a new film site called Cinematical, where she became the editor, until it was bought by AOL. She went to SXSW and wrote down lists of companies that didn’t have a film blog, and approached one, Spout, where she works now.
Hillis said that for better or worse, film critics are cultural gatekeepers. The big change came when the Internet came about and anyone could put their opinion out there, and who’s to say their opinion is more or less valid. Film critics are just opinions or voice boxes. Does anyone agree? Gleiberman disagrees that the big change was with web critics. Any critic who writes well about films, he’s excited to read, but there is a sense of fragmentation, not just within film criticism, but everywhere, ie. arts criticism, political writing, etc. Gleiberman said he gets asked a lot of it’s if his craft is threatened in some way? Maybe yes, he answered. But there was a version of this question he would get asked even before the Internet, is film criticism threatened by the nature of the movies themselves…movies like Transformers or chick flicks or movies touting consumer products?
So, are critics really relevant in that kind of landscape, Gleiberman asks? His answer – maybe not. If that’s true, that’s because the movies themselves are becoming less relevant. More big and noisy, but less relevant as art. But he also said a movie doesn’t have to be a piece of art to make film criticism relevant. He said what’s more threatening is that they are all struggling to write meaningful pieces about a popular art form…the middle ground of movies that are really terrific and popular at the same time is fading.
Durbin said she doesn’t entirely agree. Even though Elle Magazine is a long-lead publication, she still goes to festivals and looks for indie movies to write about. She reviews five or six movies a month, because of this timeline, there are all these movies she can ignore. She can’t write about films she doesn’t like, because she only has two pages, unless there’s something morally outrageous. She points out that Gleiberman’s favorite movie at the Toronto Film Festival was Up in the Air (which was also the closing night film of the Woodstock Film Festival). Gleiberman said that we’re in a moment now where it’s going to be harder to make movies like Up in the Air, but when they come out and they’re as good as this, it’s their jobs as critics to write about these movies with a certain depth. That is the purpose of criticism.
Kohn debated Gleiberman’s question of whether movies are becoming less relevant, saying this isn’t quite as new as Gleiberman portrays. Kohn referred to a panel discussion he saw that Durbin was on a few years back that then The Reeler editor, now with Movieline, S.T. Van Airsdale moderated, who asked could a film that was shown on something like YouTube qualify to be in a critic’s top 10 films of the year list? This year, when he compiles his top 10 list, Kohn will put a movie on it that was posted on YouTube called Sita Sings the Blues. Kohn said it’s harder for voices to stick out, but only within this “pre-existing hierarchy.” Online critics especially are leaving that tower. The art form is surviving, but we have to look in the right places for them.
Hillis moved the discussion to the bloggers, who don’t have the space limitations that print critics do in newspapers and magazines. Is there a new role for the film critic online? Longworth said films like Transformers or even Up in the Air don’t really need her at all, because people will go to see them no matter what. What she tries as much as possible to do is write about movies that do need her. Her job is not just to review what’s out there, but she’s made it her thing to find things that people don’t know about, or if they do know about them, why they care about them. Kohn said that film criticism could be expressed in many ways. If you’re a reporter, you can advocate film and express criticism in that way. Being a film festival programmer is also a unique way of selecting a film you think is good.