by Peter Suderman
The two best movies I've seen this summer, District 9 (which I reviewed for Reason here) and The Hurt Locker are both smart, inventive, relatively low budget action films. Both are clearly products of directors with strong, clear, and unusual visions that somehow snuck through the Hollywood production pipeline largely intact. That this is a rarity in American studio filmmaking and even more so in summer action films hardly needs to be said. And as a sometime-critic, regular moviegoer, and devotee of summer movies, both small and large, I rather obviously wish that this weren't true.
Yet I can't agree with Roger Ebert's contention that, essentially, dumb Americansand in particular, dumb teenagersare ruining the U.S. film industry. His evidence basically boils down to the box office scores for three filmsTransformers 2 and G.I. Joe, which critics hated but made big bucks, and The Hurt Locker, which critics loved but has been comparatively little seen.
Granted, he also complains about the dearth of good satire, the general lack of interest in old media, and the perception of movie critics as an out-of-touch elite (which he agrees they are, but doesn't think that's a bad thing). But all in all, it's pretty thin stuff.
Take, for example, his primary gripe, the relative box office failure of The Hurt Locker: Critically beloved films fall through the cracks all the time, and it's not as if audiences are going out of their way to irritate the nation's critics: Star Trek and Up, for example, were widely praised and did great box office. Moreover, Ebert totally ignores the way The Hurt Locker's box office has been affected by its limited release. The Hurt Locker was released the same weekend as Transformers 2, and slowly expanded from an initial release onto a mere four screens to a 535 screen release last weekend. Transformers 2, meanwhile, hit 4,234 screens its first weekend in release. Naturally, its grosses were far higher overall: But the thing is, for the first five weekends the films were in release, The Hurt Locker far outperformed Transformers 2 on per-screen average. In other words, the The Hurt Locker played in fewer places, but where it did play, it proved extremely popular.
Numbers aside, I think Ebert's gripes are really just a proxy for something more personal. What Ebert's really complaining about, it seems to me, are declining prospects and influence for movie critics. Critics at daily papers all over the country are being let go. And Transformers 2 was so successful, despite overwhelmingly negative reviews, that, for the release of G.I. Joe, the film's studio declined to show the movie to most criticsa move typically associated with extremely low-budget, second-rate genre films rather than with big-budget summer tentpoles. It's not much of a trend, but it does suggest that the opinions of professional movie-watchers may not matter as much as they used to.
Of course, they still matter to those critics whose livelihood comes from crafting them, which is probably why Ebert doesn't just see movies as getting dumber, but American culture and discourse as a whole: He seems to have projected the decline of professional criticism onto the country's entire cultural apparatus. As much as I love movie reviewingreading it, writing it, arguing about itI'm not so arrogant as to think that it's really essential to the polity, certainly not in its daily-paper, professionalized form. Call me a populist or a philistine, but, like Jeff Jarvis, I don't think it's terribly important to have a slew of full-time critics spread out through the nation.
Anyway, as John Podhoretz recently pointed out, the golden age of newspapers and professional criticism wasn't actually so golden. And at the same time, as daily critics have been let go, amateur and semi-professional criticism on the web has already picked up a lot of the slack: Movies, and intelligent commentary about them, will survive without a small army of newspaper-salaried geeks being paid to sit in theaters all day.