Saturday, April 3, 2010

The End of "At the Movies" and the Failures of Mainstream Criticism

The announcement last week of the cancellation of At the Movies, American television’s longest running program dedicated to film criticism, most likely came as a surprise to no one who has followed the recent changes made to the show over the past two years, from the ill conceived, vapid and thankfully short lived era of Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz to the improved-but-still-wounded past year hosted by A.O. Scott and Michael Phillips. The show has never quite managed to find the same spark as it once had before the death of Gene Siskel in 1999, and the loss of Roger Ebert as an onscreen host more or less left the series vulnerable to the alterations and fate it now faces.

However, as important as At the Movies was to me in my youth, I can't say that the end of the series bothers me at all. The apathy on my part towards the series’ demise is rooted in more than just the loss of the famed duo that once stood at the core of the show. The main problem the series has struggled with over the past decade has been one of identity: just what is/was the point of the show?

At one time, At the Movies it was about seeing two knowledgeable, intelligent, and passionate film fans discuss the subject they loved so much. It was a show that was at the center of the cultural dialogue for serious film fans, at least in North America. While the format of the show has roughly stayed the same over the years, the passion and sense of purpose has been long gone, with its hosts going through the motions rather than feeling a desire to be hosting the program.

The inability of At the Movies to continue to hold this cultural position is due to several factors, the first and most obvious factor being the rise of the internet. I am not just talking about the democratic nature of the internet mind you, as important as it is, but also how the internet broke the rules which controlled the discussion itself. Film conversations on the web are plural, continuous, and fluid, going in several simultaneous directions at any given moment. As brilliant as At the Movies was, even at its peak it was little more than a sampling of not only the films, but of the critics' thoughts. In a half hour format with several films to get through, plus commercials, the conversations were necessarily short and would cut off just as they were getting started. It was the best we had, so we put up with it.

Not so now. In this era, the real loss would be if Roger Ebert’s blog were cut off, as it gives the man the room to let his thoughts out and engage with a series of intelligent individuals from around the globe, unfiltered. What possible function would a truncated version of this serve? While Ebert may continue to talk of starting a new review program, the purpose of such an endeavour seems murky at best, and pointless at worse. Furthermore, given the large number of voices available on the web, the idea of a single series having such influence over the cultural discourse has long since passed.

This brings us to the second key factor, the value of the "day of" review which shows such as At the Movies provide. The value of such reviews are questionable at best. Not only are such reviews generally ignored, but the format plays against the strengths of talents like Roger Ebert, whose best work is reflective and detailed, going beyond simple recomendations. We want an analysis, not a simple recomendation. While a good review may push us to see a film we may not have sought out before, if we are to be honest, if we are interested in a film, will a bad review really stop film geeks from seeing a film? Most likely, we will see a given film to add our own thoughts to the conversation going on about a given work. Since that conversation is what we often crave, we will get it even if it means sitting through a bad film.

Yet the most important factor to consider is the outright failure of mainstream press criticism and journalism in understanding my apathy towards the end of At the Movies. Pick up your local paper or watch mainstream news programs with a film critic on staff, and you will generally find vapid eye candy designed to sell whatever is released to the viewing public, or a group of individuals who are not so much interested in film but rather in showing off how clever they are to their audience.

Ask yourself: why is it that there have been no new critical “rock stars” in the past twenty years, even on the level of borderline joke Rex Reed? Mostly because the recent crop hasn’t been any good, being little more than a group of narcissists who place themselves before their subject matter. Films for this batch of critics are a means to an end, that end being their face and name in the public eye. These “critics” have little love of film, rendering their thoughts rather pointless to those who give a damn. At the Movies, when it was hosted by the “Bens” was an embodiment of such failings, and a sign of where the series would ultimately have headed again eventually were it not being cancelled now.

The cancellation of At the Movies is thus little more than the final admission that the world of film criticism for the serious film fan has been radically altered, a point which the fans themselves have known about for quite some time. Yet at the same time, given that the point of the series was to do little more than to provoke, discussion of film, nothing has really changed. The conversation is where it has always been:

Wherever the hell you are.

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