My first reaction to the news that film critic David Ansen was among the 111 staff members laid off at Newsweek was a shrug. Newsweek is the third major periodical to cut its reporting staff in the past few months. Chicago’s CBS affiliate laid off some of its veteran reporters yesterday, too. Today David Carr reports that film critics are getting the ax all across the country, victims of declining ad revenues and loss of readership to the Internet. Film critics like the Village Voice‘s Nathan Lee can now line up for unemployment benefits behind all the book critics laid off last year.
Your own view of these developments depends, I guess, on how you view critics working for mainstream media: Are they impartial arbitrators of cultural values, or cultural mandarins consolidating power and wealth for a corporatized cultural elite? If you want to see a vivid example of this debate, see Michael Billington’s blog entry at the Guardian, in which he takes the BBC to task for championing the theatrical work of a few impresarios while ignoring genuinely creative theatre.
From what I’ve observed, we all have people we trust in cultural matters. It no longer matters where their writing appears. I read Dave Kehr and A.O. Scott and Jonathan Rosenbaum, who just retired from the Chicago Reader. And I read GreenCine and the Guardian film blog, along with more academically-oriented bloggers like Girish Shambu. I turn to each for a different view on the movies. (If anyone knows any film studies grad students or professors with good blogs, by all means let me know.) The cinema is too diverse, too rich to be contained within the pages of a local paper’s entertainment section, but no blogger (yet, anyway) has the clout to champion a small film to the multiplex masses, nor does any blogger I know of have the expense account to attend festivals in Berlin, Toronto, or Buenos Aires, where the best foreign films make their debuts. The Romanian cinema, which is now really hot, was first championed by print media critics.
The disappearing professional film critic is symptomatic of a larger trend in mainstream media, especially print media. If print is being killed off by bloggers, it’s not yet clear how long bloggers can carry the load of informing the public. Nobody’s figured out how to pay for the wisdom of the crowd. If you take it seriously, blogging is hard work, and doing it for free is a tough long-term proposition. I feel like I’m still learning how to do it. But if no one values discourse on film or literature or architecture or art to support it financially, then the producers of these cultural products will suffer as well. Historically, the independent artist arose with the cultural critic; neither is possible without the other. The idea of public taste being shaped by a group of dedicated amateurs is very appealing. However, history also shows that capital has a tendency to concentrate in the hands of a few. One day we may depend on a small group of professional bloggers with even less accountability than the cultural mandarins.
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http://www.statcounter.com/counter/counter.jsThat Nathan Lee lost his job is bad news for everyone who cares about the cinema. If the blogosphere has any role in the future, it should act as a bridge between different groups of cinephiles: professional reviewers, university students and teachers, avid filmgoers. Blogs are fulfilling this role already, but there’s room for improvement. Also, somebody is going to have to figure out how to spread some money around.