HAS DIGITAL KILLED THE MOVIE CRITIC?

By Apurva Asrani

Today everyone is a critic. The day a new film releases, patrons inside cinema halls play fastest finger first to ‘live tweet’ their reviews. So if the movie critic has to stay relevant, then he or she must have her review out early enough to avoid getting buried under the plethora of opinions that proliferate online. The critic must therefore clamour for an invite to a preview screening, often held just a day before the release, and then rush to the laptop to write a speedy review.

Did the critic have enough time to think about the film? Or get a chance to sleep over it, and wake up to a ‘settled’ opinion? Was the critic able to re-read and edit the piece to find a balanced view? In most cases, I would think not. And If anyone or anything suffers in this scenario—it is the film. A work of art that took years to conceive, write, shoot, edit and score becomes something that is judged within minutes of being watched.

When filmmaker Stanley Kubrick was asked if he ever learned anything about his work from film critics, he said “No. To see a film once and write a review is an absurdity. Yet very few critics ever see a film twice or write about films from a leisurely, thoughtful perspective. The reviews that distinguish most critics, unfortunately, are those slam-bang pans which are easy to write, and fun to write, and absolutely useless. There’s not much in a critic showing off how clever he is at writing silly, supercilious gags about something he hates.”

I’m sure many critics must begin thinking up their review while still watching the film. If one were to peek inside their minds, one might hear rapidly changing thoughts, “Great opening: four stars. No, the actor is weak, so three. But the direction is quite slick, so I’ll go with three and a half. Too stretched; maybe only two and a half stars!’

Come Friday, when a new film releases, its PR machinery goes into overdrive to ensure a ‘positive buzz’. There is so much content out there, and if a film has to stand out in the noise, well, it is expected to generate even more noise. Positive tweets from viewers are rewarded by a retweet from the stars headlining the film, and this can result in hundreds of retweets from their fans. But If you dissed the film, you’ll probably feel pretty lonely, with zero action on your tweet.

Have you noticed how, within a day of its release, the film’s publicity material will carry positive ratings from select critics who of course said good things? This advertising masquerading as genuine reviews is published in leading newspapers, and the name of the critic travels to every household in the country. Fame isn’t such a bad reward is it? I even know of instances where the PR team will text a critic while still in the theatre, to request a one-liner review with a rating. Why wait till you’ve even written the review? The ad has to go to print—do you want to be famous or not?

Some critics wake up to find their newspaper changed their rating to a more favourable one. The paper relies on ad-spend, and many studios pay big money to promote their films. Terrible reviews could mean that the rival paper gets the full page ad. And if the critic continues to review unfavourably, they will soon be given the boot. Maybe that’s why you will often find critics reviewing the big studio’s brain-dead, big release in the most forgiving tones, like “It’s quite silly, the actors ham and the script is shallow, but its so much fun. Just leave your brains at home and watch it.” How one can surgically remove a live brain just before a screening is still a mystery to me.

Another phenomenon that plagues many of our critics is that they have to play reporters too. Which means that to keep their job they are expected to get the inside stories from the sets of a film, and even interview its actors. Imagine the plight of the reviewer; On one hand you pull up an actor for not doing a good job, and on the other you call him to request an interview. There is little chance that the reviewer will be obliged; unless of course she/he promises to present good to moderate views about the actor.

Todays critics are forced to make alliances with film producers and directors, hoping to take their writing to the screen and out of this saturated rut. Needless to say, this is an absolute conflict of interest. Once I was nominated for a screenwriting award and there was a renowned film critic sitting near me, nominated for the same award. I won, and the critic was obviously crushed. I soon noticed that that critic just stopped reviewing my films after that.

I often wonder if the digital age is slowly killing the movie critic.

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Apurva Asrani is a National Award winning filmmaker, film editor and screenwriter based in Mumbai, India. He has a multimedia body of work in film, television and theatre. He is best known for editing films like Satya (1998) and Shahid (2013), and for writing the acclaimed human rights drama Aligarh (2016).