We who take it as a vocation to criticize the efforts of others must take great care to keep our own behavior above reproach. It is particularly bad form to take a fellow critic to task when he or she makes a judgment that seems
Every holiday season, dozens of writers attempt to trivialize the holiday season through popular culture. Chestnuts like It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street and A Christmas Story are stretched in order to say greater things about our society – statements like the spirit of giving in the face of economic adversity or the deep strain of melancholy that bubbles under everyone’s holiday season, regardless of how many friends and family members one has to rally round.
No such messages can be shoehorned into the bloated, live-action adaptation of Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas, released unto an unsuspecting public ten Christmas seasons ago. But its twisted, restructured narrative and garish design not only makes it a prime exhibit of how not to celebrate the season on film, but also makes it an excellent flop to rediscover in the discount bins of your local supermarket.
Theodor Giesel’s original tale of The Grinch is simple yet engaging: the perpetually grumpy antagonist attempts to rob the citizens of Whoville of their Christmas presents and decorations, but when they joyously celebrate without all the trimmings, they teach The Grinch the true meaning of the season and he happily, heartily joins them. While it’s completely effective, it is, like most Seuss books, short. The famed 1966 television adaptation, brilliantly animated by Chuck Jones (who turned the character from black and white to green and gave him an iconic voice in Boris Karloff), ran for 25 minutes. Naturally, a feature-length version requires padding; the live-action Grinch, clocking in at 101 minutes,may as well be wearing a fat suit.
I got the word from a chart published on Movie City News, which showed that there were 122 working film critics in the U.S…scratch that, 117, as the chart was revised. It’s been revised again, slightly upwards, and is a “work in progress”–but the progression can only be downwards. With print publications going the way of the covered wagon and online venues that actually pay snapping the purses shut, it wouldn’t surprise me if the number dipped below 100 by year’s end. Hell, by July. There’s no bailout or stimulus package on the way, or earmarks for film criticism, either.
I’ve written movie reviews since grade school (first critique: The Return of the Pink Panther, 1974) but I’ve never come close to the making the grade on this chart. The most I’ve ever earned from film writing (mostly profiles and trend pieces, not reviews) was in the four figures, and I’ll be lucky to see that again. It must be said, of course, that salaries for fully employed film critics who don’t have their own TV shows have never exactly been stratospheric. Whether you’re on or off this chart, you’re always doing this for love, from the bottom of your heart–and your savings account.
Coming across this chart is like finding a hit list. I want to shout, “John Beifuss, look out! Run, Rick Bentley, run!” But, like Burt Lancaster in The Killers, they realize the inevitable is coming. I don’t know them, or their writing, but they represent parts of the country that will no longer have a local voice to help separate the good, the bad, and the ugly in movies if they get the axe. And that is a shame. (My hometown paper, The Morristown, New Jersey Daily Record, has an AP autodrone, completely disconnected from the market, as its critic.) I don’t know what the high-water mark for film critics was in this country, but the business of movie criticism is dying a slow death, not unlike the unplugged HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey. John, Rick, and the rest of the shakily employed brethren must think “Daisy…Daissyyy…Daiiiisssyyyy” as they show up for another uncertain day in the office, the last of their tribe.
All of this was on my mind today as I headed down to Rider University in NJ yesterday to participate in a film criticism panel moderated by my colleague at Cineaste magazine, Cindy Lucia. Another of the Cineaste elite, Richard Porton, and Kevin Lally, who has been at the helm of The Film Journal for 25 years now, joined me. The panel was something of an offshoot of a gripping Critical Symposium the magazine published last year on the state of the art, “Film Criticism in the Age of the Internet.” I’m in there, keeping on pennilessly in print and online. But anyone who writes about film, and who cares about the medium, has to be concerned about the loss of important individual and regional gatekeepers, who are being swallowed up as surely as Marion Crane‘s car in Norman Bates’ swamp in Psycho.