That oft-oft-oft-repeated Chinese curse — “May you live in interesting times” — might have been directed at film critics, who have certainly lived through their share of tumult, chaos and change in recent years, not a lot of it good. At this point, the reader probably expects the usual catalogue of complaints. But why whine? We are living not just through interesting but transitory times. No one can accurately foresee the future. Even the present is amorphous. And as a certain novelist with a short-lived screenwriting career once observed, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Those who practice criticism – which is as old as art and, in fact, IS art – straddle, in their work, all three stages of existence: We weigh the worth of the current cinema against its antecedents, evaluate the ongoing metamorphosis of the medium, and assess, by way of both experience and native instinct what it all means — and will. We members of the New York Film Critics Circle are egomaniacal enough to believe that people not only have an interest in reading what we write – a peculiarity of scribes in every genre — but we also believe that the content of our work has value as something other than entertainment. Much like good cinema. What we try to determine in the day-to-day practice of our craft – or what Hyman Roth would have referred to as “the business that we have chosen,” had he been a film critic, instead of a scheming, bloodthirsty mobster — is what distinguishes wheat from chaff, slag from sterling, cubic zirconia from … you get the picture. We also give out prizes at the end of the year, to validate good movies, and our own splendid taste.
Doing so is like herding cats. Despite the efforts of such on-line aggregators as Rotten Tomatoes to find some kind of critical consensus for even the most complex and nuanced movie (a.k.a criticism for dummies) no two critics, or films, are alike. At the risk of giving away state secrets, the method of voting for Best Picture at the NYFCC’s end-of-year meetings involves each member putting his or her favorite on a scrap of paper, throwing them in a hat, and establishing where we all stand, and what we’d like to champion. Often enough, the answer is 30 different movies.
Our culture is one in which entertainment, and politics, too, increasingly pander to an individual’s pre-existing opinions, and taste, and ignorance — few people, it seems, put music on their Ipods that they don’t already love, thus precluding the chance they might be exposed to the (shudder) unknown. Very few people watch MSNBC or Fox News without already agreeing with what’s about to spill forth. Fewer and fewer movies monkey with formula. So it’s an increasingly rare member of society who makes it is or her business to confront the new on a daily basis, even if the “new” can ultimately seem recycled, tired, and trite. But this points up something that defies any stereotypes and cartoonish representations of critics (which ultimately serve only to further the cause of mediocrity): Rather than misanthropic curmudgeons sharpening their scalpels, film critics are eternal optimists, blithely strolling into each new film with the frequently misguided notion that what they are about to watch won’t be an act of cultural criminality, or, even worse, boring. It takes a certain kind of bravery, constitution and Sisyphean persistence to do that 300-odd times a year. It’s something you have to love to do. And we do.