It seems like we can’t go a week without sweating over some perceived fadeout of film criticism in America. Between the millions spent on targeted marketing for major studio extravaganzas and the broader concerns over the waning of print journalism, many argue that film critics lack the power that the Pauline Kaels and Roger Eberts once had to affect moviegoer decisions, going so far as to label any potential blockbuster as “critic-proof.” But I would argue that two remarkable stories in the past week alone go a long way toward proving that critics are still having their say, and that people are still listening.
First, the trades have been abuzz in the past couple days over death threats being issued to critics who have dared to dislike the latest Batman epic, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES. In fact, Rotten Tomatoes has seen fit to remove the comments section from its DARK KNIGHT RISES page, as the vitriol and cruelty being spewed back at critics by Dark Knight defenders were apparently too distasteful even for the Internet, which is truly saying something.
I’ll let someone else speaks to the ills of our society reflected in these comments, but the point I want to make from this overwhelming response is that average moviegoers are clearly still reading the critics’ reviews. Indeed, considering that all of this is happening days before the film even opens, it seems that people are reading them as soon as they can get their hands on them, desperate for a hint as to whether or not a film will meet their expectations. Sure, these people are likely to go see THE DARK KNIGHT RISES regardless of what they read in the reviews. But the opinions contained in those reviews obviously still mean something to readers. Apparently, they mean a great deal.
Second, while DARK KNIGHT is clearly the theatrical release on everyone’s minds, last week, a little film that could was the home video release that had all the critics talking, loudly. Kenneth Lonergan’s latest film, MARGARET, had a truly extraordinary (for some, excruciating) journey to its ultimate Blu-ray/DVD release last Tuesday. The woes of the film have been well-documented but, long story short, the film was originally scheduled for release in 2007 yet ultimately didn’t make its way to theaters until last September.
While YOU CAN COUNT ON ME, the last film Lonergan directed before MARGARET, was an Oscar-nominated indie hit, Lonergan himself was certainly not a household name. In other words, while the film was languishing in post-production and then on studio shelves, there wasn’t a legion of fanboys fighting tooth and nail for its release, a benefit that filmmakers like Guillermo del Toro or Peter Jackson would certainly enjoy. So who was responsible for the growing tide of support that ultimately washed MARGARET to the shores of theatrical and home video release? You guessed it: the critics.
One by one, film critics got the chance to see Lonergan’s film and immediately began declaring it a “thwarted masterpiece,” a “cinematic wonder.” Then something extraordinary happened, and it happened on Twitter. Followers who kept up with these critics’ tweets began to notice an overwhelmingly positive consensus forming around MARGARET, and these followers decided they wanted to see the film for themselves, resulting in the hashtag #TeamMargaret. The number of tweets begging for the film to be released continued to grow, all featuring this hashtag, until the film was finally released in theaters and, now, on home video in both a theatrical and extended cut.
Go back and look at just about any film critic’s Twitter feed from the past few weeks, and you’ll see that MARGARET was the focus of everyone’s attention. From debates over the theatrical cut vs. extended cut to links featuring Lonergan’s Q&As that followed recent MARGARET screenings, the critical ardor for this film has been all-encompassing and infectious, guiding thousands of followers to band together and resurrect a film long thought lost.
That’s why I struggle to worry too much about the state of film criticism in this country. Beloved critics like Dana Stevens (@thehighsign) and Matt Zoller Seitz (@mattzollerseitz) are some of the liveliest presences on Twitter. Last week, I enjoyed a vigorous debate between A.O. Scott (@AOScott) of the New York Times and Richard Brody (@TNYFrontRow) of The New Yorker on the merits of BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD, carried out entirely on Twitter. Sure, we must acknowledge the economic implications that might prevent critics from earning a living writing for print or online periodicals, which is where they do their most fleshed-out work. Stephanie Zacharek (@SZacharek), one of the finest critics writing today, was recently released from her post at Movieline, robbing that site of a great journalistic voice. But they can’t take her Twitter followers away from her. And that’s why everything is going to be okay.