Sunday, April 20, 2008

Film critic Michael Atkinson on the decline of full-time film critics/reviewers.

Film critic/writer Michael Atkinson, someone I remember reading in THE VILLAGE VOICE pre-Mike "NEW TIMES" Lacey's reign-of-a-thousand-layoffs, has printed this take on the pinkslipping of full-time newspaper/magazine film critics/reviewers on his blog ZERO FOR CONDUCT:

...a cynical voice from the film-reviewing wilderness in regards to the recent Night of the Knives for American film critics, a bloodletting that seemed to begin with me when I was dumped, from the PTSNBN, in '06 (or maybe it just looks that way from here)... Essentially, I cannot be terribly surprised; the existence of full-time staff film reviewers is a nutty aberration in the history of periodical publishing, just as are (or were) book reviewers and theater reviewers, from a business point of view. I'd love to see every magazine employ an army of full-time culture reviewers, and pay them millions, but it doesn't make very much sense, for the simple reason that it's not truly a full-time job.  If you're David Ansen, say, you might see three or four movies a week, and be asked to generate maybe a 1000 or 1500 words of unchallenging copy reviewing them, and the time thus taken shouldn't take you more than ten, eleven hours, max. That's a part-time job. I treated it, and continue to treat it, as just one part of my work-life and income, because I've had to. But when I was handed a staff position, I felt as if I was running a scam. All of the hubbub surrounding the firings and buyouts seems, from anywhere out there in the real world, like a lot of whining, about how certain writers won't be paid a full-on living wage for watching a movie a day and then writing for a few hours about them, every week. The cops, bartenders, union agents, managers, editors and public school teachers I know would look on that job as a vacation.

Of course, those jobs existed to begin with because publishers and editors thought writers were valuable, and paid them to sit on their asses (like they still do at The New Yorker) because they wanted those writers' availability and flow of copy. But today that's far less important. The pancaking financial burden, and quarterly losses, of newspaper and magazine publishing is certainly one aspect of it. So is the undeniable sense that critics in general, being the last independent defense standing against a full-court press of consumerist ideology, may be doomed because of their adversarial position toward the corporate sell-machines that pay them.

But there's also this: the writing isn't valued anymore, and not only because there's a certain amount (not much) of decent writing to be had on the net, for free. Interesting expository writing, the kind that only a few writers can write, the kind that takes a retained high school education to read and understand, is just not considered of value in our culture. By evolution or design (I'd vote for the latter), we're much stupider now than we were 40 or 80 years ago, a simple fact that can be proven to any fool by a comparison between 1968 and today, by way of the two eras' political speech rhetoric, song lyrics, movie content, fiction bestsellers, primetime TV programming, magazine syntax, school curricula, so on and so on. If we as a culture couldn't find the interest and patience for, say, A.J. Leibling or H.L. Mencken or George Santayana or Rebecca West or Bertrand Russell or George Orwell — and, if they were writing today, no interest or patience would be expended upon them at all — then paying talented writers a staff wage nowadays makes no practical sense. Writers who can hit that middle ground, the one without demanding subclauses or allusions, etc., are a dime a dozen, and do not need to be kept on retainer. If writing in America is a matter for the common denominatorship, then we're all freelancers, and we'd better face up to it.

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