It’s not just a coincidence that the decline of the film critic happened at the same time as the rise of the documentary. I bring this up as I prepare for a trip to the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival in Toronto, where I’ll be taking part in a panel on film criticism tomorrow (Tuesday at 1:30; come on down!).
I’ve mulled the issue of documentary criticism and how reviewers are too nice to them before. Frankly, the issue doesn’t get old for me, nor it seems for many of those of us who care about such things. There have been similar panels at True/False and the Tribeca Film Festival this year. I’ll admit, we who write and think about documentaries constantly may be small in number, but we don’t lack for passion.
And this is what’s bothering some of us: if documentaries are such a brilliantly evocative way to tell the truth through cinematic storytelling, then all documentaries should not be treated the same. There should be a hierarchy. Some are better than others. Nor should they be judged on a curve, given a pass, as it were, that fiction narratives don’t get.
But there’s another problem that’s been less considered: I think we’re beginning to suffer from an overload of documentaries. Call it, doc glut. And someone’s got to help separate the wheat from the chaff.
So, let’s loop back to that first proposition: that film criticism has imploded at the same time that documentaries have exploded. Pauline Kael and other such critics no longer rule the day. A film’s life can no longer be determined by the strike of a typewriter key. Of course, this notion has always been exaggerated, but the question is that as more credence is given to a Tweet by a 16-year-old fanboy than a well-considered review by an old guy sitting behind a desk, do the documentaries stand to lose or gain?
Honestly, it’s difficult to say. But it’s clear to me that the rise of the documentary is very much a part of the same technological-cultural phenomenon as the decline of the all-powerful critic. It’s all part of the digital age we live in.
It’s worth mentioning, I think, that no one better personifies these shifting plates than the recently passed Roger Ebert. As a critic, one who held as much power as anyone, spanning from the old world of criticism to the current one, Ebert also just so happened to be one of the great documentary advocates of our time.
He’s the guy who picked Errol Morris out of crowd, showering praise on his oddity, Gates of Heaven. He also helped put Hoop Dreams on the map, pumping it up with praise, and heralding what became the dawn of the current age of great documentaries. He called Hoop Dreams the best film of the 1990s.
Ebert was seeing things that other critics weren’t.
While he called the 1976 Maysles film, Grey Gardens, “haunting,” “fascinating,” and “mysterious,” giving it four stars, Vincent Canby, of The New York Times, called it “impassive. Also a little cruel.”
The film, which many of us now consider one of the greatest documentaries of all time, was a bomb when it was released. Chad Curtis, of Vogue, called it “exploitative, tasteless and frankly reprehensible.”
So much for the heyday of film criticism. I’d contend that many critics, Kael included, didn’t know what they were looking at.
Ebert did, because he had more of a populist (which is not to be confused with stupid or simple) point of view.
What this all suggests to me is that we need more doc literate film critics, who can recognize what’s great in a documentary, and to call them out. For my money, A.O. Scott, of The New York Times, does a pretty good job at that.
But, just as much, we also need more critics to call out the bad ones. It’s not as easy as it sounds, however. I’m no critic, but even I have difficulty. In fact, I recently saw two films that I really didn’t care for but I just can’t put my money where my mouth is: I’m scared to pan them here.
The old reasons come up: who gains from a negative review? Would my little negative critique really help forward the form?
This is my preamble to what may come tomorrow in Toronto: I hope to spill the beans on a couple of documentaries that I’d will criticize. I want to see what it sounds like coming out of my mouth in a public forum.
If you’re there, you can take me to task for it.