By James Pero
Honored, a little moved, and slightly freaked out: that’s how Manhola Dargis, the New York Times’ chief film critic and SUNY Purchase graduate, felt taking the stage at Purchase’s Performing Arts Center, where she and a distinguished troupe of panelists discussed the role of the modern critic.
“I’m trying to remember the last time I was actually on campus; I think I saw some plays here, and I think I saw Glenn Branca here,” she told the audience. “Anyway, I’m not going to take you down memory lane. What I’m going to do tonight is talk to three of the smartest people I know.”
The people to whom Dargis was referring were three fellow critics: Wesley Morris, staff writer at Grantland; Emily Nussbaum, television critic at The New Yorker; and Amy Taubin, contributing editor at the British Sight and Sound.
For the modestly-sized audience, the objective of the Sept. 28 lecture was to illuminate the role of the critic in today’s media landscape. In the fashion of any good writer, they opted mostly to show rather than tell by meandering through topics ranging from the evolution of television to the rise of online comment sections, occasionally descending into spirited discussions about quality content in the world of film and TV—
an occupational hazard for three of the country’s most prominent
One of the longest and most in-depth discussions of the night centered on what all four critics acknowledged was a growing “crisis in criticism,” the dynamics of which are affected by the very industries that critics cover.
“About ten years ago, there was a lot of discussion about a ‘crisis in criticism,’” Dargis said. “But you don’t hear that much anymore, because I think in a lot ways we started to realize that the crisis was not so much in criticism, but that the crisis was really in journalism.”
The panelists explained that with the rapid decline in print journalism and therefore widespread layoffs, establishment jobs—like the ones occupied by Nussbaum and the like—are increasingly harder to come by.
Nussbaum, referring to an interview for Rookie magazine in which she outlined the rather grim prospects of rising to a job like hers one day, was only interrupted by a brief interjection from Dargis who took a minute to veer the coversation clear
“How are we [not] bumming you out?” Dargis said to an audience rife with journalism students. “I am so sorry.”
Inversely, while critic jobs—at least ones that pay a proper salary—dwindle, the amount of movies and television shows released continue to barrel through the roof.
“Now, the New York Film Festival had 3,000 features apply for 26 slots, most of them being first-time features,” Taubin said. “At the same time, where there are fewer and fewer places to write cultural criticism where you can get paid, the amount of stuff being made has gone up tenfold.”
Dargis, who during the early 2000s was the chief critic for the L.A. Times, told the audience that during her tenure at the L.A. Times there were approximately 1,200 employees, and now there are just 600.
Newsrooms around the country have gone through a similar shift. According to CNN Money, the New York Times’ headcount had shrunk by half between 2009 and 2014, and Dargis said, at least in regard to cuts at L.A. Times critics were often the first to go.
This cut in employment and spike in the amount of films and television shows being released—the latter of which can be summed by a 1,000 percent increase in scripted shows for cable since 1999, according to Variety—has led to an unavoidable blind spot in coverage.
“Fifteen years ago there were about 400 movies [that] opened up in New York City,” Dargis said, adding that fellow chief critic at the New York Times, A.O. Scott, started keeping track. “A couple years ago, the number climbed to 600, and then 700, and then it was 800. I mean, every year it was another hundred movies…Last year it was 1,000.”
Dargis went on to explain that because of the influx coupled with the decline in staff, the New York Times, which had
traditionally reviewed every movie opening up in New York, had to begin capping.
For both the publications and the critics themselves, these new dynamics are a problem that remains to be solved.
“You want people to see movies that don’t have $200 million budgets. You want people to see movies that don’t have wall-to-wall commercials. You want people to see something besides a Michael Bay movie,” Dargis said. “How are people supposed to make choices when there are so many choices?”