Two big stories relating to film critics are once again bringing up questions about the role of film criticism today. Because the world needs another piece on the state of film criticism, I found this a most dire subject to write on, though I think one story highlights the other, so bear with me. The two stories individually have been getting a lot of notoriety, one for its complete idiocy and the other for its idealistic advocacy. I’ll start with the more banal story first.
If you picked up a New Yorker yesterday and flipped to the movie section, you may have read David Denby’s review of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the highly anticipated adaptation of the Stieg Larson novel from Social Network director David Fincher and produced by Scott Rudin. In publishing the review, however, Denby broke perhaps the one big rule film critics have to follow: don’t publish your reviews until the studio says so, a so-called “embargo.” A series of emails, published by The Playlist, follow the back and forth between Denby and Rudin, which highlight the triviality on both sides.
To be frank, the whole thing feels like a schoolyard dick-measuring contest. But Rudin’s point to Denby that the film “has been badly damaged” by the early review is something to really scoff at. When you have a huge blockbuster like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, one knows people are going to go to it, whether or not reviews are good. How many teenage girls decided to skip out on Twilight: Breaking Dawn because David Edelstein gave it a middling review? Embargos on films let studios control the press on their films to give it the most exposure, but when it comes to a film that is going to be plastered on billboards everywhere, Rudin’s anger seems misplaced.
However, that doesn’t mean film critics don’t have their place, which brings me to the story of Margaret, Kenneth Lonergan’s ambitious masterpiece that came and went without much notice when released in September. Because of the film’s legal troubles, the distributor, Fox Searchlight more or less dumped the film, while the few major trades that did review somewhat dismissed it. But soon, other critics—Ben Keningsberg, Alison Wilmore, Matt Singer, Richard Brody, and Glenn Kenny, among others—caught up with it during its release and herald it a masterpiece, or at least something of merit worth more than two weeks and little advertizing. I managed to catch up with it during the second-to-last day of its theatrical release and went particularly over the moon as well.
As Margaret disappeared from existence, however, #teammargaret, a Twitter hashtag to fight for the film’s existence was born. The whole thing played like an inside joke for film critics until last week, on the eve of the film’s UK release. With raves coming from London film critics, including a pair of five star reviews from The Guardian and The Telegraph, Slant film critic Jamie Christley launched a petition to Fox Searchlight to get the film back in discussion by making the film accessible for critics for their end-of-year awards. While that doesn’t necessarily help people who don’t get press invites, the wave of buzz led to staggering numbers in the United Kingdom--The Guardian reports a weekend gross of £4,595 ($7,170). “That number gave Margaret the highest screen average of any film on release, by some margin. This, despite the film only receiving one evening showtime per day (at 8pm), due to its hefty duration of 150 minutes.” Next weekend, Searchlight has decided to expand the film to ten screens in the UK, which rivals the entire number of screens it played in the United States.
Critical advocacy of making “must see films” has no real relevance when a studio like Sony Pictures has millions to spend on The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, but in the micro-independent world, it can be the difference between a one screen wonder and an art house hit. PaddyConsidine’s Tyrannosaur got middling reviews when released in the States on November 18th, though it managed to snag a number of trophies at the British Independent Film Awards last weekend. When I attempted to see it two weeks ago, it was pushed to a smaller theater and given two show times on Saturday: 11AM and Midnight. Small films need people to champion them to say alive in this market. Film critics are not journalists in the same way those who write about economics or politics are supposed to be; our job is to be biased, and no more is that essential than when it comes to the art house. It can be the difference between a one-week limited engagement and a US expansion. On a post discussing both Margaret as well as the US release of Edward Yang’s 1991 A Brighter Summer Day, Glenn Kenny writes, “Putting Margaret, which is maybe not one of THE great films but is an entirely noteworthy and provocative/involving/engrossing one, on [a Top Ten List] might not only result in more people seeing and enjoying the film, not to mention maybe securing a DVD (or even Blu-ray!) release of the picture.”
So here’s my question: If Mr. Denby were not reviewing The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo early, but perhaps a film that needed every review to be glowing and every critic on Twitter chirping to survive, would the case be different? It really does change the situation, though if Denby was trying to herald a tiny film, he probably would do his best to make sure the audience makes it there. An early review, even a positive one like Mr. Denby’s, posted two weeks before audiences are even trying to figure out what to see, can be the difference maker in steering the conversation. Mr. Denby’s review instead feels like the critic and the magazine simply wanting to be first on the film—advocacy need not apply. When it comes to big journalists and big studios, these debates seem mindless and pettiness. But when it comes to the art house, often everything is on the line, and sometimes, all someone needs to do is say, “Have you heard of Margaret? It’s very, very good.”