An audience watches a film in a time BT (Before Twitter). Should we reminisce fondly about those halcyon days, when not everyone was a have-a-go critic? Image: Getty
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Is everyone really a critic?

User-generated content is driving out expert or elite opinion and this is affecting the film reviewing trade in particular.

Hatchet Job: Love Movies, Hate Critics
Mark Kermode
Picador, 256pp, £16.99

The rhino-skinned, imperturbable Stephen Fry spoke for a nation of fragile creatives when he asked, “What decent person would want to spend a life picking and cavilling?” Setting aside that there is more to arts criticism than spotting a Viking extra wearing a wristwatch, he probably won’t have professional critics – of film, music or anything – to complain about for much longer.

The internet and social media have trapped the scribbler-in-the-dark in a pincer movement. The former has pushed newspapers into such penury that editors increasingly see their arts desks as luxuries (the Independent on Sunday fired all of its critics in September). The latter offer up the prospect of a more “democratic” critical landscape, forgetting that the sales chart is a fairly democratic measure of what the public thinks and that some perspectives on works of art cannot be expressed in 140 characters.

Nevertheless, user-generated content is driving out expert or elite opinion and this is affecting the film reviewing trade in particular. “Everyone’s a critic” is no longer a Hollywood curse but a simple statement of fact. If reviewers can’t get paid, where are the next Barry Normans, Alexander Walkers and Pauline Kaels going to come from? Do we even need them?

Mark Kermode, the Observer’s cinema critic and co-host with Simon Mayo of the best movie programme available at present in any medium (Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review, BBC Radio 5 Live, Fridays, 2pm), is better placed than most to ride out the twilight of the critics and understand its consequences. An educated movie man moulded by the film underground of the 1970s and 1980s – loves The Exorcist and Silent Running; hates Michael Bay and 3D projection – he still reacts to cinema with the open-minded enthusiasm of someone who sees going to the pictures as a treat.

Kermode’s technique on the radio is to scatter nuggets of theory and insight through highly amusing digressions as Mayo plays plain-speaking Ernie to his fulminating Bert. (You can tell Kermode loves cinema because it makes him so angry.) This approach works less well in print, where the reader may want to yell “cut” at overlong anecdotes about film-makers who’ve confronted the writer over a bad review.

Hatchet Job doesn’t quite deliver on the premise of its title. In fact, it’s a valiant defence of what Kermode calls proper movie criticism: writing that is thoughtful, informed and, above all, honest. Anyone who wants to read a true bestiary of harsh reviews should run, not walk, to a copy of I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie by Kermode’s hero Roger Ebert instead.

Hatchet Job is, however, entertaining. It is actually two books, intercut like Ran (if you know your Cahiers du Cinéma) or Pulp Fiction (if you don’t) into one. In the first strand, Kermode argues that because cruel reviews are undoubtedly more fun to read and to write than positive ones, the internet’s supply of ignorant snark is bound to increase. Unlike obscure tweeters, the professionals have skin in the game, be it their utility as a recommender of quality, their reputation for factual accuracy, or just their paycheque. Nobody ever got kicked off Facebook for getting stuff wrong or making stuff up about a movie.

But since the advent of the audience test screening – see Kermode’s forensic account of how the original “operatic” ending of the bunny-boiling thriller Fatal Attraction was replaced with a pandering finale to ensure that the “bitch” got her comeuppance – it’s been a given that the public is always right. Recuts based on audience or Twitter reaction would have given us a neutered Casablanca in which Rick gets the girl, Kermode argues. With critics diminished, there is one less line of defence to point out that what the audience wants is not necessarily what it needs.

This is lowering stuff but the second strand, which could be subtitled “Great Squabbles in Movie History”, leavens it. Among other detours, Kermode presents lively recaps of the feud between the maverick director Ken Russell and his nemesis, the Evening Standard’s morally upright critic Alexander Walker; and a chivalrous retelling of the erratic but probably underappreciated career of John Boorman of Deliverance fame and Zardoz infamy. His picture of a lost world of itinerant reviewers subsisting on complimentary sandwiches in screening rooms across Soho is hopelessly sentimental but, hey, so is Silent Running.

Not being clairvoyant, Kermode is unclear about what will happen to film criticism when the digital dust settles – if it ever does. I suspect that he will do what Ebert did: expand his reach through video blogs, the web and any other means to consolidate a global brand. But the world needed only one Roger Ebert and it may only need one Mark Kermode. How their successors will earn a crust, hone their trade and spread their personal brand remains to be seen.

This article first appeared in the 23 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Russell Brand Guest Edit

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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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