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Jewish World Review June 27, 2001 / 6 Tamuz, 5761

Paul Campos

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The corruption of the critics -- WHEN it was revealed recently that Sony Pictures had invented an imaginary critic to produce glowing quotations about the studio's films, executives at the studio expressed shock and horror that such a thing could happen. Now that the studio has been caught in an even more egregious fraud (it ran a commercial in which an African-American studio employee feigned being part of a dating couple that had just seen the film The Patriot, after Sony's market research indicated the film was doing poorly among African-Americans, and as a date movie) these same executives are expressing . . . shock and horror.

In the wake of these revelations some film critics have noted the absurdity of efforts to manufacture fraudulent quotes (several other studios have now confessed to similar transgressions), given the lengths to which the studios already go to produce "legitimate" favorable press. The well-known critic Roger Ebert has described in amusing detail the junkets enjoyed by what he calls "quote whores." Basically, critics from from across the nation are flown to Los Angeles, where they are accommodated in first class hotels, treated to sumptuous buffets, etc., and then asked for their impressions regarding the mise en scene of Dude, Where's My Car?

Indeed, so as not to inconvenience their guests unnecessarily, the studios often compose the quotations attributed to the critic, who is then asked if the following bon mot is the sort of thing that captures the gist of the critic's reaction to the latest installment of Jerry Bruckheimer's ever-swelling oeuvre.

Speaking of France, here is a description of the techniques employed by Giacomo Meyerbeer, the most popular opera composer of the 19th century: "Anxious to keep the press on his side, Meyerbeer would always invite the critics, before every premiere, to a splendid dinner at a fashionable hotel. No critic is on record as ever having turned down an invitation.

" 'How can a man of decent feeling,' one of them pleaded, 'write harshly of a fellow who has been pouring the choicest vintages of France and the most delicate tidbits of sea, air, forest, orchard and garden down one's throat? Try it. You will find the thing impossible.' There were critics who had been in receipt of large pensions from Meyerbeer for decades . . . Meyerbeer used to defend this by saying he did not put these gentlemen under obligations. He was the person obliged, and he could not see anything wrong in giving evidence of his gratitude to them."

Nothing is easier than to criticize critics. Nevertheless, I don't envy the lot of the contemporary film critic, even when I imagine him hesitating between another slice of carpaccio and the Chocolate Decadence Surprise. For one thing, consider that in all likelihood he is someone who began reviewing films because he loved the work of directors such as John Ford, or Stanley Kubrick, or Martin Scorsese.

Yet if he applies the standards relevant to the work of such artists to 99 percent of the movies he is required to review, his reviews would consist of the same four-word sentence: "This film is trash." But will anyone pay him to point this out? Obviously not. In other words he finds himself in a professional situation in which he is more or less obligated to think of Gladiator as a fairly good film. But if Gladiator is a fairly good film, then Saving Private Ryan is a superb film, while something like Erin Brockovitch is actually as good as Joel Siegel says it is.

All of which is to say that the contemporary critic's standards are being corrupted by the current structure of the American film industry, whose typical product appears to have been green-lighted by a committee of teenagers obsessed with special effects, and written by a poorly designed computer program. Ultimately, it is these conditions that undermine the possibility of honest film reviewing more thoroughly than the most mouth-watering buffet.

Paul Campos is a professor of law at the University of Colorado. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2001, Paul Campos