It's been a long time since most newspapers outside of the major cities employed their own movie critics. Instead, they run severely edited reviews by celebrity critics like Roger Ebert and a couple of syndicated "feature" articles about Brad and Angelina so there'll be a page in the paper where the local cineplexes can place their ads and that's it for the movies.
Now and then they'll do a spread on the next big summer blockbuster that boiled down usually has no other point than "Hey, a lot of folks will be going to see this movie! You should be one of them!"
I've been lucky in that although it's been a long time since I lived in a real city I've always lived close enough to one to be able to buy its newspapers off any local newstand. This was sanity-saving back when I lived in Iowa City and then Fort Wayne, Indiana, where, in both places, my other daily paper was The Chicago Tribune.
My time in Fort Wayne coincided with the first five of Dave Kehr's seven years as the Tribune's chief movie critic. Fort Wayne had its charms, but it wasn't a movie-goer's paradise---that didn't stop the blonde and I from seeing an average of two movies a week---but if I couldn't see some of the more interesting and offbeat movies coming down the pike, I could at least read some very fine writing about them.
Depressing to report that Kehr is seeing the small citification of big city newspapers' movie sections:
Apparently concerned that its demographics were drifting distressingly upward, the Daily News has decided not to review the contract of veteran movie reviewer Jami Bernard. She is, however, being required to work through the end of the month, at which point her contract will expire and, according to features editor Orla Healy, an exciting new dimension in Daily News film coverage will make its debut. Translated, this means that the DN has gotten rid of one more of those pesky, individual voices that keep gumming up the paper’s stated mission to be as bland and toothless as possible, to avoid roiling those mysteriously faithful readers who continue to buy the creaky tabloid out of habit. I imagine the exciting new vision for film coverage will involve a lot less movie reviews and a lot more “exclusive” profiles of movie stars, carefully assembled by underpaid freelance writers at grim, debasing junket round-tables.
A few thoughts though.
One. The corporate types who run most newspapers these days don't care about newspapers any more than the corporate types who run the car makers care about cars or the corporate types who run shoe companies care about shoes or the corporate types who run any business care about what that business actually makes or does to make its money. To them, there is only one product: their own bank account.
But before the corporate types came along, when newspapers were run by newsmen (and a handful of newswomen), the features sections of the paper were looked down upon by the real reporters and editors on the City desk. Even now, the newsmen and women who run the day to day operations of the paper for the corporate types and who, because the corporate types can't be looking over their shoulders all the time, often still run them as if they were newspapers and not just a medium to carry advertisting, still hold their features departments in contempt.
There are and have been exceptions. The Philadelphia Inquirer's feature section used to rival some magazines in its breadth, content, intelligence, and talent of its writers. And when the blonde and I first arrived in Fort Wayne the paper she worked for had its four most talented writer/reporters assigned to its features desk (including Nancy Nall's husband, Alan.) But when editors and publishers start looking to rein in their budgets, they tend to look at their features departments the way drivers of bulldozers look at a house standing in the way of a new bypass.
This is too bad, because news editors tend to have a very limited idea of what's important. Car crashes, political scandals, and wars---a day without any of these is a day without sunshine for them.
Meanwhile, normal human beings tend to think that things like movies and books and where to go to get something to eat are pretty interesting and important parts of our daily lives.
Two. Newspapers cannot survive without advertisting, therefore they have to make themselves attractive to advertisers. Most people who read newspapers are old. Advertisers don't like old people. Old people don't spend money as foolishly as young people. So newspapers need to increase the numbers of their younger readers and routinely go into panic mode trying to think up ways to do it.
But why, oh why, does there every idea about how to do it focus on younger people who don't read?
Since the launch of USA Today, newspapers all over America have been dumbing themselves down in an effort to attract readers who don't like newspapers. Missing the point that USA Today's appeal has been to people who don't have time to read the newspaper at the moment, they've aimed at people who can't be bothered to read a newspaper and tried to make their papers over to be less difficult to read for people who find reading the menus at McDonald's a chore.
While doing their damndest to make readers out of non-readers, they began to shed even more actual readers---people who like newspapers and who like to read won't pick up the local McPaper when they can grab a copy of the New York Times off the same newstand.
Turning the movie and features sections into one and two page versions of People Magazine and then into one page versions of Tigerbeat and BOP won't do anything but drive away intelligent younger people who actually like to read about movies.
Chasing the teenaged fans of this week's favorite flavor is an old trend now. It's been going on long enough for it to have proven several times over that it doesn't work.
Kehr saw this happening at the New York Daily News when he worked there in the 1990s:
A Murdoch protégé, known as The Beaver for her indecorous way of straddling a chair in her fashionably short skirt, took over the department, and before any of the out-of-town eggheads knew what had happened, we were being asked to cover the adventures of the Spice Girls and worse, in our formerly, if briefly, pristine pages. Work being as hard as it was (and is) to come by in New York publishing, I and many of my colleagues bit the collective bullet and stayed on at the News, through a long series of knuckle-dragging editors-in-chief. Zuckerman would bring them in from Fleet Street or Texas, those two bastions of journalistic excellence, put them in total charge of the paper and then can them a few months later, when they mysteriously failed to reverse the paper’s decline in advertising and circulation by introducing ever more intense coverage of Donald Trump and Amy Fisher.
Probably safe to say that Spice Girl fans did not drop everything to start reading the Daily News.
Three. Writing about movies is a tricky undertaking for newspapers, because everything in the paper, even feature stories, has to be news. Features departments have to write about what's happening now, and what's happening now in the world of the movies is deals are being completed to get future movies made and marketing is underway to sell movies that have been made.
Also, movie stars are getting in trouble in their personal lives.
News about the movies is news about money, advertising, and gossip.
There's one other thing going on.
Movies are being made.
The most interesting part of the movie making business---making the movies---is the part that I would find the most interesting to write about.
There are two problems with that. To write about movies being made you have to write about people at work and people who are working, particularly disciplined, highly motivated, focused people, do not like to be interrupted.
They do like to talk about themselves and their work in their off hours, though, so that problem can be solved pretty easily if you can solve the other problem---getting access.
You can't practice journalism without access. I don't mean the kind of access that the elite political journalists and pundits in DC have addicted themselves to. They don't need that to do their jobs, they need that to feel important. But even if they could bring themselves to tell the powerbrokers granting them the one kind of access thanks, but no thanks, they still need access of another kind---they need to be able to talk to people who are working in the government.
They can have that whenever they want and as much as they want if they're willing to work for it and give up their cocktail party friends.
But getting access to people who make movies is harder than getting access to members of Congress. The Hollywood Publicity Machine is more controlling and more vindictive than Karl Rove.
That's because the Industry doesn't see itself as in the business of making movies, at least not mainly or exclusively.
At the Oscars they like to say they are in the business of making dreams.
What they are in the business of is making and selling a dream world to people whose real worlds aren't all that much fun.
Movies are only a part of that dream world.
The other part of it is Celebrity.
Hollywood is selling vicarious fame, vicarious wealth, vicarious beauty, and vicarious sex.
Brad and Angelina might be perfectly happy to talk about their work instead of their baby, but if they did the Marketing Department would go into a collective swoon, because Brad and Angelina might reveal Hollywood's best kept secret.
Movie actors are not like us.
They aren't even like the us we would be if we had their youth and beauty and money and fame.
You know why?
They are actors.
They have a talent.
After you're done checking out the good writing about movies at Dave Kehr's site (and make sure you read his comments), go read Chuck Tryon's reports from the American Film Institute and Discovery Channel's documentary film festival, Silverdocs, in DC.
And Rob Farley's been thinking about John Ford's The Searchers and seeing parallels to Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. He makes the case that the John Wayne character, Ethan Edwards, is the American Kurtz.
Cross-posted at the American Street.