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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

question of the day: Do you miss your local film critics?

Chances are that, no matter where you live in North America, you no longer have a local film critic writing for a local newspaper offering a local perspective on the films opening in your town. The situation was the focus a recent post by Canadian blogger Paul Matwychuk at his The Moviegoer. Matwychuk spoke to Sean Means, film reviewer for the Salt Lake Tribune, who has been keeping track of the print critics who’ve been laid off or otherwise let go (buyouts, early retirement, etc.) by their publications at his blog, The Movie Cricket. From The Moviegoer:

Means, who’s been the Tribune’s film critic for 16 years and their film blogger for the last three and a half, bristles at the notion that syndicated movie reviewers can do the job just as well as a local writer. For one thing, Means says, those syndicated reviews tend to be either wire reviews written in a homogenized, generic style that adds little to the conversation about a particular films; or they’re written by a critic based in New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago and whose mindset inevitably feels disconnected from readers in other regions of the country. And can newspapers afford to let their readers feel even more disconnected from them?

“Another thing that concerns me,” Means says, “is that there is homegrown, regional cinema all over the country that is never going to get covered in the New York Times until it reaches a certain critical mass. And that critical mass doesn’t happen unless the regional critic takes up the cause and starts writing about it. Here in Salt Lake City, for instance, we have a thriving subgenre of Mormon-themed films, a few of which filtered out to other parts of the country largely because I and other critics in Salt Lake paid attention to them. That wouldn’t happen if my paper just ran wire reviews.”

As one of those New York-based critics whose reviews run in papers in cities like Spokane, Washington; Jacksonville, Florida; and — yes — Salt Lake City, Utah, I have to admit that I do sometimes wonder what my readers in those papers expect from a review that appears in their local paper.

How important do you think is a local spin on film criticism? Do you miss your local film critics?

(I don’t know if this same thing is happening in the U.K. and Australia, but I suspect it’s not as big an issue yet — I’d love to hear from readers in those places about the situations there.)

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me.)

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  • In Seattle, we still have a local critic at the Times by the name of Moira MacDonald, who I find valuable in that her opinion seems to be quite often the opposite of mine. Come to think of it, she’s sort of the anti-MaryAnn: dislikes sci-fi, likely Sex and the City fan, etc.

  • Mimi

    I have lived in second-tier major US cities for the last 10+ years, so the major papers in those cities have their own critics. The only “local” critics I used to read were in the local paper when I was living near LA. The local critics were pretty dumb. Sorry to say, but true. Bad writing, bad taste. (I would rely on the LA Times reviews instead.)

    But now when I visit, the local reviewers have been replaced by wire reviewers, and I find they are no less dumb. Perhaps the problem is the local paper I’m thinking of is more conservative than I am, and they tend to like whiz-bang blockbusters and family-feel-good stuff (both of which I sometimes enjoy, IF they have other redeeming qualities). The reviews aren’t smart, they aren’t clever, they aren’t useful. For that I read the Washington Post, Boston Globe, NY Times, and Flick Filosopher, of course!

    So I don’t miss my local film critics at all, but perhaps I would if I had found any worth reading (and maybe I would have, in other areas or other publications).

  • I always enjoyed Frank Gabrenya’s reviews in the Columbus Dispatch, but I stopped taking the paper decades ago so I stopped reading his reviews and yes, I miss them. But that’s entirely my own fault as they are still available online, as I just confirmed by googling. I think I’ll go read a few now…thanks for making me think of Mr. Gabrenya.

  • I sometimes read reviews in the local free-hip-magazine, but usually I read reviews for the personality and writing style of the reviewer, not to get a generic thumbs-up or down from someone I don’t know, so have no idea if their views coincide with mine.

    That’s why I always come here for reviews and commentary, even for movies I’ve already seen. I’m familiar with MaryAnn’s views and enjoy her writing, and can usually gauge pretty well if I’ll like a move based on her review, since I know where our taste overlap and where they diverge. That’s a lot more useful to me than someone who is “local” since everyone who lives in one area doesn’t necessarily have the same tastes in movies.

  • Chuck

    I’ve never much cared for the reviews in the paper. I’m much more interested in finding a reviewer that I have similar taste in movies with and who gives more than just a yea or nay. I’ve never found that with any of the “local” movie critics in the paper. Which is the reason I come here after all.

  • MBI

    I *was* the local film critic for my paper. And I was damn good.

  • misterb

    Not yet, but I probably will – my local critic is Mick Lasalle in the SF Chronicle. The Chronicle may be the next paper to go under. Actually, the Chronicle is like a major city paper for the arts – still isn’t making much money.

  • RogerBW

    People in the UK are used to culture being dictated by London, and most of the population can think of themselves as being in or near London. We don’t have the “place X is the new Babylon” mindset that’s possible with the greater distances and poorer long-distance mobility of the USA.

    Local newspapers have been a joke for years; people who still read newspapers at all read the nationals.

  • MaryAnn

    I *was* the local film critic for my paper. And I was damn good.

    Ouch. What happened? The usual buyout/downsizing/paper imploded story?

    People in the UK are used to culture being dictated by London, and most of the population can think of themselves as being in or near London.

    I suspected it would be something like that for the U.K. And I’ve heard that pretty much the only place in England, at least, where press screenings happen is in London, so I guess it wouldn’t be possible to live and work in, say, Manchester, as a film critic.

  • People in the UK are used to culture being dictated by London, and most of the population can think of themselves as being in or near London.>

    Up until 1776, we had the same mentality here in the U.S.

    We don’t have the “place X is the new Babylon” mindset that’s possible with the greater distances and poorer long-distance mobility of the USA.

    Hey, desire to come up with one’s own opinions–and to not have them dictated by those who are far away–is not a bad thing.

    If the English truly disagreed with that viewpoint, they could have readily submitted to foreign invasion and have all their opinions dictated to them from Madrid. Or Paris. Or Berlin. Or Moscow.

    Plus there was a time in your history when they were dictated from Rome but I notice that they don’t go in for that anymore…

  • Tal Greywolf

    I wouldn’t say I miss my local critic… as the joke in the region went, “we’ve got laser sights on the rifle.” j/k

    But it’s a good question to ask. I know that a critic, newspaper or television, should sometimes reflect the region’s preferences when it comes to films. Instead of relying solely on the East Coast/West Coast mentality when it comes to movies, a local critic can sometimes add a little extra spice on how such a film might play in Peoria, Lafayette or Cheyenne. The problem you end up with is a local critic who thinks he’s the next Janet Maslin or Rex Reed (or Gene Shalit, complete with the frizzy hair) going off about ART in the movies instead of what makes the movie enjoyable, fun and entertaining.

    Give me a Roger Ebert with his midwest sensibilities (and love of cheesy movies) over a Kenneth Turan most any day. If I have to have movie reviews from the wire services, make it someone who is entertaining and can love the bad movies along with the good ones.

    [Just as a side note… the local critic in New Orleans for many years was David Baron, who was known locally as David Boring. He hated anything popular, only liked the art-house films, and was finally let go from the paper after a rather ill-chosen commentary after Gwyneth Paltrow won the Oscar some years ago.]

  • Left_Wing_Fox

    No, I don’t.

    Frankly, the movie critic for the Edmonton Journal when I was growing up was the traditional stereotype of a movie critic: Hated anything popular, sneered at geekery, and fawned over every pretentious piece of crap claiming to be an art film. Anyone who gives the MST3K movie 0 stars is not going to be a reviewer I trust.

    Currently, you are the only movie critic I read specifically, and that’s largely because we seem to share the same tastes in movies. The quality of your writing, and the ability to pick out details I might not notice are wonderful benefits. :) Aside from that, I’ll check out the Metacritic scores, because they seem to give a good general feel for the relative strengths and flaws seen by the public at large.

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