On the Web, Everyone's a Critic — a Bad One

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Ah, the freedom of a vox-pop website! No fetters, no editors, no quality control. On amazon.com, for example, customer reviews are displayed prominently on the page of each book or CD being peddled. Authors are also encouraged to write about their works. In 1999, this notice for the sound track of "Star Wars: The Phantom Menace" appeared, signed by the scoreís composer John Williams: "I remember writing Anakinís Theme. I was sitting on the toilet, watching General Hospital, when all of a sudden I turned. The water plops brought together a syncopated harmony that I found to be Ö obviously the theme of the boy who will one day become Darth Vader."

It reportedly took several weeks for Amazon to remove this comment — obviously the work of a prankster with a bowel fixation. But on the World Wide Web, the portals are open to everyone with an opinion, even if he is not who he seems. In 2001, everyoneís a critic, with his own cute handle (such as Chuck Schwartz, Cranky Criticģ) or year-end 10 Best list (Harry Knowles of the popular ain't-it-cool-news.com picked the defiantly weird Requiem for a Dream as his No. 1). The web is where traditional criticism is democratized, where the ťlite meet defeat at the hands of the cyber-rabble. You donít need experience, insight or a spell- check function (Note to all websters: "its" is a possessive, "itís" is a contraction), just passion and a lot of spare time.

Or a healthy appetite. The vox-popping of taste may have begun with the Zagat Guides, those svelte booklets offering restaurant reviews based on the opinions of thousands of ordinary foodies. Since 1979 Zagat has grown from one New York City volume to 36 editions nationally and five abroad. It is now as influential as many newspaper critics. "Some critics sniff, 'Well, what does the public know?'" says Merrill Shindler, who edits the Los Angeles guide and is himself a veteran restaurant reviewer. "I reply, 'Well, what do the critics know?'"

Zagat tries to make sure that the ballot box isnít stuffed by chefs and restaurateurs eager for a high rating. "Thereís a control group which overall rankings are compared to. Itís rare when there are big variations." (So why not just use the control group?) Zagat also severely edits the opinions, usually quoting only a few snippets in any item. For the raw, logorrheic voice of the people, check out the movie websites: the anyone-can-play screeds on the Internet Movie Database or on the film page of epinions.com. Itís instructive, and wearying. Those who hope for fresh insights and good writing will soon feel as if theyíre grading term papers in an English as a Second Language course.

And now, perhaps, you detect the tramping of sour grapes. To read a piece about online reviewers by a critic who has done most of his work in print is to hear the roar of a dinosaur, noisy but anachronistic, trying to drown out a freeway full of SUVís. And I admit this: I share your cynicism. General-interest magazines like TIME have reduced the space devoted to reviews and expand their entertainment "news" coverage. The voice of the traditional print critic, uttering lofty dicta from his Victorian armchair, has become both fainter and more shrill. Thatís why many of us have made sorties into the electronic camp of the online enemy. Where can you find me every week? Not in TIME but, gratefully and lengthily, on time.com. Itís a place to take my expertise and passion for a good regular jog.

Passion, of course, is the easiest thing to find online. "Movies are my passion," writes Lisa Skrzyniarz, 32, on her crazy4cinema.com site, which registered an imposing 40,000 hits one month last year. "I love all kinds, as long as itís good." Like most web critics, she is at heart an enthusiast, and her site is her hobby. Skrzyniarz is no terror of Tinseltown; she has kind, if not poetic, things to say about all eight of the latest films on her site — and this in a summer when films liked "Americaís Sweethearts" (which she gives 2-1/2 stars) and "Cats & Dogs" (2-1/2 stars) are begging for some form of critical euthanasia. But Skrzyniarz thinks "real" critics are soiled. "A lot of people feel the major studios run the critics," she says, "that professional critics are studio shills." (Take it from one of those shills: if we are in the filmmakersí pockets, then weíre the lint.)

Conspiracy theories abound on the Internet. Skrzyniarz thinks critics are pawns of the moguls; Drew McWeeny thinks theyíve lost the dewy magic of moviemania. "So many critics these days are cynical," he says. "Theyíve seen so much theyíve burned out on their love of films." Ainít-it-cool regulars know McWeeny (itself a fabulous moniker for an internet geek) as Moriarty, the insider who has written nearly 300 reviews of movies and movie scripts.

McWeeny is also a screenwriter. (Knowlesí site took some heat last year after it praised his scripts without divulging that they were written by a contributor.) Can anyone objectively review films made by those who might employ him? "Iím not going to sugarcoat my reviews," McWeeny avers. But they are already pretty sweet. In his last five columns, he reviewed five films, a TV cartoon and a website. The verdicts: six raves ("Oceanís Eleven," the "American Werewolf in London site, "The Others," "El Celo," "Heart of the Warrior" and TVís "Samurai Jack") and one fave (a few reservations within a positive review of "Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back"). Last Christmas of seven new films, he adored five, was mixed on one and hated the highly touted "Before Night Falls." ("Somebody," he wrote, "owes me a freakiní apology.")

Itís true that folks with few qualifications have become professional film critics (see Jeffrey Lyons). Itís also true that some websters have devoted their life to watching movies and can put their informed prejudices into words. I can heartily recommend the essays on Bergman, Bresson, Bunuel and other demanding European auteurs in Gregory and Maria Pearseís Truth-in-Cinema Quest site and the panoramic considerations of themes in Chinese movies on Peter Nepstadís The Illuminated Lantern. And Iím agreeably flummoxed by the attention ladled onto the 175 films made by Spanish bad-film auteur Jesus Franco. Tim Lucasí overview is almost enough to force me to watch, again and again, those tortured films with gorgeous naked women. Anything for film research.

Basically, though, online critics are votaries, trainspotters, collectors of information. But after amassing all the data, some sorting is required. Not just decent films from bad ones — an opinion is the easiest, and least crucial, part of a review — but the old from the faux new, the subtle from the snazzy. Good critics do that, and more: they challenge and surprise with each sentence, turns a review into a cultural event. Critics shouldnít try making the film they review a must-see; they should make their writing a must-read.

There are precious few of these in print. And fewer on the web, where scanning the sites — with all their gaseous nattering and gossiping — can give one the sense of being trapped in a Tower of Hollywood Babble-on.

Reported by Jeffrey Ressner