Friday, September 5, 2014

Everyone’s a Critic: The Demise of Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide

It’s the end of an era. I don’t mean simply the death of Joan Rivers, whose wicked tongue will definitely be missed. But the world has also learned that the 2015 edition of Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide (now just coming onto the market) will be the very last. It’s not that Maltin, like Rivers, has gone to the big red carpet in the sky. Maltin is alive and well, but the movie fans who have been thumbing through his guides since 1969 have become, it seems, an endangered species.

As Maltin writes in the preface to his last hurrah: “With ready access to information on the Internet, our readership has diminished at an alarming rate. The book’s loyal followers know that we strive to offer something one can’t easily find online: curated information that is accurate and user-friendly, along with our own reviews and ratings. But when a growing number of people believe that everything should be free, it’s impossible to support a reference book that requires a staff of contributors and editors.”

Don’t waste your tears on Leonard Maltin. The guidebooks have made him a household name, and I expect we’ll continue to see him popping up in movie cameos, on TV (he stars in his own Maltin Minute for DirecTV customers), and in pop culture references. Maltin even gets satirized on The Simpsons, and who could ask for more than that? What saddens me, though, is the way that the era of the professional critic is coming to an end.

Not that I love all critics, by any means. Some are smarmy; some can be bought; some are too self-involved to offer dispassionate opinions. But back when I fell in love with film study, it was exciting indeed to see literate, intelligent men and women slug it out in the pages of my favorite magazines. That was the era when Pauline Kael, publishing in the New Yorker, wrote a 9000-word essay that rescued Bonnie and Clyde from oblivion by detailing its historical antecedents as well as its artistic brilliance. Film criticism in those days was a blood sport. We young intellectuals thrilled to Kael’s passionate defense of a film about 1930s bankrobbers that also managed to offer a critique of our own grim decade.  And we were not sorry when venerable Bosley Crowther—he who tsk-tsked primly about violence on our movie screens—was suddenly replaced, after twenty-seven years at the New York Times, by a feisty young woman. (Yes, Crowther in his day had been courageous, championing foreign art films and strongly opposing censorship at the height of the McCarthy era. But his time had, in our not-so-humble opinions, definitely come and gone.) 

As Pauline Kael gained stature, along with a permanent sinecure at the New Yorker, there developed a battle royal between her followers and those of Andrew Sarris, who published chiefly in the Village Voice. Kael was a pop culture fanatic, who through the power of her prose could make a wan re-make of King Kong seem worth watching. Sarris, on the other hand, was America’s pre-eminent supporter of Europe’s auteur approach to film criticism. What fun to compare their outlooks! And I still have on my shelf a rapidly-eroding copy of Film 67/68, a lively publication from the National Society of Film Critics in which America’s sharpest reviewers went head to head, gleefully praising their favorite films and condemning the  many Hollywood offerings they considered unworthy.

Anyone can be merely snarky, as the Internet proves on a daily basis. But, yes, I miss the cogent, educated arguments that make true critics worth reading.


  1. I dislike the demise of the professional critic, as well. However, at the same time, I feel that film criticism suffers from the Heisenberg Principle--that is, the act of observing as a critic distorts the criticism.

    In college, I reviewed movies for the school newspaper, and went to screenings of "Shampoo," "Barry Lyndon," "The Great Waldo Pepper," and others. During the movie, I furiously scribbled notes as ideas came into my head. However, I soon discovered that by codifying those thoughts, I changed my conclusions about the movie before they were ripe. In addition, I'm sure that going to 1,000 movies per year makes you much more fatigued with movie formulas that would delight the ordinary viewer, making you more attracted to the offbeat simply because it's offbeat.

    So you see, I'm conflicted about criticism in general.

  2. I love your comment about the Heisenberg Principle. I've experienced exactly the same thing while writing movie criticism in college, but I didn't know it had an official name. (Who exactly was Heisenberg, if I may ask?)

  3. I started buying Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide in the early 80's - and spent several years trying to mark all the movies I'd seen with a little pencil mark beside the title - across several editions. There came a point where the size was growing unwieldy, and they were cutting some of the more obscure movies for space for the new movies - that I continually wondered why they didn't move to a two volume set - boxed for convenience. Since they never did - I stopped buying them. I think I'm still using the 2007 edition. I will have to pick this 2015 edition up though - to close the circle.

    I do also have a story to tell about that book. In the early 90's I moved to North Carolina to seek film work. I found out there was an NC filmmaker in the 70's and 80's named Earl Owensby. His first movie (that he produced and starred in) was 1974's Challenge. Earl eventually settled into a comfortable niche as an actor and producer - and his later films are remarkably well put together. But this first movie is pretty hopeless. Leonard Matlin's Movie Guide rated it a BOMB. All of Earl's movies generally played Southern drive-ins only. However, in the video boom 90's - I actually found Challenge for rent and watched it. I was very surprised, as I'd always found Maltin's capsule review hilarious. Here's what it said - and this is pretty much word for word: "Owensby's first film starts out with a printed crawl celebrating the return of 'clean family entertainment' followed by Owensby blowing away half the cast with a shotgun. Dreadful." Well, imagine my surprise when Owensby kills no one in the film with a shotgun, (Directly. He does fire one off into the air which scares one of his enemies into a heart attack.) He causes one to crash his car, another to crash his plane, and I think he throws the last one off a high place. So I wrote to Leonard Maltin at Paramount, where he was working on Entertainment Tonight. I told him I was not writing to change his rating - the film deserved that BOMB - but I took umbrage at the falsehood that Owensby was hypocritical to call the film clean family entertainment then take part in violent shotgun deaths. The movie could be shown on TV uncut - there's no swearing and the violence is TV level.

    Leonard Maltin very honorably changed his review for the next edition. It still rates a BOMB but now reads "Owensby's first film starts out with a printed crawl celebrating the return of 'clean family entertainment' followed by Owensby causing the deaths of various bad guys. Dreadful."

    I'm very proud of the fact that I got that review changed after it besmirched Mr. Owensby for about 20 years.

  4. You should be proud indeed, Mr. C . . . and Leonard Maltin should be very proud of listening to his fans when they correct errors in his work. Thanks for contributing this great anecdote!