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.