This is my farewell column, but not a whine about leaving the Reader.
The problems of movie critics don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. And it would be bad form to lament the loss of a part-time reviewing gig when every day journalists lose full jobs, salaries, and status. All are bitten by the black dog of the “bottom line” — now there is a term that lives down to its name.
Obviously, I could never match the tenure of Duncan Shepherd. He filled this space for 38 years (in Chicago, Roger Ebert has lasted 45). While Duncan was at the Reader for decades, I worked at four large newspapers. Each would face hard news about the bottom line.
I leave this post after 19 months, 51 columns, and 182 reviews. It has been a fun run. And it felt like a refuge from a sad fact: for my whole career, print journalism has been shadowed by doubt, worry, and crisis.
I preferred the shadows and stellar lights on screen, where the frequent joy of movies includes seriousness. To not relish the almost mystical grace of Le Quattro Volte or the lighter art found in a stylish charmer such as Moonrise Kingdom is a kind of myopia.
My own blind spot is that I have never understood “the numbers.” That is, the growing, obsessive zeal to quantify quality and to calculate culture. The numbers have become like a biblical plague for newspapers, films, and criticism.
“Criticism can be an art,” said Pauline Kael, “but it will never be a science.” Some people never understand that. They march to a different drummer, one who is tone deaf. A boss I endured at one big paper was so compulsively philistine that talking about aesthetic nuances was hopeless, like trying to slice the French New Wave into French fries.
My first and best paper, the Chicago Daily News, suffered bleak numbers and died in 1978. Numbers issues with circulation, profits, ad volume, and market share led my next niche, the Chicago Sun-Times, to being Murdoched. By then I was at the new USA Today, a rich, pretty, and slightly air-headed paper in love with numbers (pie charts, lists, graphs, surveys, statistics!). The profit numbers were kept in the dark. After two years there I decamped to the San Diego Union, where crucial numbers were buried in a vault of Nixonian secrecy.
In the new century, fear of the Great Usurper (the web) morphed into frantic hope for a Saving Prince (yep, the web). As profits dropped, ugly numbers (layoffs, buyouts, etc.) grew. The Internet also placed its digital faith in numbers: clicks!, analytics!, unique users! Unfortunately, the nuances of good writing, the real heart of criticism, do not respond to number crunching. They don’t compute. They slide off the bottom line.
As newspapers writhed and withered, movies suffered their own numeral delirium. There had always been films hailed for their expense (The Birth of a Nation, Ben-Hur, Cleopatra) or income (Gone With the Wind, The Sound of Music, Easy Rider). But at some point in the ’70s people started chatting less about the subtleties of films such as The Conformist, American Graffiti, and Chinatown and more about those fantastic Jaws numbers. Then came the numbers binges, the “events” (Star Wars, Rocky, E.T., Aliens, Titanic, Lord of the Rings, etc.). Money talks, but it also screams.
Like an idiot savant on steroids, hype became exponential for weekend box-office totals, per-screen averages, weeks on the charts, count of Oscars won, four-star ratings. Theaters, now plexed, put numbers in their names. Sequel films got numbers in their titles. The web has made this contagion a pandemic buzz fever. On IMDB, reviews are neatly stacked by number. If you like toting up Golden Globes, please stop reading this column.
Such fetishism drains the vital life from film discussion, of really talking about films rather than “inside” dope fed by figures. Criticism is a key lubricant for the conversation that makes a culture (both high and low). The numbers are more like gossip for computers. They miss the magic, the wonder felt boyishly by future critic Andrew Sarris when “I ran into that theater. I’d never seen anything like it. It was another world. There was this beam of light!” You cannot quantify that.
The beam loses luster. The numbers, for all the hype, are not numinous. And digital filming is colder than celluloid. True, digitalization can dazzle and its effects can be splendid (ah, those British dwarves in Snow White and the Huntsman). But get real. Digits are numbers. And film, a tech-driven medium, must submit. As it does we are losing something precious, as noted by Geoffrey O’Brien in his recent article “The Rapture of the Silents”:
“By last year  it became fully apparent that the long-heralded death of film as we have known it was definitively at hand. The age of celluloid was rapidly giving way [to] an unpredictable digital future. Projectors and 35mm film prints were being replaced in American theaters by hard drives known as DCPs (Digital Cinema Packages). The manufacturing of movie cameras and movie film was slowing to a halt.... Movie studios showed increasing reluctance to strike new prints of old films.... [These are] portents of much larger changes to come.”
Our celluloid caves have given way to big multiplexes that lack the charming, welcoming aura of single-screens. Jammed in for a whopper, our response often feels programmed, predigested by buzz. The old Bijou bliss is hard to find. Locally, the one-screen Ken still has vintage charm, and the rehabbed Village in Coronado tries hard. There is neighborliness at the Reading chain’s Clairemont plex, mothered by manager Jennifer Deering. And the Landmark theaters have ace staffs.
It has been a long goodbye for serials, cartoons, newsreels, travelogues, frequent Westerns and noirs and musicals, the 50-cent cup of fizz, the 25-cent candy (remember the jingle “Let’s all go to the lobby and have ourselves a treat”?). We might get some of the magic back if we could ever break the trance of numbers. (See page two.)
Despite the dark, prevailing trends, I had a swell gig and found much to share. That included these movies which (just like a critic) I rank in sets.
Genuine pleasures were A Better Life, Bill Cunningham New York, Blue Like Jazz, Chico & Rita, The Double Hour, The Eagle, Elles, The Guard, The Help, Hugo, In Darkness, A Little Help, The Lincoln Lawyer, Mademoiselle Chambon, Margin Call,, The Mill and the Cross, Mother, Mysteries of Lisbon, Our Idiot Brother, Restless City, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, The Secret of Kells, A Separation, Somewhere, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, We Were Here, Wild Grass, Winter’s Bone.
Higher up the scale as favorites were Agora, The Artist, Buck, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Circo, The Deep Blue Sea, A Film Unfinished, The Ghost Writer, Inspector Bellamy, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, Le Quattro Volte, Marwencol, Midnight in Paris, Monsieur Lazhar, Moonrise Kingdom, Of Gods and Men, Pina, The Secret in Their Eyes, Thunder Soul, The Tree, Vincere.
My most commercial pleasure, the Harry Potter series, topped its truly great “franchise.” For joy of ensemble performance and fact-based storytelling, my crowner was The King’s Speech. And my top favorite of them all in these 19 months was The Kid with a Bike, the lucid vision from the Dardenne brothers about a tough, scared boy in Belgium.
I had an excellent editor, Scott Ellis, also departing. Writing colleagues Matthew Lickona, John Rubio, and Scott Marks added much to the best movie mix in town. Marks and Lickona will carry on, in blog and print. Good luck to all, and to all a good movie.
Many people enjoyed my approach. Some hated it. Well, you can’t pop everyone’s corn. But then I never bought popcorn, and I didn’t play by the numbers.
— David Elliott