I am going to pick on Kenneth Turan, film critic for the Los Angeles Times and a “frequent contributor” to NPR’s “Morning Edition.” He provided what is probably the most irrelevant piece of movie criticism of all time. He told listeners that Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the most anticipated movie opening since Gone with the Wind premiered in 1939. He followed that characterization with this bit of wisdom: “But can all those true believers – all the people who bought millions of dollars in advance tickets – could they be wrong? No, they’re not wrong – but they can be only half right.” Everything after his first statement regarding ADVANCED ticket sales is meaningless–not that Turan doesn’t have a valid point in his critique or that he is weak critic, just that he already laid bare why no-one would bother listening to him any longer.
In the early days of “moving pictures,” one of the original movie moguls explained why he was giving up a legitimate business to get into the movie business. I admittedly cannot find the quote just now, but the story goes that the future mogul (I think it was Adolph Zukor) explained that in movies buyers hands over their money before they received the product–it was the perfect business model. Indeed from the beginning movie critics have had they work cut out for them.
Obviously that business model has expanded to new dimensions with the blockbuster–a purely American invention that historians often peg to the run of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. Jaws kicked off an era perfectly and maybe sardonically captured by the 1970s version of Adolph Zukor, Robert Evans. In light of the money being made primarily by films from Spielberg and George Lucas, Evans told a reporter for Time Magazine: “the making of a blockbuster is the newest art form of the 20th century.”
Indeed, Evans had conflated two trends: up to that stage in movie history, art required some sort of critical support. What Evans said, though, not only made sense, but made counter-intuitive sense. While critics often lauded the efforts of the whiz kids to create huge, flashy, sometimes even artfully crafted cinematic worlds, those same critics understood that their thought about such films had begun to matter less and less.
So back to Turan. He connected Star Wars to Gone with the Wind. They do strike me as nice bookends. In 1939, movie criticism barely registered notice in most intellectual circles and while there was intelligent criticism before 1939, the premier of Gone with the Wind began a period during which both the movies and movie critics garnered more and more respect–it was relationship that would bring an end to censorship and begin the institutionalization of movies in American art. With the release of the latest Star Wars movie to astronomical ticket sales that pre-dated previews for anyone, including critics, the blockbuster is not just an art form, but has made the need for it to be art irrelevant.
For decades, Americans have debated whether art can be popular and democratic. Movies appeared to be the quintessential example of a democratic art–the people’s voice was heard through ticket sales, they made movies significant not a museum or a critic. But the blockbuster experience is one that J. Hoberman, the long-time Village Voice film critic, identified in early 1980s as the “cinema of consensus.” With The Force Awakens it becomes crystal clear that there is no longer a position from which to critique this kind of blockbuster. Perhaps that doesn’t matter, but it used to.