“Cineaste” and “Sight and Sound” Polls: Why So Few Women’s Voices? – Jennifer Merin comments

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Few pollsters rise to the rigorous standards set by Dr. Martha Lauzen in her Thumbs Down survey about stats on women film critics. Unfortunately neither Cineaste nor Sight and Sound make the grade in their recent studies about film criticism.

In their opinion polls, both of these well-respected and serious cinema publications investigate the Internet’s impact on film criticism and its future, film criticism as an art in its own right, and differences between professional film critics and bloggers. Cineaste‘s ““Film Criticism in the Age of the Internet: A Critical Symposium” samples 23 critics, while Sight and Sound‘s “Who Needs Critics? – Critics On Critics” has 21 critic participants.

The panels selected by both publications consist of critics who are unquestionably qualified to comment: They’re experienced, credible and credentialed, and their responses to the questioned posed are serious, sincere and insightful about the currently critical condition of film criticism–in print and online.

So, what’s the rub? Of Cineaste’s 23 invited commentators, only four–Karina Longworth, the “Self-Styled Siren,” Amy Taubin and Stephanie Zacharek–are women. There’s only one female–Kim Newman–among Sight and Sound’s 21.

Of course, Cineaste and Sight and Sound are free to pick their panels as they see fit. But only five women included in the collective 44? As they say in bloguage, OMG!

As Dr. Lauzen’s well-researched stats irrefutably establish, women penned 30 percent of all reviews in the top 100 U.S. newspapers during Fall 2007. Women‘s voices are seriously underrepresented in the public discussion of cinema, one of the world’s strongest cultural formatives.

It’s disappointing that the unquestionably respectable and serious Cineaste and Sight and Sound so closely align themselves with mainstream print media’s stats in choosing their panels–only worse. It’s unlikely either publication sought to prop up of the disparity between men’s and women’s voices. Neither offers much of an explanation about how or why their panels were selected.

In a comprehensive essay that serves as introduction to the Sight and Sound survey, Nick James offers nothing to explain the exclusion of females, but when disapproving the dwindling numbers of critics in print, gives women a nod by noting, “If a critic is surpassingly insightful and entertaining, you’d hope a publisher would still want to keep her (the itals are mine).” Thanks.

James also refers to the famous difference of opinion between two women reviewers, C.A. Lejeune, who in 1947 declared categorically that “films are not an art,” and Penelope Houston, who two years later proclaimed that “No amount of debasement can alter the fact of art: if any film ever made can be called a work of art, then we are dealing with an art form.”

The Sight and Sound survey asks leading critics to specify the writing of other critics who’ve inspired them. Of the numerous names that are dropped–including those in Kim Newman‘s response–most are men. Only Armond White hails a woman’s influence–that of Pauline Kael.

The editors of Cineaste, by way of explaining their panel selection, write, “We believe that we’ve assembled a lively and erudite (if far from comprehensive) group of seasoned critics, young bloggers, and writers who continue to oscillate between traditional and newfangled venues.”

And, well they have. Collectively, the Cineaste participants represent a fair mix of print and online outlets, of critics and bloggers. But where are the voices of prominent female film commentators such as Maitland McDonagh, MaryAnn Johanson, Kim Voynar, Carrie Rickey, Anne Thompson, Christy Lemire and others.

And what about the future of film criticism? Both Sight and Sound and suggest–and most of us acknowledge–that Internet film writing is the wave of the future. But are women’s voices to be ignored, bypassed or marginalized on the Web as they have been in print media?

With that gauntlet tossed, it’s important to acknowledge that the women on Cineaste‘s panel are well-established film journalists and excellent critics. All enjoy loyal readerships and extensive influence and none presents herself as a chauvinistic, bra-brandishing, platform-pushing panderer, nor seeks to single herself out as a critic who is ruled by gender. Nevertheless, they do, by virtue of their gender, represents women’s perspectives on film, and on the cinema’s aesthetic and social impact. And they have interesting things to say.

At one end of the spectrum, Amy Taubin (an AWFJ member) pretty much eschews Internet criticism, writing: “I am shocked at the conformity of style and content on most of the blogs I’ve looked at. As someone who read The Village Voice regularly in the Sixties and early Seventies, when first-person journalism was the rule, I find the use of the first person by bloggers nothing more than a self-aggrandizing reflex. As far as I can see, there isn’t a fledgling Jonas Mekas or Jill Johnston among them. I don’t participate in the message boards you mention. I have to admit to being unaware of their existence. On the rare occasions I’ve read blog postings, I’ve noticed how insular bloggers’ “conversations” are and how overwhelmingly the subject is blogging and bloggers (rather than whatever film or event is supposedly the subject of their writing.) It’s like an extension of the old-fashioned film-buff conversation. Where film buffs define themselves through the factoids they possess, bloggers define themselves by their instantly formed opinions (this year at Cannes, bloggers were filing columns on their Blackberries during screenings-a new low) and by access-to celebrities, behind-the-scenes news, festivals, etc. Ideas and analysis are notable for their absence from the blogging conversations I’ve observed, although this may not be the case at academic film blogs.”

At the other end of the spectrum, The Self-Styled Siren is all about being online. As do many bloggers, she writes under a pseudonym– Campaspe, a feminist icon of sorts–and chooses to keep her actual identity unknown, even to the extent that her photo reveals only her eyes. From that self-burqa-ed place, she speaks of Internet community and the open exchange of ideas: “In terms of critical interaction, we are living in a golden age,” Campaspe writes. “Criticism at the big media outlets usually has been release-driven, geared to reviewing a new movie in theaters or on DVD. Bloggers write about whatever we please, which I assume is why some professional critics blog on the side. In my case, the movies I care about are long, long past their release date. At the moment there’s no mainstream print publication that will pay me to write about Jean Negulesco or three Titanic movies because I happen to feel like it. They probably wouldn’t even let me do it free. That’s the whole point. Good blogging should offer you something you can’t get from the mainstream.”

Stephanie Zacharek and Karina Longworth opine that if the present is a defining moment in film criticism’s future, the pressing issues have less to do with the distinction between print and online platforms with their formative space limitations and templates, than with professionalism, editorial credibility and quality of writing.

According to Longworth, print and online platforms are necessary–for both critics and for the movie going public. “Internet film culture needs mainstream/print culture to survive. We need something to push and pull against; we need the established media to set the words for our conversation. The best hope of the online film community is not to replace traditional film criticism, but to eventually earn enough respect from that establishment to be seen not as upstarts, not as a nuisance, not as a threat, but as partners in the common goal of keeping a public conversation about cinema alive. Every time either side drops a “vs.,” an us-or-them binary opposition, we waste time and weaken both sides,” writes Longworth.

Zacharak’s concerns are about professional critics and the profession itself getting their due. “Internet criticism has made a significant contribution to film culture in that it’s opened the door for a wide range of voices. But as we’re all seeing, it’s opened the door too wide: There are so many film enthusiasts-if not actual professional critics, either former or current-writing on the Web that now we’re faced with a great deal of noise,” writes Zacharak. “Many of the people writing about film on the Web are knowledgeable and have pretty interesting ideas. Unless you’re really systematic about checking up on all of them regularly, there are too many to even read, so good people get lost.”

There’s something else, too,” she continues. “Even the smart bloggers, the ones who are potentially good writers, often don’t shape their pieces. That’s the nature of a blog: It’s a quick take, a reaction. I don’t know that the Internet has done much to destroy the process of thinking seriously about film, but it’s had very grave consequences when it comes to writing about film.

There’s a lot of “weighing in” going on, but not so much actual thinking. That’s what I find tragic and disheartening. We have a lot of “information” out there. But information doesn’t equal knowledge. And it doesn’t equal good writing.”

Longworth, who’s done much to advance online critics’ credibility and influence, recalls that initially she and other ‘upstart’ film bloggers were inherently aligned with high brow print critics who preferred to cover independent or obscure films and were given space to develop well articulated arguments about the virtues and meanings of movies. But such print media film critics were often inaccessible to average movie fans, while Internet critics were not only accessible, but interactive.

At present, however, both print and online are awash in ‘corporate noise’ that tends to drown out serious critical voices. Celebrity profiles and gossip, first weekend box office predictions and totes, news from set visits promotional interviews and use of trailers as content really constitute marketing that’s presented as criticism. Public perception of the distinction between corporate marketing and critical voice has become as blurred as the distinction between print and online criticism. The volume needs to lowered on marketers and raised on critical voices–both online and in print.

That said, extremely limited opportunities in print media seem–for the present, at least–to give extra cache to critics whose work appears as hard copy. But that’s a false measure of worth. Some hard copy colleagues are quite frivolous, silly, self-aggrandizing and ill-informed, constructing critiques without much consideration and expressing them in lackluster language.

On the other hand, the limitless proliferation of blogs and film sites stimulates the sort of intense competition that, unfortunately, has more to do with numbers than with excellence. Most online film writers–whether they’re employed by others or helming their own sites–seem pressed to scramble to beat each other at the posting of trailers, factoids and gossip. That burden weighs on serious commentators, too, who feel they must follow along lest their sites fail to rate.

Hopefully, in the long run, excellence–in ideas, expression and innovative presentation–will prevail. The only way that can happen is if critics prioritize wisely. We no longer need permission to have a platform–we can make our own. Can we make a living that way? Not easily, but probably so–there are sponsors and advertisers who appreciate and are willing to support quality film criticism. Or we can, like so many artists–the actors, directors and script writers we write about–have day jobs, and still hold to and be held to professional standards in writing about film.

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and About.com. She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is also a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).