Of the many and varied reasons for the peculiar disrepute of movie critics in the public mind (peculiar in that the movie critic's vocation, unlike that of such other low-rated types as the embalmer and the dogcatcher, is not regarded as a particularly undesirable or unpleasant way of earning a living, but quite the contrary is considered a rather cushy job that demands a level of expertise somewhere between the requirements of wine tasting and mattress testing), the liberal use of the critical blurb in movie advertising is perhaps the most insidious.
On the face of it, the blurb (the derivation of which, I understand, is theorized in etymological circles to be a fusion of the words "blurt" and “burble,” with strong minority support given also to "burp"), or the critical excerpt, or quotable quote, or whatever you care to call it, presents the movie critic in his sunniest light. In that light, the critic is seen spreading nothing but personal happiness, glad tidings, friendly advice, and jolly-good-show positivism — in other words, all those things that he is reputed to have a psychopathic shortage of. But there is no mistaking something disagreeable beneath this cheerful surface. I don't think there needs to be put much emphasis, in that regard, on the occasional cry of betrayal or vow of revenge that emanates from an authentic naif who has trustingly expected, for example, North Dallas Forty to live up to its billing as "a masterpiece" (Richard Grenier, Cosmopolitan), or The Muppet Movie to live up to its as "funnier than Manhattan, more romantic than Hurricane, and more sophisticated than Last Year at Marienbad (Stephen Farber, New West). What I was thinking of, rather, is the bottomless well of contempt that any exploiter feels for his exploitee, no matter how deep he may be in the exploitee's debt. Like the average movie review reader, the average movie advertiser is respectful of the critic, or pretends to be, only when both happen to sit on the same side of the promotional fence: and he is always willing, in such cases, to strike up a sort of you-scratch-my-back-I'll-scratch-yours bargain. When on opposite sides, however, he of course has no use and an exactly equal amount of respect for this very same critic.
The special fiendishness of this exploitation, from the critic's end, is that on those ostensibly happy and harmonious occasions when the critic is being hoisted up in the ads as the voice of authority, he is being dragged down in the long run all the same, albeit through no conscious conspiracy on the part of the ad people. What I base this conclusion on is my unconquerable suspicion that the advertising blurb is the most widely and exhaustively read form of criticism in the world today; and further, that it is the only form that some people ever deign to read. Simple common sense, than, tells us that this venerable advertising ploy has gone far toward defining criticism — its purpose and its style — in the public mind.
The likeliest impression implanted by reading that form of criticism is, it seems obvious to me, that the basic task of the critic lies in the selection of adjectives (Is the movie scintillating, ravishing, and marvelously captivating? Or is it merely engrossing, exciting, and entertaining? Or, on the opposite hand, in which case you won't read about it in the ads, is it wretchedly flawed, uninspired, sentimental, and banal?), and that this critical task further boils down, on an even more basic level, to whether the critic likes or dislikes the movie in question — and never mind what he actually has to say about the movie, much less mind how he puts what he has to say into prose. In the booming blurb culture, there are no scruples about preserving the overall sense or drift of a critic's comments, it being long-standard practice to take out of context a critic's random, brain-racking, back-bending, conciliatory compliment. Nor are there any scruples — silly of me even to bring it up — about trying to preserve the individual stylistic idiosyncrasies of a critic in his excerpted passage.
The practice of shaving a critic’s remarks down to a single word, phrase, or quip — that is, of cutting off his testimony like an expert courtroom lawyer, as soon as he has delivered his most advantageous evidence — has the tendency to equalize all critics as writers. In fact, in the battery of blurbs lined up in an ad for an especially favorably reviewed movie, it is not at all uncommon to see several critics hitting upon precisely the same expression, thus arousing suspicions that they may have copied their reviews straight from the publicity release. For sheer lack of imagination, the most blush-making example of this in recent memory was the bouquet of quotes in the Rocky II ad campaign: "A knockout of a movie" (Jeffrey Lyons, WCBS Radio)... "A knockout” (People Magazine)... "A warm, funny knockout" (Kathleen Carroll, New York Daily News)... “Another knockout" (Archer Winsten, New York Post).
In this telescope-like zeroing in on and magnification of an isolated word or cluster of words, it is not the critic's demonstrated abilities that give him his credibility. It is instead his community standing, which sometimes means his established reputation, but more often means simply his place of employment. The New York Times, Time, and Newsweek are a few of the most socially prestigious and sought-after sources for blurbs, though their resident critics were hardly considered so when they previously wrote for Variety, the Boston Phoenix, and The Harvard Crimson. When, by contrast, the only blurbs in an ad come from the Minneapolis Star and the Cleveland Plain Dealer, you, if you have a snobbish bone in your body, cannot help but leap to the conclusion that the given movie must have to go begging for compliments.
Of course, the quality of criticism seen in the advertising blurbs is not always a world apart from the quality of the full reviews. The simple likes and dislikes of the critic, and the mere selection of adjectives, are what the critical task all too often does boil down to in actual practice. Which is to open the question of whether or not the blurb culture has had any direct influence on the actual writing of movie criticism — a question which I'm afraid will have to be left open here. Movie critics, who are more human as a rule than their more relentless disparagers would like to admit, have often enough been known to slip into a style of prose mat makes ideal advertising copy ("Alien is a corker, a walloper, a rouser, a screecher, and a ton of fun" — Gene Shalit, NBC-TV), though I myself would prefer to believe that not even the basest of professional critics (whose name, by the way, is the just cited Gene Shalit) are ever guilty of consciously tailoring their style to the needs of advertising, of greedily campaigning for a space in the daily movie ads, or of gloating over their position as product endorsers as if they were Bruce Jenner speaking out for Wheaties. Even when one of them has committed the classic Rex Reed faux pas of dashing off some such exclamation as “the best move of the year" a scant week or two after proclaiming some other movie to be "the best to come down the pike in the last five years" (which, logically. forces you to wonder how many additional years of supremacy the slightly newer movie mas claim) I would prefer to attribute the blunder to authentic emotional fervor, to deadline fever, to battle fatigue, or to the self protective, sanity-saving journalistic policy of never looking over one's shoulder.
However, I may, conscious of the dark closetful of past misjudgments and exaggerations that I myself have to atone for, tend to be too shruggingly indulgent of the critical clan. The pressures of reviewing movies in New York are like nowhere else, and it is always possible that the most famous, well-paid, blurb-contributing critics are as corrupt as they seem. Certainly the burgeoning critical subspecies (or subhuman critical species) of radio and television movie critics would appear, if not to deliberately play into the specifications of advertising blurbs, at least to have wholeheartedly embraced the blurb culture's concept of one breath, 25-words-or-less movie reviewing. With the continual swelling of the critical ranks and the increased competition to be first on the street with a judgment of a new movie, the big-time critic today finds himself in an atmosphere where he feels he must out-shout his colleagues if he is to be heard at all.
One of the longtime antiestablishmentarians in movie criticism, Andrew Sarris of The Village Voice, has begun manifesting some peculiar signs in recent times which have finally earned him a solid spot among the regular blurbists. The most peculiar of these signs is his predilection for Oscar touting. It has become a sort of thing with him. Not long ago, on The Seduction of Joe Tynan, he was insisting that "Meryl Streep and Barbara Harris deserve Oscar consideration," and not long before that, on the Australian film Newsfront, he was pointing out "performances worthy of Oscars" by two unknowns named Wendy Hughes and Bill Hunter, who anyone in his right mind knows haven't got a ghost of a chance in the Oscar rat race. This sort of Oscar mania has been traditionally the province of industry flunkies like Rona Barrett, and though it is virtually guaranteed to win a place among the nationwide advertising blurbs, it has no place whatsoever in serious movie criticism. A critic might just as well intrude into salary discussions (e.g., "Meryl Streep and Barbara Harris are wonderfully talented actresses, well deserving of rewards in the high six figures"). There has got to be something harmful in the critical air when someone as ornery and perverse as Sarris once was starts to handicap movies in terms of their Oscar potential.
Just how much this sort of hysteria can be blamed on the blurb culture I don't know. The question, as I said, will have to be left open here. And it will have to stay so, I suppose, until some enterprising soul decides to undertake some sort of critical Hite Report, scientifically based on the results of a seven page, no-stone-unturned confessional questionnaire randomly distributed among the nation's critics (Do you feel your readers are sensitive to your needs and wants in the performance of the critical act? Do you ever fake an ecstatic review? If so, how often? Do you worry that you may be less than a "real critic" if you do not say something positive or constructive?).