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See it! Skip it! Stream it!
With film criticism under attack, one man aims his camera at young, smart reviewers to keep the profession alive
Four years ago David Freedman was sitting in a café at USC when he overheard a group of film students debating the merits of a movie with a fervor that made him lean closer. As they argued about the believability of the plot and the nuances of the performances, he was struck by how well informed and thoughtful they were. Instead of superficial blather, the twentysomethings were bursting with insights.
Freedman, too, was a film student, albeit an aging one. The 51-year-old, who was part of the team that founded Moviefone, had gone back to school to get his master’s degree in film and TV production, which is how he found himself eavesdropping on campus. Soon, though, he had an idea: What if he could create a way for others to listen in? What if he could reintroduce the kind of televised critical repartee that had been missing since Siskel & Ebert at the Movies, the popular show that was dealt a devastating blow when Gene Siskel died in 1999?
Film criticism had devolved, in Freedman’s estimation, to “guys in their underwear in their mom’s basement, yelling at the camera.” Combine that with the constant Twitter stream of 140-character analyses, and Freedman was fed up. “I was like, ‘I think we can do better,’ ” he says.
In 2010, Freedman launched Just Seen It, a movie and TV review show that since January has been airing on 370 PBS affiliates across the country and in Puerto Rico. Freedman produces the 30-minute program not in his mom’s basement but in the living room of his Baldwin Hills home, with a rotating cast of nine amateur critics, many of them USC film school graduates. The thumbs-up/thumbs-down rating system has been replaced with the labels “See It!,” “Skip It!,” or—when reviewers deem something watchable but not worth leaving the house for—“Stream It!”
“Our tag line is ‘Reviews You Can Use,’ ” Freedman says. “Everyone else is trying to entertain you or yell at you or tell you why they liked the movies. When you’re done watching Just Seen It, what matters to us is that you’ve come to a decision about whether you liked the movie or not. That’s the big takeaway.”
These are strange days for film criticism. In the face of declining ad revenue (thank you, Internet!), newspapers and magazines have laid off dozens of critics. At the same time, the clout of traditional critics has been eroding. More and more studios are opting not to screen some films for critics—even top-tier ones—at all. Their stinginess can be motivated by self-protection: The movie is a dog, and they don’t want negative buzz. Other times, though, it’s clear they’ve made a calculation that, given the ease with which a positive review can generally be found online, there’s no upside to garnering favor with serious cultural analysts who may write a pan in print.
To be sure, as movie criticism has become a far more populist endeavor, there are flickers of brilliance. There’s James Berardinelli, an engineer in New Jersey whose sharp online commentary (reelviews.net) has been lauded by Roger Ebert. There’s indie director Kevin Smith, whose Spoilers with Kevin Smith on Hulu has him chatting up young filmgoers about a movie they’ve just seen. There’s Weeds writer Stephen Falk, whose video blog (filmpigs.com) features him sitting with two friends in a car after watching a movie as they assess its worth in Bill & Ted-like dudespeak. For Ebert such offerings mark a “golden age of film criticism because,” he wrote in an e-mail, “the Internet has given exposure to so many first-rate critics.”
But not everyone welcomes this “horizontal Babel of critical discourse,” as New Yorker film critic David Denby dubs it. In his 2012 book, Do the Movies Have a Future?, Denby argues that these self-empowered voices often lack a deep understanding of what a film means beyond whether it has cool special effects. Substance is often sacrificed for traffic-driving sensationalism. Consider the 69-minute “review” of Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace that was posted on YouTube by a film geek collective in Milwaukee known as Red Letter Media. The college humor-style video opens with this statement, voiced in a deadpan monotone: “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace was the most disappointing thing since my son. I mean, how much more could you possibly fuck up the entire back story to Star Wars?” Since April the clip has received more than 4 million views.
Being a film critic was once among the most glorified jobs in the world. Along with getting to spend all their time screening movies, reviewers were treated (and compensated) like royalty, or at least the media world’s scruffy version of royalty. In this era—which roughly spanned 1969 (Easy Rider) to 1980 (Raging Bull)—critic laureates fired their must-read missives from the pages of The New Yorker and The Village Voice.
“Back then you had a lot of major-name critics who were constantly in the spotlight in film,” says longtime reviewer Peter Rainer, who is former chairman of the National Society of Film Critics. “Not just Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris but also John Simon, Stanley Kauffmann—who’s still writing—and Dwight Macdonald. You had a lot of big names who were discussing movies and criticism in ways that were, it seems, vital to the culture. Because I think movies in a sense were vital to the culture, perhaps more then than now.”
The arrival of Siskel & Ebert in the mid-1980s made film reviewing so accessible that watching the show became a national pastime—a kind of cerebral baseball. But by the late 1990s, with the continuing rise of cable and sophisticated video games and the Internet, the idea of staying home on a Saturday night to catch a movie review show became quaint. Indeed, while the show’s many incarnations after Siskel’s death featured reviewers like A.O. Scott, Richard Roeper, and most recently Christy Lemire and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, it never managed to capture the zeitgeist in quite the same way as the original program and was canceled in 2011.
Web reviewers today are in many respects doing exactly what Siskel and Ebert did: democratizing film criticism and toppling it from its elitist perch. “The knock on Siskel and Ebert was that they were dumbing down film,” said Josh Schollmeyer, the author of Enemies, a Love Story: The Oral History of Siskel and Ebert. “Pauline Kael was the gold standard, and anyone who didn’t write a 10,000-word essay” on film was not taken seriously.
Ask Rainer about the future of film criticism and he’s blunt: Being a full-time film critic, he says, is no longer a viable profession. “I’m often asked by young people, when I talk at a screening, about getting into criticism and I have to say, ‘Are you independently wealthy?’ ” says Rainer, who writes for The Christian Science Monitor. “Because it’s very tough. These Web sites will put your name out and you’ll get your words all over the Internet, but it’s not something you’re being paid for. It’s a form of exploitation.”
Still, there will always be something fun about watching people debate over whether the end of Flight was too schmaltzy or whether Lincoln should have been Oscar bait. That, at least, is what Freedman is banking on. “Look,” he says, “Just Seen It is exactly what my friends and I do after we’ve seen a movie: sit down, get a cup of coffee or a drink, and talk.”
Everybody quiet in the kitchen!” Freedman barks one recent Saturday afternoon. He is perched in his darkened living room behind a row of computer monitors, preparing to shoot an episode of Just Seen It. A sturdily built blond—he’s also a platform diver—Freedman looks far younger than his years. He speaks with the kind of irony-free candor that is more common among MBAs than film geeks. Yet he seems at home with his team of mostly young producers dressed in jeans and T-shirts.
Until Freedman hushes them, you can hear the rest of the crew noisily noshing on Trader Joe’s snacks and soda. Now, with silence restored, the cameras roll, and that day’s critics—Rachel Appelbaum, Sean Wright, and Liz Manashil—enter into a discussion of Argo, Ben Affleck’s film about the 1979 Iran hostage crisis.
“I’m what’s wrong with America today: I need movies to tell me about history,” admits Manashil, who graduated with a master’s from USC’s film program. She gives Argo high marks in this area. Wright, who studied directing at USC, says he loved the dialogue, particularly when the film spent time in Hollywood. “There’s a line when John Goodman says, ‘You could teach a rhesus monkey how to be a director.’ That’s a fantastic line,” he says. “And I think it’s great that he’s saying that to Ben Affleck, who is the director of the picture.”
Appelbaum says she appreciated Affleck’s restrained performance (in case you’re living in a cave, he stars in the film, too). “I liked that he doesn’t steal too much focus,” says the petite actress. “The story isn’t about him.”
When the segment wraps, Freedman stands up and claps. “Great energy, guys! I thought that was a really wonderful exchange.”
Freedman bills Just Seen It as a smart alternative to the jabbering masses. Although the show can be funny, it doesn’t trade on wise-ass jokes or sarcasm. Nor are there any gimmicks. Shot in a no-nonsense format (critics sitting around a table in a loungelike setting, drink—of juice—in hand), the show blends dispassionate analysis with a passionate love of entertainment. By design it takes into account the myriad types of media we consume today and the manner in which we do it. A cable series like Dexter is given as much attention as the latest Spider-Man installment.
So who’s watching Just Seen It? Freedman hopes young people will feel it speaks to them—which is part of the reason the show was picked up two months ago by Southern California’s KOCE, where it airs every Saturday at 6 p.m.
“We liked that Just Seen It had a fresh, intelligent, and often humorous take,” says Brenda Brkusic, executive producer of program development and national programs at PBS SoCal. She adds that USC students have a unique perspective “as academics as well as filmmakers” and that she hopes the show will attract a “young, hip” audience to PBS.
Even with the legitimacy that PBS has brought the series, no one who works on Just Seen It gets paid. Freedman, who made a tidy sum (he won’t say how much) when Moviefone was sold for more than $400 million to AOL in 1999 before he went on to run a global engineering division at Sun Microsystems, is still funding the program himself, having had trouble drumming up advertisers. He seems to be tiring of the burden. In October he put together a Kickstarter campaign that met its goal, but it raised only $4,800.
For the young men and women who make Just Seen It, working on the show means juggling day jobs as actors, assistant directors, and P.A.s and spending hundreds of hours viewing films and TV shows and pilots. Appelbaum says she finds it difficult: “I work as a puppeteer, a piano player, and an actor. You try to work around your schedule as best you can.”
Often the problem isn’t so much attending a screening as getting invited to one. On the day I meet with Freedman, a Tuesday, he is fretting about how he will shoot a show the following Saturday, having received only one invitation to a screening (Seven Psychopaths) that week when he needs three. In the end he will wind up devoting most of the program to a celebration of James Bond movies, in honor of the franchise’s 50th anniversary.
“It’s a challenge,” Freedman says. “But we make it work.”