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CULTURAL STUDIES

That ain't cool

Harry Knowles and his blurby young acolytes oust the old-school film critic

FILM CRITICISM IS feeling its age. Amid gathering gloom in newsrooms across the country, as circulation numbers drop, a generation of film writers is coming to grief. Visitors to davekehr.com, the website of Dave Kehr, sometime film writer for the Chicago Reader, the New York Daily News, and currently The New York Times (his column on new DVDs appears on Tuesdays), are swiftly apprised of the details of a sort of nationwide putsch, a coast-to-coast slaughtering of the old gang. Kehr notes somberly the dismissal of Jami Bernard from the Daily News, the passing of Kevin Thomas from the pages of the LA Times and Michael Wilmington from those of the Chicago Tribune, the overrunning of veteran J. Hoberman at The Village Voice by pesky youngsters, and so on. ``All around the country," writes Kehr in a blog entry titled ``Another One Bites the Dust," ``experienced critics are being kicked out in favor of glorified interns...who seem excited merely to have been invited to an early screening of `M:I:3' and who can be counted on to file frothingly appreciative, advertiser-friendly copy."

The pontifical voice of the old-school critic grows faint; his insight, his syntax are no longer required. No time now for elaborate intros or long retrospective glances. What editors want, according to Kehr, is capsule reviews, eye-catchers, quick reactions, recycled celebrity gossip, and chatter about ``the industry." Personality cults, of the sort achieved by the swaggering Pauline Kael at The New Yorker in the `70s, are out: The writer should sound, if possible, like a reader who has just strayed onto a computer terminal.

If Philip Lopate's much-discussed new anthology ``American Movie Critics" (Library of America) had been truly representative, he would have been obliged to include something of the work of Harry Knowles-sci-fi buff, comic book aficionado, Internet eminence, and recent appointee to the post of Penthouse magazine film critic. Knowles's vastly popular website, aintitcoolnews.com, which he started in 1996, is the people's revenge on film criticism, crackling with ``insider tips" from within the various mega-productions currently underway and rounded out with Knowles's own reviews. The populist style or nonstyle of film writing so deplored by Kehr owes much to Knowles. Here he is, for example, on the above-mentioned ``M:I:3": ``Keri Russell is yummy. Michelle Monaghan is the one to marry. And Maggie Q? There's this red dress she wears that is easily drool inducing."

Well...it has energy. And that many people prefer it to the suites of burbling middlebrow that fill many broadsheet film sections is not entirely surprising. Knowles is an enthusiast: He loves to rave about blockbuster action pics, to which he doesn't so much respond as acquiesce in a fever of delighted passivity.

In a sense Knowles is an inheritor to the very earliest film-critical sensibility, to the hayseed rapture of Carl Sandburg at ``The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari" in 1921-"the craziest, wildest, shivery movie that has come wriggling across the silversheet of a cinema house."

Such enthusiasm, of course, intersects very neatly with market forces; Sandburg was the proto-blurber-if he was writing today, his hoarse endorsements would be on every poster (as are Knowles's). At its root, however, it is innocent: an apprehension of cinema as a vehicle of awe, a bewitchment in darkness, the greatest illusion ever. And we are closer here to the actual experience of moviegoing-to the moviegoer himself, as he emerges blinking from the theater with half a thought in his head and smelling faintly of Welch's Fruit Snacks-than in the pronouncements of the most sensitive and educated expert.

But Harry Knowles is not Carl Sandburg. In the Ain't It Cool world, the fact of a movie, just its presence on the screen, almost automatically annuls criticism-to quote Steve Martin in ``Dirty Rotten Scoundrels": ``Wow! Wow! All I can say is Wow!" The pulling-down of the critical ego and its pronouncements from on high is an attractive prospect, no doubt. But as the blurby, slangy, barely-considered Ain't It Cool style becomes the lingua franca of film criticism, we should cherish the last of our old-school film writers. The curmudgeon confronting the screen, perched hawkishly in his seat, his pen over his notepad like a cocked talon, represents a high principle: He expresses the vigilance of civilization against inanity.

How much information or atmosphere, really, is communicated by this line in a recent review of ``The Da Vinci Code" by the young, syndicated writer Luke Y. Thompson (in the Dallas Observer): ``The very final scene is nice, but the endless Rosslyn Chapel bit gets interminable"? ``Nice"? I'll take the nonagenarian musings of Stanley Kauffman (b.1916) over at The New Republic, as he struggles-at another screening of ``The Da Vinci Code"-to stay awake: ``Three or four times in the last half-hour, I thought the film was over, only to be jarred by more of it."

James Parker's column appears biweekly in Ideas. E-mail cultural.studies@globe.com.

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