For, Friday, Feb. 14, 2020

EDITOR’S NOTE: During the two decades that I covered the United States Film Festival/Sundance Film Festival, I made it a practice to interview by phone in the weeks leading up to the event, actors, directors and others who were scheduled to appear in Park CIty. Thirty-three years ago that included a pair of national film critics for a panel on — what else? — movie criticism. Their observations seem surprisingly relevant today, even as legitimate professional criticism gives way to bloggers and audience comments; this story was published in the Deseret News on Jan. 23, 1987.

PARK CITY – Film critics may not be able to dissuade audiences from seeing “Rambo” but they can direct them toward “A Room with a View,” and that may be their greatest service.

David Ansen and Sheila Benson seem to agree on that point, and both will be part of a panel of critics Saturday in Park City, fielding questions about film criticism.

Neither Ansen nor Benson are newcomers to the United States Film Festival, however. They participated last year on a similar panel and this year both have returned not only for the panel discussion but also to be on juries for the independent film competition — Ansen for dramatic films, Benson for documentaries

Ansen is the film critic for Newsweek magazine, Benson for the Los Angeles Times, and in recent telephone interviews from New York and Los Angeles, respectively, they expressed opinions about moviegoing audiences.

“The critics are fighting a kind of uphill battle,” said Ansen. “The taste of the audience has gotten somewhat jaded and spoiled. Audiences have changed drastically in the last 15 years. They really seem to want to be spoon-fed reaction. I can’t remember a time when the tyranny of a happy ending was so prevalent.”

But Benson is a bit more optimistic about general-audience tastes. “The moviegoing public will always go to stuff that is worthwhile if their attention is only called to it. I have enormous faith in good taste over bad taste, and in the long run the good will drive out the bad.”


                  Sheila Benson, David Ansen

Both critics have an obvious preference for more meaty, “adult” films, those that aren’t typical of current Hollywood fodder — from sequels to coming-of-age sex comedies to overly slick, contrived thrillers.

And that is why they support the independent film movement and, in turn, the United States Film Festival, which focuses on independent film.

“It’s absolutely indispensable,” Benson said. “It (the festival) is the heartbeat of the American independent scene, and more and more that independent scene is going to shape the form of serious cinema as we see it.

“It is also a totally unpretentious way to meet and talk with filmmakers, and to see these films.”

Ansen said he is drawn to the festival by “the fact that it has a focus on the independents. That gives it coherence and a spirit, since everyone there is kind of struggling. The setting is sort of conducive to a more congenial, small intimacy and a kind of ease. Everyone is there for the same reason and there’s more interchange than usual.”

Both agree that the great value of the independent filmmaker is in providing films about people, events and places that have the ring of truth, “grown-up material,” if you will, that major studios tend to pass by, fearing such movies will not be commercial blockbusters.

With regard to independent films, the critic’s role, they feel, is to point out good films that may open in a city without any fanfare — small, low-budget films that have had to substitute talent for money, but which open with little, if any, publicity.


On the other hand, panning major films is often an exercise in futility.

Says Benson: “All we have in reviewing a Sly Stallone film is tire-tracks up our backs as people rush off to see it.”

Says Ansen: “There are certain movies — the big Hollywood movies — you review because you have to. Very simply, they are news. I may not like the new Eddie Murphy movie but it’s news.”

“Actually,” he continued, “I’m glad some movies are critic-proof. I’d think it unhealthy if movie critics had the same power a New York Times theater critic has. I think that’s very unhealthy. I’m glad that people ignore me at times.”

Both say they read other critics, particularly the “heavyweights,” like Pauline Kael in New Yorker magazine. But neither has kind words for movie reviewing on television.

“The rise of the TV critic has not been too encouraging,” said Ansen. “Essentially, no matter how smart or stupid some of those guys are, the form reduces them to standup comedians. There is some very silly criticism being purveyed. It is essentially thumbs up or thumbs down but not very provocative.”

Benson said, “You ask yourself, if they didn’t have clips how many people would watch them? It’s very, very difficult to do what any of them do in the amount of time they do it in. It leads to a thinning out of the blood.”

Criticism on television may not be provocative, but the festival’s Saturday seminar is sure to be. “Critics’ Score Card: What Independents Do Right and Wrong,” with Benson, Ansen, Robert Rosen (WCPW Radio), John Powers (Los Angeles Weekly), Terrence Rafferty (The Nation) and moderated by journalist Peter Broderick, will be held Saturday at 10 a.m. in Prospector Square.