Illustration by Peter Bennett

BACK IN THE 1960s, THE SITUATIONIST THINKER Guy Debord declared that modern society is built around spectacles that create mass passivity. I always thought this was laying it on a bit thick, but lately I'm not so sure. I'm not talking here about how we're letting our leaders frog-march us into war with Iraq. I'm talking about something more prosaic: the way the public puts up with the rotten projection in our movie theaters.

Over the last few months, I've seen whole films shown out of focus, films where the bottom half of the image was steeped in murky darkness, films whose soundtrack hadn't been turned on. In each case, I was the only one to go out to the lobby and complain. The rest of the audience (who'd also paid $8.50) just sat there, quietly settling for the shoddy service they were being given by Mann or Pacific or UA. They'd come to the theater to be passive consumers, and by god, that's what they were going to do.

This same attitude carries over into the popular preference for pictures such as Spider-Man, XXX or My Big Fat Greek Wedding, which wash over the audience without making any real demands on anyone's attention. Whenever film critics discuss this state of affairs (I've been hearing such conversations for two decades), they invariably start muttering about “the decline of film culture” — the dumbed-down audience, the studios' blockbuster complex, the obsession with box-office grosses, the pernicious power of advertising. They talk about everything except their own passivity and how it contributes to the problem.

Consider the treatment of In Praise of Love, one of Jean-Luc Godard's finest films in the last 35 years — an exquisitely photographed meditation on love, memory, history, narcissism, Hollywood and the importance of resisting a culture that prefers lucrative images to life itself. Although this difficult film did get some positive notices, it was neglected by Time and Newsweek, chastised for being anti-American by The New York Times, dismissed by New York (wearily) and The New Yorker (suavely) for having no interest in characters, and given a “C” grade in Entertainment Weekly by a critic who wrote it off with the cocksure philistinism of Bill O'Reilly passing judgment on Finnegans Wake.

What these negative reviews shared was an unwillingness to grapple with the film itself, to explore what Godard is trying to do by telling the two halves of his story in reverse order or using both gorgeous black-and-white film and color-saturated digital video. Instead of helping the reader understand a complex film that one might (or might not) like, they made it okay simply to ignore it. It's ironic. To judge from their obvious exasperation with Godard, you'd think our critics spent their lives arduously interpreting tricky works like In Praise of Love rather than grousing about having to go see Scooby-Doo.

OF COURSE, THESE ARE DISILLUSIONED DAYS FOR film critics. I don't mean the happy hacks and quote whores who scarf shrimp at press junkets, refer to “Gwyneth” as if they actually know her and repay studio freebies with idiot blurbs (“XXX is Triple X-citing!”). I mean the serious folks, to adopt the Bushian locution, who remember when being a film critic wasn't just a cool job (it still is) but the catbird seat in an era when movies electrified the culture, Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael battled for the souls of the young, and preferring Godard to Truffaut (or vice versa) was a way of announcing who you were. Now, critics seem shell-shocked that they've lost this privileged status — their space is being devoured by articles on digital media or no-carb diets — and they must actually fight to make themselves heard.

Sad to say, most film critics are better at feeling beleaguered than at fighting (what would you expect from people who spend their lives in the dark?). Hanging out with other critics, I'm always startled how many actually grumble about having to go to Cannes (ah, the horrors of the Riviera), feel personally insulted at having to write about Adam Sandler, or sink into clock-punching passivity — they only want to review the big movies that are put in front of them. Terrified of appearing to care too much (which can get you fired), most critics have been cowed into aiming low.

A few weeks ago, a group of them showed up on Charlie Rose to anatomize the summer films. They spent their time serving up the sort of consumer-guide pap (The Bourne Identity is worth seeing! Attack of the Clones sucks!) that one associates with Roger Ebert's pudgy thumbs. Although I personally know them to be intelligent people, their discussion was so shockingly bereft of ideas that even Minority Report — a film by the most popular artist in history — couldn't provoke any discussion about, say, Spielberg's style or the meaning of his career. The show was mortifying and seemed all the more pathetic a few nights later, when a panel of art critics, including The New Yorker's Peter Schjeldahl, occupied those same chairs. They talked with confident lucidity about the career of Thomas Eakins, the layout of MoMA Queens, changing conceptions of the museum. Aware that theirs is an elite field, they took care to talk in detail about history, style and meaning. Which is to say, they talked like genuine critics.

GIVEN THE GRUMPY DISARRAY OF FILM CRITICISM, it should come as little surprise that its dominant figure is The New Yorker's Anthony Lane, who invariably manages to convey delight at having such a cushy gig. As a man who once herniated himself trying to find something fresh to say about Hugh Grant, I can only admire Lane's unflagging ability to pretend that nothing could be more jolly than reviewing Notting Hill. His new collection of reviews, Nobody's Perfect (great title), exhibits him at his most enjoyable, figure-skating across the world of movies (and books) like a Russian, er, Canadian champion, glittering wit flying up from his blades. He writes the most alluring lead paragraphs of any critic I know, and one can only imagine how much effort goes into making all his throwaway aperçus seem effortless.

When I tell other critics or filmmakers that Lane is our dominant film critic, they usually yelp in dismay — “He's not even the best film critic at The New Yorker,” a well-known screenwriter snapped. But this misses the point. Nobody says Lane is the best or most knowledgeable, but he's clearly the biggest star. His fat new collection was published by Knopf (not a university press). It garnered terrific reviews, including one from Time's film critic Richard Schickel (whose rave betrayed such corrupt disdain for the movies, the audience and film criticism itself that I kept wondering if he was actually the third Weinstein brother). On Monday, Lane even turned up on Talk of the Nation right after discussion of Kael — sort of a passing-the-torch moment, NPR-style. He is the critic that every magazine editor covets, the critic that Hollywood most enjoys reading, because even when he pans its films, he does it so divertingly that what he's actually saying barely registers.

In truth, the aristocratic ease that makes Lane so pleasurable to read is inseparable from his limitations. Caught up in the dazzling virtuosity of his leaps and twirls, he rarely breaks through the ice to see what might be swimming around in the chilly deep below; he never forces us to see a director in a brand-new way. He's the ideal reviewer for today's denatured Hollywood product — born, one might say, to dismember Pearl Harbor — because very little is at stake in his work beyond the splendors of his own performance. Delight he always does, but can you imagine Anthony Lane ever getting anyone angry?

As it happens, I got Nobody's Perfect about the same time as two less-glamorous books, Afterglow: A Last Conversation With Pauline Kael by Francis Davis and last year's Citizen Sarris: American Film Critic, a touching festschrift edited by Emanuel Levy. In their different ways, both books offer portraits of critics whose work actually changed lives — transforming how people thought about the movies, making them eager to become film critics themselves, showing them groundbreaking new ways to write about popular culture. Although nearly always at loggerheads, Andy and Pauline had one thing in common — they cared passionately about movies.

Not so Lane, whose airy detachment from the medium makes him less the heir to Kael or Sarris (or the young Kenneth Tynan) than the fair-haired offspring of Clive James, whose supremely amusing TV columns for London's The Observer in the 1970s became the gold standard for writing entertainingly about pop-culture events that nobody gave a damn about. Like James, Lane is far more deeply engaged by books, but he's canny enough to know there's more glory and dough in writing about movies. Funnily enough, it says all you need to know about the state of film criticism, if not of filmmaking, that its hottest critic would probably be happier writing about Martin Chuzzlewit than about Martin Scorsese.

LA Weekly