Watching the terminal moments of Quentin Tarantino's magnum opus Pulp Fiction once again made me wonder at the excuse he has given many intelligent film critics to, in Stanley Kauffmann's words, "go slumming". Not just for watching the film - for how can anyone keep in touch with trends in international film without at least risking a departure from critical standards? The actual slumming comes from the effusive praise Tarantino got - and sometimes still gets - for his clever but vacuous and vulgar extravaganzas.
But it also made me wonder at how little I allow myself comparable descents from my standards when I read. In a recent interview with Charlie Rose, Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk commented on how fewer people are reading "literature", and about how the world of literature is a closed one. The world of film, however, is still very much at large, and very much open. This is not altogether a good thing, and many fine critics are guilty of seriously muddying the issue - by seriously failing in their duties to both establish standards and abide by them. Too many of them seem to approach each new film with a sliding scale capable of accommodating a great deal of questionable work, not to mention much that is outright trash.
The reasons for this are likely too many to enumerate or extrapolate, but what is most obvious to me is that it stems from what I would call self-assured social availability, i.e., a kind of deliberate appeal to the lowest common denominator that guarantees immunity from charges of snobbery or - most cursed of all terms - elitism. Unfortunately, it also leaves them open to accusations of something worse: triviality. The problem was put most succinctly by George Orwell in his essay "Confessions of a Book Reviewer": "For if one says - and nearly every reviewer says this kind of thing at least once a week - that King Lear is a good play and The Four Just Men is a good thriller, what meaning is there in the word 'good'?"