If Jonathan Rosenbaum has devoted much time to critiquing the work of his peers, he's focused primarily on the most powerful critics (Janet Maslin during her tenure at the New York Times, David Denby) and exposed the ways in which they use their enormous influence to restrict the possibility of readers' cinematic discoveries by flippantly dismissing (or altogether ignoring) work that falls outside the middlebrow purview of the Times and New Yorker film sections. In his review of Irma Vep, for example, Rosenbaum brilliantly dissects a particularly offensive paragraph of Denby's critique of that film in which the latter deplores the state of the French cinema, neatly passing over the wealth of excellent recent French films that he hasn't bothered to review. In addition, Denby makes broad generalizations about envious French attitudes towards American films which Rosenbaum easily contradicts based on his own (much more extensive) experience with French culture. Rosenbaum's attack on Denby may or may not play out a personal resentment, but it serves a valid critical purpose. It exposes the false assumptions and intentionally limiting viewpoint of an influential critic. If the average reader of Denby's piece is encouraged to ignore a French film industry that he's told "lies in ruins," then Rosenbaum's reader is offered a useful corrective, a rebuttal of Denby's absurd claims and a list of recent French films to prove it.
With the nearly unlimited word count he enjoyed at the Chicago Reader, Rosenbaum had more than enough room to analyze specific critical passages at length and still offer detailed discussion of the film he was reviewing. But, seizing on the less formal (and much briefer) blog format, Rosenbaum recently launched a far more poorly considered attack against the New York Times. Instead of taking on one of their regular critics, he singled out freelancer Jeanette Catsoulis for her 200 word review of the Indonesian musical Opera Jawa, a review which he characterized as "ugly" and "xenophobic". To be sure, there's a certain amount of flip exoticism in Catsoulis' review, but the piece is hardly as disrespectful of either the film or of Indonesian culture as Rosenbaum's entry indicates. I admit to a particular aversion to Catsoulis' brand of writing - a style which often seems more concerned with displaying the writer's cocktail party wit than contributing any useful cinematic discussion - but, considering its brevity and general invisibility (as Rosenbaum notes, it's "buried at the bottom of the fifth page of the arts section"), the review hardly seems anywhere near as injurious as the significantly higher profile pieces the critic used to tackle in the days of Janet Maslin. Rosenbaum is right to call attention to subpar criticism, but, perhaps encouraged by the less stringent guidelines of the blog format, he seems to have miscalculated, directing a disproportionate amount of venom against a relatively impotent and ultimately harmless target.
But at least Rosenbaum's objections are based on a close reading of the text in question. The meta-critical efforts of Premiere Magazine critic Glenn Kenny are far less carefully considered. I'm no more fond of some of Village Voice critic Nathan Lee's juvenile indulgences than Kenny is, but I don't see the usefulness in devoting a sizable portion of an already brief anti-Lee rant (recently posted on Kenny's blog) to the description of an odd personal fantasy wherein Lee is forced to recant his enthusiasm for Southland Tales while "standing in a two-lane bowling alley," particularly when Kenny hasn't offered any insight into that critic's writing beyond noting that his use of the word "boner" is rather immature. In the end, Kenny concedes Lee's right to affect any style he pleases, but the whole piece leaves us wondering: what has Kenny accomplished apart from the mean-spirited airing of personal grievances. If he wanted to criticize Lee, he might have turned this desire to more constructive use by taking a close look at the ways in which his less elevated writing subverts a more serious critical purpose, an approach I've attempted myself in looking at that critic's work (see here and here).
Unfortunately, this is hardly the first time Kenny's indulged an ugly vindictiveness within the permissive framework of the personal blog. And while his meta-criticism is generally more carefully-considered than in the Lee entry, he often takes a mean-spirited joy in the flippant (and under-argued) dismissal of the object of his displeasure, a dismissal he knowingly refers to as, "hav[ing] my little petty jollies." Petty is right, since Kenny's censure generally serves little critical purpose apart from satisfying his own capacity for venomous expression. Still, some might argue, in considering the far more casual medium of the blog entry, we have no right to expect the same level of careful analysis as in a paid print article. But therein lies the problem. While the format offers the unique possibility of combining quality critical writing with an open and genuinely useful discussion, the lack of any sort of editorial guidelines that marks the blog as the most democratic vehicle of expression also makes it far too easy for even the more restrained critic to toss off ill-considered and virtually useless commentary.