The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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People's Leah Rozen: Another film critic bites the dust

December 4, 2009 | 10:12 am

Every time I look around, another film critic is disappearing from view. This time it's Leah Rozen, who's been reviewing movies full time at People magazine since 1997. Her final reviews run next week. Rozen's departure was voluntary: She's taking advantage of a buyout package being offered to writers at Time Inc.'s various magazine properties. Still, it's a big loss for People, since if you're not interested in celebrity gossip -- especially toothlessly upbeat celeb gossip -- Rozen was one of the only reasons to read the magazine.

Robert Pattinson on People's cover She had a way with words, whether she was building a movie up, tearing it down or just trying to make sense of what it had to say. A good example would be her recent review of "Where the Wild Things Are," which did a nice job of capturing the childlike strangeness of Spike Jonze's work. As she put it:

"This is an art-house movie about childhood, an imaginative tone poem recapturing a time when getting what you wanted when you wanted it was all that mattered. It's wonderfully imaginative, but also a little odd. When the massive, hirsute monsters clomp about and speak of their despair. It's like watching "H.R. Pufnstuf" as written by Samuel Beckett." 

Still, it's hardly a surprise to see a talented critic like Rozen rushing for the exit. If you read Time Inc. publications, be it People, Time or Entertainment Weekly, it's pretty obvious that the magazines put less value on reviews than ever before, since the space for criticism has been curtailed radically over the last few years. With newspapers in economic turmoil and moviegoers preferring friend-based recommendations, the art of criticism is in its death throes. If you ask anyone under 35 who's not actually in the movie business, he or she would be hard pressed to name a film critic outside of Roger Ebert.

So Rozen joins a long list of critics who've been laid off, taken buyouts or headed for greener pastures, like the LA Weekly's Scott Foundas, who just took a job as a program director at New York's Film Society of Lincoln Center. If you want to see just how extensive the carnage has been, check out the Sean P. Means' blog at the Salt Lake Tribune, where he's been keeping a depressingly long list of the job losses. 

I confess that I'm taking Rozen's loss a little personally. When I'm at the Toronto Film Festival each fall, it's Rozen who has often dragged me along to a wonderful obscure foreign film, demonstrated how real New Yorkers hail taxis and introduced me to a host of great local ethnic restaurants. If nothing else, I'll always remember that she was the person who introduced me to the legendary Rex Reed. So when she told me she was getting out of the film critic game, I asked her to put it all in perspective. Why leave now? Here's what she had to say:

PG: Why are you leaving?

LR: I’m leaving because I can. Time Inc. is offering is a very attractive buyout package, I’ve saved money off the top of every paycheck since I was 22, and my financial advisor gave me permission to make the big leap. More to the point, I’m leaving because 13 years of reviewing movies full time (and another five years part time) is enough. Been there, done that. I want to get out while I still love movies. I remember reading Pauline Kael in the New Yorker in her last years and, even as a young twentysomething, I could tell that she was desperately trying to convince herself that she cared about the movie she was reviewing when she was really bored silly. I don’t want to reach that point. I want to leave before they all look like "Old Dogs" to me.

How does your decision fit into the bigger picture of the slow death of film criticism?

"Casablanca" poster The bigger picture is that movies, at least the big-budget ones put out in mass release by the major studios, aren’t getting any better. Concomitantly, the room to write about them in most publications is getting ever smaller while the glossy pictures accompanying the reviews are growing ever larger. And that’s frustrating. Writers want to write. At length. And don’t even get me started about trying to get in reviews for smaller movies or foreign ones. Being a movie critic is still about the best job around, and there are many, many talented writers out there just looking to break in (though many of them may never have seen "Casablanca" or know who Ernst Lubitsch is).  People will continue to have a movie critic; it just won’t be me.

What will you miss the most?

I’ll miss seeing great movies. Every time I see a film I love, like "Precious" or "An Education" or "Crazy Heart," I’m reminded all over why I have, or now I should say "had," the niftiest gig going. To be a critic is to tell people why they should see a particular movie, what makes it great, and to communicate your enthusiasm. What I won’t miss is seeing so many bad and mediocre movies. When you see six to eight movies a week, sometimes more, the odds are good at least half of them never should have seen the light of a screen. Up until now, someone was paying me to sit through them. Henceforth, there’s no way I’m going to pay out of my own pocket to suffer.

  

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