Recently, the longstanding film critic Leonard Maltin announced that this year’s edition of Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide will be the last. Maltin himself is not retiring from film guidance and criticism altogether; he’s very much an active and valued historian and critic. The startlingly similar compendium, Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, will still be available for the film guide faithful.
I will miss Maltin’s coffee table filmopaedia – though I, personally, have never bought it. I have never purchased Halliwell’s Film Guide, either, or subscribed to the Sight & Sound archive (though, as luck would have it, I am in receipt of a physical collection of old editions of the Monthly Film Bulletin). Like most modern cinephiles, when looking for production credits, technical specifications or other filmographic information, I refer to the IMDb. If I want to know the critical consensus of a particular film, I refer to online aggregators like Rotten Tomatoes or MetaCritic. I fully acknowledge my hypocriticticism.
However, there are several reasons to mourn the passing of yet another printed filmographic resource. I say mourn because the loss of Maltin’s guide is one in a sequence of losses. For example, last year Sight & Sound announced that it would no longer be committing itself to publishing the full credits for every film on release in Britain, a task it had inherited when it merged with the Monthly Film Bulletin in the early 1990s, because in the age of IMDb, recording filmographic information isn’t really a viable use of resources.
There have been a lot of changes in film criticism in the past ten to fifteen years. New media has usurped print and broadcast media as the go-to place to read or hear film reviews. Blogs, podcasts, vlogcasts and aggregators have diversified the field of criticism, which used to be the province of professional staff critics working for newspapers, journals, television and radio. Even the few staff critics who remain now use the internet to stay relevant: Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review is more often consumed as a podcast than as a radio broadcast; Roger Ebert’s online presence keeps him posthumously relevant; even Leonard Maltin himself has achieved cult status through the ‘Leonard Maltin Game’, created by critic Doug Benson for his Doug Loves Movies podcast. There is also now a new generation of critics, who have built on their indie blogs or youtube channels and their direct rapport with their audience, and are often funded through subscriptions, donations, sponsorship and advertising revenue, rather than contracted.
I don’t intend to suggest a hierarchy by pointing out the two spheres of criticism, suffice to say that Leonard Maltin and his contemporaries performed a service that the newer online-born resources don’t. They produced historical records of moving images, entrenched in print, preserved in their own socio-cultural historical contexts.
Like the newspapers of record, film journals and guides that list comprehensive information and opinions about many films function as references for film scholars, journalists and fans. Such publications are accurate, authoritative and reliable. When something is incorrect, an amendment can be published in the next edition. If an opinion is revised, you can cross reference the revised edition with the original and gain an insight into the shifting values of film appreciation.
Of course, online resources are authoritative too, in their own way. Crowdsourcing or mining large repositories of information (or ‘interoperable metadata’) are both methods to quickly populate a film resource with useful info. That information can be browsed and searched quickly, in contrast to the slow process of sifting through indexes to multi-volumed publications. Moreover, that information has the capacity to grow and change at a rate faster than can be achieved by small, discrete numbers of individuals.
However, these resources are not permanent and are thus less reliable. They are also only retroactively verified and thus less accurate. For all the thousands of cinephiles volunteering information, there are often startling gaps in knowledge, particularly when it comes to foreign language, independent and older/forgotten/lost moving images. Also, when these resources are revised or amended, it can be hard to access earlier editions. If you can get to an earlier version of a record or a review it is often stripped of its original formatting and/or utterly incomprehensible – I mean, have you tried reading the ‘revision history’ tab on a Wikipedia entry?
Maltin’s guide was originally intended for local television viewers as a guide to the films on their TVs. Over time it became more than that: it became one critic’s curated canon of cinema. And I don’t mean ‘curated’ in the received, online-jargon, urban dictionary sense of the word; I mean that Leonard Maltin has spent his adult life exhaustively watching, researching and evaluating cinema. Thanks to his Guide, that work has been preserved – a testament to his life’s occupation.