In an earlier post, entitled “What is Criticism?” I bemoaned the fact that film “reviewers” had all but disappeared. I defined film reviewers as people who wrote for daily or weekly news outlets, but usually had no background in film or the arts (in contrast with so-called critics). What they did have, however, was a taste in films which mirrored that of their readers—which explained their tremendous popularity with the public. Furthermore, they usually made no pretense at all on basing their reviews on anything other than their own taste: their reviews either exhorted their readers to see a particular film or not waste their time and money—there was nothing in between.
Sadly, the last genuine film reviewer that I knew of passed away a few weeks ago. His name was Edward I. Koch (1924 – 2013); he was also a very colorful former three-term mayor of the City of New York. “The People have spoken. Now they must be punished,” he was often quoted as saying after the voters had unceremoniously turned him out of office in the early 1990’s. Being suddenly out of a job, former Mayor Koch did what many other involuntarily unemployed people do to fill in the time: he went to the movies, often as many as three times a week. However, this was not something new to him; he grew up during the Depression when almost everybody did the same—no matter how impoverished they were. “Karl Marx had it all wrong,” he has been quoted as saying. “Religion is not the opiate of the masses. It’s the movies.”
Before long a local publisher of a small weekly neighborhood newspaper heard about Koch’s movie-going habits and invited him to become their rmovie critic. After haggling over his compensation (they finally settled on $250 a week), the former mayor began his film reviewing career in earnest. He delighted in disagreeing with the “critics.” “Don’t listen to them. Listen to me,” he would often say. Koch’s reviews were straight forward enough: he either liked a film or didn’t. He awarded no “stars.” But that didn’t mean that his reviews were not thoughtful. He would often go to great lengths to explain what the filmmaker was trying to accomplish, whether he liked the film or not. Although he professed to have no special knowledge of film, that didn’t inhibit him from pointing out what he considered to be bad writing and bad acting. Most important, Koch (at least in the reviews of his that I have read) was never dismissive of a film, no matter how much he disliked it. He appeared to respect the fact that numerous people may have devoted years of their lives in the making of it. This was in stark contrast to his demeanor in politics, where he was not known to suffer fools gladly.
In 2011 Koch gave up his regular film reviewing duties. However there was one film that he purportedly wanted to review but never did: a documentary on his life (which he actually screened before his death) that recently opened in New York.
One area in which his loss, I believe, will be especially felt is within the film industry itself: he seemed to like many of the films that he saw. You can still see his reviews on the internet at mayorkoch.com. And I recommend that you do so while they are still available.