The Problem with Film Criticism

November 20, 2011

Dissent Magazine:

THE debate about the state of film criticism has settled—or calcified—into two camps: traditional print critics claim the Internet has replaced expertise with amateurs, fanboys, and obscurantists. Web enthusiasts counter that we’re in a new golden age of film criticism and accuse the traditionalists of jealousy, resentment, and Ludditism. In other words: idealization of the past versus idealization of the present; resolution via what Pauline Kael once referred to as “saphead objectivity.” Screw that.

Each side’s view may be equally rosy, but that doesn’t mean each can make an equal claim. I’ve been a film critic on and off for twenty-five years and have been lucky enough to take part in the tail end of the best era of print film criticism and the beginning of the Internet, when it seemed like the Web would be the new delivery system for the kind of writing that was starting to be imperiled in print. My experience tells me that not only was film criticism in better shape in the print era, but good work stood a greater chance of making an impact. Only a fool would say that there’s not good work being done on the Internet. But the nature of the medium, the way it has reshaped journalism and public discourse, makes it harder for that work to matter. In its contribution to the ongoing disposability of our cultural, political, and social life, in encouraging the cultural segregation that currently disfigures democracy, the Internet has to bear a great deal of responsibility for the present derangement of American life.

Publicly, film critics for established online publications will say that the Web has given a new home to film criticism. Off the record, many of those same critics will tell you their jobs depend on securing advertiser-pleasing hits by lavishing coverage on the worst of what’s out there, especially the superhero and fantasy movies. Editors hope to attract hits by feeding into a movie’s prerelease hoopla. What a critic actually thinks about the movie is often drowned in the ongoing publicity deluge. If a publication’s critic declines to join in the publicist-generated excitement over The Green Lantern or the fifth Pirates of the Caribbean, the editor can always find a writer, usually a young one looking to get a byline, to whip up the mindless sort of “Five Great Superhero Movies” list that guarantees traffic. Editors then point to the number of hits generated by this as proof that what the readers really want is coverage of the big movies—whether or not there’s been coverage of anything else to choose from. All this deprives critics of one of the main functions of their job: to alert readers to different kinds of work. And because maintaining advertising dollars depends on keeping the clicks coming, it’s easy for even good editors to make their publication a tool of the studio publicists.

Journalists—and journalism students—are drilled in the necessity of finding a story’s hook, the thing that will justify its being written now. But relevance, a.k.a. buzz, can’t trump the basic question: is this story good and does it deserve to be told? There was no hook when James Agee wrote his Life Magazine piece on forgotten silent-film comedians, the piece that brought Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd back into the public’s consciousness. Passion—and William Shawn’s trust of the writers he hired—was the motivating factor in Kenneth Tynan’s now-revered New Yorker profile of Louise Brooks. What we have today is the likes of the Daily News, which, a few years back, refused to let a movie critic review an acclaimed film about anti-Nazi martyr Sophie Scholl because, in the editor’s words, the story was a “downer.”

Bloggers and the writers who turn out well-crafted pieces on their own Web sites are free to write what they want. The best of them, such as Dennis Cozzalio at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule or Kim Morgan at Sunset Gun or Farran Nehme Smith at The Self-Styled Siren, give public voice to the way movies function as private obsession. Their film knowledge is broad and deep, but they wear that knowledge lightly. They understand that the true appreciation of any art begins in pleasure (and not in the “work” of watching movies). To read them is to read people grounded in the sensual response to movies, in what the presence or look of a certain star, or the way a shot is lit stirs in them. Reading these writers, I often feel that I’m in the presence of people dedicated to the notion of collective cultural memory in an era when instant obsolescence is the rule.

HAVING THE freedom to write about exactly what you want requires enormous discipline. For every Internet writer who fashions his or pieces, who gives each time to sink in and reverberate, there are dozens more who remind me of what Pauline Kael wrote about Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence: “Nothing she does is memorable, because she does so much.”

When a site’s goal is to satisfy the great sucking maw of the Internet with a constant feed of new items, sourced or unsourced, nothing is around long enough to make an impact. When perpetual turnover is the norm, the shallow, silly, and irrelevant rule. The blog Indiewire finished up its 2011 movie preview with a runt-of-the litter roundup called, “The Leftover Question Marks of 2011: Can These Films Possibly Be Any Good?” (The obvious answer is that no one knows until they’ve been screened and critics have done the work of watching and writing about them, but reflection is so twentieth century.) One gem about the upcoming adaptation of Bel Ami stood out: “We’ve heard good things about the short story [sic] where [sic] this film draws its inspiration, but to us, right now this is just a film where a hot young thing romances Kristen Scott Thomas, Uma Thurman and Christina Ricci, while prooooobably pining for the one that got away. Would be nice to be wrong.” What would be nicer would be if the writer (or some editor . . . one?) knew enough to note that the short story is actually a novel by Guy de Maupassant. We can’t know if Bel Ami is any good until we see it, but nothing in that description would lead you to think there’s any reason to consider a Maupassant adaptation any differently than you would an upholstered bodice ripper.

There’s nothing new about this. The ranks of film critics were full of silly asses in the print days. What is new is that there is currently no must-read critic, no Pauline Kael or Andrew Sarris whose opinion can kick off a conversation or an argument.

Part of the problem is the thing often cited to prove the strength of film criticism: the sheer number of people online who are doing it. But to use this as evidence of a new golden age is simply to play a new version of equating how good a movie is with its box-office receipts. There are too many critics writing too many pieces. And even the ones who have reacted against the shallowness of the current conversation, the ones who turn out long, detailed considerations of films have found a way to make themselves close to irrelevant. You can understand why a young critic would want to show off what he (and it’s almost always a “he”) knows. That’s part of a how a young critic gets noticed. But too many Web critics affect a donnish air ludicrously beyond their years. Whatever movies are for them—objects for analysis or gnostic contemplation—they don’t sound as if they’re any fun, and they don’t communicate to readers that movies, even difficult or unusual movies, can be a pleasure. A lot of the time they don’t communicate to readers at all…

Read it all.

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