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Online Criticism Part Two: We Have the Technology

By Paul Brunick

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Rumors of film criticism’s death have been greatly exaggerated.

Part I of this article appeared in the July/August Issue. Plus, an annotated user’s guide to the best film-crit blogs and websites can be found here.

A.O. Scott weighs in on Shrek Forever After in a recent episode of the now-canceled At the Movies: “I thought the story was a little more interesting than Shrek 2 and Shrek 3.” He then elaborates, “It kind of engaged me a little.” Perhaps you’re wondering if Shrek 4 will kind of engage you a little too. Here’s a second opinion from Entertainment Weekly’s Lisa Schwarzbaum: “Everyone involved fulfills his or her job requirements adequately.” Ah. Baseline professionalism: check. “Sitting down to a fourth Shrek feels no more objectionable than sitting down to the second, or the third,” offers Time critic Mary Pols, unobjectionably equivocal. Would you like to read other professional appraisals of this cinematic non-event? Click over to the Shrek 4 page at the Rotten Tomatoes film criticism aggregator and sort the field for Top Critics, the site’s designation for reviewers accredited by name-brand news sites and old-media incumbents. You’ll find no less than 32 takes on the film.

Here we are, several years into the Great Recession and the slow death of film criticism, and I am able to access almost three dozen professionally authored and edited reviews of a movie that can barely inspire critics to shrug. To the extent that these assignments can subsidize and thus stimulate more productive work by the creative class, I’m happy that people were paid both to make and to review Shrek 4. (Ever read what John Maynard Keynes wrote about paying one man to dig a hole and another to fill it?) But pundits who have attempted to trace our society’s decline in the vicissitudes of laid-off reviewers have overreached. More than the infantilization of culture or the venality of capitalism, the ranks of staff film reviewers are being thinned because the position as it is currently structured really is depreciating in value. The rhetorical limitations of week-of-release reviewing, the homogeneity of coverage in high-circulation periodicals, the way professional critics (mostly fail to) engage with their colleagues and readership: the intellectual weaknesses of the ink-and-paper age have become the professional liabilities of the digital era. But why let a crisis go to waste? Instead of lamenting the inevitable demise of accredited arts journalism, advocates for intelligent film commentary should redirect their energy to a happier task: envisioning the film critic of the future.

The week-of-release review, valuable to newspapers for its ability to attract Hollywood advertising, was a format designed to provide little more than Consumer Reports–style product information. Over time, its more mundane functions were duplicated by other forms, from the advent of the MPAA ratings in the late Sixties through the rise of television advertising in the Seventies to the popularization of Moviefone and IMDb in the Nineties. During this same period, the rising cultural cachet of film critics transformed their bylines into a commodity worth cultivating; reviewers increasingly adopted the language of fine-arts criticism, spun topical hooks into sociological insights, “wrote big” in comparatively essayistic pieces. Yet for all these external and internal developments, the archaic and overdetermined practice of week-of-release reviewing continued to dominate, both financing (literally) and impoverishing (metaphorically) the practice of film commentary. In this way, the high-minded ambitions of the committed cinephile and the obligatory hackwork of the careerist reviewer have been reconciled with varying degrees of success for the last half century.

In the pre-Internet era, when the average household subscribed to just one or two periodicals, it made sense for staffers to review the same wide releases in nearly identical formats. But the Internet has turned the publishing paradigm on its head. By atomizing periodicals into their separate components and lopping off the bottlenecks of distribution, the Web has put print brands in more direct competition with one another than ever. This is bad for publishers, who have lost their home-court advantage at the newsstand and the relative stability of a subscriber base, though there’s a potential upside for writers in the increased importance of their bylines as a means of sorting the field.

Yet when you scroll through the mainstream media’s aggregated reviews, the overwhelming impression is of a lack of differentiation. The functional redundancy that made sense in an earlier era is now incredibly tedious. Cinephiles who want to read in depth about a new release can read the reviews of a dozen or more establishment critics, each of whom might provide a few specific insights; but they’ll have to endure the repetition of plot synopses, basic production details, and tiresomely repeated anecdotes. Through comparing reviews, the reader can create something like a “dialogue” between critics, but only up to a point, as the writers are essentially talking past one another to their own audiences.

These transformations in distribution would not be epochal in and of themselves—as with the advent of cable television, media conglomerates would diversify their assets, provide readers with a relatively broader range of options, and the underlying economy would remain basically the same. But the Internet has dramatically transformed another infrastructural economy: production. The capital-intensive industry of ink-and-paper publishing is being displaced by a digital model where the overhead is, basically, no greater than the cost of bus fare to a public library. The fact that anyone (and seemingly everyone) can publish to blogging platforms has dramatically altered the economies of scale. As Wired editor Chris Anderson laid out in his influential book The Long Tail, the Internet is transforming mass-market media of the post–Industrial Age (newspapers, books, CDs, and DVDs) into the niche media of the digital future: “For the first time in history, hits and niches are on equal economic footing, both just entries in a database called up on demand, both equally worthy of being carried.”

Take the home-video market as an example: 90 percent of Blockbuster retail store rentals are new releases and 10 percent back catalogue; for Netflix, only 30 percent of their rentals are new releases. And it’s the latter model that’s paying off. Blockbuster stock was delisted from the NYSE early this July as the company fast approaches bankruptcy. A couple of weeks later, Netflix announced that its subscriber base had crossed the 15-million-user threshold. For Anderson, whose primary concern is transformations in commerce, the lesson is that “popularity no longer has a monopoly on profitability.” (The subtitle of his book is Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More.) But in the realm of film criticism, we can take this a step further: profitability no longer has a monopoly on the cultural marketplace. Professional critics in the future will certainly be more variegated: more specific in terms of interest and more targeted in terms of audiences. But they will be complemented by a thriving class of amateur critics and a community of non-proprietary production.

Most think pieces on the declining influence of professional critics have rhetorically confused an industry’s fiscal health with an institution’s cultural significance, and in doing so failed to appreciate the complex ecology of cyberspace. Average daily circulation for The New York Times has dropped 20 percent since its 1993 peak (from 1.2 million to 959,000 in 2009, a fall-off that’s driven an even sharper downturn in revenue), but there’s another metric by which the brand is performing spectacularly: readership. Factor in the four million daily visitors to nytimes.com and the audience has not only increased these last two decades—it’s more than quadrupled. Far from getting drowned out by the “noise” of the blogosphere Babel, professional reviewers have had their work promoted and their arguments amplified and retransmitted by the intermediary class of amateur critics—“facilitators, not jammers, of the signal flow,” as the academic Henry Jenkins explains on his site Confessions of an Aca-Fan. Go to any film-themed blog and chances are that one of the top posts will have been sparked by (and will link to) a piece written by a professional. So what do pundits mean when they say that the “influence” (or “status”) of film critics has waned since the days of Vincent Canby, when Manohla Dargis now reliably enjoys an audience several times larger? As the ranks of staff critics thin, the stature of those who remain will only grow, and the Web will carry their criticism to a much wider readership than they could have ever realized in the past.

In a 2005 study co-authored by the British think tank Demos and writer Charles Leadbeater, this amateur engagement of professional practice was dubbed The Pro-Am Revolution. “For Pro-Ams, leisure is not passive consumerism but active and participatory, [and] it involves the deployment of publicly accredited knowledge and skills.” This class of seriously cinephilic amateur critics predates the Web: these are the students who founded Positif in the early Fifties and Cineaste in the late Sixties, the connoisseurs of 16mm celluloid who wrote program notes for cineclub screenings. But the Internet has enabled Pro-Ams to consolidate their efforts in unprecedented ways, forming vibrant communities of interest unconstrained by geographical or financial considerations. We can sketch out the Pro-Ams’ impact on film criticism along three main axes: (1) topical coverage, (2) coordination and aggregation, (3) structures of audience engagement.

Topical Coverage: The Internet is often criticized for its superficiality and for the challenges it presents to sustained attention. This may be true from the perspective of consumers (I am totally distracted by Facebook), but exactly the opposite is true for producers. In the landscape of niches, lowest-common-denominator appeals to the “general reader” exert less of a pull and face greater competition; the Web’s informational economy rewards sites that offer a sustained engagement with a particular field. (There is no schlock subgenre too obscure, no avant-gardist too esoteric.) Compared to the most serious bloggers, professional critics can seem dilettantish and superficial: glossing whatever films happen to be opening that weekend, however trivial; discussing the script one second, performance the next, with an anecdote about the production here, an observation on direction there. Internet criticism is at once more comprehensive (as online critics collectively fill in the gaps in mainstream review coverage) and more specific (as one-line descriptions tossed off in a newspaper review are expanded into a whole series of topically driven blog posts). Professional critics like to complain that the quintessential Internet critic is a hack, but no: the quintessential Internet critic is a wonk.

Coordination and Aggregation: If the Web has made “everyone a critic,” it’s also made everyone an editor. David Hudson has become one of the most well-known bloggers in the cinephile universe, but what he offers his reader is not so much content as context: daily round-ups of the smartest film commentary on the Web. Where a conventional editor shapes his publication through assignments and copyediting, the new kind of editor-as-aggregator (call him a criticism jockey) selects from material that’s already been published and editorializes in the form of paratext. Hudson’s approach privileges curation over editorializing and quality-controlled scope over personalized selection, but there’s no set formula. Some bloggers (Jim Emerson of Scanners, David Bordwell of Observations on Film Art) will take one or two pieces by their colleagues as a prompt for sustained critiques, expansions, digressions. Others (Jeffrey Sconce of Ludic Despair, Stoffel Debuysere of Diagonal Thoughts) travel further outside the disciplinary boundaries of criticism and scholarship, foregrounding the selection of materials as expressive bricolage.

But the most interesting aspects of the Web are the quality-control systems that transcend individual consciousness. Twitter may seem superficial and trite on the level of individual tweets, but its innovativeness exists at the macro level: collective intelligence is crowd-sourced into one giant peer review system. The best indicators of whether or not I will like a film are the star-rating predictions made by the Netflix algorithm. By cross-indexing my likes and dislikes against all users in the system, the site is able to tell me with uncanny accuracy whether or not I’ll enjoy a film. As someone who doesn’t like to read reviews beforehand, this enables me to be more adventurous in my explorations without compromising the viewing experience. (For a more theoretical exploration of the strengths and weaknesses of crowd-sourced intelligence, check out James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds.)

Structures of Audience Engagement: If the status of professional critics is largely a matter of the position they hold, the status of unaffiliated bloggers is largely a matter of the audience they sustain. It’s no surprise that the latter more effectively engage their readers. Week-of-release reviewers are typically writing for an audience that has yet to see the film at hand, so the conversation is necessarily one-directional; by the time audiences have caught up, critics are already working on their next piece. As bloggers are more likely to focus attention on back-catalogue selections or films that have already opened in theaters, they are able to generate a meaningful dialogue with and amongst their readers in comments-section discussions. Certain sites (the eponymous blogs of Girish Shambu and Dave Kehr, Farran Smith Nehme’s The Self-Styled Siren) are as notable for their below-the-fold discussions as the posts themselves. If conventional movie reviews can be analogized to an introductory lecture, many of the highbrow blogs are closer to the roundtable discussions of an advanced seminar.

The much-belabored weaknesses of amateur critics are worth re-articulating. The unlimited writing space that allows digital critics to productively run long also allows them to unproductively run long, and the lack of rhetorical discipline is exacerbated by the absence of editors. The ability to publish whenever one wants—and not just to one’s own blog, but to the comment sections of other sites, to social media platforms Facebook and Twitter—has meant that the insights available on the Web tend to be diffuse if steady. Rarely do Web essays suggest the pressure cooker of ideas you find in the best print criticism. And this extends beyond articles to the pantheon of critics. There are dimensions in which no number of part-time bloggers can ever match a full-time critic working at the top of his or her game; a thousand points of light just isn’t the same as one roaring blaze. Despite the collective intelligence so effectively harnessed by the Web, the individual mind has a synthetic power that can never be replaced.

The transformation of the Internet into a public domain, the popularization of turnkey programs that allow non-professionals to publish for a worldwide readership, the development of new platforms for filtering and curating this flood of content—these innovations are on par with the invention of the printing press. Scoff if you like. Since the dot-com bubble burst in the late Nineties, it’s become fashionable to dismiss arguments for the Internet’s epochal significance as naïve utopianism. But it’s the jaded belief that everything will be the same, except worse, that is the most common manifestation of naïveté these days. As Harvard professor Yochai Benkler writes in The Wealth of Networks, “The change brought about by the networked information environment is deep. It is structural. It goes to the very foundations of how liberal markets and liberal democracies have coevolved for almost two centuries.”

Cinephilia generally and film criticism specifically are being profoundly transformed by the technologies of the Web. Where this process will end is hard to say; after all, today’s cutting edge is tomorrow’s primitivist phase. But what’s clear is that film commentary, far from being exhausted, has barely begun to tap its evolutionary potential. And that’s inherently exciting, undeniably fascinating. So please, stop waxing nostalgic about the past. We need another essay on the Death of Film Criticism about as much as we need another 800-word review of Shrek 4. I’m sure the Sixties and Seventies were great. But frankly, if you’re longing for a transformative decade, then look around. You’re living in one. Try to enjoy it while it lasts.

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