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Online Film Criticism Part One: The Living and The Dead

By Paul Brunick

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Enfant terible Paul Brunick reconsiders the state of film criticism in the internet age

Ready to take the plunge? An annotated user’s guide to the best film-crit blogs and websites can be found here.

For many of us, the practice of film criticism is more exciting today than it has been in decades. Yes, really. That might sound like contrarian posturing in light of the many, many essays that have recently eulogized the “death of film criticism.” (Spoiler alert: the Internet did it!) But I intend it as the sincerely matter-of-fact expression of a view more commonly held than is usually acknowledged.

When pundits romanticize how great criticism was “before the Internet,” they usually end up talking about the Sixties and Seventies. It’s a revealing sleight of hand. Though that period remains the high-water mark for many cinephiles, for critics the nostalgia is particularly acute. Where classical-era auteurs had little use for the cognoscenti, the post-Cahiers moment of the Movie Brat was one in which criticism and creation mutually enriched one another. And audiences got on board as well, synching up with the tastes of reviewers to an extent that they never had before (or since). For the first time in America, there was a national conversation on film that wasn’t about its politics or its “moral influence” but its artistry. If movie reviewing had a golden age, this was it.

But that party broke up in the early Eighties and a gray-skied, morning-after ennui has typified reflections on the medium ever since. The blockbuster age has pushed ambitious cinephilia to the margins of popular culture, where it’s sat in exile like a deposed government waiting to retake the mainland. This hasn’t precluded regular bouts of critical enthusiasm—how reviewers write about the movies (week in, week out) is often very different than how they write about the cinema (as an industry, as an art form). For commentators working in the last three decades, film could be a comedy in close-up but it was always a tragedy in long shot. Today’s swan songs for the rapidly disappearing newspaper reviewer are best understood as proxy battles in this cultural cold war. So why do so many of these think pieces suggest that everything was going swell until bloggers crashed the scene and ruined everything?

The history lessons are revelatory,” writes Chronicle of Higher Education contributor Thomas Doherty about For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism. Director and critic Gerald Peary’s wistful 2009 stroll down memory lane is actually the opposite of revelatory. It is an affirmation. The film’s main attractions are its thumbnail sketches of feted critical personalities: the holy trinity of Otis Ferguson, Manny Farber, and James Agee, and the irrepressible odd couple of Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris. This canonical dream team is assembled to represent 20th-century film criticism as a unified tradition, one “under siege” in the age of the Web. (Imagine stock footage of hands typing, cut to portentous musical cues, like something out of Dateline’s To Catch a Predator.)

To be fair, the film offers an occasional nod toward balance—then blogger, now LA Weekly film editor Karina Longworth makes an appearance—but the editing favors those talking heads willing to wax despondent or spit venom. “What I see of Internet reviewing is people of just surpassing ignorance about the medium expressing themselves on the medium,” opines Time critic Richard Schickel. The nuance proffered by The New York Observer’s Rex Reed is best captured in his haughty delivery of the words “these people.” Quoting both of the above, Doherty pushes the invective towards the baroque. Digital critics are “young punks who still [get] carded at the multiplex,” “man-boy[s] of the people, visceral and emotional,” and “semiliterate troglodytes who prowl the viral field grunting out expletives.”

Fuck! I’d like to say that Doherty’s sentiments are unique, but articles so similar to his that they could have been written on the same Mad Libs template have been a fixture of the mainstream press for years. As a twenty-something, I have to admit that the obligatory generational condescension is particularly annoying. Apparently, I don’t read. Anything. Nor do I have any interest in watching Battleship Pokémon by Albert Einstein because, hey, I’ve already seen the color version. Luckily my severe attention deficit compels me to click away from these articles just a few paragraphs in, for so righteous is the pwnage.

There’s a degree to which engaging the critical rearguard’s empty rhetoric is simply unproductive. I had written several carefully worded paragraphs responding to the prognostications of New York Press critic Armond White—but honestly, why bother? I’ve read White inveigh against the cultural wasteland of cyberspace in several long-form essays and a half-dozen interviews, and I’ve yet to see him name any specific sites beyond Ain’t It Cool News and Rotten Tomatoes, low-hanging fruit to be sure. Though White’s historical authority and verbal dynamism almost intimidates you into thinking he’s right, the more I reread him the more apparent it becomes that his polemics have no grounding in the empirical present. It’s just a bad-faith effort, a total refusal to engage the object at hand because that object is defined, a priori, as unworthy of engagement. It reminds you of critics who were still bitching about synchronized sound in 1937.

So why respond? Partly because I believe that the critical talent emerging on the Web would benefit from more institutional support. But mostly I object to the way such articles cheapen cinephilia. These pundits wield the names of my critical heroes as little more than blunt objects in their whack-a-mole war on young upstarts. They position themselves as the gatekeepers of inherited wisdom, tending to the flame as digital-age darkness spreads across the land, but in lieu of applied historical thinking, they trade in prefabricated nostalgia and reactionary contempt. Meanwhile, a generation of nascent cinephiles is being turned off to the very canon the experts wish to defend. As the kids today would say: FAIL. The history of movie commentary has much more to say about its present and future than a facile affirmation of the status quo.

Before attempting to account for the sprawling vistas of cyberspace (to come in the next issue), let’s take a second look at the careers of two much-abused critics. Doherty’s Chronicle article continues on For the Love of Movies: “Its narrative spine is the legendary grudge match between Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael . . . Kael threw the first punch in her scathing 1963 attack on the cult of the director as auteur, ‘Circles and Squares,’ an essay that launched two birds with one screed—her own as a hit woman not to be crossed, and her target’s, who suddenly found the obscure pieces he published in the low-circulation Film Comment the manifesto of a new credo.”

It may seem sniping to point out that Sarris’s early pieces were actually published in Film Culture (he would begin regularly contributing essays to this magazine in 1970), but it’s a telling detail. Film Culture was the unofficial house organ of New York’s underground film scene, a labor of love nurtured by the brothers Adolfas and Jonas Mekas. It was a “print” magazine in the sense that it was not written in longhand on the back of cocktail napkins, but its anti-establishment, DIY ethos had little in common with mainstream journalism. When Sarris began editing and contributing to the magazine in the late Fifties, he did so for free.

And what about Pauline Kael? She could hardly have lifted Sarris out of obscurity in 1963, a time when she was perfectly obscure herself. Her breakthrough came a couple of years later when a collection of her early writings, I Lost It at the Movies, became a surprise bestseller. Peruse that book’s table of contents and you’ll see that many of the essays derived from impossibly low-paying freelance assignments for niche periodicals and the academic trade; “Circles and Squares” ran in Film Quarterly, a journal that had nearly shuttered a few years earlier for lack of subscribers. Most of the reviews are transcripts of KPFA radio broadcasts Kael wrote and recorded, again, for free. And when in 1965 Kael finally landed a staff position at the high-circulation McCall’s, her one-year contract was never renewed. Why? As editor Robert Stein admitted quite frankly years later, “she kept panning every commercial movie.”

Does any of this strike you as a self-evident affirmation of mass-market professionalism? Would iconoclasts and autodidacts like Kael and Sarris really have regarded the self-publishing power of the Internet as an unwanted intrusion?

The personal trajectories of Kael and Sarris suggest to me that the great film critics reconcile cultism and careerism in a productive tension that makes either-or hierarchies meaningless. More practically, their oeuvres demonstrate that critics work best when they’re able to write in a range of formats that vary widely in length, rhetorical style, and presumed audience. Kael’s lightning-fast intelligence and rate of composition made weekly reviewing at The New Yorker a gig well suited to her temperament, but her legacy today rests equally on the long, manifesto-like essays where she tackled larger questions of industry and aesthetics. Her 1969 Harper’s piece “Trash, Art, and the Movies” was 15,000 words on—well, it’s not so easy to synopsize. And that’s the point. What print glossy today would run an essay of that length, of that ambition? To what magazine would a contemporary Sarrisite turn if he wished to publish “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 2010”?

Where I fully sympathize with the death-cult faction is in their expressions of solidarity with newly unemployed arts-section staffers. I can’t imagine how it feels to be decades into a career that had once promised tenure-like stability only to have the rug pulled out from under you. It’s tragic. The trolling schadenfreude that greets every departure is disgusting, the arguments asserting critics’ social worthlessness usually moronic. (There’s always an enterprising scholar who discovers that “critic” is etymologically related to “criticize.” QED…) But the degree to which these layoffs have occasioned reflections on criticism’s future has distorted the analysis, which often reads like the ex post facto rationalization of a gut reaction. What of the idea that this period of destruction might lead to a phoenix-like resurrection? Can you even suggest that without sounding like a total cad?

In general, journalism’s existential crisis has been overplayed. If you control for the wider recession, allow for the mitigating number of positions created by the cybereconomy, and believe (as I do) that the future of online advertising is considerably undersold, then the outlook goes from hopeless to just bad. Within the next decade, the news industry will find a solution to its revenue problem. (My personal theory is that digital editions of well-established brands will be bundled into cable TV–like packages.) If this confidence sounds naïve, it’s arguably quite cynical: a belief that the Web’s open-source revolution will inevitably get scaled back in the finance-directed counterrevolution to come. Capitalism always finds a way.

But here’s a reality check: the system currently being restructured wasn’t a particularly great system to begin with. And critics know this. They’ve been complaining about it for 30 years. When Hollywood treats formal ambition and dramatic complexity as specialty-division afterthoughts, when foreign releases are ghettoized in a handful of big cities, when readers are defined by their lowest-common-denominator indifference—that’s a situation where dozens of professional critics expend their collective intelligence finding new ways to snark about Brett Ratner’s hackwork or Michael Bay’s inhumanity (worthy causes both, but hardly the pinnacle of cultural commentary). What of criticism’s other functions: proselytizing on behalf of the creatively triumphant but commercially marginal; trawling through cinema’s back catalogues in search of unappreciated masterpieces; placing movies within the broader narratives of intellectual history; transforming personal taste into an essayistic art unto itself? In the commodified columns of newspaper reviews, such practices have been the exception, not the rule.

To eulogize film criticism’s past is ultimately to betray it. As Oscar Wilde once wrote, “It is only the modern that ever becomes old-fashioned.” The digital present—inchoate, sprawling, volatile, but very much alive—holds out a pulse-quickening promise: the next golden age may be just a few clicks away.

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