Film Criticism in the Age of the Internet: A Critical Symposium
by Zach Campbell, Robert Cashill, Mike D'Angelo, Steve Erickson, Andrew Grant, J. Hoberman, Kent Jones, Glenn Kenny, Robert Koehler, Kevin B. Lee, Karina Longworth, Adrian Martin, Adam Nayman, Theodoros Panayides, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Dan Sallitt, Richard Sch
Caught in the Web, print and new media writers debate the pros and cons of online, where everyone's a critic.
In introducing the Critical Symposium on “International Film Criticism Today” in our Winter 2005 issue, we maintained, with a certain resigned pride, that “critics at independent film magazines have virtually complete freedom, and a generous amount of space, to express their opinions if they are willing to endure the relative (or, in some cases, total) penury that results from being unaligned with the corporate media.” In recent months, American critics, having been fired, downsized, or bought out by a host of publications, are realizing that even making compromises with their corporate employers does not guarantee them a job. Given the current economic malaise, the role of online criticism has become increasingly prominent. There has also been, at least in certain quarters, an intensification of the occasional friction between print critics and the denizens of the blogosphere. In a typically ungracious broadside in The New York Press, Armond White wailed that “Internetters…express their ‘expertise,’ which essentially is either their contempt or idiocy about films, filmmakers, or professional critics. The joke inherent in the Internet horde is that they chip away at the professionalism they envy, all the time diminishing critical discourse.”
One goal in coordinating this Critical Symposium on “Film Criticism in the Age of the Internet” was to chip away at some of the hyperbolic rhetoric exemplified by White’s jeremiad. Although the twenty-three respondents to our survey represent a host of critical stances, they all consider the relative virtues and flaws of both print and Internet criticism from a nuanced perspective that is indeed alien to vituperative anti-Internet critics such as White. Some of the participants in the symposium confess that they know little about Internet criticism, while a few bloggers take gentle jabs at their print brethren. Yet civil discourse prevails.
In addition, it soon becomes clear that there are very few critics in the current environment who are exclusive inhabitants of either the print or Internet realms. A certain number of longtime print critics have either been forced—or chosen—to become full-time bloggers, writers who started out as bloggers or Web critics have found print jobs, diehard Internet critics occasionally make appearances in film magazines, and even the most inveterate magazine and newspaper critics are pleased that their reviews appear on their publications’ Web sites. It is also of interest to note that, when it comes to embracing or critiquing Internet criticism, it is much too simplistic to speak of a yawning generational divide: veterans of venerable print publications often express undiluted enthusiasm for the possibilities of the Internet, while younger critics are far from hesitant to utter a few caveats concerning unrestrained cheerleading for the uneven quality of critical conversation on the Net.
Choosing whom to invite to this symposium was certainly daunting. Unlike our previous symposia on American and International criticism—“Film Criticism in America Today,” Cineaste, Vol. XXVI, No. 1, December 2000, and “International Film Criticism Today,” Cineaste, Vol. XXXI, No. 1, December 2005—the terrain appeared almost limitless and, despite our familiarity with the world of print criticism, we are still engaged in an ongoing process of learning about the brave new world of the Internet. We might well have invited a totally different roster of critics and enjoyed an equally stimulating panoply of viewpoints. Nevertheless, we believe that we’ve assembled a lively and erudite (if far from comprehensive) group of seasoned critics, young bloggers, and writers who continue to oscillate between traditional and newfangled venues.
For assistance with this Critical Symposium, we are especially grateful to suggestions offered by Steve Erickson, Jonathan Rosenbaum, and Girish Shambu.
We posed the following question to our respondents, suggesting that they could choose either to answer the individual questions, or to use them as departure points for their own essay.
1) Has Internet criticism made a significant contribution to film culture? Does it tend to supplement print criticism or can it actually carve out critical terrain that is distinctive from traditional print criticism? Which Internet critics and bloggers do you read on a regular basis?
2) How would you characterize the strengths and weaknesses of critics’ blogs? Which blogs do you consult on a regular basis—and which are you drawn to in terms of content and style? Do you prefer blogs written by professional critics or those by amateur cinephiles?
3) Internet boosters tend to hail its “participatory” aspects—e.g., message boards, the ability to connect with other cinephiles through critics’ forums and email, etc. Do you believe this “participatory” aspect of Internet criticism (film critics form the bulk of the membership lists of message boards such as a film by and Politics and Film) has helped to create a genuinely new kind of “cinematic community” or are such claims overblown?
4) Jasmina Kallay, writing in Film Ireland (September-October 2007), has claimed that, in the age of the Internet, the “traditional film critic… is losing his stature and authority.” Do you agree or disagree with this claim? If you agree, do you regard this as a regrettable or salutary phenomenon?
1) Internet criticism has absolutely made a significant contribution to film culture. Speaking personally, for one crucial example, The Chicago Reader’s film reviews archive (including its archived capsules) allowed me to first dive into the work of Jonathan Rosenbaum, Fred Camper, and Dave Kehr. (All three critics have a presence on the Web these days, too.) Before the Internet, a teenage cinephile like myself—circa 1998—could have scrounged back issues of various periodicals for some of their work—but here was a great deal that would have been inaccessible otherwise. Others could easily help me list quite a few more examples like these. So on that initial front—broadening the readership of writers who otherwise would have been contained to a certain geographical network—the Internet has been a giant boon. In terms of criticism, journalism, and discussion whose genesis has been online, however—listservs, blogs, sites like Slant(http://www.slantmagazine.com)—the issue is less clear cut. “Significant,” yes. I think the jury’s still out on all the ways in which it has been positively or negatively meaningful for film culture. But while there is a lot of “junk” in cyberspace, I am convinced that the blog and online discussion communities today, at their best, perpetuate the luxurious bloom of small cinema magazines and ciné-club chat that proliferated all over the world’s film cultures in the earlier decades. Internet criticism, or online “film culture”more broadly, supplements more established print discourse. Sometimes, vice versa.
2) Blogs often lack a certain polish, technical or conceptual. When we don’t have editors or other authority figures pressuring us on our writing, we can be very indulgent with our prose and our navel-gazing. Certainly there can be a workshop atmosphere from time to time, where online denizens critique each other’s work rigorously and constructively. But in real experience I don’t think this happens enough, and we tend to settle into routines of reading and thinking, not rubbing against each other in productive ways. (The Internet of course always allows unproductive conflicts.) I think of my own blog as a public notebook, and often post very unpolished or unreadable musings accordingly, in the hopes that people will help me work through my ideas. In all honesty though I, and many of my fellow bloggers, would do well to become still stronger writers and researchers. I hardly mean to suggest that all blogs and Web sites must adhere to professional print standards. That would be unfeasible in any case. But we have certain freedoms that most professional critics don’t have; for those of us who would like to be counted without snark alongside the pros, we must hold ourselves up to more of the same basic standards. I check a lot of blogs, film-related or otherwise, but to name a handful of my favorites, there is of course the cordial and polymathic Girish Shambu’s place (http://www.girishshambu.com/blog) which is the hub of my personal “film blogosphere”; Andy Rector’s indispensable Kino Slang (http://kinoslang.blogspot.com); Mubarak Ali’s Supposed Aura (http://supposedaura.blogspot.com); Kimberly Lindbergs’s Cinebeats (http://cinebeats.blogsome.com). That’s just a drop in the bucket. And of course not all blogs are their proprietors’ personal foray: let us spare a healthy review of sites such as Serge Daney in English run by one “LK” (http://sergedaney.blogspot.com) and My Gleanings by “jdcopp” (http://jdcopp.blogspot.com).
3) I am not sure how “new” the online communities of film culture are. A discussion group like “a_film_by” (of which I was a founding member, in full disclosure) drew together a lot of people who already knew each other in real life, including people of generations older than my own who ran in the same circles in New York or Paris… in the 1970s. The sense of community discussion, I suspect, is not so new. It’s now more a matter of articulations and scale. Aside from cinephilic discussion, the Internet has allowed for an altogether new spin on an old presence in film culture—bootleggers, collectors, and traders. Not all film culture is defined by talk!
4) What stature and authority did the traditional film critic hold before the Internet? It could be that the proportion of the bourgeoisie who once read reviews has shrunk; the name “Rosenbaum” possibly means less to the merely casual film fan than “Kael” or “Sarris” did forty years ago. I couldn’t pretend to know. Among the crowd who devote attention to film criticism in a serious way, I don’t think there has necessarily been a devaluation of the stature of worthy critics. We could consider the case of Rosenbaum, who would be an uncontroversial nomination to the spot of America’s most important film critic over the last fifteen to twenty years. When he wrote his provocative piece on Ingmar Bergman for The New York Times(“Scenes from an Overrated Career,” Aug. 4, 2007), multitudes online challenged him. Rosenbaum himself responded gamely and civilly to some of these criticisms in discussion groups and blogs. Was this whole affair an instance of an unassailable figure being profanely attacked by the electronic unwashed? Or was it instead the healthy debate of impassioned viewers and commentators, propelled by the mutual capacity to respond across tremendous physical spaces in much more rapid succession and greater visibility than would have been the case had a similar article come up in 1978? I lean towards the latter (as I suspect Rosenbaum himself would). In certain respects, the Internet may not be as innovative and revolutionary as the hype proclaims. I suspect a lot of its usefulness and merit is in fact in keeping certain older practices alive.
1) There are an estimated 113 million blogs out there, and 112 million seem to be about film. It’s so big it can’t help but have an impact, and so diffuse it’s hard to gauge what that impact is. A lot of it is the usual piggybacking off print sources, which are invaluable for jump-starting online conversations even in their (presumed) twilight. The problem with print is that there are space limitations, and formalities (like gobs o’ plot summary) to be observed for the hoi polloi. What I like are writers who dispense with this, figuring you’re in the know and up to speed, and dive right in to isolate key facets of a favorite film, either in a snappy paragraph or a deep-dish essay. It’s an elastic medium, so the terrain can be as big or as small as the critic chooses.
2) Just as anyone who appears in a porn film is a de facto porn star, so, too, does anyone who blogs on film become an instant expert on the subject, just by showing up online. But there are professionals who write (and think) very amateurishly and amateurs who know more about the niches of this or that genre than any professional ever will. What I like is a professional who lets his or her hair down on the Web in a manner distinct from the voice-from-the-mountaintop style of print reviewing, as Matt Zoller Seitz was doing, and an amateur who conveys a stockpile of information with clarity, style, and wit. Then again, I’m more often drawn to the subject of a posting than I am to the writer; the opposite is true in print, where the name above the title has been the draw.
3) I learn a lot in the nooks and crannies, at the Mobius Home Video Forum (http://www.mhvf.net/), the Home Theater forum (http://www.hometheaterforum.com/htf/sd-dvd-film-documentary/), or at Dave Kehr’s site, where the host throws out the red meat for auteurist death matches (polite, civilized death matches). And I try to give back. The online community is strengthened by the give-and-take at these more thoughtful sites. I’m not sure how it’s weakened by the mosh-pit comments sections elsewhere, but they’re mostly for rubbernecking. Interesting tidbits that bring you closer to a film or a filmmaker, which you might pass on to the community at large, pop up in unexpected places. The user’s comments at the Internet Movie Database (http://www.imdb.com/) are a lot of white noise; still, every so often, a commenter will reminisce about what it was like to have the film crew banging around his house on a location shoot, or how accurately a movie reflects a historical episode they lived through. Little, intimate gleanings that the Web makes it easier to share, if not always to find through all the rest.
4) Two things happened this spring. One was a distinct uptick in the number of newspaper and magazine critics becoming masterless samurai, looking for paying work in times of “old media” scarcity. Forget stature and authority: the traditional film critic is losing his or her job, period. And in the blogosphere, where some turn for meager sustenance (two-and-a-half years in on my own blog, and the Google ads I should just shuck off have yet to return a penny), there was a new wrinkle: Not blogging. Seitz’s turning over the keys to his site, The House Next Door, to someone else set off a seismic ripple of soul-searching: Why am I doing this, when I could be doing something more productive?
The answer: Because we like the instant gratification. We get out what we choose to write about, when we choose to write about it, hit “publish,” and for better or worse it’s online. I am nostalgic for the horse-and-buggy days, when I had to go to the local library to catch up with Kael and Kauffmann, and distrust knee-jerk attacks on the old guard of print critics. Their reviews have much to tell us about the times they were written in, however dated or out-of-touch the opinions register today, and the old arguments still resonate.
In changing times, where critics try to maintain a livelihood, and relevance, in old media and the new bully pulpit, and question whether or not to continue at all, the most powerful person in the blogosphere isn’t a critic. It’s GreenCine editor David Hudson, for the hits he brings us when we are anointed for his daily aggregation. If he or GreenCine Daily decided to pull the plug, we would all be adrift until someone else with stature, authority—and the patience to wade through all this stuff—took over the rudder.
Call me traitor. I was part of the initial wave of Internet film critics, way back in 1995, when pretty much the only people online were college students and tech nerds. The site I created had (and still has) no ads, no graphics, and no agenda—just endless text. The thought of somehow parlaying this hobby into a career in print media literally never occurred to me. I had zero ambition—and yet I was writing a 1500-word column every single week, generally reviewing three to six films (all of which I paid to see in commercial release), simply for the joy of writing, and to entertain a readership that couldn’t have amounted to more than maybe 500-600 people. Looking back on that era now, after ten years in the print trenches, it seems very Shangri-La.
And yet that degree of purity is now the norm. For every print critic who gets the axe, another dozen bloggers appear, many of them arguably more passionate and knowledgeable than the professionals they threaten to supplant (or at least render irrelevant). Granted, not all of these cats can actually write—one noted online critic, who seems to have quite a respectful following, wields a prose style so hilariously turgid that I can never make it past sentence #2; you need a machete to hack your way through his thicket of synonomous adjectives. But of course the glory of the Internet is that a voice more to your liking is only a mouseclick away. What matters is the sheer number of ardent cinephiles out there getting all “ars gratia artis” on our asses.
The problem here, for those of us who’d like to continue being paid a living wage in the field, is that people willing to devote so much time and energy sans recompense are even more willing to accept any old pittance somebody might offer them. I was fortunate enough, when print media stumbled onto my site (which happened fairly quickly), to land ridiculously lucrative free-lance work—my first regular gig, for Entertainment Weekly, paid $2 per word. A decade later, one of my employers—a strictly online venture, significantly—decided they could no longer afford my (admittedly sizable) fee more than once a month, and shifted from a review format to a daily blog. I know and respect several of the folks who contribute to said blog, but I also know that they’re being paid something on the order of one cent per word. (Literally.) And if talented writers are prepared to accept assignments for what’s basically ramen money, clearly there’s no earthly reason for anyone to shell out premium wages, much less a medical plan.
Yeah, I know, boo hoo. And there’s no question that the recession we’re all desperately pretending not to be mired in has been more responsible for the various layoffs and buyouts than has the Imminent Heat Death of Newsprint. Still, I do foresee a future in which the most gifted critics will wind up preaching primarily to a small, self-selected choir, while the average filmgoer—to the extent that he or she consults criticism at all—will simply check the aggregate results available on Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes. It’s inevitable that the more voices there are competing for your attention, the less valuable each individual voice becomes. And so a paradox: The advent of online criticism has simultaneously fostered greater diversity and greater homogeneity. Just like the expanding universe as a whole, if you think about it.
What I miss about writing online—and the reason I eventually started my own blog, though it’s only updated approximately three times per annum—is the freedom to define your own audience, both in terms of what you choose to address and how you go about addressing it. If you have no editor, maybe nobody’s catching your occasional lapse into self-indulgence; at the same time, though, neither is anybody shooting down your prospective ideas on the grounds that readers don’t give a damn about Guy Maddin or Hong Sang-soo. And you can just assume a fairly high degree of cine-literacy, if that’s the way you prefer to write. “Rivals Ten on 10 as the longest DVD supplement ever projected in a theater to a paying audience,” I wrote of Captain Mike Across America, Michael Moore’s latest “effort” from Toronto last year—a comparison I simply could not make in print, because merely explaining who Kiarostami is would likely eat up all of my remaining word count. On the Net, even if a particular reference sails over your head, there’s always Google.
Of course, on the Net, one needn’t necessarily write at all. I’m sure I won’t be the only one in these pages to single out the remarkable video essays of Kevin “alsolikelife” B. Lee, which permit a degree of shot-by-shot analysis that no amount of careful or dazzling prose could possibly convey. Perhaps the true issue here is that so many of us still insist upon “dancing about architecture” when such a blatant compromise is no longer necessary. But it’s a struggle I continue to thoroughly enjoy, and one I can’t imagine ever wholly abandoning. And as I began—writing primarily for myself and a tiny cadre of friends and fans—so I may well end.
Mike D’Angelo currently writes a monthly film column for Esquire and contributes regular film reviews to Nerve.com and the Las Vegas Weekly. From 2000-2004 he was the chief film critic for Time Out New York. He blogs at The Man Who Viewed Too Much (http://www.panix.com/~dangelo/).
Gay City News and Chronicle of a Passion
1) There have been a few examples of Internet criticism making an impact on American film culture. It’s aided the rise of South Korean cinema and mumblecore. In the case of Korean cinema, Filmbrain’s blog, among others, hosted interesting debates on the films of Park Chan-wook, Kim Ki-duk, and Hong Sang-soo. Bloggers like Tom Vick seemed to respond to the snobbery implicit in Tony Rayns’s attack on Kim in Film Comment. In the case of mumblecore, the blogosphere’s attitude was more hype-driven; when the IFC Center launched its mumblecore series last year, every blog affiliated with indieWIRE united to promote it. The only criticisms heard about the films related to their all-white casts, not esthetics. I’m not sure what Korean film and mumblecore have in common, although the parallels between the latter and the blogosphere are obvious, but I think bloggers like making discoveries they can claim as their own.
Internet critics and bloggers I read on a regular basis include Glenn Kenny, Girish Shambu, Michael Sicinski, Mike Atkinson, Dave Kehr, Bryant Frazer, Theo Panayides, Dan Sallitt, and Karina Longworth. There are many more blogs I peruse on a more occasional basis, especially if I come across links to them on GreenCine Daily, which has become an essential resource. But I’m no expert on the field. I’ve never looked at most of the dozens of blogs linked by Girish or Filmbrain.
2) Blog writing tends towards informality and, much of the time, short bursts of information. At best, this can communicate an excitement that gets edited out of “professional” writing; at worst, it can lead to ill-thought-out gushing. In some cases, a dimension of anger has emerged from some critics’ blogs that wasn’t really apparent in their published work. The ability to incorporate links into text is a big difference from newspaper or magazine publishing, and it’s sometimes useful. I don’t really care whether blog critics are professionals or amateurs as long as their writing is strong.
3) I’m not sure that it’s particularly new. I’ve seen similar kinds of community form during film festivals, at which one sees the same people at screening after screening over a week or more. The problem with the participatory aspects of online discourse is that they often attract people who value conflict and argument above all else. The Scylla and Charbydis of message boards are endless arguments and fading into apathy. I’ve only seen a few forums that have managed to navigate these successfully. The Mobius Home Video Forum is the best example, but it’s policed fairly heavily —discussions of Michael Moore films often get shut down for turning into off-topic political name-calling.
4) The traditional film critic only had stature and authority within a very small circle, with a few exceptions, like Pauline Kael, as well as anyone writing for The New York Times. Amateur or professional, I think that anyone writing serious criticism is essentially talking to a niche.
Steve Erickson lives in New York and writes for Gay City News, Film and Video, and Baltimore’s City Paper. His Web site, Chronicle of a Passion can be found at http://home.earthlink.net/~steevee/
Unlike the music world, which had a thriving zine culture, there weren’t that many options available to cinephiles in the pre-Internet era. While there was no shortage of film magazines, there wasn’t much of a DIY spirit, save for some independent publications on Psychotronic or other cult cinema. The Internet provided film enthusiasts with a much-needed forum to share their opinions and, more importantly, to find one another. Unfortunately, the image of the film blogger was tainted early on by the rise of Harry Knowles, whose Ain’t It Cool News became a Web sensation thanks to the legions of fanboys who embraced the “It’s cool/It Sucked” brand of film criticism (and discourse) found on the site. Yet lurking in the shadows were the dedicated film bloggers, motivated not by hit count, but by their own passions and a desire to share their enthusiasm with fellow travelers.
What separates the better film blogs from traditional print criticism is a greater sense of freedom, in terms of both content and style. There’s no need to pitch an editor, or worry about adhering to a house style. Looking for an impassioned appreciation of Arnold Stang? You got it. Detailed coverage from a small, experimental film festival? Done. Film bloggers also tend to be more upfront about the subjective nature of their writing, and often you’ll find the personal skillfully intertwined with the critical, which is less common in traditional print outlets. This, combined with the interplay that arises between critic and audience via comments has unquestionably changed the landscape of contemporary film criticism. Girish Shambu, Lisa Rosman, and the anonymous Self-Styled Siren are perfect examples. On a personal level, Benten Films wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the relationships established and opportunities afforded to me as a result of the blog.
As the popularity (and sheer number) of film blogs grew, the response from many paid critics was knee-jerk dismissal, while clinging to the same tired stereotypes; bloggers desperately need editors, they don’t think before they write, this is opinion not criticism, etc. An established New York critic admitted to me a certain amount of bitter envy, for when he was coming up in the ranks, there were no outlets in which to express his opinion, nor means of finding an audience short of landing a job as a critic. That a blogger can, with little effort, find readership in the thousands must be somewhat vexatious to the old guard, particularly in a time when both readership and paid positions are on the decline.
At the same time, the profusion of online critics has given rise to some disconcerting trends that go far in providing fuel for the detractors. In an effort to increase readership, some bloggers will intentionally court provocation by tearing apart a classic for no purpose other than the linkage and pages upon pages of negative comments. (The old adage that there’s no such thing as bad publicity seems tailor made for the Internet.) Even more troubling is the critic who feels the need to play the contrarian and/or trade in snark; lobbing semiclever witticisms replete with PoMo posturing in lieu of any critical method. Lacking a proper sense of history, they are to criticism what Diablo Cody is to screenwriting. These squeaky wheels are masters at drawing attention to themselves, and some have managed to parlay their shtick into paying gigs, both online and in print. That such types can find work in a time when many qualified critics with years of experience are being sent packing is indeed cause for alarm.
While it’s tragic that media conglomerates are cutting critics left and right, either through buy-outs or outright dismissals, it makes sense when your only concern is the bottom line. The sad truth is that film critics matter far less today than they did years ago. I grew up a child of the film industry, and can recall just how important those Friday reviews were. At one time, strong praise for an art-house film in The New York Times or The New Yorker almost guaranteed its success, whereas a pan would more than likely have a detrimental effect. Not anymore. Fewer people seek critical opinion, especially when they’ve been bludgeoned by aggressive (and effective, as it turns out) viral marketing campaigns that extend far beyond traditional means, and editors are conscious of this fact. Why pay salary and benefits for a single critic when you can hire three free-lancers for less money, and syndicate their 250-word minireviews to boot?
The good news is that we haven’t lost these critics—many have set up sites of their own, and have quickly become hosts to some of the most substantive and respectfully contentious dialog in the film blogosphere. Blogs from Glenn Kenny, David Bordwell, Dave Kehr, and Michael Atkinson (to name but a few) find these critics writing in a somewhat more candid, unrestrained tone. The comment threads on these sites (where it’s not uncommon to find Kent Jones or Jonathan Rosenbaum chiming in) have done quite a bit to further bridge the gap between bloggers, critics, and other cinephiles. Yet few (if any) are making money through their sites, which only gives credence to Matt Zoller Seitz’s recent prognosis that film criticism may soon become more a devotion than a means of employment.
If that is indeed the case, what does the future hold for film criticism, particularly if only a select few can call it a profession? What steps can be taken to ensure its survival in the age of the capsule review? The first step is for all sides to throw down their arms, for pulling rank and taking jabs at each other is purely counterproductive. The argument that paid equals professional is all but dead, as is the traditional hierarchy that places old media over new. Collectives, such as The House Next Door (started by Seitz, now ably run by Keith Uhlich), have helped foster a sense of democratization by encouraging submissions, while at the same time maintaining a level of responsibility and professionalism that rivals any of the better film magazines. Yet the question remains—can this model be converted into something commercially viable, and do so without having to sacrifice content or quality?
Andrew Grant is a film blogger (www.filmbrain.com), film critic, and President of Benten Films (www.bentenfilms.com), a DVD distribution company that he runs with fellow critic Aaron Hillis.
The Village Voice
1) The Internet has impacted on film culture, just as it has on all other aspects of culture. For me personally, it functions mainly as a technology of information. I use the Internet for research—Googling phrases and/or visiting IMDB scores of times every day—and, in general, my searches are more driven by specific movie than individual critic. There aren’t all that many critics that I read on a regular basis—although it’s certainly easier to find them online. The blog I visit most often is GreenCine Daily, which is really a means for gleaning information or opinions on whatever movies I’m interested in. Basically, I’m a print guy. I love newspapers. I love their social function—and as a work place in which everyone contributes to a larger project. Before I loved movies I loved books and I still love them as objects. For me, a book is thought made material.
2) On the one hand, blogs are spontaneous and unedited; on the other, blogs are spontaneous and unedited. The strengths and weaknesses are identical—wild enthusiasm, outrageous rhetoric, ad hominem attacks. To the degree that film critics are self-important narcissists, those traits are only amplified by the Internet. I’m impressed by the seriousness of certain online journals (Senses of Cinema) and Web sites (Moving Image Source) but I’d rather read an essay on the page than the screen. Rants, however, are preferable on the screen. I suppose that if Proust were alive, he’d be a mad blogger. As someone who writes for a living (and might not otherwise), I’m amazed that people have the time and energy for their blogs.
3) Some people are better suited to message boards than others. I’m not much of a joiner. For me, a message board is a BYOB virtual cocktail party. You can lurk around eavesdropping until you get drawn into a conversation—then you might wish you never had or that you could go off somewhere for a private chat. It may be that communication is overrated—at the very least, it’s time-consuming and addictive, although maybe not as much as computer games. As I said with regard to newspapers, I’m more interested in projects than communities.
4) Kallay’s assertion predates the Internet. James Wolcott said the same thing after Pauline Kael retired twenty years ago. I think that whatever stature and authority film critics have exists mainly in their own minds—and those of other critics, academics, and cinephiles, as well as a few overly sensitive or underappreciated filmmakers. It’s also a factor of venue—with very few exceptions, critics are the institution for whom they write. That’s a challenge for the Internet critic. Of course, the traditional film critic is a hostage to the fortunes of two declining cultural forms, popular cinema and the print media. The real issue is that the movies have lost their stature and authority. I’m still susceptible to a utopian sense of technology—but remain skeptical. I really thought that cable TV would let a thousand flowers bloom, that super-8 talkies and slide shows would democratize film production, and that music videos were going to be a whole new art form. I appreciate the Internet’s potential for new forms of criticism involving linkage to or the incorporation of illustrational material. Perhaps I’m not looking in the right places but, outside of academic lectures, I haven’t seen too much of that. The dispersion of dis- mis- and actual information aside, the most radical effect of the Internet has been its destruction of intellectual property rights. That’s not necessarily good for writers but to the degree that I’m an anarchist I have to appreciate it.
J. Hoberman has been reviewing films for The Village Voice for thirty years. His books include Vulgar Modernism, The Magic Hour, The Red Atlantis (all Temple University Press), and The Dream Life (The New Press).
The Internet has made a significant contribution to film culture simply because it’s allowed people from around the world to communicate with one another. When Jonathan Rosenbaum says, “I live on the Internet,” I take him to be claiming citizenship in a community of shared passions and curiosities, free of economic imperatives or disputes. In other words, a utopia. It seems to me that criticism plays a secondary role in the composition and functioning of this community, in which someone in Bangkok can get excited by an Alexei Guerman film and instantly share his or her enthusiasm with someone in Canada. Isn’t this the realization of Jean Baudrillard’s “ecstasy of communication?” There is a compulsion to communicate, visible on any given day of the week in any city around the world as armies of people walk down the street or ride public transportation with cell phones or BlackBerries in hand, chattering, texting, and emailing away. If I don’t see this phenomenon in the dire terms outlined by Lee Siegel in Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob, I do agree with him that it allows people to feel connected and comfortably solitary at the same time. Good? Bad? Something is always coloring our visions of ourselves and our fellow men and women.
The critical terrain of the Internet, thus far at least, is based in the immediate satisfaction of this compulsion. Someone has a position and they’re able to make it instantly known, on a blog or their own Web site . This, for me, raises important questions about writing and civility. What is writing? Writing is rewriting, structure, argument, refinement. Is there a difference between criticism and writing? Of course not. Anyone who thinks there is, and there are many who do, is fooling himself or herself. There is a great deal of good writing on the Internet—from David Bordwell, Quintín, Lisa Rosman, Adrian Martin, the various contributors to Senses of Cinema, among others. But apart from the fact that you read it on your computer screen as opposed to a printed page, there’s no property unique to the Internet that makes it special. The difference is one of dissemination. Internet criticism is instantly available all around the world and it is free.
Those who make claims for the greater democracy of the Internet are, I think, responding to the legions of writers in print who fail to work as hard at their writing as, say, Farber or Agee or Kael or Bazin worked at their writing, and who thereby misuse their authority and visibility. This mood of frustration with print criticism, even as it is dwindling away, is fully justified. Yet there are a great many bloggers who make the rhetorical leap of equating all print criticism with arrogance and abuse of power. The Internet affords opportunities that print journalism simply couldn’t: it gives the member of the reading public multiple opportunities to “make their voices heard,” so to speak. Is this a good thing? Of course it is. But, in a sense, the Internet also blurs the distinctions between the writer and the reading public. This, it seems to me, is neither inherently good or bad, but simply a new wrinkle.
And here is where the question of civility enters. What kinds of obligations does democracy carry? On a very basic level, none at all. “It’s a free country,” as we used to say on the playground. But if we’re exchanging ideas and opinions, don’t we owe it to one another to respond thoughtfully from the privacy and solitude of our own homes? Aren’t we obliged to behave on the Internet as we would in public? Don’t we owe it to our fellow bloggers to read every word they’ve written with great care, as opposed to simply picking out the offending phrase or choice of words and going on the attack? And what happens when someone begins with a position that’s carelessly thought through and argued in the first place? Does that give us the license to respond in kind? I don’t think so. I’ve seen a number of scenarios played out around these issues, and some of them have been quite painful to witness—misunderstandings, dismissals, rejections, attacks followed by wounded defenses. The most interesting exchange I’ve had was with a man who mischaracterized something I wrote about Pauline Kael. I responded as carefully as I could —or so I thought, since I began by mischaracterizing something he wrote about Nathan Lee. Unfortunately, this was followed by a post from a friend who congratulated me for “demolishing” this man’s thinking, something I had neither the intention nor the inclination to do. This was followed by a fascinating response from the man himself. He unleashed a tirade against me, but what was most interesting was the overall impression he conveyed that I had intruded on his territory—in other words, he wanted to feel free to attack me, without having to suffer the indignity of responding directly to me. Why couldn’t I have just stayed in the comfort of my elitist stateroom, and resisted the urge to stroll below decks and spoil the party in steerage? At which point, a fellow critic chimed in under one of his many Internet pseudonyms with the judgment that my response was both hysterical and overlong, and I opted out. In his essay on Ezra Pound in The Gift, Lewis Hyde wrote, “It is an easy power play to take a man’s ideas and, instead of saying ‘You’re right’ or ‘You’re wrong,’ say ‘You’re crazy.’ It impugns the status of the thinker and cuts off the dialogue.” Which is exactly what happens all too frequently on the Internet.
There is no “new” form of criticism on the Internet. There is only a new delivery system (which occasionally yields some interesting byproducts: on many Web sites, you often begin with one topic and through a thread of associations arrive at something completely different), increasing the visibility of nonprofessionals, and a new way for readers to respond almost instantaneously. As a “conversational forum,” it leaves a lot to be desired —you miss nuances, subtleties, and, more than anything else, you miss the chance to breathe the same air and share the same space as your interlocutor. On this point, I am in full agreement with Siegel. Since we’re talking about cinema, I believe that Godard is a genuine pioneer in this regard. His peculiar form of public discourse, a monolog that appears to be a dialog, anticipated the most questionable aspects of blogging by decades.
I’ll close by sharing my enthusiasm for two Web sites. Dave Kehr’s site is the model of a good Internet forum: readers who share information and enthusiasms and passions, who occasionally disagree but take the time to clarify their positions. For criticism, it’s difficult to improve on David Bordwell’s blog.
Kent Jones is editor-at large at Film Comment and associate programmer at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. He is the author of L’Argent (British Film Institute) and Physical Evidence (Wesleyan University Press).
1) “If cinephilia is dead, then movies are dead too,” Susan Sontag wrote back in 1996. Cinephilia wasn’t dead, it was undergoing a mutation; a mutation that miniaturized and privatized it, in a sense, while at the same time blowing it out. Between DVDs and other—some still emerging—video formats and the Internet, cinephilia went—and is still going—virtual. So I think that Internet criticism is in the process of making a significant contribution to film culture, yes. Among other things, it speeds the discourse and whets appetites. The tools the Internet provides do make a difference—just the fact that it’s easy to get screen grabs or put up clips is a huge thing. Shot-by-shot analyses are far more common on Web sites and blogs than in most periodical-published criticism for that reason, I think, and that certainly adds a new dimension. Has Internet movie criticism yielded its own Bazin? I don’t know, but if it has, he’s probably David Bordwell.
2) Filmbrain, David Bordwell, Girish Sambu, cinetrix, Jim Emerson, Jonathan Rosenbaum, James Rocchi at Cinematical; Dave Kehr, for the comments threads as much as anything else; Self-Styled Siren is, I think, the blog I’d point to if I were asked to justify blogs—movie blogs or blogs in general. Karina Longworth at spout, Allison Willmore at IFC are good with both the opinion and newsy items. Of course I read the trade blogs, Anne Thompson’s in particular. Jeffrey Wells is for better or worse sui generis.
I like a blog that has a strong individual voice, knows what it’s talking about, and has a sense of humor; beyond that, I don’t really care if it’s by an amateur or a professional. Again, Self-Styled Siren can write rings around a large percentage of professionals in any specialty.
The House Next Door is a great multiwriter site that manages to host a bunch of strong voices, although I’m not crazy about every single one of them. I suppose that’s part of the point.
Strengths and weaknesses of critics’ blogs? I really am not sure I understand the question. Relative to what?
3) I think there’s a great deal of potential there, but currently the Edenic qualities of the Internet are a little overrated, yeah. That said, my own experience in blogging has helped me find and communicate with a lot of kindred spirits who give me hope for cinephilia. With few exceptions, the dialogue I have with my readers in comments is incredibly productive. It was also enlivening to have put up a couple of posts last year on my Premiere blog speculating on the ending of No Country for Old Men and to have the thread on that extend to… well, I think people are still commenting, as there are links to the post on the official No Country Web site. So there’s that.
And then there are trolls. It’s like anything else, really.
4) Define traditional. Define stature. What or who are we talking about? If it’s Peter Travers, that’s one thing. If it’s Peter Wollen, that’s another.
Anne Thompson wrote about teaching a class somewhere and how her students didn’t read movie critics because they didn’t “trust” them. This sounded to me like about the most ass-backwards rationale I had ever heard. I grew up reading pop culture criticism in Rolling Stone, The Village Voice, Creem, and the thing about this stuff was that it was fun to read—whether I “trusted” any of it never entered into it. But if I was looking for a critic to use as some sort of consumer guide, I’d find one I enjoyed reading who had a sensibility close to my own. For music, back in the Seventies and Eighties, that guy was John Piccarella—we were both aficionados of a kind of squirrelly, slightly cerebral guitar rock. But again—first and foremost was that I enjoyed reading the guy, just as I enjoyed reading Robert Christgau, with whose taste my own did not correspond quite as closely.
But we’re getting away from the question here. A lot of the time, when I hear my fellow colleagues wax rhapsodic on Pauline Kael, I get the feeling they miss not just her voice but an era wherein a film critic was something of a big shot, could successfully dress down David Lean, all that sort of thing. That power began to diffuse long before the Internet became significant.
Is it regrettable or salutary? Neither. It just is. My perspective is, finally, the same as that of Kingsley Amis: “[I]mportance isn’t important. Good writing is.”
1) We’re at a point where it’s too early to judge if Internet criticism has significantly contributed to film culture in, I would add, a permanent and meaningful way. But it isn’t too early at all to observe that it has moved and affected film culture, and that we’re living through a time when the first movements are being felt. This is why any comments on criticism on the Internet have to be provisional; we won’t have a clearer sense of its impact for at least a few more years. The most direct way in which film culture and criticism have been affected is through the hugely beneficial imprint of globalization, which is surely the most misunderstood and absurdly demonized phenomenon of our time. Due to the Internet’s global connections, the ways in which film lovers armed with a region-free DVD player (a beautiful product made in response to globalized demand, first spurred by fans of Asian/H.K. genre movies) can now access and purchase films from around the world in an instant—films that were either not accessible in a pre-DVD world (when the market demand prompting restoration and recovery of film titles didn’t yet exist) and were virtually impossible to see in any form unless you lived in a major film center—has affected both the culture and criticism. A site such as mastersofcinema.com, which tracks current and upcoming DVD releases in all regions of great art cinema and reports on important developments in film culture, may not be strictly a place for criticism, but it’s proven to be an immensely useful tool for those engaged in writing about film history and the cinema happening right now. I’m also pretty certain that the pre-Internet era couldn’t have produced a site like Rouge, which is designed with the Web in mind and observes cinema from a certain international perspective that combines the Web and a view of things from Australia. (I would add that this is true of the Senses of Cinema site, also based in Australia, also quite global.) A site like Rouge illustrates how Internet criticism goes far beyond merely “supplementing” print-based criticism, but makes a distinct contribution. We’re now in a phase where many more sites, some of them created by individual critics and scholars (those by Dave Kehr, David Bordwell and Jonathan Rosenbaum—ones that I visit regularly—are fine examples), suggest entirely new forums for criticism that are completely independent of, and very often superior to, what’s available in print. To take my case for the beauty of globalization and its impact on film culture a step further, just observe how the global approach has visibly affected English-language print journals such as Film Comment and Sight & Sound—once much more inward and nationalist in perspective—and it happens at the same time that younger, emphatically international journals like Cinema Scope and Letras de cine have developed into strong cinephilic voices. (Putting aside its current multipronged troubles, Cahiers du cinéma’s web expansion and new availability in English and Spanish reflects this same film critical/cultural globalization, made possible only because of the Internet.)
There are more hacks among bloggers than there are fish in the sea—I believe that may literally be the case at this point—but among the good ones, I like to read Quintín’s and Flavia’s incisive, strong, and amusing entries on lalectoraprovisoria.wordpress.com, Doug Cummings on filmjourney.org (Doug is a member of the Masters of Cinema circle, and his site is where I occasionally blog myself) and Karina Longworth’s nicely written entries at spout.com. To mention a few sites for interesting criticism which tend to be overlooked in the conversation, I would note d-kaz.com, chainedtothecinematheque.blogspot.com, Brazilian sites such as revistacinetica.com.br and critic Jose Carlos Avellar’s escrevercinema.com and programmer Roger Alan Koza’s ojosabiertos.wordpress.com. Also notable are sites that tend to blend what might be seen as certain bloggy writing with more formal criticism, such as cinematalk.wordpress.com
2) As for the blogs I like to read, see above. As for blogs’ strengths and weaknesses…. this comes down to the writer’s concept of what a blog is and what it should do. Blogging is blissfully free of rules and codes, which means it can attract messy thinking, but also creative and punchy writing—or longer musings—that traditional print can’t accommodate. Blog reviewers tend to be, though not always are, the bottom feeders in the film critical ecosystem; I’m thinking especially of the school spawned by Ain’t It Cool News, which prizes badly written snap judgments by fanboys on commercial movies. To me, they’re worthless since they’re so poorly argued and written, yet they have had logistical impact, proving to be a real problem for determining print (and Web) dates for reviews at Variety, which, like all major trade publications, aims to review films at the earliest possible date, meaning, as close as possible to the film’s first public screening anywhere in the world. (At the same time, I do enjoy the subversive effect that blog reviews have had on the studios’ mania for controlling information—as a part of the Web’s overall expansion of information liberty, this has been a delight to observe.)
Like every other kind of reviewing/critical writing, blogging can produce either empty notions or worthy ideas. While some bloggers, especially those hacking away at the American festivals, don’t so much write as typewrite, others don’t simply post their purely raw musings. Whether at Spout or in Quintín and Flavia’s bloggings (to cite a pair), a certain self-editing has quite clearly preceded the posting. It’s also, and always has been, the case that some critics are simply able to write well at a much faster pace than others, and for those who can, blogging is a natural form. I know that in my own festival blogging experiences, my tendency is to resist writing instantly, since this can often result in faulty readings. Rather, a few hours’ worth of mulling, even another film or two seen subsequently, a meal, a conversation or lively encounter, a cup of coffee, all and any of these help the process of delivering a blog entry that retains freshness and immediacy with the essential weight of analysis and critical thinking. My blogs therefore tend to read not as blasts or miniposts, but worked-out though not extremely refined miniessays; either form, or something in between, can qualify under the blog banner. And because of my own practice, developed by trial and error over time and in collaboration with a cinephilic website such as filmjourney.org, I tend to prefer blogs written by informed critics with a voice, and not well-intentioned movie geeks. Geeks aren’t without their moments, and their obsessions and specializations can be fun; usually, though, their sheer interest isn’t balanced by good writing, and their reference points tend to be quite limited.
The primary weakness of the (in English) dominant fanboy bloggers is that their diet of cinema is so restricted and codified, resulting in work that suffers enormously from a nearly complete lack of knowledge or interest in international film tendencies. They’re of essentially the same ilk as junket and quote-whore critics who watch and write about little more than American blockbusters. (These are people for whom a viewing of Atonement equals a weekend-long marathon of radical art cinema.) Since they lack the ability to draw upon film history, and since they effectively write in a reinforcing echo chamber of bloggers and readers who maintain the same strict viewing habits, their writing has no chance of expansion, reflection, internal revolution—precisely the sort of dynamics necessary to a vital critical practice.
3) Perhaps they’re overblown, although I have witnessed several valuable exchanges of information and debates on both the U.K.-based Film/Philosophy forum site and at a film by, which amasses a wonderful and often strongly opinionated group of cinephiles. (Neither site, incidentally, is actually dominated by film critics, with Film/Philosophy overpopulated by many jargon-heavy academics.) I know that the exchanges on Preminger that I’ve read over the past couple of years on a film by have prompted me to revisit early and late Preminger with fresh eyes, and I know that I’m hardly alone in this. Sometimes, the sense of community is all too real, and reminds that being in a community can often mean watching individuals in all-out conflict with one another. (The term “community” doesn’t automatically equate with a peaceable assembly.) Some of the nasty spats among academics at Film/Philosophy are pretty amusing to witness, as the Ivory Tower intellectual is brought down into the mud with a fellow poster who disputes his/her view of Laura Mulvey or the all-holy Deleuze. Amidst the verbal noise and smoke, useful information can be gleaned, as can revealing cultural and political biases—biases the posters are often not aware they’re exhibiting.
4) On its face, Kallay’s claim is dubious at best, so are much of the gloom-and-doom pronouncements that are fashionably awash in our various artistic/political/economic cultures at the moment. The dominant mood is toward the dour right now; this will pass when most realize that we’ve been too gloomy. (This is the case in nearly every aspect of life I can think of right now, historically an indication that the mass opinion is wrong.) Without knowing the full context of her statement, her fear of the “traditional” film critic losing “stature and authority” sounds at least partly based on the fear that print-based, newspaper journalists have of losing their jobs. This is real, since the traditional newspaper business (where, presumably, “traditional” critics reside) is in a permanent state of decline, with many jobs (including those of arts critics) being eliminated. Conditions will force newspapers, not the most nimble entities around, to change, and this was predictable as early as the mid-Eighties. I recall a conversation that I had with my Los Angeles Times theater critic colleague Sylvie Drake in 1986, when I noted that in a decade or two, we won’t be reading our news on paper, but on screens. Sylvie was skeptical, but then, so was almost every fellow newspaper person I discussed this with at the time. It was difficult for many to foresee the tremors and structural changes that the Web would trigger in the newspaper world, but anyone who had closely watched developments in the digital universe (I worked for the first Apple user magazine in 1980-81 and saw the personal computer/Silicon Valley revolution first-hand) could envision enormous changes. Change engenders unease, unease engenders fear, fear engenders irrational conclusions. Kallay’s film critic, assuming he/she is at a newspaper, must adapt to life on the Web, or fade away. This shouldn’t be difficult, since writing is writing, and film criticism is film criticism, whether it exists on paper or on a screen.
Now, if by “traditional,” Kallay means the typical critic that delivers weekly coverage of widely released commercial movies—no matter the medium—then I welcome their loss of “stature and authority.” Particularly if this means a shift of authoritative stature toward critics who cover a wider range of the film world beyond the tiny portion that represents what is deemed “popular.” (In this regard, the middlebrow critics in the newspaper world are afflicted with the same problem as the blogging fanboy hacks and junketing quote whores—they regularly fail to see the films that matter.) Web vs. print vs. something else—this is no zero-sum game: Readers of serious, thoughtful film writing will seek it out in a greater range of media, reflecting the increasing number of choices that (globalized) technology has ushered in—just one of a few nice reasons why we’re too gloomy. If I were to choose to work as a critic in the era of Kael v. Sarris—or, as I prefer to think of it, the era of Stanley Kauffmann—the era of Bazin or our current era of a thousand flowering critical views, I will take ours in a heartbeat. Whether in print (and I’m thinking here mainly of film journals) or on the Web, a far more adventurous and creative critical environment, with extremely interesting writing, can be found now than in the days when a Kael or Sarris dominated the conversation, and when access in all ways to international cinema was considerably more limited than it is today. In other words, a climate with critics such as Olaf Möller, Francisco Ferreira, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Quintín, Kent Jones, Diego Lerer, Jim Hoberman, Richard Brody and Christoph Huber as well as what I would call “critical programmers” like James Quandt, Berenice Reynaud, Nicole Brenez, Javier Porta Fouz, Mark Peranson, and Thom Andersen is one that I want to live in, especially when I see younger, serious critics emerging all over the place, from Toronto to Manila, as conversant on Lav Diaz as they are on Ford. (And see the connection between the two.) The fact that I read many of these critics online (sometimes with Babelfish helping with Chinese-menu-style translation, but no matter) as much as I do in print underlines the fact that the Web is helping make film criticism stronger, more interesting, more accessible, more vital, and more difficult to corral and define. Which are more reasons not to be gloomy.
Robert Koehler is a film critic for Variety, Cinema Scope, and Cineaste. A former theater critic for The Los Angeles Times, he has also written reviews, articles, and essays for a number of publications, including Cahiers du cinéma and Die Tagezeitung. His occasional blogs on cinema can be read at Filmjourney.org.
Kevin B. Lee
Shooting Down Pictures
The (to my mind, overblown) debate over online criticism and its contentious relationship to more conventional forms of film discourse says more about the fragmentation of the film community than about the relative value of its different venues. When, in just a few years, the volume of criticism has expanded to mind-blowing quantities, how can anyone attempt a blanket statement to characterize what’s out there when no one can possibly keep up with everything worth reading?
At this year’s Moving Image Institute, no less an icon of the film critic establishment than Andrew Sarris acknowledged that online criticism was where the vitality and innovative thinking that characterized his own groundbreaking writing of the Sixties could now be found. He also expressed bewilderment at the overabundance of content and a lack of knowing which sites are worth his while to investigate. This, I think, is a much fairer critique of online film criticism than the broadside dismissals I’ve seen in print or heard in person, which are symptomatic reactions to the same vertiginous sensation of content overload. For established critics accustomed to their opinion holding court, it’s a radical landscape shift amounting to an existential crisis. Hell is other critics. For them, three simple words apply: get over it.
Solving this problem of online content navigation and aggregation concerns me insofar as it would allow older critics like Sarris (who still types his reviews on a typewriter) to connect with his Internet successors, a linkage that could only benefit the future of film criticism. The closest thing I have for a silver bullet (especially for those who can’t manage an RSS feed aggregator such as Google Reader) is the GreenCine Daily (http://www.daily.greencine.com), the fruit of David Hudson’s countless hours crawling the Web for worthwhile cinema-related content, which he summarizes and links for the ease of cinephiles everywhere. While there are dozens if not hundreds of other sites worth mentioning (my own RSS aggregator tracks 112 sites and blogs), I feel comfortable singling out GreenCine Daily for praise because it does such a marvelous job at spotlighting everyone else.
Still, one Web site can only do so much to bring disparate sites together into a semblance of a community. A beauty and a challenge of the Internet is its spawning of virtual film communities collectively embodying a stunning array of cultures and interests, while also leading to enclaves of specialists engaged in lengthy threads of minutiae. While interests of all kinds are part of what is necessary to push the boundaries of cinema culture, the propensity of some online discourse towards a kind of tunnel vision and loss of perspective bothers me. One thing that I’ve learned from my time spent online is that even the most respected and established critics can become embroiled in petty bickering and trifling discussions as much as anyone, poring over the trivial, mundane details of a film over dozens of posts.
For me, movies always have to come back to the world, which I suppose is why I’ve generally enjoyed conversing with everyday film buffs with lives outside the film world as much if not more than erudite film critics. I’ve enjoyed many exchanges over the years on forums such as a film by, the Rotten Tomatoes Critics Discussion forum, and more recently, the visitor-friendly blogs of Dave Kehr and Girish Shambu, among many others, where name-brand critics and many more experts check in regularly.
But my ideal experience of a film community remains my time spent on the IMDb Classic Film Message Board, where people aged sixteen to ninety from around the world gathered to share and discuss what films they saw (contemporary as well as classics). Among my favorite peers were the director of a major city library in Tennessee; a film professor in the U.K. who professed not to be able to discuss films with her colleagues because it was too much academic shop talk and not enough fun; the bored housewife of a New York Times journalist; a San Diego high school student with a penchant for Marguerite Duras; and a nursing home resident who attended the Kansas City opening night of Citizen Kane. Their collective insight on any number of films from all eras and countries (thanks to the age of DVD) was, in my view, better than any film school (indeed, the board was my film school since I couldn’t afford a formal graduate education), especially in that it wasn’t ensconced in a limited perspective of cinema, academic or otherwise.
This to me is the full potential of online cinema culture: to be expansive and connected all at once. This is one of the guiding principles of my own blog, and is a reason why I invite a variety of individuals to collaborate on my video essays, each one lending a different voice and perspective to a given film. This perspective is all the more important to nurture if cinema culture itself is to have a future beyond the specialized online cul-de-sacs to which many cinephiles have already migrated, and maintain its relevance within culture at large.
Kevin B. Lee is a filmmaker, critic, and the programming and acquisitions executive of dGenerate Films, a venture distributing Chinese independent cinema in the United States. He owns the blog Shooting Down Pictures, in which he collaborates with critics to produce innovative video essays on films.
Forgive me, Cineaste, for I have sinned. I wear the scarlet letter of the professional version of the home wrecker. I am a blogger.
One morning in June, I appeared on a panel at the Silverdocs Film Festival, called Main Street vs. The Blogosphere. On my right sat a friendly acquaintance that has worked as a reporter and a critic for both online and print publications. On my left sat a reviewer who, just two weeks earlier, had accepted a buy-out from the newspaper at which he had been employed for twenty-five years. At a particularly heated point in the conversation, the man on my right accused me of “killing” the job of the man on my left. His tongue was clearly in cheek, and no one on the panel took the accusation at plain face value. But there was a kernel of authentic anxiety to the statement; that the panel had a “vs.” in the title should be indication enough that the prevailing view holds that print critics and Internet critics can’t coexist.
I’ve been working to combat that view every day of the past three and a half years. I started writing a film blog for a living in January 2005, when I was twenty-four years old. Through a combination of dumb luck, naiveté, misguided rebellion, and, very occasionally, shrewd calculation, I helped to plant the seeds for this debate, this rarely productive tug-of-war between, as it was worded in the invitation to participate in this symposium, “the cranky naysaying of anti-Internet pundits and the undiluted enthusiasm of film buff “Net Heads.” For playing my part in this internecine war, I am truly regretful. But in my defense, I must say that it wasn’t supposed to turn out this way.
When I got into this racket, there was a fledgling underground of interesting Internet film writers, whose generic interests and methods of approach had far more in common with high-brow mainstream media than with the so-called “fanboy” culture, at that time held up on one end by Film Threat and on the other by Harry Knowles’ Ain’t It Cool News. There was indieWIRE for film news and festival coverage, Reverse Shot and Slant for sharp, unforgiving reviews of indie and indie-arm releases, Twitch for enthusiastic spelunking of obscure genre product, and a few handfuls of disparate blog voices, most of which languished in obscurity until swept up in the heroic collation efforts of David Hudson at GreenCine Daily.
That all of the sites named above are alive and thriving three years later should be evidence enough of their continued significance. But in 2005, when I was editing an early version of Cinematical.com and writing ten blog posts a day myself, the combined noise made by the established film Web sites in concert with us young upstarts seemed meek against the constant drone of corporate entertainment media. I saw very little material difference between what passed for film coverage in most mainstream outlets, whether it was Access Hollywood or The New York Times’ Sunday Arts & Leisure section. Maybe the latter earned (and deserved) credibility for extending their promotional efforts past the multiplex, to tiny films, foreign films, retrospectives. But the available options failed to address what I thought (and still feel, perhaps now more than ever) was a major crisis for cinephiles. The bulk of entertainment “news” amounted to pure advertising (celebrity profiles, trailers-as-content, uncritical set visits… pretty much the entirety of Entertainment Weekly). Then there was a rarefied, highbrow space (film festivals, big-city rep houses, and, um, magazines like Cineaste), but this space was often inaccessible to the average person who really cared about movies. I knew too many people whose personal tastes fell somewhere in the middle.
I’ve always tried to give voice to that man in the middle, to offer skepticism and passion in equal doses, to use my platform to steer the conversation towards films that deserve extra attention whilst at the same time questioning received wisdom whenever it seemed appropriate (and often when it didn’t). At first, I felt like I could get away with anything, because no one was paying attention––the idea that I could have an audience as large and as dedicated as any newspaper critic’s seemed completely laughable.
But sometime in late 2005, things started to change. Page views, on my blog and others, soared. Publicists started calling me at home, usually angrily. And long before jobs for print critics began to disappear, people like Peter Bart were writing ill-informed editorials, bemoaning the blogosphere as an orgy without protections, trying to run us out of town. “They’ll just publish anything!,” the detractors moaned. Well, yeah, but what’s your point? We never said we were going to play by your rules. We never said that what we were doing was pure journalism.
No, I’m not being entirely facetious: What I do for a living sometimes looks like journalism (in my case specifically, it often looks quite a bit like criticism), but on any given day, I also play the roles of activist, stand-up comic, camp counselor, therapist, and DJ. Above all, I think of myself as a hunter––it’s my job to go out in the world and look for prey to feed to my hungry community.
Just as I wouldn’t be able to do my job were it not for film festivals, publicists, and, of course, filmmakers, I wouldn’t be able to do it without print film critics and journalists. Internet film culture needs mainstream/print culture to survive. We need something to push and pull against; we need the established media to set the words for our conversation. The best hope of the online film community is not to replace traditional film criticism, but to eventually earn enough respect from that establishment to be seen not as upstarts, not as a nuisance, not as a threat, but as partners in the common goal of keeping a public conversation about cinema alive. Every time either side drops a “vs.,” an us-or-them binary opposition, we waste time and weaken both sides.
Karina Longworth is a film and new media blogger/critic and the cofounder/former editor-in-chief-of Cinematical.com. She currently edits the daily film culture blog SpoutBlog, and has contributed to The Huffington Post, Filmmaker magazine, NewTeeVee, and TV Squad.
Over recent months, there has been an ugly war going on between the self-nominated “professionals” and the other-nominated “amateurs” of film criticism— with professional tending to mean “salaried,” and, usually (if not exclusively), appearing in a hard-copy print newspaper or magazine; and amateur being equated essentially with self-publication on the Internet, especially in the blogosphere. Armond White, salaried critic for New York Press, has put it most definitively and pugilistically in an online interview he gave to John Lingan in Splice Today (http://www.splicetoday.com/moving-pictures/interview-armond-white):
I don’t understand why an enthusiast also pretends to be a professional critic. That may just be a delusion proffered by the Internet where people can express their opinions without being required to demonstrate knowledge, experience or exercise intellectual rigor… The differences between amateurs and critics are there to be observed. Think about it: professional publication (getting paid for it) used to imply a standard of knowledge and training. Now everybody thinks they can be a movie critic simply because they have an opinion.
This cult of professionalism—and the embattled defensive maneuvers that accompany it—seems to me a rather recent, and fairly puzzling, phenomenon. Did anyone reading Manny Farber’s Artforum pieces on film in the 1960s bother to wonder whether he was “demonstrably” a professional of the film-crit trade, or merely a gifted autodidact? What about the great French-Algerian critic Barthélemy Amengual (1919-2005), of whom it is said that he wrote about cinema, passionately and eruditely, for almost sixty years—without, in the vast majority of cases, being paid for it? (See the tribute in Undercurrent, No. 1,http://www.fipresci.org/undercurrent/issue_0106/amengual_torrell.htm >.) Writing and publishing on cinema as communal obsession or private vocation, subsidized expediently by other employment, or nursed along by the occasional, fickle government subsidy—isn’t that the authentic history of film criticism, in all its amateur-driven glory? Whereas—certainly it looked this way to me when I was an Angry Young Man of the 1980s, and often still seems exactly the same today—it is the hard-to-budge professionals who (notable exceptions aside) appear to be the phonies, reactionaries, and blowhards of the scene.
It’s time for a reality check. In the newsstands of my immediate vicinity in Melbourne, Australia, I used to be able to wander in and randomly buy the latest Sight and Sound, Film Comment, Cineaste—even the more specialized CineAction from Canada—all magazines that mix news, information, enthusiasm, good writing, a sense of film history, and in-depth analysis. But for around ten years now, there has only been the likes of Premiere, Empire, and their many glossy imitators—publications that are devoid of criticism, and full of shameless promotion for the products of the mainstream film industry. If I want to get deeper and readCinema Scope (Canada), Screen (U.K.), or Positif (France), I need either to subscribe, or have access to a university library. In this situation, there is absolutely no question where I, and most people with a serious interest in cinema, instantly go: online. And there’s an added urgency to this situation: if I want to truly explore the films of Pedro Costa, Jia Zhang-ke, or Philippe Garrel, am I going to find anything more than marginal, token coverage of these relatively new, as yet uncanonized figures in even the best, most respected print publications? Again, it’s online that the real, probing, extended work is to be found.
I tend to agree with U.S. critic Kent Jones (as expressed in the Comments section of Dave Kehr’s blog, www.davekehr.com) that the “new amateurs” of the blogosphere are “neither the ‘scourge’ of cinephilia nor the heralds of a new democratic vista.” Nonetheless, a new kind of vista is indeed appearing on the Net: one on which the well-known (such as David Bordwell, or Bertrand Tavernier) and the relatively unknown (such as Kimberly Lindbergs, aka Cinebeats, or Andy Rector) can be enjoyed and savored as they offer their rolling collages of notes, quotes, reflections, profusely illustrated analytical essays, and discussion with correspondents.
For many years, I encountered young people whose rather alienated fantasy was to be a “professional film reviewer”—where their models were the thumb-wielding Siskel-Ebert types on television, or the tough-talking, tick-a-box scribes of Variety (on this point, Armond White is correct). One of the happiest results of the rise of the Internet is that, by and large, this particular adolescent fantasy is less prevalent. There is, of course still plenty of that kind of reviewing—bad, summary, constipated, normative reviewing—that occurs online, in IMDb comments and on the Rotten Tomatoes site (and I try, for the sake of my daily sanity, not to read it). But since (it seems) one no longer needs to climb some punishing hierarchical ladder in the mass media industries in order to voice one’s view of movies, a freer mentality has emerged: film critics in the blogosphere tend to think of themselves more as writers than as reviewers. That is, they pursue, literally from day to day, the formation of their personal voice, and the evolution of a general “discourse” on film, culture, and the world—rather than seeing their mission as the journalistic knocking-off of identically formatted, bite-sized nuggets of rigid opinion. This trend is, I feel, a Good Thing.
Just before the onset of the Internet Age, the French critic-scholar Nicole Brenez described Serge Daney’s posthumous volume L’Exercice a été profitable, Monsieur (1993) as “an interior monologue where writing, speech and conversation, an intimate diary and a sketchy article are mixed together.” For Brenez, at stake here was a certain tone or style of writing, “something proper to the analysis of cinema”, which Daney had “accomplished with staggering facility” at death’s door (see her essay ‘The Ultimate Journey’ in Screening the Past). At its best, film criticism on the Net takes this mixed, writerly form and projects it into a better tomorrow.
Adrian Martin is a Senior Research Fellow in Film and Television Studies, Monash University (Australia). For eleven years he reviewed films for The Age (Melbourne) and is coeditor of the online journal Rouge. His books include Once Upon a Time in America (BFI), The Mad Max Movies (Currency), Raul Ruiz (Altamira), and Movie Mutations (BFI), which he coedited with Jonathan Rosenbaum.
Eye Weekly and Cinema Scope
1) This is a question where the age of the respondent will go a long way towards determining the answer, beyond the obvious talking points that online writing is less encumbered by word counts and the need—ever-pressing in the print world—for a “topical hook.” If I were in my forties, I’d have a better sense of the “impact of Internet criticism on film culture”; as I’m twenty-seven, it’s not so easy for me to separate the two. (I’m sorry, I hope that doesn’t sound like a cop-out). Anyway, I don’t know how easy (or helpful) it is to draw cut-and-dried distinctions between print criticism and Internet criticism when so many “traditional” critics (great, good, bad, and worse) find so much of their readership online, or maintain or contribute to blogs in addition to their print gigs (like Matt Zoller Seitz did earlier this year, balancing his duties as the proprietor of the endlessly clickable The House Next Door with his duties for The New York Times.) And this doesn’t address the issue of free-lancers who move freely between venues. Nick Pinkerton, whose work I first discovered through my association with Reverse Shot, has recently been contributing to The Village Voice. And then there are the likes of Ed Gonzalez (the online magazine Slantand alsoThe Village Voice), Michael Joshua Rowin (Hopeless Abandon, Cineaste), Michael Sicinski (The Academic Hack, Cinema Scope), and many other fine critics who navigate the Internet/print divide every week.
2) I prefer blogs written by good critics, period. If some happen to be “amateurs” in the sense that they don’t blog for money or have a paid byline elsewhere, it’s not something that I think twice about. That said, the sheer space that an online venue affords can sometimes bring out the best in print critics accustomed to fighting for column inches.
3) I think the tone of the participation varies. For instance, Girish Shambu’s site (www.girishshambu.com) is notable in that I don’t think I’ve ever run across a sincerely antagonistic—or even mildly grumpy—exchange in the comments section. The people who congregate there strike me as being intellectually secure, and thus display no desire to pull out the sabers and start to rattling. The fact that I tend to see the same names posting over and over again in the comments section (and that these names—and/or pseudonyms—tend to belong to other film bloggers) could be used to support the argument that these “cinematic communities” are closed circuits, but the tone there is so generally welcoming that charges of insularity seem churlish. Of course, the same can be said of David Bordwell’s characteristically affable homepage (http://www.davidbordwell.net) and he doesn’t publish comments, period (that’s one way to head ’em off at the pass). At the other end of the spectrum, there are blogs and Web sites that have been constructed as (sometimes pseudo-) intellectual hothouses and attract an accordingly combative group of readers, lurkers, and scab-pickers. That’s a kind of community-building, too, though what’s being erected is really the Internet equivalent of fly-over country.
4) I disagree. If anything, the sheer volume of mediocre criticism (and noncriticism, from fanboy ramblings to Oscar handicapping) on the Internet (a lot of which, as I’ve mentioned before, is just traditional print criticism in a different venue) places genuinely good writing in sharper relief. If the traditional film critic is losing anything these days, it’s his or her job— but that’s a subject for a different and probably more apocalyptic symposium.
Adam Nayman is a film critic based in Toronto. He writes for Eye Weekly, Cinema Scope, Cineaste, LA Weekly, and Elle Canada and contributes articles to such Web sites as Reverse Shot, The House Next Door, and Moving Image Source.
Theo's Century of Movies
First of all, a line should be drawn between “film culture” and “film criticism.” The contribution of online criticism to the former can hardly be overstated—but mostly because it’s part of the explosion in film talk produced by the Internet in general. Those of us in provincial towns or out-of-the-way places vividly recall predigital days, when it was literally impossible to be part of a conversation on nonmainstream cinema— except, if you were lucky, with a handful of fellow film buffs, and a few times a year when Sight & Sound or Film Comment (or Cineaste, though I never had access to the magazine) arrived in your mailbox. Cinephilia slowly atrophied, or at best retreated into hard defensive little kernels of nostalgic narrow-mindedness. All that has changed—and the situation is immeasurably better. Indeed, with film distribution increasingly closed off to adventurous fare— or just ill-equipped to deal with the boom in films being made—the abundance of Web sites calling one’s attention to small, off-the-radar movies may be our single best way of preserving the culture.
So much for the Internet and film culture. When it comes to film criticism, however, the role of online writing is considerably murkier. The touted advantages—the new terrain potentially carved out—are well known: critics dispense with deadlines and word counts, write about whatever they want, allow themselves to go more in-depth, etc. Even with established names, however, freedom is a mixed blessing. Just as good teachers don’t necessarily make good friends, a good critic won’t necessarily make a good blogger; there are critics I actually think less of since they went online, due to snide remarks or strident political rants included with their (still perceptive) film analysis. As for going more in depth, the sad truth is that Internet browsing—by its very nature—doesn’t lend itself to sustained attention. For me, at least, the temptation to skim a piece and click on the next link is usually overpowering—unless of course (oh the irony) I print it out and peruse it later.
An even greater problem is the blog format itself. Blogs are searchable of course, but the diaristic approach means they live in the moment, each post implicitly superseded by a new one. Not only does this create a more superficial film culture, it makes it difficult, as a practical matter, to engage with a new critic. Reading a handful of arbitrary posts on whatever the writer happened to be watching that week seldom elicits a real sense of their voice or worldview. Emphasis therefore shifts on whether they’re entertaining— and, crucially, whether you agree with them.
That’s the fallacy behind all the talk of “community”: yes, the Internet has made film culture more interactive and participatory—but communities form between like-minded people, leading inevitably to ghettoization and segregation. One sees it in bloggers’ irritating habit of praising each other to the skies, as if confirming their mutual good taste. There’s a simple but significant change in the dynamic between reader and writer: When Writer X appeared in the paper every Sunday (or in the film magazine every month), one may not have agreed with him but kept checking in, just because he was there. When one visits Blogger X and disagrees with his opinion— with no easy way of getting a handle on his other opinions—one simply stops visiting. Message boards are everywhere, but tend to be for aficionados. Who but a horror fan would visit a board where horror fans debate “suspense vs. gore”? (On the other hand, I was first exposed to Mario Bava through an Andrew Mangravite article unexpectedly encountered in Film Comment.)
Speaking for myself, almost all the sites I visit on a regular basis are run by people I know personally—notably Michael Sicinski, Mike D’Angelo, and Dan Sallitt—meaning I already have an interest in their opinions. They also tend to be sites rather than blogs, since I can use them for reference instead of sticking to the subject du jour (though I do check GreenCine Daily, just to see what people are talking about); I also read a few professional critics’ blogs (Dave Kehr, Michael Atkinson) but often find them less satisfying than reading those critics in print. I’m sure I’m missing out on some fine writers—but there’s just too much out there, and no easy way to separate the wheat from the chaff.
In sum, I find Jasmina Kallay’s claim slightly off-target. The traditional film critic—viz. an expert offering authoritative opinions—hasn’t been rejected per se. What people are doing online is indulging in film culture, not absorbing film criticism. There’s no evidence that kibitzing with like-minded friends—which is what blogs and message boards essentially amount to—is viewed by serious film buffs as a substitute for reading a monograph, or essay, or indeed a specialized film magazine. The critic’s basic function, to explain using expert knowledge, remains timeless—and a true critic, one who illuminates instead of just offering opinions, is as rare and valued in the Age of the Internet as he (or she) ever was. At worst, the online revolution may result in the newsprint reviewer going the way of … well, newsprint. That would be a shame. But then most of us provincials didn’t get to read many print reviews before the Internet came along anyway.
1)a. Significant and profound. Because the changes it has wrought are ongoing and unfolding, it’s still hard to have a comprehensive fix on them.
1)b. It can and does do both. By broadening the playing field in terms of players, methodologies, audiences, social formations, and outlets, it certainly expands the options. The interactivity of almost immediate feedback, the strengths and limitations of being able to post almost as quickly as one can think (or type), the relative ease of making screen grabs—these and many other aspects of Internet discourse are bringing about changes in content as well as in style and form, shape and size.
1)c. Here’s just a sample: To varying degrees (some much more regularly than others), I like to read Acquarello, David Bordwell, Zach Campbell, Fred Camper, Roger Ebert, Flavia de la Fuente, Filipe Furtado, Michael E. Grost, Andy Horbal, Christoph Huber, David Hudson, Arianna Huffington, Kent Jones, Dave Kehr, Craig Keller, Glenn Kenny, Naomi Klein, Roger Alan Koza, Laila Lalami, Kevin Lee, Adrian Martin, Dave McDougall, Mark Peranson, Quintín, Andy Rector, Lisa Rosman, Alex Ross, Girish Shambu, Brad Stevens, Terry Teachout, Alexis Tioseco, and Noel Vera. Some of these writers don’t have blogs of their own and some aren’t even film people, but I’ve included them if what they’ve had to say occasionally relates to my film interests.
2)a. The strengths and weaknesses of most critics’ blogs relate to the fact that they aren’t edited—apart from a few like The Chicago Reader blogs, whose strengths and weaknesses relate to the fact that they areedited (or at least the initial posters are edited, if not the respondents).
2)b. The film blogs I read or consult most regularly at the moment are those maintained by three Davids (Bordwell, Hudson, and Kehr) and Girish. I tend to read Bordwell and Hudson more for content than for style; among the bloggers whom I tend to read more for style than for content are Glenn Kenny, Quintín, and Lisa Rosman.
2)c. I have no idea what differentiates “professional” film critics from “amateur” cinephiles, apart from the fake credentials dispensed by institutional bases—or the fact that “professionals”, whether they’re academics or journalists, don’t have to be cinephiles, don’t have to know anything about film, and don’t have to know how to write or do research in order to be regarded as “professionals” within their respective professions. As for those with blogs, I prefer those who are cinephiles, know something about film, and know how to write and do research, such as Dave Kehr, even if he didn’t make it into Phillip Lopate’s American Movie Critics collection. I regret that many of the best film critics and film scholars that we have—including Thom Andersen, Raymond Bellour, Janet Bergstrom, Nicole Brenez, Manohla Dargis, Bernard Eisenschitz, Manny Farber, J. Hoberman, Alex Horwath, James Naremore, Gilberto Perez, Donald Phelps, and François Thomas—aren’t bloggers, at least as far as I know.
3) Within my own experience, I would say that the “participatory” aspects of film writing, including criticism and scholarship, have helped to create a new form of community, and I would further submit that those who consider this claim overblown probably haven’t been participants or members of this community, except indirectly. (I’ve written about this topic elsewhere, in “Film Writing on the Web: Some Personal Reflections,” in the Spring 2007 issue of Film Quarterly—an article that ironically can’t be accessed online.)
I hasten to add that my own recently launched Web site doesn’t invite or allow other participants to post, which suggests that my feelings about this community aren’t entirely or exclusively positive, by any means. Nor would I argue that the communities that have formed are always democracies, or that some of these communities wouldn’t have been formed without the Internet. (A 2003 collection that I coedited and contributed to—Movie Mutations: The Changing Face of World Cinephilia, which is very much concerned with such formations—initially took shape before any of us had email, but email certainly helped us during its final stages.)
4) I agree, and on the whole regard this phenomenon as more salutary than regrettable—especially after protracted exposure to more “traditional” criticism in both academia and journalism before the advent of the Internet. Even though I miss such invaluable outposts as Cahiers du cinéma during the Fifties and Sixties and Penelope Houston’s Sight and Sound, not to mention such eclectic scholars and critics as Raymond Durgnat and Jay Leyda, I can’t think of any pre-Internet equivalents for Senses of Cinema in its early years or Rouge, either. I also regret that some magazines as important as Positif don’t have any online presence. Frankly, we get more of everything now on the Internet—including more that’s worse than anything we had before as well as more that’s better. I regret the way that some critical works that aren’t available online have dropped out of our critical canons—Durgnat is a prime example—but this suggests only that we need to make more things available online.
Jonathan Rosenbaum’s Web site is at jonathanrosenbaum.com. His most recent book is Discovering Orson Welles (University of California Press).
Thanks for the Use of the Hall
1) Some forms of Internet criticism, like blogs, have the advantage of having no fixed format. One can write an essay or a paragraph, focus on details or the big picture. Over time, we can hope that this informality liberates critics from the burden of padding and twisting their thoughts to fit established style templates.
The ease of integrating stills and clips into Internet criticism is perhaps as much of a danger as a boon nowadays, but on the whole it has to be reckoned as progress.
I’m not a voracious reader of contemporary criticism, on or offline. Metablogs like GreenCine Daily and Girish Shambu’s blog, which compile and recommend activity in the blogosphere, are invaluable. The bloggers I keep up with include established critics like Dave Kehr and David Bordwell, as well as many lesser-known but gifted film thinkers.
2) Any virtue in a critic is valuable. Brevity is certainly a desirable quality in any technological context! One of the best developments of Internet culture is the rise of the specialty blogger who serves a particular niche. Without meaning to single them out, I could cite as examples J. D. Copp’s My Gleanings, which focuses on French film culture of the Fifties and Sixties; or Michael E. Kerpan’s Roslindale Monogatari, which specializes in reviews of Asian films that are usually unavailable in the West.
The amateur and the professional each has his or her own demons to overcome. It is not clear to me that the professional has an edge in terms of scholarship or insight.
3) I would think it indisputable that participation in Internet film culture leads to a dramatic increase in real-life, offline social encounters in movie theaters. I attended New York specialty screenings for many pre-Internet years without achieving much of a social network; now I can’t swing a dead cat in a repertory lobby without hitting a few people I’ve met online. Obviously one needs to live where there are specialty theaters to obtain this effect; but even cinephiles from the sticks meet their online comrades on field trips and at festivals.
The quality of online society is an interesting topic. Mailing lists and forums inevitably recapitulate a rise-and-fall trajectory, passing through periods of great energy and camaraderie, and progressing to a plausible simulation of family life that drives out everyone who doesn’t enjoy comfortable repetition and the license to express anger. In theory, I prefer the communal interplay of film groups to the soapbox approach of blogging. But so far the blogosphere has been far more cordial and supportive than any group I’ve participated in. Maybe the way to go is to give all film writers their little plot of land and hope that it calms them down.
4) The stature and authority of the critic, such as it is, is strongly connected to people’s awareness that the critic is being paid and is prestigiously placed. The Internet hasn’t destroyed those criteria—it’s merely begun to shift them to a new terrain.
It’s a toss-up whether we should want or need critics with stature and authority. Presumably some critics use their power for good causes. But power creates orthodoxies that obstruct the exchange of ideas. If the Internet actually manages to destroy the stature and authority of critics, I think I can live with that.
Movie reviewing has been a consequential activity in American journalism and intellectual life for less than a half century. Prior to the 1960s it was—at least in the mass media—largely the work of dullards and time-servers, the exceptions being James Agee and a few lonely voices in the little magazines, The rise of more or less serious reviewing coincided with another rise—interest in films imported from abroad (The New Wave, Bergman, Fellini, etc.) which demanded a more complex and knowing response than the typical film critic of the time offered. In this period a number of mass publications reached out to younger, more committed reviewers either to initiate or to upgrade their coverage of films.
The current demise of film reviewing coincides with the aging and death of the great foreign auteurs and with Hollywood’s decision to concentrate on the production of blockbuster and tentpoles. I’m not saying that there are no interesting movies to review anymore, but I am saying that week-in, week-out there are very few of them that require the attentive interest of first-class critical intelligences.
I’m also saying that, instinctively, the editors of major publications and the mass audiences they serve, understand that and are inclined to cut back on, or eliminate, serious reviewing. The movies that bring out the best in critics are nowadays of interest only to a tiny minority of the popular press’s dwindling readership. The vast number of moviegoers—the people whose patronage make Judd Apatow movies orBatman sequels such huge international successes—need only know when one of those potential megahits is opening in a theater near them; they really don’t give a rat’s ass that it has displeased those remaining critical sensibilities that are still aquiver with the desire—the need—for art. Another way of putting this point is that critical opinion about mainstream movies has no capacity to affect the only thing that counts now: the grosses of movies on which the studios have bet a couple of hundred million dollars in production and marketing costs.
This is OK with most newspaper and magazine editors. Most of these people came up out of shoe-leather, reportorial journalism. They tolerated hoity-toity criticism when it seemed to support their needs, but mostly they never really liked us—or their music, art, dance, or book critics either, who are threatened species as well. Like most of their readers these editors wondered what right we had to our opinions, which were formed not by interviewing the masses, but by reporting exclusively on the state of our own minds, spirits, and historical knowledge. These people quite cheerfully believe that they are serving the needs of their readers by running star profiles, reports on visits to sets and, most important to them, the economic news from show biz.
I reluctantly suppose they have a point. There is easily understood drama in the box-office fate of high-risk productions; it’s something that can be reported pretty much in the terms of a sports section story. That this drama’s meaning is ephemeral in comparison to introducing readers to a film that may resonate for decades is of no consequence to editors looking for quick competitive fixes in their (as they see it) life-threatening battle with the Internet.
Ah, the Internet. To be honest, I know very little about it. I don’t read a lot of reviews in print, and even fewer on the Net though I now review—quite happily, I might add—exclusively for Time.Com. I’m also aware that a number of my former print colleagues are now blogging, and good for them. But, as far as I know, no cinematic equivalent of Edmund Wilson has yet arisen on the Internet. On the other hand, I don’t suppose these people are any more moronic than the “critics” who, until recently, popped up on the eleven o’clock news for their minute of fatuity.
I don’t want to nostalgize the movie reviewing scene as it was from—roughly—the Sixties through the Eighties. It was, at best, a Bronze Age, not a Golden one. Certainly it was a time when aspiring movies, both foreign and domestic, could rely on getting a reasonably intelligent response from the critical community. And, speaking personally, it was fun to be a part of.
To a degree, that remains true. There are mainstream publications, ranging from The Los Angeles Times to The New Yorker that continue to provide worthwhile responses to the new movies. And there are, of course, intellectual journals, like The New Republic and The Nation, that remain true to their critical calling. For the foreseeable future, I think that a somewhat more limited critical dialog about the movies will continue to take place. But I don’t know how long it will continue. If American studio movies—the ones that (let’s face it) most people are interested in—continue on their path to unreviewability (as I expect they will) that will diminish the need for, a well as the influence, of traditional reviewing. You cannot afford to keep people on the payroll awaiting the arrival of a new movie by Clint Eastwood, George Clooney, or Paul Thomas Anderson. The same will be true if American independent movies continue their descent into faux serious sentimentality—honestly, folks, The Visitor is not a movie that could possibly interest a reasonably alert viewer—it’s just a nice, comfortable, totally inconsequential little picture that one is grateful for largely because it is not The Squid and the Whale. And this says nothing about the generally dismal quality of films from abroad. If the vulgarity of La Vie en Rose or the lanquid inspirationalism of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly are what is on offer from that quarter, then any hope for the innovations, both in style and content, that so stirred the Sixties is bound to be a chilly one.
I guess maybe I’m just ringing variations on a cliché: To have great criticism you need to have great art inspiring it—and we’re not in a great movie age. But that endemic problem is surely exacerbated by the current tidal wave of technological changes and by the increasing vulgarity of the profoundly revised culture flowing from those changes. You think movie reviewing is endangered now? Wait until film’s chief venue is the iPhone. OK, I’m just kidding. Or am I?
Richard Schickel’s You Must Remember This, a five-hour history of Warner Bros., will premiere on PBS’s American Masters this September.
The Self-Styled Siren
The Internet has been a democratic revolution in film criticism, giving ordinary cinephiles an ability to be heard that didn’t exist before. In terms of critical interaction, we are living in a golden age.
Even though I’m in New York, my odds of having James Wolcott respond to an opinion of mine, or exchanging views with Glenn Kenny, were slim indeed pre-Web. I never went to film school or took a cinema studies class. My qualifications consist of a lifetime of watching movies, reading and thinking about them. But I started a blog and gradually acquired readers, and now I can go back-and-forth with people ranging from renowned academics like David Bordwell, to director Raymond de Felitta, to professional critics like Kim Morgan and Jim Emerson, to the self-taught and fiercely intellectual Girish Shambu. The Net gives me direct contact with Andrew Grant, Michael Guillen, Michael W. Phillips, Jonathan Lapper, Zach Campbell, Gerard Jones, Keith Uhlich, Peter Nelhaus, Dan Callahan, Marilyn Ferdinand, John McElwee, Andy Horbal, Nathaniel Rogers and so many others, all of them strong, intelligent, and provocative writers. And I have knowledgeable commenters, many of whom aren’t critics and don’t blog, but who show up from places I’ve never visited (and in some cases have barely heard of) to discuss the movies they love.
Criticism at the big media outlets usually has been release-driven, geared to reviewing a new movie in theaters or on DVD. Bloggers write about whatever we please, which I assume is why some professional critics blog on the side. In my case, the movies I care about are long, long past their release date. At the moment there’s no mainstream print publication that will pay me to write about Jean Negulesco or three Titanic movies because I happen to feel like it. They probably wouldn’t even let me do it free. That’s the whole point. Good blogging should offer you something you can’t get from the mainstream. The bloggers who interest me most aren’t afraid to be idiosyncratic, like Noel Vera writing up Gerardo de Leon’s vampire movies, Kimberly Lindbergs on pinky violence, Larry Aydlette doing a month of Burt Reynolds, or Dennis Cozzalio fearlessly working to resurrect Mandingo. Where in the big print publications are you going to find something like that?
One persistent complaint you hear from critics who dislike blogs is that blogs aren’t edited. And yes, some bloggers are in desperate need of fact checking, not to mention proofreading. Still, serious bloggers take care with facts and writing. I don’t see errors in the blogs I’ve named here any more often than I do in print outlets. Another oft-cited drawback is the “post in haste, repent at leisure” phenomenon, where someone offends you, and you throw up a boiling-hot Web rant, and two hours later you realize you have started a fight you don’t want. That’s less likely to happen in an outlet where there is an editor to apply the brakes, but the Web system is self-correcting. When a blogger goes seriously off the rails there are usually commenters and other bloggers willing to shove him back on track. And those bewailing the persistent lack of civility in some comment sections can always change Internet neighborhoods.
I believe the “conflict” between traditional and Web-based criticism has been overstated. Most of us play nice and enjoy each other’s company. Look at the survey of foreign-film favorites conducted last year by blogger Edward Copeland. The idea was to respond to a “100 Best” list from the American Film Institute that many of us found dull and predictable. The AFI list had been followed by a blogger-compiled list that in some ways was worse. Copeland handed out nominating ballots to both bloggers and print critics, some with small audiences and some with very large ones, then threw open the voting to anyone with enough interest to send an email. The resulting list accomplished what all lists do best—it started an argument. But even better was Copeland’s compilation of the comments from the nominators and voters. We wound up with a far-ranging survey of foreign film accompanied by remarks that were serious and jokey, erudite and lowbrow, exactly the kind of mix the Internet does best.
I think there are a lot of factors contributing to the traditional film critic’s eroding influence, and the proliferation of amateur opinion on the Net is far from the only one. The quote whores, willing to paste up come-hither adjectives like “COLOSSAL!” at the drop of a junket, surely have done as much to make people suspicious of reviewers as some awkwardly written blog posts. More importantly, print is in deep trouble. It’s painful to see an excellent critic like Glenn Kenny jettisoned from Premiere’s Web site, but what was worse was watching the print magazine decline in scope until it was shuttered. What we’re seeing is a wholesale attempt to trim anything weighing down profits, like Gert Frobe in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang throwing first the sandbags and then the employees over the side of the balloon. Obviously I love blogs, but I don’t want to see them replace more traditional outlets. Does anyone? Coexistence would be the ideal, but for print, things are tough all over, and not just for film critics.
So in economic terms, I can’t say this is the best of all possible worlds. There are a lot of Web writers producing a lot of good work, but few of us are getting paid for it. For any would-be professional critic, the Web is both godsend and nightmare—intense, endlessly varied and renewable competition, offered free. I can’t guess the end result of that, although I suspect it will end as most revolutions do, with a market-based counterrevolution. I’m just trying to enjoy this wide-open stage while it lasts.
Campaspe is the pseudonym for a former editor who blogs as The Self-Styled Siren. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, children, and a large collection of film books.
Internet criticism has inarguably made a significant contribution to film culture. Rather than merely supplement print criticism, I feel that Internet criticism complements it by providing new modes of thinking, writing, and talking about cinema. These modes are not without their limitations or problems. Then again, let’s remember that it’s up to us: The powerful and flexible technological paradigm of the Internet can be harnessed and used productively, or its potential can be wasted or put to ill use.
What are some strengths of Internet film criticism? For one, it boosts the traditionally low ratio of writers to readers, allowing informed and valuable “amateur” voices to contribute to cinema discourse. This promotes a more “active” engagement with cinema for large numbers of film lovers. No doubt this also opens the floodgates and threatens to overwhelm us with a deluge of noisy assertion and less-than-useful criticism. But new tools like RSS reader software—Google offers one for free—make it possible to tune out all the Internet film writing that one may find unhelpful and concentrate on a smaller segment of hand-picked writers and sites (professional or amateur) that one wishes to follow. This software notifies the reader each time a site is updated with a new post or entry; and she can add or remove (“subscribe” or “unsubscribe”) sites with ease. I cannot overstate that for the serious reader of Internet film criticism, this efficiency-enhancing tool is a godsend. It maximizes time spent reading a wide range of worthwhile film writing while keeping the loud chorus of Internet noise at bay.
The film blog I find most essential is the aggregator GreenCine Daily (http://daily.greencine.com/), run by the Berlin-based David Hudson. He collects and posts the most significant news, links, and pieces of the day. Since I subscribe to and track a large number of film blogs (over 100—some are updated with new writing more frequently than others), let me cite, as an example, three or four indispensable bloggers who teach me something new each time I visit them: Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell (http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/); Zach Campbell (http://elusivelucidity.blogspot.com/); and Mubarak Ali (http://supposedaura.blogspot.com/). And there are a dozen or more to join them in being especially valuable.
The potential for a new mode of film criticism exists on the Internet: a mode that has access to the formal resources of its very object of study (cinema). Images—both static and moving—and sounds can be pressed into potent and imaginative use to illuminate cinema. Some examples of such criticism include: the series of video essays authored or commissioned by Kevin Lee (http://alsolikelife.com/shooting/); the special Image issue (#5) of the Internet film magazine par excellence, Rouge (http://www.rouge.com.au/); and the formal analyses of Bordwell/Thompson, Darren Hughes (http://www.longpauses.com/blog/), or Dan Sallitt (http://www.panix.com/~sallitt/blog/).
The Internet also holds great potential for communal interactivity and mutual teaching/learning about cinema. So why is it that sometimes the substance-to-noise ratio, the yield, for interactions on the Net can be dismayingly low? Here’s a speculation: As children or adolescents, society (family, peers, educators, employers) “teaches” us, in a variety of ways, the social skills we come to possess. These skills become crucial for effective communication, for the social (and teaching/learning) processes we become part of every day. But new technologies bring new exigencies. Communicating on the Internet requires a whole new array of skills, a fresh set of “awarenesses” that must be learned for us to function with success. This is not an easy task. We know that electronic communication is less “rich” than face-to-face communication; greater “redundancies” and more care must be built into electronic messages to compensate for the lack of nonverbal expression, tone of voice, etc. Perhaps we should be looking to information/communications experts to teach us about how to create and be part of effective electronic “learning communities.” One thing is clear: a cardinal prerequisite for each and every successful interaction on the Net is mutual respect. Without it, any community-building initiative is doomed to failure in ways both small (at the level of a single exchange between two individuals) and large (e.g., the success of a cinephile message board). The comments sections at sites like Dave Kehr’s (http://www.davekehr.com/) and The House Next Door (http://www.thehousenextdooronline.com/) give us exemplary models of productive cinema discussion and interaction.
Let me conclude with some dreaming. My vision of an Internet film criticism utopia would be a large, international group drawn from three major cinema domains—professional critics, amateur/hobbyist cinephiles, and academic thinkers—engaged in a steady and mutually enriching dialog. There are already pockets where we can see this happening; it’s not an unrealistic hope.
Girish Shambu is a chemical engineer and an associate professor of production/operations management at Canisius College in Buffalo. He is also a cinephile who keeps a film blog (http://www.girishshambu.com/blog).
The Academic Hack
I think there is no question that Internet criticism has altered the terrain of film culture, but it’s often frustrating to see just how much of the medium’s potential remains underexplored. We are inundated with a lot of jargon designed to heighten our sense that new media are adopted and assimilated more quickly now than before, but this isn’t entirely true. The Web is still very new, and in a lot of ways we’re still in the “vast wasteland” period, and the so-called “Internet 2.0” (which really just refers to the exponential privatization of cyberspace) has only made matters worse. I think back to the last Cineaste symposium, on international film criticism. The Internet should ideally provide the platform for a broader, transnational film discourse that accurately mirrors the global scope of film culture itself. This can be glimpsed on occasion, and people like Jonathan Rosenbaum and Mark Peranson have done yeoman work to make this happen, through publishing and symposia as well as forays into the Web. David Bordwell’s young site is a wealth of insight into what’s happening across the globe, in all realms of film culture. But there’s still a long way to go. The U.S.-based Internet film critical community, in particular, remains discouragingly parochial. Nevertheless, the tools are at our disposal to change this.
On the more positive side, one of the fundamental shifts that Internet criticism has produced in film culture (distinctive “critical terrain”) is the ability for critics, both professional and amateur, to take it upon themselves to set the agenda for cinephilia, apart from the direct influence of capitalist imperatives. If you are writing for a for-profit publication, in print or on the Web, your weekly cinematic “talking point” will inevitably be decided by external circumstances. On the more benign side, this pertains to release dates, but come on—it’s usually about the big honking corporate wannabe blockbuster of the week, as determined by one of the five international media conglomerates, one of which may well issue your paycheck. I am biased, of course, since experimental cinema is my bailiwick, and although I am blessed to have the support of some unusually progressive editors (Cinema Scope’s Mark Peranson, GreenCine Daily’s David Hudson, and the Nashville Scene’s Jim Ridley in particular), I can’t expect to make a living writing about the films of Lynn Marie Kirby, Scott Stark, or Michael Robinson. (And this is completely fair, by the way. No one I’m aware of is making a living by making avant-garde film. Why on earth should I earn my keep writing about it?) Since I can basically resign myself to operating as a semipro critic writing beneath the late-capitalist radar, I have the relative advantage of holding forth as much as I care to about a new video installation by Ernie Gehr, and ignoring The Incredible Hulk. This was possible before with DIY publishing and ’zines, but the Web broadens the reach and allows for indulgent column-length beyond the ken of dead-tree distribution.
In addition to the aforementioned strength of self-selected content, the best film sites often have the advantage of personalized prose. I appreciate professionalism in film criticism, in terms of accurate facts, patiently accrued insight over crass hyperbole, and a basic consideration of audience. But when one writes for a broadly based publication, there is often the assumption that one must meet the reader more than halfway. This can take many forms, spanning from lengthy backgrounders on who Hou Hsiao-hsien is, to chunky plot summary of Flight of the Red Balloon, to a refusal to cover the film because your readership neither knows nor cares about Hou. (To paraphrase Negativland, “This guy is from China, and who gives a shit.”) Since virtually all personal or group-personal blogs (like The House Next Door or Auteurs’ Notebook ) presume a specialized audience, a degree of shared language can be assumed, and a critic’s individual voice can begin to emerge. This is the space where the critic can settle into her or his own skin and create critical art that transcends the narrow strictures of journalism as defined by a corporate capitalist press. In this regard, Web critics like Mike D’Angelo and Theo Panayides set the standard early on, and critics who’ve turned to the Web after extensive stints in print, such as Michael Atkinson and Glenn Kenny, have carried on this tradition. There’s a “protagonist” at play in their prose, someone whose adventures in cinema you can follow with an interest apart from the gleaning of mere data.
Some of my favorite film sites, such as Vern’s “Then fuck you, jack” or Victor J. Morton’s “Rightwing Film Geek,” occupy niches (diametrically opposed, as it were) that no for-profit publication would support. Similarly, fine writers like Girish Shambu, Ekkehard Knörer, and Christoph Huber, tend to use the Web to do what I try to do in my own more modest way, which is to tread that damnably unmarketable line between academic and popular writing, importing concepts while thinning out the jargon. Hell, even Bordwell has used the Web to cut loose a little, although he’s thankfully refrained from bashing us Marxo-Lacanians. All of the writers I’ve mentioned maintain exacting, rigorous standards in their site work, and their critical acumen is present in every post. But I think the Internet has allowed these writers to explore their personal voice in a freer way, and this enriches film culture immensely. Given the present environment of enforced journalistic mediocrity and corporate line-toeing, I suspect that if Kael, Sarris, and Farber were producing their most influential work today, they would have had to start blogs to do it.
Michael Sicinski is a film writer and teacher based in Houston, Texas. A frequent contributor to Cineaste, Cinema Scope, and GreenCine Daily, he also maintains The Academic Hack, a film review Web site specializing in experimental cinema.
Film Comment and Artforum
1) I use the Internet for research—to find factual information. I also check out GreenCine Daily and Movie City News as clearinghouses for criticism I might find interesting, and I glance at indieWIRE for news (not always accurate and almost never contextualized or framed in analysis). The only blog I read regularly is William Gibson’s, which these days is mostly photos and rarely has anything to do with film, although he has written wonderfully about movies in the past. Although I try to limit my reading of film criticism, I continue to read the same critics that I have for years: J. Hoberman, Manohla Dargis, Wesley Morris, Kent Jones and my other Film Comment colleagues, Rob Nelson, James Quandt and my other Artforum colleagues, Lisa Kennedy, A.O Scott, Nick James and my other Sight & Sound colleagues. Although I now read them online, I don’t believe any of them have blogs and if they did, I probably wouldn’t read them in that format. (I’ll miss reading Paul Arthur more than I can express, and I can’t imagine that anyone will take his place.) When a film opens that I particularly care about, I also scope out the responses of interesting critics at a couple of online publications: Ed Gonzales at Slant and Michael Joshua Rowin at The L Magazine come immediately to mind, and I’ll also link to anything written by a former student, Steven Boone, a terrific young film writer, who sometimes blogs. It may be simply that I’m a loyal reader and that my film criticism queue has long been filled to capacity, but I have no inclination to seek out blogs.
2) See above. I should add that I am shocked at the conformity of style and content on most of the blogs I’ve looked at. As someone who read The Village Voice regularly in the Sixties and early Seventies, when first-person journalism was the rule, I find the use of the first person by bloggers nothing more than a self-aggrandizing reflex. As far as I can see, there isn’t a fledgling Jonas Mekas or Jill Johnston among them.
3) I don’t participate in the message boards you mention. I have to admit to being unaware of their existence. On the rare occasions I’ve read blog postings, I’ve noticed how insular bloggers’ “conversations” are and how overwhelmingly the subject is blogging and bloggers (rather than whatever film or event is supposedly the subject of their writing.) It’s like an extension of the old-fashioned film-buff conversation. Where film buffs define themselves through the factoids they possess, bloggers define themselves by their instantly formed opinions (this year at Cannes, bloggers were filing columns on their Blackberries during screenings—a new low) and by access—to celebrities, behind-the-scenes news, festivals, etc. Ideas and analysis are notable for their absence from the blogging conversations I’ve observed, although this may not be the case at academic film blogs.
Since sniping at other bloggers and, in particular, at critics who don’t blogseem to be a major source of pleasure for the “blogging community,” I expect to be torn to shreds for these remarks.
4) I never believed that film critics had much stature or authority in our culture. If there is some kind of perceived loss of same, it probably has more to do with the fact that the century in which history was written as cinema is over, and film itself no longer has the cultural, social, and political importance it once did. The Internet has marginalized traditional film culture. Employing the Internet as a means of distributing and exhibiting movies will make more movies available to more people, but it will not restore the status of film culture—neither the status of movies per se nor the chatter that goes on around them.
Amy Taubin is a contributing writer to Film Comment and Sight & Sound magazines and a frequent contributor to Artforum. She is the author of Taxi Driver in the BFI’s Film Classics series. Her critical essays are included in many collections. From 1987 and to 2001 she was a film critic for The Village Voice where she also wrote a column titled “Art and Industry.” She teaches at the School of Visual Arts in New York City.
As with most technologies, the dreams and fears that the Internet inspires move faster and assume far grander or more dire shapes than the thing itself. It’s hardly necessary to rehearse once again the benefits and corresponding detriments for film criticism occasioned by the Age of the Internet. What is most difficult in discussing its “ultimate” effects is the sheer vastness and mutability of the thing, which renders any judgments placed upon it helplessly subjective and instantly refutable by counterexample. The unmanageability of the field often means that what one wishes to find determines—even more so than usual—what findings get aired.
The great boon of the Internet is that its seeming limitlessness will always necessitate partial judgments, which some will always like to pretend are grand conclusions. What this also means is that the dizzying horizon of possibilities the Net opens up, both positive and negative, are still circumscribed by our ability to deal with those possibilities. To me, those ever-present limits are a rather comforting thought, as it means that for all the changes that the online critical community has introduced to the nature of film discourse and the practice of film criticism, those changes are, on the whole, more ones of method than matter. The same positions, the same canons (however disputed), the same feuds are still being trumpeted by “amateurs” and “professionals” both. Indeed, the ever-newness of the technology has given a second wind to past battles, and allowed newcomers to enter the fray heedless of the context or relevance of those battles today (O Kael, thy sting remains).
What has most decisively changed—to draw one of several possible grand conclusions—is that those battles are now undertaken with a far greater degree of informality, and with a corresponding (not inevitable) decline in the practice of film criticism as a literary, and essentially solitary, craft. The increased conversational traffic between critics and readers, which has been one of the great beneficial forces of online criticism, has also, to a certain degree, reduced focus on the critical essay (as per David Bordwell’s recent taxonomy) as a sculpted literary object, as something that might be occasioned by an ongoing conversation but is also somewhat autonomous of it. The instant-response capability of the Net has allowed those conversations, arguments, or grudge matches to be played out in something approaching real time—and, at its worst, has had the adverse effect of personalizing film discourse to a truly uncomfortable degree, detaching it wholly from literary models and hurling it into the pettiness, snideness, knee-jerk irrationality, and fatuous posing of everyday speech.
The instant antithesis that such a declaration demands: the above qualities are, of course, not solely the province of everyday speech, nor can the personal ever be diametrically opposed to the literary—critics from Otis Ferguson to James Agee to Jonathan Rosenbaum have explicitly brought their own personal experiences to bear upon their critical practice. The discomfort I refer to is that of seeing writers’ dirty laundry aired in public, whether intentionally or unintentionally. Crossing the thin red line between honesty and a rather seamy confessionalism is a proclivity that the Internet seems to encourage with abandon. The self-promotion, self-display, self-pity, and self-debasement on offer throughout the blogosphere is not exclusive to it, but it’s certainly more abundant. “We don’t want other worlds, we want mirrors,” so Stanislaw Lem (via Tarkovsky) informed us, and the New Solipsism of the Net—that world of a million niches, where individual hang-ups are so often narcissistically paraded as a badge of authenticity—often makes film-blog-surfing akin to a tracing of pathologies: public diary-keeping in the guise of film discourse.
What this (seemingly) infinitely flexible medium of communication has paradoxically encouraged is a relentless hardening of personality, a fortification and exaltation of one’s chosen public self and one’s likeminded colleagues/acolytes. It’s a strange dynamic, this simultaneous fusion and disconnect between the public and the private that online film discourse enables. Assured of an audience, however infinitesimal, the critic or would-be critic feels free to abjure any pretense of reaching that audience through argument, organization, and eloquence—through structuring prose rather than just employing it.
It’s this quality that online criticism has most forcefully helped to degrade, or perhaps it has merely helped to accelerate a degradation which print media had already set in motion. The essay form, the form in which the best film criticism has always been written – even when it travels in the guise of a mere review - is at once a vehicle of personal expression and a means of distancing oneself from one’s person; an attempt to define a common object or experience and to convey the reality of it to others through the sharable medium of prose. “My urge to write is an urge not to self-expression but to self-transcendence,” said Susan Sontag —one of the best definitions of the essayist’s task, and an imperative for the critic. Such generous intent rarely intrudes into the personality-worship of the Net—personality in all its commonness and banality, stridently announcing its conviction in its deluded uniqueness.
Overstating the case, of course. Lazy writing and thinking and overweening self-regard had infested print criticism long before the rise of the Net, and print media had already done more than its share to debase any essayistic critical tradition—which the Net, conversely, has been able to nurture through a relative absence of commercial imperatives. Yet it’s precisely because the Internet only accentuates certain dynamics that were already operative in film criticism that any distance we feel we’ve traveled is at least somewhat illusory. An expanded field of possibilities only throws us back upon our limits the more, and allows our faults a greater range in which to display themselves. What the partly genuine, partly-faux “community” of the Net has fostered, however, is the felt sensation of being surrounded by others even when alone – an encroachment upon that solitude, however partial, which is still essential for any kind of literary pursuit. Like filmmakers, film critics always have their potential audiences in mind, but calibrating every line for instant reaction removes criticism from whatever realm of contemplation it inhabits and makes of it nothing but reflexology. It would be ungrateful to slight the impressive volume of film discourse that the Net offers, but sometimes the noise just needs to be turned down if anybody’s going to get any damned work done.
Andrew Tracy is managing editor of Cinema Scope.
Internet criticism has made a significant contribution to film culture in that it’s opened the door for a wide range of voices. But as we’re all seeing, it’s opened the door too wide: There are so many film enthusiasts—if not actual professional critics, either former or current—writing on the Web that now we’re faced with a great deal of noise. Let’s not even talk about the zillions of film bloggers who aren’t worth reading—who cares about them? The bigger problem is that many of the people writing about film on the Web are knowledgeable and have pretty interesting ideas. Unless you’re really systematic about checking up on all of them regularly, there are too many to even read, so good people get lost.
There’s something else, too. Even the smart bloggers, the ones who are potentially good writers, often don’t shape their pieces. That’s the nature of a blog: It’s a quick take, a reaction. I don’t know that the Internet has done much to destroy the process of thinking seriously about film, but it’s had very grave consequences when it comes to writing about film. So much of what you read on the Web is reactive rather than genuinely thoughtful. There are Web publications that still publish longer pieces —Senses of Cinema, for example. But as far as blogs go, even though film bloggers are often “real” writers (or could be), what they’re doing isn’t “real” writing, in terms of rigorously thinking an argument through, of shaping a piece of writing into something that will be interesting, entertaining and informative and possibly lasting—that is to say, worth reading ten or twenty years from now. That was the reason most of us wanted to become writers in the first place, or so I’d always thought: Because we valued the craft itself. Now we’re seeing a lot of “I have an opinion! I must state it NOW, before anyone else weighs in.” There’s a lot of “weighing in” going on, but not so much actual thinking. That’s what I find tragic and disheartening.
As far as being a professional writer in this climate goes, of course, the jobs are drying up. And that’s a tragedy too—not just for critics who are currently working, but also for serious bloggers who might otherwise dream of someday making a living at writing about film. Film criticism, as a profession, is disappearing. In print media, for years now a lot of editors have been saying, “We don’t need a professional film critic—people can get all that stuff on the Web for free.” First of all, it’s not really “free”— someone’s doing the work of putting it out there, at some cost to his/her personal life, if nothing else. Also, it means we have a lot of “information” out there. But information doesn’t equal knowledge. And it doesn’t equal good writing.
Even though I’m primarily an Internet critic, I don’t look at blogs/film Web sites all that often. I really need to filter out noise rather than add to it, which means I’m sure there are good ones that I’m missing (and some, I’m sure, that I’m simply forgetting to mention here). But I do like to look at The House Next Door and Senses of Cinema. I like De Palma a la Mod an example of a very specialized site that attracts and/or acts as a sort of clearing house for people with some pretty interesting (though sometimes wild!) ideas. I’m also very fond of The Criterion Contraption (http://criterioncollection.blogspot.com/). I’m really not interested in obsessive loonies who need to prove how much they know about film. I gravitate more toward people who have genuine affection for film -- a little obsessiveness is OK (we’re all guilty of it), but even among film geeks you often find a kind of macho posturing, and that really turns me off.
In the early days of Salon , I loved the participatory aspect—the fact that people could write to me personally just by clicking a link to my Email address. And boy, did I get mail! A lot of wonderful, thoughtful stuff, from people all over the world. I’ve made some dear friends for life, just by corresponding with Salon readers. Of course, I used to get—and continue to get—hate mail too. Things like, “Girls shouldn’t be allowed to write about movies based on comic books.” (Amazingly, even in 2008, I still get that one a lot.) When I panned Titanic I got a lot of heartfelt letters from teenage girls who accused me of having no heart, of being incapable of receiving or giving love. I came to realize that a lot of these letters had some very strange syntax and spelling issues—because they were coming from Japan! Apparently, there were lots of Japanese teenage girls who were nuts for that movie. They were very polite, but they were so upset that I hated it.
Now, Salon has an automated comments section, which means readers — I use the term loosely, because usually they read only the head and the deck of the piece —can post comments directly on the site. So you get a lot of people who have to be the first to post (generally with something idiotic or inflammatory), or people who are very transparently envious that I have a job writing film criticism and they don’t. There are intelligent comments, but they’re few and far between. It’s mostly people who want to make themselves heard, even though they may have little worth saying. Very few people actually engage in discussion of the movie at hand. And so now I get fewer thoughtful, interesting, personal emails from readers (the real kind of readers, who actually read) and I miss them terribly. The idea of the Web as a democratic, participatory medium is very grand, but the reality is a total mess. Kind of like democracy itself, come to think of it.
Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer and film critic for Salon.com. Her writing on books and pop culture has also appeared in the New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone, New York Magazine, and Newsday. She is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.