What I Took From ‘Film Criticism in Crisis?’

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09/29/2008 2:33 PM |

The New York Film Festival hosted a seven critic-panel on Saturday afternoon called "Film Criticism in Crisis?," moderated by Film Comment‘s editor-in-chief, Gavin Smith. The purpose, Smith said, was not to discuss the print vs. Internet debate; "that argument is over and done with." Instead, the talk was intended to focus on the "larger picture." Like the fact that David Denby and Richard Brody sat next to each other in the audience? The L‘s Henry Stewart was in attendance as well, contemplating whether the internet really is the answer to everything.

Film criticism is not in crisis so much as it’s the victim of the many crises going on all around it. Kent Jones, editor-at-large of Film Comment, noted, of course, the economic crisis happening in newspapers and magazines, which has a direct effect on the health of film criticism. But as long as people take criticism seriously, Jones said, the practice itself won’t be in crisis.

But that’s the issue—what role does film criticism play in our culture today? Seung Hoon-Jeong, formerly a writer for the Korean film magazine Cine21, noted that in his native country people look to criticism as a consumer guide, the equivalent of a recommendation from a friend. "They don’t want to suffer from any headache," he said. Jones noted the same thing happening in this country: "there’s a lot of reviewing," he said, "not necessarily criticism."

"Criticism is writing and re-writing," Jones added. Increasingly,
however, editors are encouraging critics to move in the opposite
direction.

Film criticism might be in crisis because the national, even
international, film culture is in crisis. Film’s role in society has
changed over the past several decades. Jones said he has memories of
his parents and their friends arguing about films like A Clockwork
Orange
and Last Tango in Paris. (He cited Ghostbusters as the film
that ended this era.) He quoted Louis Menand on Pauline Kael: "She
lead a national conversation about film." Is there even a national
conversation, like the one in which Jones’ parents were participating,
to lead anymore?

Kael was famous for writing her reviews in a collective voice, using
the pronoun ‘we’. Jonathan Rosenbaum (formerly of the Chicago Reader)
said it was no longer possible to write with ‘we’ in this country.
"We’re in a Civil War now," Rosenbaum said, adding that a figure like
Kael would no longer be possible.

Smith (who admits to using Bit Torrent to download movies) interjected to note that Kael was never really speaking to
everyone; she wasn’t, for example, speaking to Nixon’s "silent
majority.” But she lead the country’s intellectual discussion; the
real problem is the rise in anti-intellectualism that sprang up in the
Reagan era. "We’re still living in the aftermath of that," Smith
said. A national cultural discussion is no longer permitted and, as a
result, editors are not looking for serious critics.

Emmanuel Burdeau, the editor of Cahiers du Cinema, noted that film’s
role in the national cultural conversation has largely been replaced by
television; shows like The Wire are once again opening up that
universal sense of ‘we’. He referenced a French writer, whose name I
could not catch (Bah-Bwa de Boo-Beh-Bwa?), and his theories about a
symmetry between what’s on the screen and the audience watching it. In
the early days of cinema, he said, lots of people in theaters watched
lots of people on the screen. But now all we have are Vin Diesel
movies, where a lonely audience member watches a lonely guy.

Television, on the other hand, is a medium that still deals with
community, "whether it’s a mob family or proletariat black people in
Baltimore." Kent Jones agreed, saying a sense of community had
disappeared from American screens because of studio executives’ fear of
needing to please everyone. Smith noted that the traditional
boundaries between television and film were being increasingly blurred,
evidenced by the fact that a forum on the future of film criticism had
spent a large chunk of its time discussing The Wire. (I know that I
discussed the last season of The Wire or the final episode of The
Sopranos
with more people than I’ve discussed any individual film
ever.)

What, then, could be done to restore film’s position in the cultural order?

During the subsequent Q&A, one audience member noted that film has
been removed from our lives and that perhaps the key was to make
concerted efforts to create new CineClubs as well as to show "difficult
films" to thirteen-year-old kids in schools. Pascual Espirito, the
founder of the Strictly Film School blog, said that film education
needn’t be institutionalized like that—it’s available on the web
whenever people are "ready for it".

Of course, people are building communities around film interests on the
web all the time, but are these sufficient to revive film criticism? One problem, which Rosenbaum hinted at, is that people no longer watch
movies according to the models by which they’re reviewed. Business
dictates what critics have to see and when—everything that opens on
Friday—but most consumers don’t watch movies on that schedule. Increasingly, people watch their movies on-line and through Netflix,
which means they’re more likely to be ready to participate in a
discussion about a film weeks after it has been released, when the
critical establishment has already moved on. Perhaps criticism needs
to change its model of distribution. (Burdeau and David Hudson, the
editor of GreenCine Daily, both thought critics might take on the
actual distribution of films in the future.)

But is the Internet really the answer? It does encourage community
building, but I think that communities need leaders like Kael; at
present, the web is far too fractured and spread thin over niches. I
worry that such compartmentalization could ultimately leave us
cinephiles discussing films in groups of two while everybody else is
watching TV.