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
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 âwe'. Jonathan Rosenbaum (formerly of the Chicago Reader) said it was no longer possible to write with âwe' 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Burdeau, the editor of Cahiers du Cinema, noted that film's role in the national cultural conversation has largely been replaced by television; shows like The Wire are once again opening up that universal sense of âwe'. 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.