On Contemporary Film Criticism, Continued

At this point, most paid critics are merely part of either the production machine or the website clickbait machine. Whether they are established critics who work for major newspapers or magazines or ‘freelancers/writers-at-large/etc’ who work for ‘independent’ web publications (which really aren’t), they are in one way or another beholden to market forces. Studio/Distributor X produces/distributes Film Y (or Production Company Z produces Film Y which is then bought by Studio/Distributor X), and a critic from Publication W is assigned to review it. X and W are more than likely owned by a parent company or corporate entity with profit motives. Sometimes they’re owned by the same company, and when that happens it’s not in W’s interest to give Y a negative review. That’s an oversimplification of course (most reviews are moot since most films produced by large studios in North America lose money domestically and are made for overseas markets), but my point is that the criticism-review cycle is merely part of the distribution process, at least with domestic distribution. And it’s win-win: X gets to flaunt ‘critical praise’ from W, and W gets to see his or her byline in a trailer or on a poster made by X.

With that in mind, a lot of film writing/criticism is just clickbait journalism that writers have peppered with pseudo-academic language in order to lend it some legitimacy. How did that happen? The introduction (and overuse/misuse/abuse) of academic language into popular film criticism is likely the result of a surplus of film studies majors and film school graduates (a surplus by definition: the supply has exceeded demand) who for whatever reason didn’t successfully place into the industry, had sour grapes, and began to write criticism instead. But, they’ve learned quickly that there’s no real success to be had as a critic now without clickbaiting. Most reasonably intelligent people understand how clickbaiting works: It’s easier and more profitable to appeal to readers’ emotions rather than to their intelligence or common sense. Instead of trying to understand the filmmakers’ ideas or artistic intentions, you extrapolate an issue (or failing that, superimpose an issue arbitrarily on the film) and scrutinize it through the lens of a simplified, pet form of an ideology (an ‘ism’) that is often distorted in a way to make the ideologue believe that his or her feelings are more important than facts. In short, you politicize the movie rather than critique it.

That’s not to say that this kind of writing doesn’t belong in film criticism; of course it does (at its core, it’s merely ‘persuasive writing’ like anything else). But the current monetized structure of internet-based publication -where payroll and survival of the publication are contingent on the amount of traffic the website receives (the ‘number of clicks’)- has forced writers to make increasingly more ridiculous, polemical, and polarizing arguments about films while getting further and further away from the filmmakers’ intentions and the components of the medium itself. In a way, you could compare modern critics to politicians who don’t want to argue policy and only want to engage in character assassination and say that bad policy is the other guy’s fault (’playing the blame game’).

As a result, film criticism isn’t really ‘criticism’ anymore. Critics no longer meet the artists halfway, and are less interested in the art than they are in what the art ‘represents’ (that is, how the art benefits or hurts the sociocultural capital of either the author or a certain demographic in some abstract way). Listening to film podcasts and reading web ‘content’ borders on a surreal experience now. Why would someone in the 2010s take a film made in the 1930s completely at face value and make no attempt to contextualize it in any way? It’s too easy (and frankly a cheap shot) for someone in 2017 to call a film made in 1937 ‘racist,’ ‘sexist,’ and all the rest of it. It looks progressive and intellectual but, again, a reasonably intelligent person will see through this. The criticism is just as myopic as the film it targets.

As for critics’ relationship with ‘lesser’ genre films (horror, exploitation, etc.), the former has been systematically ghettoizing the latter since at least Roger Ebert, who not only popularized the notion that the average person could be a film critic but was also famous for disliking horror (again on the grounds of various pet ideologies), and even made efforts throughout the 1980s to get certain genre films banned in the United States under the guise of ‘progressive’ politics. Thankfully, horror and related genres have experienced a reappraisal since the 1990s with analysis from authors like Carol Clover, Barbara Creed, Mikel Koven, Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, et al.

[Originally written February 2017, from a conversation with filmmaker J.P. Diaz]

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2 thoughts on “On Contemporary Film Criticism, Continued”

  1. I really appreciate your writing style because it’s succinct and thought-provoking. This quote struck me, “Why would someone in the 2010s take a film made in the 1930s completely at face value and make no attempt to contextualize it in any way? It’s too easy (and frankly a cheap shot) for someone in 2017 to call a film made in 1937 ‘racist,’ ‘sexist,’ and all the rest of it.” because I do agree that (to some extent) we need to understand the culture a film was made in to analyze the film, but at the same time we need to acknowledge that certain things (racism, sexism) are problematic. It’s complicated because it’s too simple to blame the people from that period (since that was normal for them) yet we know those things are wrong and we don’t want to condone them.

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    1. Thank you! Of course things like racism and sexism are problematic; no reasonable person today would think they weren’t. But when you say “we know these things are wrong and we don’t want to condone them,” it implies a couple of things.

      One is that what we in 2017 understand to be wrong/politically incorrect/etc. is the product of events leading up to 2017 (Derrida’s ‘always-already absent present’) -that is, we find the use of blackface in The Jazz Singer offensive in part because blackface existed in the first place. The limits of knowledge (the French call it ‘episteme’) were such in 1927 -when The Jazz Singer was made- that blackface was not considered offensive to the target audience. That’s changed of course, but the change is also *inevitable.* I think we have to look at it from the point of view of Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions (the ‘paradigm shift’) -the limits of our knowledge expand by gradually replacing one episteme/worldview with another that makes more sense, rendering the past one obsolete. But by that rationale, any critique of the past episteme by the present one will be flawed. It’s like saying Darwin’s theory of evolution is ‘wrong’ because he hypothesized that traits are inherited through gemmules and not through DNA (yet Darwin *could not have known* about DNA in the time that he lived; Mendel augments Darwin’s theory later with the discovery of DNA).

      The other thing is that this kind of thinking holds critics and audiences to what I believe is a bizarre standard, being that if we do not critique attitudes that were commonplace in the past according to the standards of the present where those attitudes are (in most cases) no longer commonplace (for example blackface), we somehow ‘condone’ those attitudes. I don’t think that’s fair, because the people who made The Jazz Singer aren’t here to defend themselves. It’s also simply illogical because a person with the episteme of 1927 and a person with the episteme of 2017 cannot exist in the same temporal space. Again, that’s not to say that this kind of criticism shouldn’t exist, though I think its value is mostly in showing how fiction made in the past reflects societal norms, and how different those norms were when compared to the present. In the year 2107, the episteme will likely be such that several things in fiction -and several cultural norms that we currently consider harmless- from 2017 will be considered offensive or socially unacceptable. How are we supposed to know what those things are? We can’t. But, that doesn’t get people clicking on links. I guess my point is that merely contextualizing something/regarding it as a phenomenon isn’t equivalent to condoning/praising/normalizing it. We can’t properly understand the past (and learn from it) if we can’t properly contextualize it.

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