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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On Contemporary Film Criticism

In the United States there is a large number of what are called ‘fair weather’ sports fans -people who suddenly become loyal fans of specific sports teams whenever they perform well, and vice versa. Back in the 1990s, everyone was a fan of the Chicago Bulls and the Detroit Pistons (because they won championships), but not the Chicago Bears or the Detroit Lions (because they didn’t). If you asked someone why they liked or disliked a certain team, their answer was usually something along the lines of: “because the Bulls are awesome” or “because the Lions suck.” Right now (the summer of 2016), you could travel practically anywhere in the U.S. and find fans of the Cleveland Cavaliers but not the Cleveland Browns. The point is that a lot of the time, being a ‘fan’ of something really has very little do with having a personal connection to something (civic pride, civic rivalry, or whatever) and more to do with being associated with a ‘winner’ (and not a ‘loser’).

A similar phenomenon effects the way we consume art, music, film, etc. Since at least the 1960s in the United States, film critics have -for the worse, I think-systematically altered our notion of what makes a film ‘good’ or ’bad.’ I say it’s for the worse because historically, western critics have privileged certain kinds of films over others, which has led to the modern western canon (the ‘winners’ of film history). What results is a kind of cultural hegemony that leaves out some 80-90% of films that are made. Critics discourage people from seeing these films by describing them as ‘bad’ in some way.  I wrote a little bit about this before:

“…an opposition in aesthetic choices that developed between the English-speaking world and Continental Europe immediately after World War II -the kind of choices Pierre Bourdieu and Clement Greenberg describe in Distinction and Avant-Garde and Kitsch, respectively. Americans and English (the ‘winners’) began to use taste as a form of cultural hegemony, distinguishing ‘good taste’ from ‘poor taste’ when it came to art, literature, cinema, etc. whereas large portions of Europe (the ‘losers’) were of the mind that most art, literature, cinema, etc. wasn’t very ‘good’ anyway.”

From this, each generation of critics and audiences imposes their taste on the next (David Brooks discusses this in BoBos in Paradise), a kind of Asch Paradigm conformity takes place (”Everyone around me insists that The Graduate is a great film, so it must be true.”), and we still experience the fallout of Baby Boomer critics today. In June 2014, Movie Mezzanine polled over 60 contemporary American critics -most of them the children of Baby Boomers- asking them what they thought were the best films of the 1960s. Looking at the master list, the same films appear over and over and over again: The Graduate, Psycho, 2001, Rosemary Baby, Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Strangelove, Breathless, Persona, and 8 ½. The issue is not about these films being good or bad, but about to what extent these critics are either towing the canon line or actually thinking for themselves. What kind of ‘film culture’ produces a book with the title 1,001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, the operative word being ‘must?’

Conversely, critics have practically codified a language when referring to films outside the canon. Several films, according to them, should be avoided unless the intention is to consume them through the lens of either irony or nostalgia: the films are ‘sleazy,’ ‘trashy,’ ‘low-brow,’ ‘so bad they’re good,’ fodder for a ‘bad movie night’ or ‘retro movie night,’ or the subjects of ‘psychotronic’ film societies. These are films that critics would have you believe are ‘below’ you, implying that you lack taste if you genuinely enjoy them, but not if you ironically enjoy them. Again, the issue is not about less-reputable films being good or bad, but about how critics want to position these films in the mind of the moviegoer. Would MST3K or ‘psychotronic’ film societies even exist had the episteme of critics not been so limited over the last fifty years?

None of this would really matter if audiences didn’t put any stock in what critics say, but that just isn’t the case. I can tell it isn’t the case because I see this kind of echo-chamber thinking in film conversation between average people like you and me all the time.

Any objection to a consensus is met with ipse dixit or an empty appeal to authority:

Person A: “I know a lot of people liked Cate Blanchett in The Aviator, but I thought she was really hammy and annoying. I didn’t really like her at all in it.”
Person B: “Well, she won an Academy Award for it! Obviously she was doing something right.”

Asch Paradigm kicks in when a moviegoer decides on what to watch:

Person C: “I have this list of at least 500 movies I still need to see.”
Person D: “You ‘need’ to see them?”

Person E: “Oh my god, I can’t believe you haven’t seen A Clockwork Orange. You HAVE TO see this movie. It’s SO good.”
Person F: “No I don’t. I don’t HAVE TO do anything.”

The effect of film critics’ language on how people think:

Person G: “Ms. 45 is such a stupid-but-fun B movie.”
Person H: “You do know that most A-list movies are just B-movie scripts with money, right?”

Persons B, C, E, and G are trapped by equating consensus with quality and using irony to explore anything outside of the consensus. It reveals a lack of critical thinking, and film critics exacerbate this.

On Siskel and Ebert’s Trashing of the Horror Film

I wrote the following in response to comments made by critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert on an episode of their show Sneak Previews, which aired in September 1980.

sneak previews 1980

I don’t know about other parts of the world, but in the United States, people have an almost irrational fear of going to a movie (or going anywhere or doing anything) alone. Horde mentality kicks in pretty quickly. The person sitting in a slasher film ‘cheering on the villain,’ as Ebert describes it, could be cheering to impress his friends. Perhaps he has no clue about how to behave in public. Perhaps the person is mentally retarded and believes that the characters in the movie can hear him when he speaks. Perhaps he learned the behavior from his parents. The behavior could be the permutation of several things. You’ll never know. To chalk up audience behavior with a blanket statement such as ‘the audience hates women’ is presumptuous, naive and stupid (how’s that for namecalling?). Saying that you overheard someone making comments at the screen is not evidence to support the claim that ‘slasher films are made by and for men who hate women.’ Ebert just sounds ridiculous.

When they speculate as to the cause of the large supply of slasher films in the last third of the 1970s, Siskel states: “I am convinced that it has something to do with the growth of the women’s movement in America in the last decade. I think that these films are some kind of ‘primordial’ response by some very sick people, of men, saying ‘get back in your place, women.'” Ebert states: “In a traditional horror movie, we often saw things from the victim’s point of view, but that’s no longer [sic]. Now, we look through the killer’s eyes. It’s almost as if the audience is being asked to identify with the attacker.”

With these statements, they completely ignore -or reveal their failure to understand- how North American film markets work. What Siskel and Ebert are seeing in the autumn of 1980 is a wave of American horror films attempting to capitalize on the success of John Carpenter’s 1978 film Halloween -a film that, ironically, both critics loved. Halloween was made for about $300,000 (a little over $1,000,000 today), and grossed over $47,000,000 (a little over $170,000,000 today) upon its initial release in the United States. Carpenter’s film popularized the ‘business model’ of horror and exploitation films with American studios. The studio system is ruled by market forces much more so than by cultural forces, whereas these critics claim otherwise, perhaps because it’s easier for a television audience to consume hyperbole than it is for them to understand basic economics. Nevermind that shots filmed ‘from the point of view of the killer’ are as old as the film medium itself.

More generally, the fact that both critics strongly disliked any slasher film that wasn’t heavily canonized (that is, any film that isn’t Psycho or Halloween) is well-known. They were speaking from their own personal bias against the genre. Both men were also populist critics who made careers out of ghettoizing certain genres. Watch the episode closely and pay attention to Ebert’s body language when he disparages the slasher film: He’s merely listing off some staples of the genre, but while doing so uses a dismissive and negative tone, as if the filmmakers in the genre are making films ‘badly’ or ‘the wrong way.’ He knows exactly what he’s doing.

For the two to blame a single genre for a much larger problem is narrow-minded, conservative thinking masquerading as heroic liberal thinking. It is narrow-minded and conservative in that when the two are presented with a problem, they do not suggest any possible solutions to the problem, but tell their audience who to blame for the problem (perhaps some other time I’ll talk about how in the early 1980s, Ebert lobbied to get various films he didn’t like banned in the United States -his idea of a solution I suppose). Again: What Siskel and Ebert said on their show is narrow-minded, conservative thinking masquerading as heroic liberal thinking. They’re witch hunters. They dress up their language to sound authoritative and impartial about the subject (“Today we’re going to examine the nature of this trend…”) but in the end they’re just voicing unsupported opinions.

I’ve said this before, but reciting platitudes and soundbytes about ‘where you stand on an issue’ doesn’t fix anything. It only further inflates your own narcissism. Unless you are actively working toward a solution to a problem, you’re just adding more noise. Again: If you are a genuinely progressive person, you would be out there working toward a solution. Whining in public is merely a ‘fashionably progressive’ activity.

[Originally written October 2014]