Blogging and Criticism: Some Reflections

Filmoculous posted a pointer to the Salon interview/conversation between their book critics, Louis Bayard and Laura Miller, about the death of criticism, providing me with just the excuse needed to write that long-promised blog post on this summer’s round of reflections on blogging and the decline of “public” criticism. The impetus for their discussion of the apparent crisis in criticism is the publication of Ronan McDonald’s The Death of the Critic. McDonald is, of course, more concerned about literary criticism and the decline of “public critics” and of a “reading public;” however, his arguments–more precisely Miller and Bayard’s comments about him–might provide a productive angle through which we can think about the blogger-critic discussion. I’ve been thinking about these issues quite a bit lately because of the emphasis they place on the role of criticism in a larger public culture. In short, what is criticism? And what role does criticism serve in a larger public sphere?

I’ve just learned about McDonald’s book, so I haven’t had time to read it, but Miller and Bayard report that McDonald’s primary object of blame is fellow academics who have substituted cultural studies and post-structuralism for the more proper evaluative role of criticism. Since I haven’t read McDonald’s book, I’m obviously not ready to address the specifics of his argument, but Miller and Bayard highlight some important points, first by highlighting McDonald’s primary argument about the role of academia in shaping public critical discourse and later by discussing the role of amateur critics, primarily us bloggers, of course, in undermining the print criticism that McDonald and others have come to mourn. As someone who is both a blogger and an academic informed by cultural studies, you’d be right to guess that I’m going to disagree with some of their conclusions even while I try to argue for the importance of the prominent public critic.

First, I think it’s worth pointing out that I think Miller basically gets it right when she argues that blogging should not be blamed for the decline of film and book criticism in newspapers and magazines as much as the general economics of newspapers and magazines. Blogging is only one small part of the information economy, and many blogging features can be effectively integrated into newspaper publication.  I’ll admit that I’m also more than somewhat skeptical of the argument that cultural studies approaches are partially to blame for the demise of the “public critic” or even of the attempt to provide evaluative criteria by which we can judge works of art, whether films, paintings, or novels.   Cultural studies has, no doubt, shaped public cultural criticism, and by extension, reception practices of readers and moviegoers alike, but this should not mitigate the structural role of criticism in the public sphere.  But instead of diminishing either the role of the literary author or the cinematic auteur, cultural studies simply shifts the criteria with which we evaluate, analyze, and/or interpret cultural texts.

In his very important discussion of blogging and the state of criticism, David Bordwell takes the important step of providing a taxonomy of sorts for the different kinds of criticism and the different purposes they serve. In short, Bordwell points out that critics operate in four different modes: they describe, analyze, interpret, and evaluate. From there, Bordwell explains the three kinds of critical formats in which these modes typically operate:

  • Reviews published in newspapers, magazines, and blogs, or presented on radio or TV are usually focused on briefly summarizing the film or book in question. They may be focused on a wide audience, though I would add that some reviewers may be concerned with small niche readers. When I review films here, I tend to assume that many of my readers are academics or that they are friends and colleagues who have similar tastes and politics (though that may not always be the case). These reviews tend to accompany the release of the film to theaters or on DVD, although those rhythms are now less stable than they used to be. These reviews tend to be primarily evaluative, though they can also be descriptive. Given the short amount of space dedicated to reviews, any interpretation or analysis is difficult to sustain.
  • A second format would be the academic essay. As Bordwell notes, academic essays are certainly more researched and polished. They assume a reader that has seen the film and, therefore, they dispense with any concern about spoilers. When I’m teaching students to write about movies, one of the biggest challenges I face is getting them to recognize this difference in purpose. These essays do not follow any specific temporal rhythms, other than the quarterly release of a new issue of the journal in question. Academic essays place less emphasis on evaluation and tend to operate primarily in descriptive, analytical, and interpretive modes (although the decision to write about certain films and not others is clearly a judgment of sorts, as Jason Sperb’s cinephilia-based appreciation of P.T. Anderson perhaps illustrates).
  • A third format is what Bordwell calls the “critical essay.” one that operates somewhere in between a review and an academic essay. As Bordwell notes, these are often the “think pieces” that sometimes appear in newspapers and magazines, many of which have lately focused on the state of film and of film criticism. The work of someone such as Susan Sontag is, of course, notable here. Critical essays, in many ways, draw from all four modes.

I’m summarizing Bordwell at length because I think his taxonomy helps to illustrate the tasks to which blogging may be best suited, as well as the ways in which blogging might be seen as participating in a productive dialogue with what Miller and Bayard refer to as public criticism, the kind published in newspapers and magazines. As Bordwell points out, much of the current tension around the blogger-critic debate centers around the place of reviews in daily newspapers versus blogs and the qualifications of blog critics in evaluating films.  Moreover, within this taxonomy, cultural studies becomes interpretation, analysis, and/or evaluation by another means.  A critic may analyze a film in terms of its methods for promoting a male gaze or evaluate a film, at least in part, based upon its reliance upon racial stereotypes (or, as in Chaw’s excellent Crash review, show analytically how the plot mechanisms serve to reduce characters to types).  This doesn’t diminish the importance of looking at films or novels; if anything, it provides an ongoing conversation about these texts that is always well worth engaging, although it is, of course, far from the only conversation worth having.

There is a tendency, reflected in Miller and Bayard’s comments about blogging, to question the validity of the critical opinions of bloggers (and, to be fair, Bayard acknowledges that bloggers and Amazon reviewers can often be quite insightful). As Bayard diagnoses, these comments grow out of an attempt to understand the professional critic as a kind of “cultural gatekeeper” designed to inform an interested public about which films and novels are worthy of attention. It’s this task that informs A.O. Scott’s complaint two summers ago that audiences were clamoring to see the Pirates sequel in spite of his negative review (and looking back on it, I think Scott discounts too easily the distinction between knowing a film is “good” according to some set of criteria and finding it enjoyable or pleasurable to watch; I think the critical ambivalence and the box office failure of Speed Racer might provide an interesting case study for thinking about this distinction).

But here is where I think blogging is still misunderstood, even four or five years after blogging has risen to prominence as an important genre of web writing. Too often bloggers are dismissed as amateur critics who don’t have the critical chops to evaluate films according to the “right” criteria. And, to be sure, there are countless film bloggers who privilege writing style over analytical substance, who seek to be the web’s version of Jay Sherman, finding new and creative ways to trash and/or praise the latest flicks to reach the local multiplex. However, what these characterizations overlook is the degree to which many of these bloggers are in fact professionals, whether academics or filmmakers or film industry personnel, writing to certain niche audiences. In this context, bloggers are often engaging with and dependent upon the “published” critics (I’m having trouble coming up with the right term here), and in my case, I’m convinced that my reviews would be far less interesting without this critical engagement. Instead of seeing the critic as a “cultural gatekeeper,” why not see her or him as offering a useful starting point for a dialogue about a film or set of films. One of the more interesting debates I’ve followed this summer has been over the reception of Speed Racer. To be sure, Armond White’s provocation that SR is “killing cinema” was an important launching point, but I think the responses to his review were equally telling, as critics fought to define just what the new digital cinema might entail and just what a summer blockbuster ought to do (entertain? enlighten? provoke? all of the above?).

In this sense, blog writing about film benefits from three characteristics of the blog genre:

  • First, blog entries can be of variable length. On my blog, short reviews stand alongside extended blog “essays.” Quick evaluations of movies based on my admittedly idiosyncratic tastes meet up with more polished reflections on blogging and film criticism, the state of the documentary, or whatever. However, there’s no limitation on space, allowing bloggers room to develop ideas in ways that might not be available on the pages of a magazine or newspaper. Writers such as the Self-Styled Siren and Girish Shambu are two great examples here.
  • Second, like weepingsam, I believe that the serial nature of blogging allows for a mixed mode of criticism. Obviously, newspapers and magazines are also published serially, but bloggers have begun to use the serial format of blogging creative, often insightful ways, to develop a distinct voice or to pursue an ongoing critical project. Chris Cagle’s excellent 1947 Project is one example of this approach, operating in all four critical modes in its history of a year in the life of Hollywood. Also worth noting is the Strange Culture series on “quality films” from the 1980s. My own research on the role of digital media in prompting reconsiderations of film culture has benefited considerably from developing those ideas over time in the blog (and especially from the comments others have left on the blog).
  • Third, and more importantly, perhaps, blogs remain heavily linked, pointing to other bloggers and critics to sustain this ongoing conversation. Again, this isn’t entirely new: critical and academic essays are informed by and sometimes based upon citations, of course. Hyperlinking certainly increases the proximity of the citation, of course, in ways that allow for more interesting kinds of critical engagement.

Thus, I think that Bordwell is right to argue that film blogs–and, I would add, literary blogs–may ultimately work best as a space for the kinds of informed, even researched, critical essays that he describes. There is certainly room for the informed film or book review in the blogosphere, and my viewing habits continue to be informed by many of the film bloggers I appreciate, especially in the documentary blogging community; however, I have long seen the blog genre as essayistic, as this abstract to an essay I never wrote implies. I’ve written about this issue at length because it’s the one chapter in my current book project that is giving me the most trouble. While I think that film blogging is one of the most important phenomena of film culture in the digital age, I’m also aware that I’m possibly too close to it, as a blogger, to see it clearly. But I do think that the fears that blogging will lead to the decline of critical writing about film to be utterly misplaced, and in fact, as Bordwell so eloquently illustrates, film blogging may even serve to give rise to new forms of film criticism.

Update: Revised slightly to clarify an argument or two.

2 Comments »

  1. The Chutry Experiment » Film Criticism in the Internet Age Said,

    May 3, 2009 @ 7:34 pm

    [...] the traditional definitions of film criticism, addressed in this post by David Bordwell (note: in my response, I attempt a brief taxonomy of some of the possible modes of blog-based criticism), are in the [...]

  2. The Chutry Experiment » Has Film Criticism Lost its (Box Office) Mojo? Said,

    July 24, 2009 @ 1:56 pm

    [...] to appreciate the greatness of Chris Nolan’s film (some similar issues were addressed in a Salon discussion of Ronan McDonald’s book, The Death of the [...]

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