Film Criticism in the Internet Age

This is a response to Reid Gershbein’s call for contributions to a roundtable titled, “Film Criticism: Evolution and Importance In the Digital Age,” part of The Two Week Film Collective project, in which Reid has invited filmmakers to make a film in two weeks, with the participating films to be screened in several cities in the United States and abroad.  Because these are issues I’ve explored briefly in my forthcoming book, Reinventing Cinema, I couldn’t resist revisiting them here.

In his call for participants in the “Two Week Film Collective,” Reid Gershbein also asks for volunteers to review the films and to participate in a series of panels, the first, fittingly enough, focused on “Film Criticism: Evolution and Importance In the Digital Age” (itself an implicit response to Alejandro Adams’ recent roundtable on self-distribution).  The question of the role of film criticism has been widely debated over the last several years as new modes of production and distribution have emerged, challenging, even upending, the traditional independent film distribution models that have operated for the last several decades.  At the same time, the traditional sites where indie filmmakers could get reviews, alternative weeklies and even major dailies, have been cutting back on the number of reviewers, a concession to plummeting advertising revenue and a struggling economy.  Instead we witness the proliferation of unaffiliated or semi-affiliated, blog-based critics (or, in many cases, reviewers), who can help to establish word-of-mouth about a new film.  So what happens to the role of the film critic here?  This is a somewhat tentative, roundabout attempt to answer that question.

First, it’s worth noting that these debates have been evolving for several years, and in fact two recent documentaries, Sujewa Ekanayake’s Indie Film Bloggers Road Trip (full disclosure: I appear in Sujewa’s film) and Gerald Peary’s For the Love of Movies have sought, to varying degrees, to engage with these changes.  In print, this ongoing debate surfaces every few months, reminding us that 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 process of revision, especially when many film bloggers are themselves filmmakers and when the production of information is increasing exponentially.  Here, Clive Davies-Frayne, as part of Alejandro’s roundtable, offers one solution that may work for the filmmaking set: “promote the whole of your scene with integrity and passion.”  In other words: acknowledge your biases but also make abundantly clear what you like about the film cultures in which you participate, whether as a filmmaker, critic, or both.  

Second, as Bordwell’s post reminds us, definitions matter.  Often when participants are involved in this conversation, they are most concerned about the critic as reviewer, someone who can evaluate the strengths or weaknesses of a given movie. Thumbs up, thumbs down. Thumbs half-way. Four stars or two.  Are your tomatoes rotten or ripe?  While many of my blog entries operate loosely in this evaluative mode, I have to admit that it’s a form of writing that I find limiting even while I recognize its value, especially for independent filmmakers who are more likely to rely upon word-of-mouth support rather than buying millions of dollars worth of ads during primetime TV.  I don’t want to tell you whether you should see Wolverine or not (although, to be honest, you probably shouldn’t); I want to talk about Wolverine and what it’s doing or saying, why it might matter beyond being mere entertainment.  Still, film criticism inevitably involves evaluation.  We write about movies we like dislike based on specific criteria that may (or may not) correspond to more traditional popular tastes.  But film criticism is also more than that.  It also involves interpretation and analysis, among other practices. 

Instead, I’m more interested in operating in a liminal space somewhere between the traditional essay and what Bordwell calls the “critical essay,” the informed article or essay or blog entry written for a popular audience that seeks to make sense of a current trend in popular (or independent) cinema.  These were often understood as “think-pieces” for major newspapers or film magazines, and they can often fuel larger conversations about the social role of movies or about what movies might be saying about our political culture.  This is, perhaps, one of the reasons I find myself negotiating between contradictory impulses both in my blog and in my scholarly research: on the one hand, I am interested in thinking about films as offering sites for political discussion, asking, for example, what The Dark Knight can tell us about surveillance and vigilante justice or what Iron Man call tell us about the military-industrial complex.  On the other, I am interested in the ongoing, and self-perpetuating, conversations about the possibilities and challenges raised by the new models of production and distribution, and these debates offer, from my perspective, one of the more compelling (though far from the only) places where the desire for more democratic models of filmmaking and film distribution are being theorized.  Reconciling these approaches might look something like the “research essay” that Bordwell calls for at the end of his blog post, especially when we begin talking about the DIY, independent, and documentary films that may benefit more readily from evaluative reviews and commentary from enthusiastic bloggers.

As production costs plummet, anyone, it would seem, can lay claim to the status of being a movie maker.  And we have seen a number of movies, including Be Kind Rewind and Son of Rambow, that romanticize the processes of amateur production.  Both of these films imagine production models in which fans become producers, thereby removing the layer of alienation that distances them from Hollywood blockbusters.  Both films “demystify” the production process through the use of cheap, homemade effects, and some of the most entertaining scenes in Be Kind Rewind show the main characters, Jerry, Mike, and Alma, improvising special effects: grabbing rubbish from a nearby dump for Robocop’s costume, using box fans to simulate aging, worn film, or building cardboard cut-outs of cars from the 1930s.  And, of course, the villains in Be Kind Rewind are the studio executives who fail to see these homemade films for what they are: acts of creation that build upon familiar stories and characters but remake them for their own purposes.  Like many other successful films, both Rewind and Rambow offer populist fantasies, fables about the possibilities for creativity.  But at the same time, both films also underscore the importance of movies—and even movie making—as tools for making sense of our daily lives. 

I mention these fictional narratives about self-distribution in such detail because I think they depict some of the logic that permeates discussions of self-distribution and, in turn, the related changes that are talking place in the realm of film criticism.  To be sure, there is quite a bit of disagreement over what counts as “self-distribution” and whether it is viable or not.  If anything, the range of positions articulated during Alejandro’s roundtable illustrate that it is a “concept” marked by competing definitions and desires, and quite often it is easy to romanticize the independent artist operating outside the studio system.  A number of filmmakers, Gershbein included, see their goal as creating movies that will inspire conversation.  Others discuss the challenges faced by DIY filmmakers in negotiating the festival schedules and submission deadlines.  Many of them emphasize the importance of reviews in establishing early interest in a film, especially in the midst of what Jarrod Whaley describes as “a market flooded with mediocrities.” In other words, Chris Anderson’s widely discussed “celestial jukebox” (or infinite multiplex) has too many selections. On the “infinite aisle,” it’s too easy to get lost. 

Here, the proliferation of cheap production technologies and the access to seemingly unlimited distribution space and tools (such as DVDs, streaming video) run up against the challenge of reaching the appropriate audience.  In the Indiewood fables of production that audience is readily available: it is the cast members and the community of participants eager to see themselves and their productions onscreen.  For other filmmakers, however, this luxury isn’t always available.  And as a result, DIY filmmakers have been forced to invent new modes of distribution and exhibition, even new storytelling models in order to reach that wider audience. Will Luers, in his contribution to Alejandro’s panel, makes a case for “the need to change our thinking away from the 70-100 minute feature film,” whether that entails new models of transmedia storytelling or something else.  Thus, the film text expands beyond the boundaries of the film itself, challenging the critic to take into account the more diffuse ways in which audiences can enter into the world of a film.  Rethinking the storytelling possibilities open to filmmakers, in part by rethinking distribution, becomes an act of creativity.  This doesn’t mean we should do away with the feature film or that all indie filmmakers should pour precious resources into making “supplemental”materials when they are not inclined to do so.  It does recognize that these processes of production, distribution, and exhibition are embedded in a larger mediascape.  This is movie criticism in the age of Twitter, where conversations happen fast, exploding in a stream of hashtags and retweets, aphorisms and imprecisions.  And yet, these over-caffeinated, imprecisely aggregated conversations remind us that movies matter.

To this end, I would like to see a new model of film criticism, one that takes into account this diffuse text and one that recognizes the ways in which filmmakers are actively involved in the process of critically analyzing the modes of production and distribution.  Like John Thornton Caldwell, writing in his excellent book, Production Culture, I am aware of the fact that “many film/television workers…critically analyze and theorize their tasks in provocative and complex ways” (2).  These questions constantly animate debates about independent and DIY film, as audiences eagerly seek out texts that will demystify the production process.  In short, I am interested in a film criticism that fosters a wider dialogue about the production process itself and the possibilities it offers while continuing to attend to the stuff of movies: narrative, storytelling, performance, visual style.  To some extent, I am challenging the idea that the product—the film itself—can be separated from the processes of production, distribution, and promotion.  While the film may find its way to viewers in a variety of contexts—I don’t believe there will ever be a single “black box” through which all of our content is disseminated—it is shaped by the “production cultures” in which it was made.  Movies are material objects. They are also cultural objects, the expressions of the hopes, fantasies, fears, and desires of filmmakers and their audiences.  We do nee critics who can help in the taste-making process, collaborators in the filtering of the massive number of films that are being made today.  We also need more critics who can match and engage with the theoretical work being done by the filmmakers themselves and who can reconcile all of these modes of writing (though not necessarily in the space of a single blog entry). 

6 Comments »

  1. Alejandro Adams Said,

    May 4, 2009 @ 12:17 pm

    It seems you were writing this post while I was writing mine (“Regressive Taxonomy”), and though they might not be siblings, they’re certainly cousins. Unfortunately you got the good genes!

    You address the matter of taxonomy in a much more useful and nuanced way–I wish I’d read Bordwell on the subject before diving into it myself.

    There are two particularly encouraging points I take from this post:

    “Rethinking the storytelling possibilities open to filmmakers, in part by rethinking distribution, becomes an act of creativity.” This opposes my own thinking–that these matters constrain a filmmaker’s creative energies–but you might have prescribed a necessary paradigm shift with this observation.

    “I would like to see a new model of film criticism, one that takes into account this diffuse text and one that recognizes the ways in which filmmakers are actively involved in the process of critically analyzing the modes of production and distribution.” If these “modes” and the filmmaker’s inevitable engagement with them become part of a general critical focus, then every step of the process is dignified and ennobled. As things currently stand, filmmakers like myself are conditioned to be ashamed of their production apparatuses because they are unconventional and ostensibly inferior–we hope we can fool a critic into overlooking this and that. Only by dignifying and celebrating the alternative modes themselves will we overcome the harmful stigma of labels such as “shoestring” or “no-budget” (regardless of their accuracy, they are often invoked to qualify the achievements of a given work). But then, it’s a slippery slope to bragging that your movie cost twelve dollars to make.

  2. Chuck Said,

    May 4, 2009 @ 2:31 pm

    Thanks for the kind words. There are some interesting intersections between our two posts. In terms of my call for looking at the ways in which filmmakers have “reinvented” the distribution process, I’m probably towing a very loose materialist argument that the base–the mode of production or distribution–provides the foundation of cultural expression and that innovative filmmakers can use the new tools and logics at their disposal to tell new stories and that building these tools–in much the same way that cinema verite is enabled by cheap lightweight cameras as well as televisual distribution–is part of the creative act.

    The budget issue is an interesting one, and I was looking at it from a slightly different POV. A recent search on Google that led to my blog on Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation reminded me that the film was celebrated in part because of its homemade aesthetic. The use of iMovie and off-the-shelf cameras worked to tell his story and inserting 35mm film segments would have failed the material. Thus, his equipment was part of the story in much the same way that virtual camera movement is part of The Matrix’s story. But in citing Caouette’s film, I also realize that I am now at risk of turning back to romanticizing the low-fi indie hero.

  3. Tor Hershman Said,

    May 5, 2009 @ 1:22 pm

    Here’s an Intenet film…..
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_m6qC6FCiY0

  4. Chuck Said,

    May 5, 2009 @ 1:37 pm

    I’m not sure how this video is connected to the comments in this entry, but since it’s a weird, funny, entertaining video, I’ll let it stand.

  5. The Chutry Experiment » Tuesday Links Said,

    May 5, 2009 @ 3:04 pm

    […] previous entry was a response to Reid Gershebin’s call for a roundtable on film criticism in the internet […]

  6. The Chutry Experiment » Quantifying Film Reviews Said,

    May 14, 2009 @ 3:42 pm

    […] To be fair, they are attentive to the fact that the timing of reviews matters considerably.  Critics reviews typically appear before amateur and novice reviewers have a chance to see a film, and students completing an anonymous survey might respond differently than they would if their reviews were more public.  Further, to give Plucker, et al, credit, they are attentive to the fact that their categories are not mutually exclusive but instead represent a continuum, one that is increasingly complicated due to the rise of film criticism appearing in a variety of internet publications. […]

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