Film Criticism is Dead (Again)

The latest paean to print-based film criticism, Thomas Doherty’s Chronicle of Higher Education article, “The Death of Film Criticism,” surveys the recent history of film criticism and concludes that today’s digital “young punks” are happily supplanting all pretense of literacy and seriousness in order to pour out their “visceral and emotional” responses to films all over the (digital) page.  Doherty is weighing in on a debate that has been circulating for several years now online and in print–I weighed in on this very debate about film blogging in Reinventing Cinema–and reaches a not terribly surprising conclusion that the internet age has threatened a form that featured such luminaries as Carl Sandburg and that reached its apotheosis with the debates between Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris.  It’s a powerful and persuasive narrative, especially when juxtaposed against job market crises in academia and in journalism, but in treating film criticism as a genre, it obscures quite a bit.

To be fair, Doherty acknowledges that a number of prominent traditional film critics have found new voices on the web, citing examples such as David Bordwell and FlowTV, but even there, the suggestion is that Bordwell is a reluctant blogger, “feeling the…heat” of the digitalization of everything rather than recognizing that Bordwell and others have found a medium that allows for a more conversational, and yes, potentially obsessive, focus on film analysis.  Bordwell and Kristin Thompson’s blog posts, like those produced by many other film bloggers, are like mini-seminars in film analysis.  Even more curious, Doherty seems to imply that all film bloggers, including Bordwell, seek to have an influence on box office numbers, a goal that seems rather marginal, at least in my corner of the film blogosphere.

Perhaps more frustrating is the generation-gap baiting that permeates the entire article.  Web-based critics are “young punks who still got carded at the multiplex” or “a man-boy of the people, visceral and emotional, a stream-of-consciousness spurter with no internal censor or mute button.”  The “gnomish” Harry Knowles is our “poster boy.”  In short, internet based film critics are young, chubby anti-social males who don’t get out much.  And we pour our thoughts onto the page without any reflection whatsoever.  Doherty is thus falling victim to what might be called the “immediacy fallacy.”  Just because blogs can be published instantaneously doesn’t mean that bloggers necessarily publish ideas without hours or even days of reflection, and even if they post quickly, their posted work is often the product of years of research and reflection.

Finally, Doherty sets in opposition blogs, with their conversational immediacy, and scholarly journals, with their significantly slower publication rates.  As a number of academic bloggers have pointed out, this logic represents a misunderstanding of the scholarly ecosystem where ideas can be tested in the blogosphere before being expanded, developed, and reconsidered before finding final form in a book or scholarly article.  That was my experience not only with my book but also with an article I co-wrote with Richard Edwards on viral videos.

I’m not suggesting that film criticism isn’t changing.  The demand to publish quickly, to get scoops over competing web publications, can encourage writers to make provocative claims or to rush their analysis just to collect page views.  Assessing the place of a film blog in a tenure file still remains a sticky subject.  And the wide-open nature of the film blogosphere fragments the audience for film criticism, making it less likely that we will ever have a rivalry that matches the epic battles between Sarris and Kael,  but I don’t think anyone benefits when we place the present in competition with the past without seeing the connections and continuities between them.

27 Comments »

  1. Kelli Marshall Said,

    March 1, 2010 @ 12:18 pm

    I really appreciate this line of yours: “Just because blogs can be published instantaneously doesn’t mean that bloggers necessarily publish ideas without hours or even days of reflection…” Indeed, a couple of my posts are the result of a week’s worth of preparation, research, revision, etc.

  2. Chuck Said,

    March 1, 2010 @ 12:24 pm

    That’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while now. Critics of blogging often make that “immediacy” leap without ever interrogating it. The ability to publish immediately does not mean that everyone will take that approach.

    Meanwhile, I will use this as an excuse to add that the relentless focus on the “death” of film criticism also obscures the flourishing of TV criticism online (an issue that came up in a private conversation on Twitter). Although there has been a thriving TV studies field within academia for decades, popular criticism of TV has thrived thanks to blogs.

  3. jonk Said,

    March 1, 2010 @ 1:19 pm

    I’m not buying it, either. “Serious writers on film” seems to define his critics of concern as the already employed, those with “traditional credentials…critics [who] earned their bones through university degrees or years at metropolitan dailies.” This, of course, denies the fact that having a university degree equates to knowledge – it is about the ability and resources to navigate a system. This also, again obviously and more shockingly, denies the fact that today’s “poster boy” and “fanboy-as-critic” has infinitely more access to film – an expanded catalogue, effectively on-demand opposed to maybe coming through town at the “metropolitan daily”, as well as the ability to stop/rewind/review.

    In emphasizing the credentialed critics, and noting concern about the “boys”, there is the distinct picture of a gendered stability that Doherty wishes to maintain. The upstart boys are banging at the doors to become men – and yes, it seems safe to regard Kael as part of the masculinized machinery here. Further, Doherty’s walk down memory lane via published anthologies of criticism fails to note the rigorous collection of e20c female criticism – Antonia Lant’s Red Velvet Seat from 2002. This fits his thesis that criticism did not begin in the 60s while also failing to recognize a different – non-masculine – criticism.

    It seems likely that there rests a fear of Other behind Doherty’s unreasoned spasms against online criticism. Taking his piece too seriously is like shooting fish in a barrel.

  4. jonk Said,

    March 1, 2010 @ 1:27 pm

    oops -that should be understood to read that having a university degree does not equate to knowledge :)

  5. Matt Thomas Said,

    March 1, 2010 @ 1:38 pm

    Doherty acts like film criticism has always been this legitimate, highbrow endeavor. But the truth is, historically speaking at least, film critics have a lot in common with the bloggers Doherty marginalizes.

  6. Chuck Said,

    March 1, 2010 @ 2:30 pm

    Jonk, yep, as I mentioned in my post, Doherty’s gendered depiction of bloggers seems significant, and I think it’s fair to suggest that Kael (and even Sontag) fit into some masculinized culture of film criticism. Interesting that he omits Antonia Lant’s Red Velvet Seat.

    Matt, yes, I think he does ignore significant amounts of “bad” criticism that existed during the print era. There were plenty of newspaper critics who couldn’t write their way out of a box. I grew up reading some of them,

  7. Matt Thomas Said,

    March 1, 2010 @ 2:55 pm

    Oh, I meant that historically film critics have had to fight for recognition from an establishment quick to dismiss them in the same way bloggers have had to. It’s only after blogs come about that Doherty is able to recast print film criticism as some sort of lofty endeavor when the fact of the matter is that film critics, like today’s bloggers, had to fight to be taken seriously. We’re talking about people, after all, who wrote about a popular/mass medium. But your point is well-taken.

  8. Michael Dwyer Said,

    March 1, 2010 @ 2:59 pm

    Thanks for writing this–it saved me the trouble of doing it myself. One would imagine that the same essay could have been written during the rise of film reviewers appearing on television (I seem to remember reading a lot of consternation even over the thumbs up/thumbs down framing of the venerable Siskel and Ebert).

    I also find the notion of the blogger as “basement dweller” entirely tiresome and borderline offensive. There’s more than a hint of class bias in these derisions, despite the very real quality of online academic (FlowTV) and popular (Filmspotting, The AV Club) writing on film.

  9. Jonathan Rosenbaum Said,

    March 1, 2010 @ 4:01 pm

    Thanks for this–an excellent response to an extremely problematic article.

  10. Chuck Said,

    March 1, 2010 @ 5:29 pm

    Thanks, Jonathan, your article on internet film criticism was helpful for me when I was researching my chapter on film blogging.

    Michael, good points about the class bias. I criticize the figure of the “basement blogger” quite a bit; it’s a truly annoying concept. Also, I think you’re right to suggest that similar complaints were likely made about reviewers “doing” film criticism on TV. I think Roger Ebert is a great critic, especially his online work, but “two thumbs up” isn’t that much different than “it sucks.”

  11. Dan North Said,

    March 1, 2010 @ 7:28 pm

    Thanks, Chuck, not least because I don’t need an account with the Chronicle to post a response here. Doherty’s argument was saddeningly trite. There may be an inspiring rallying-cry to print criticism to be made, not least so that somebody, somewhere gets paid for keeping cinema in a respected position on paper, for better or worse, but this wasn’t it. Bordwell and Thompson have followed their audience, always concerned with the project of making sure that those who study film have the critical tools to get on with it intelligently, so you’re right to point out that they weren’t forced into going digital.

    I might even make the case for hurried, immediate blogging. My posts range from considered reviews, drafts of conference papers, research notes, isolated quotations from stuff I happen to be reading, or just a single image. This varies according to how much time I have to spare in any given week, but since I don’t have to give my readers value for money (only something to make a mouse-click momentarily diverting), I don’t feel obliged to hold up my side of a broader cultural bargain. I’m only obliged to do what I do honestly. I’m just part of a larger network of bloggers; my opinions deserve respect or derision based on their content rather than for who pays my salary. It’s humbling for someone who also has to jump through academic hoops during the day – I’d recommend blogging to Doherty in a heartbeat. Anything that breaks the routines of pace, style and tone of one’s customary way of writing can only be a positive exercise, especially if that comes across to a reader.

    It’s true that nobody seems to know how important blogs are for academics on the market, but I’m hopeful that the “impact” agenda in the UK (e.g. assessing outputs not just on how they play to a panel of peers, but on the public outreach they can generate) will have a positive effect in that respect.

  12. Links for the Day: Schickel, rhymes with…; Film Criticism, dead again; Seitz at Killruddery; Goldentusk gets Lost | The House Next Door Said,

    March 2, 2010 @ 12:02 am

    [...] because of the responses in the comments section, two by Jonathan Rosenbaum. Related: Chuck Tryon responds to the article and its assertions at The Chutry [...]

  13. Chris Cagle Said,

    March 2, 2010 @ 8:54 am

    Well put.

    I honestly don’t know what Doherty is referring to in some of the passages. For instance, “online work of the digital hordes is already making a substantial contribution to film scholarship—in the spirited parry and thrust of the dialogues, in the instant retrieval of past research, and in the factoid jackpots provided by the film databases.” Who is he talking about? Am I reading the wrong blogs? I don’t know of anyone who trades in factoids. Nor am I sure why past research should take a long time to retrieve. Retrieving it quickly does not make one read it faster. It’s all strange to me because I feel that so few academic film studies scholars blog, even compared to other disciplines.

  14. Chuck Said,

    March 2, 2010 @ 9:08 am

    Thanks, Dan, and I agree that some of the underlying economic assumptions in Doherty’s article–finding some way for critics to get paid–are worthy, but the simple oppositions he creates are terribly flawed.

    And I agree with your defense of “hurried” blogging, even though I was trying to make a different point about how “immediacy” gets misread. Many of my posts are quick links posts where I want to pass along ideas, share information, or simply add a quick observation about a point of discussion in the film blogosphere. Those posts help me think through some of the ideas that trickle into my wider research projects, and hopefully they help others as well.

    Chris, you are right. That passage makes no sense. I’m under the impression that other disciplines have at least an equal, if not greater, share of people in the field actively blogging. I have no clue what he means by a “factoid jackpot.”

  15. Chris Hansen Said,

    March 2, 2010 @ 1:21 pm

    Chuck – an excellent response to a really strangely shallow and cliched article. Bloggers are all fat young men without social lives? Really? Are we still beating that dead horse?

    I’m just sort of shocked, not that people still think that, but that a reputable outlet would post that.

  16. Chuck Said,

    March 2, 2010 @ 3:04 pm

    Thanks, Chris. Apparently some people still buy it.

  17. Adrian Said,

    March 2, 2010 @ 4:12 pm

    Doherty has written some terrific things in his time (I like his work on teen movies, for example), but this is a glib, lazy piece which itself trades in ‘factoid jackpots’, which I take to mean: hastily strung-together half-truths that can be counted on to arouse a grunt of unthinking, prejudiced approval from someone, somewhere ! CINEASTE magazine (with which Doherty is associated) did a better job a little way back in covering the range of opinion on this topic from the ignorant ‘I never read it’ Schickel to serious critics on the Web.

  18. Chuck Said,

    March 2, 2010 @ 4:46 pm

    Agreed, Adrian. I’ve found Doherty’s book on the Hays Code especially useful for teaching pre-Code cinema, and his book on war films was also helpful to me, which is what made this article more than a little frustrating.

    Like you, I thought the Cineaste survey from a while back was a great overview of the many varieties of film writing on the web and beyond.

  19. Jason Mittell Said,

    March 2, 2010 @ 7:41 pm

    I think the best demonstration of Doherty’s lack of understanding of the potential of the blog medium is the comment threads of these two posts. Here, people post responses, and Chuck joins in conversation and develops a community of shared interest and ideas. At Doherty’s Chronicle article (about which I concur with Chuck, Jonathan, and most of the other commenters), a string of mostly-thoughtful comments go unanswered and unengaged, turning into a pig-pile onto an absent author. Which is a better model?

    One more note – I’m shocked that Doherty didn’t address Ebert’s transformation across media (from print to TV to blog/Twitter). But I guess it complicated his reductive narrative. It’s a shame when good historians fall into the “it used to be better” trap.

  20. Chuck Said,

    March 3, 2010 @ 9:37 am

    Jason, that was another point I’d intended to make: Roger Ebert has been completely “reborn” via Twitter and blogs. Ebert isn’t the only critic to have made the transition between TV/print and blogs/Twitter (in either direction), but he is a perfect example of why those kinds of reductive arguments on’t work.

  21. Chuck Said,

    March 3, 2010 @ 9:39 am

    By the way, in this blog post, Jim Emerson goes back and finds a quote from Richard Corliss in 1990 complaining that TV was ruining film criticism. I’m sure there were dozens like it at the time.

  22. La critique, mort en sursis « Séquences – La revue de cinéma Said,

    April 8, 2010 @ 11:48 pm

    [...] ce niveau, cette remarque de Chuck Tryon marque bien ce qui cloche dans le texte de Doherty : « Doherty is falling victim to what might be [...]

  23. The Chutry Experiment » Cinema, Video Games, Art, Part I Said,

    July 9, 2010 @ 1:33 pm

    [...] what circumstances?  These are all “big” questions, and to my mind, they put to rest any suggestion that public film criticism is “dead.”  If anything, it shows that these debates about [...]

  24. The Chutry Experiment » Wednesday Links Said,

    August 4, 2010 @ 11:51 am

    [...] is dead” debate that seems to take place every few months.  I pretty much covered it when I criticized Thomas Doherty’s Chronicle of Higher Education article on the subject a few months ago. But [...]

  25. The Chutry Experiment » Friday Links Said,

    February 18, 2011 @ 12:01 pm

    [...] about the students in her relatively large classes from the blog posts that they write. But to me, asking whether blogging is dead sounds an awful lot like a conversation we’ve been having about film criticism for some time [...]

  26. The Chutry Experiment » How do Movies Matter? Said,

    April 1, 2011 @ 11:08 am

    [...] Reinventing Cinema (and in probably half a dozen blog posts), I addressed the frequently-repeated discussion of the death of film criticism. Typically the [...]

  27. Underground Film And The Tyranny Of The Technical | Underground Film Journal Said,

    May 20, 2013 @ 12:15 am

    [...] here we go: Here’s another cranky lament (via Chuck Tryon) about the dire fate of film criticism online, where accredited experts who have trained [...]

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