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.