"Film criticism is effectively dead… I would love to take credit for killing it with my badly written reviews, but it was the blogs and audiences that did it. Audiences really democratized film reviewing on the Internet."
That’s Chris Gore in a Variety article about the 10th anniversary of “fanboy” film sites. I won’t bother boring you with the rest of the piece, which is pretty much a massive fellation of Aint It Cool News, and which barely goes into the most interesting thing about the “fanboy” sites – how the guys who run them have begun to move into filmmaking themselves. That’s the story, not how the sites have supposedly matured, or making a claim that Harry Knowles once gave a movie a bad review.
Anyway, in the article, Chris Gore of Film Threat makes the above statement, which I think is very, very stupid. On the whole I like Chris. He would probably have no idea who I am, but we have met a couple of times, and he seemed decent enough. But this quote… sheesh.
I guess the dumbest thing about this statement is the idea that killing film criticism is a good thing. Just this week I was reading Roger Ebert’s new best-of collection, Awake in the Dark, and I had no idea the book needed to be killed. I thought that there was pleasure to be taken in well-written and well-observed thoughts about film. Now I can go and burn all those Pauline Kael books I bought, since film criticism is so awful it needed slaying.
Chris’ quote comes on the heels of Time Magazine’s deeply annoying Person of the Year issue dedicated to You – or at least You if You have uploaded videos of chimps shitting in their hands onto YouTube. Gore and Time have both fallen for the romance of the democratized internet, seemingly without realizing that it’s a utopian fantasy at best. The fact is that the amount of content becoming available is so great that we need gate keepers now more than ever. No human being with a job and anything resembling free time can wade into the maelstrom of user generated content out there and find the best stuff for himself – the web still needs prospectors to find these gems. And the prospectors need to build a reputation for themselves because I sure as hell ain’t clicking on every single YouTube link I see on the web, especially since there’s no way to tell what you’re about to open. But there are people who I trust to bring me the good stuff,and there are sites we trust to bring us the good stuff. Over time these sites become more and more hubs and destinations themselves, and the search for user generated content becomes more centralized – it’s very similar to the old paradigm. It’s just the gate keepers who have changed.
Critics are gate keepers too. But they’re something more than that – they’re contextualizers. There’s value in that, and it goes beyond “This movie is good” or “This movie is bad.” In his quote Gore says “criticism” and “reviewing,” but I think they’re two different beasts. A reviewer is a consumer reporter, but a critic is a thinker. Has the internet killed film reviewing? Film reviewing killed film reviewing – it’s a bullshit practice put into place by newspapers with shrinking column inches to spare. Your average film reviewer – who is usually someone assigned to the job between stretches at the sports desk and the crime beat – blows through a couple hundred words to make their idiotic point – an internet reviewer can do the same in half the time and with a quarter of the letters, thanks to phrases like “u” and “rox.”
The speed of feedback within peer groups has exploded – kids will text message their friends about what they think of a movie while still in the theater. Word of mouth spreads through high school age kids at speeds once reserved for STDs. But that’s not film criticism.
Film criticism is alive and well… sort of. It took two big hits lately when Mr. Beaks, late of Aint It Cool News and Collider, retired, and when I started doing most of the reviews on this site. But the web hasn’t killed criticism – it’s offered new opportunities. There are no space restrictions online – the kind of lengthy reviews that Kael once did in The New Yorker can now be done on the web, and the reach of such a review can be much bigger than any print periodical. There are people out there, like Walter Chaw, who are writing dense, literate film criticism online. I never, ever agree with anything Chaw says – I sometimes suspect he hates movies – but he always says it well and with real thoughtfulness. More and more critics are taking up blogs, where they can ponder movies at length and at leisure. And best of all, the web offers readers the ability to read many, many takes on a film – back in the day you had to go by whatever your local paper wrote. This isn’t the death of film criticism, this is the potential rebirth of great film criticism.