I went a very traditional route when it came to my approach to film. Classes in undergrad that turned to a Masters degree at NYU in Cinema Studies. I firmly believe that to be a good critic you need to understand cinema as more than just entertainment, flickering images on screen whose importance only lasts for the two hours that you’re there. I also believe that film is its own medium, with its own rules that cannot be cobbled together from an understanding of other disciplines. I went to school to help me understand cinema in that way, but I know many people who simply watched and read and learned from their peers; who began life, like me, as English majors, or journalists, or art historians. Or just film buffs, obsessed with the latest release as well as the most obscure cult classic. What unites us is an unabashed love of film, and a need to talk about it not just as a piece of entertainment but as something that is endemic to our culture, to our existences.
Being as traditionally trained as you can get in the film world, I of course have worshipped at the altar of Andre Bazin, Cahiers du Cinema, Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris. So why do I feel that so-called ‘legitimate’ film criticism has completely lost its way? I’m not talking about blogs or websites, but about the sources that, for a very long time, I snobbishly venerated over sites, believing that their criticism meant more than the common fanboy/girl in the multiplex. I’m talking about the New York Times, the New Yorker, The Washington Post. The people that are paid good money to give their opinion on movies. These are supposed to be the legitimate critics, the intellectual voices.
Reading the regular critical reviews of Iron Man 3, I was struck once more by how really, incredibly … snobbish they were. How they were treating a summer blockbuster as though they expected it to be 8 ½. I am a firm believer in film as a measure of the cultural zeitgeist, and maybe Manohla Dargis and Anthony Lane have a point when they talk about the juxtaposition of terrorism and the tribulations of Iron Man. But it is as though they have approached the film with the snooty understanding that they know better than the film – that they are, in fact, superior to the movie they’re watching, long before they’ve ever seen it.
The kind of criticism that comes from Dargis, Scott, Lane, Denby et al. has become obsolete not because they work for newspapers and magazines, but because they decline to accept the fact that film – and film criticism – has changed since the days of Sarris and Kael. While those critics were instrumental with bringing certain mainstream attractions to the attention of the cognescenti (the Western gained prominence due to them, as did American gangster films, and the cult of the auteur), they did not ultimately dictate the way films were made (as much as they wanted to). Hollywood in particular remained independent of the critical discourse – the Dream Factory did not care what you thought of their dreams. Kael and Sarris were lone voices in a land where film still held less importance (again, according to the canon) than theatre or literature.
Times have changed. Lest we forget, film criticism is still a young discipline. Over the years, it has been more or less a mimic of theatre, literary and art criticism. It has long been the arbiter of what is ‘good’ film and what is ‘bad.’ Or rather, what is important and what is mere ‘entertainment.’ Critics like Kael and Sarris cast themselves as cultural gatekeepers, defining cinema as they saw fit. And we should not ignore or lambast their contributions to the discipline. But like most mainstream criticism, Sarris and Kael (and yes, Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel too) were far too limited in their outlook. They wanted there to be good and bad cinema, and they wanted to be the ones to tell the public what that is. Now, with the increase of niche marketing, with the appreciation and commodification of cult films and badness for badness’s sake, with the growth of genre as the defining factor in many films, that type of criticism simply won’t wash. There’s no such thing as good or bad anymore.
Films are no longer quite as genre-stratified as we’d like them to be. When Dargis reviews Iron Man 3, she writes as though she were Pauline Kael informing you of whether or not this film is worthwhile. No one thinks that way any more – film criticism has become markedly democratic, thanks to blogs and social media. Now everyone with a computer can weigh in with their opinion. Some of those opinions are monosyballic; others are intelligent and well-thought out surveys of the contemporary culture. But the sheer amount of criticism, good and bad, means that a single critic or cadre of critics quality controlling cinematic production is impossible. And that, I think, seriously pisses off the mainstream critics.
I don’t think that intellectual film criticism is obsolete. But critics like Dargis and Scott need to look to their own houses, rather than complaining about the state of the cinematic culture. The cinematic culture is alive and well and full of people, young and old, who want to discuss cinema in a serious and meaningful way. The reason why these critics are becoming obsolete is not because the world, the media and film have materially changed, edging out intellectualism in favor of supposedly geeky fanboys who just want Superman again. The mainstream critics devalue that world because they don’t understand it, and don’t want to. They are becoming obsolete not because film culture has changed; they are becoming obsolete because they refuse to change with it. That’s what obsolescence is.