• September 1, 2015

The Death of Film Criticism


Chronicle photograph by Bob McGrath

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Chronicle photograph by Bob McGrath

"It sucks," decrees an Internet movie critic, sharing the most common aesthetic reaction in contemporary film criticism. In the viral salon of bloggers and chat-roomers, the finely tuned turns of phrase crafted by an earlier generation of sharp-eyed cinema scribes have been winnowed to a curt kiss-off. In cyberspace everyone can hear you scream. Just log on, vent, and hit send.

The transfer of film criticism from its print-based platforms (newspapers, magazines, and academic journals) to ectoplasmic Web-page billboards has rocked the lit-crit screen trade. Whether from the world of journalism (where the pink slips are landing with hurricane force) or academe (which itself is experiencing the worst job market since the Middle Ages), serious writers on film feel under siege, underappreciated, and underemployed.

The ballast of traditional credentials—whereby film critics earned their bones through university degrees or years at metropolitan dailies—has been thrown overboard by the judgment calls of anonymous upstarts without portfolio but very much with a DSL hotline to Hollywood's prime moviegoing demographic. In film criticism, the blogosphere is the true sphere of influence.

A sure sign of the bleak diagnosis for the ink-and-paper crowd is the arrival of the sympathy cards. While tanking as a viable livelihood, American film criticism is up to its eyeballs in affectionate, retrospective tributes. In 2006, the Library of America bestowed its seal of approval with American Movie Critics: An Anthology From the Silents Until Now, edited by Phillip Lopate, a professor of creative writing and literature. Scenes of Instruction: The Beginnings of the U.S. Study of Film (University of California Press, 2007), by the film professor Dana B. Polan, and Inventing Film Studies (Duke University Press, 2008), a collection of metacritical articles edited by the film scholars Lee Grievesen and Haidee Wasson, focus primarily on the academic institutionalization of the discipline of film studies, but both also track the deep backstory of a practice as old as the nickelodeon. Forthcoming (April) from Santa Monica Press, the film critic Jerry Roberts's The Complete History of American Film Criticism lives up to its title with a quick march through every top-billed byline from the Kinetoscope to Blu-ray. Finally, just out in DVD, For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism (2009)—a documentary mash note directed and written by the critic-scholar and now filmmaker Gerald Peary, a professor of communications and journalism and longtime film critic at The Boston Phoenix—sounds last call at the wake.

The history lessons are revelatory, both for uncovering the long tradition of discerning film criticism in America (it didn't start in the 1960s) and for the surprising number of brand-name writers who have slummed as movie reviewers: Carl Sandburg, on the silent screen in The Chicago Daily News in the 1920s (on Garbo: "slim, pale, like willows turning yellow in autumn"); John Updike, who took to the pages of The Boston Globe to defend the Goldie Hawn-Kurt Russell rom-com Overboard (1987) (on Goldie: "a semicomic valentine surrounded by tumble-dried blond hair").

Turn-of-the-(last)-century critics fixed on film early on as a canvas to mull over and carp about. Watching the Life and Passion of Christ (1903), Joseph Medill Patterson wondered, "Is it irreverent to portray the Passion, Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension in a vaudeville theatre over a darkened stage where half an hour before a couple of painted, short-skirted girls were doing a 'sister act'?" More than one of the pioneers used his perch as a steppingstone to the other side of the screen. D.W. Griffith's racist hallucination, The Birth of a Nation (1915), was co-written by the film critic Frank E. Woods, though the guild might want to keep quiet about that one. The future playwright and screenwriter Robert E. Sherwood—The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)—first caught Hollywood's eye for his prescient film commentary. Writing under the heading "The Silent Drama," he knew the curtain was coming down on pantomime after one listen to The Jazz Singer (1927). "I, for one, suddenly realized that I shall have to find a new name for this department," he proclaimed.

Yet throughout the formative years of 20th-century cinema, most workaday film criticism was dominated by newspaper hacks recruited from the sports beat or trade reviewers with tunnel vision on the ticket window (Variety on Sergey Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin (1925): "utterly devoid of entertainment and box office value"). Not until the late 1930s did film critics begin "to break free from the limitations of the traditional film review and explore film criticism as a type of expansive and deeply personally artistic practice," Haden Guest, director of the Harvard Film Archive, writes in Inventing Film Studies. Among the first standard bearers were Otis Ferguson at The New Republic ("the first working film critic who put everything together," avers Lopate); Manny Farber (whose paeans to underground films and "termite art" elevated B movies to A-list status); and the poet, journalist, screenwriter, and critic James Agee (to writers on film what Edward R. Murrow is to broadcast journalists).

Appropriately, a congenial place to sample American film criticism is at the movies. Peary's For the Love of Movies grants film critics star billing. Begun as an homage, however, it plays more as a requiem for the heavyweights of a dying vocation, a film-geek version of The Way We Were. Like Lopate's anthology and Roberts's survey, the documentary rewinds the forgotten prehistory of film criticism, but its narrative spine is the legendary grudge match between Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael, the Tracy and Hepburn—or maybe Trotsky and Stalin—of American film criticism. Kael threw the first punch in her scathing 1963 attack on the cult of the director as auteur, "Circles and Squares," an essay that launched two birds with one screed—her own as a hit woman not to be crossed, and her target's, who suddenly found the obscure pieces he published in the low-circulation Film Comment the manifesto of a new credo.

Each corner had a claque of fierce camp followers (dubbed "Paulettes" and "Sarrisites") who shadowboxed for their mentors. "We made each other, we helped each other," Sarris admits. "We established a dialectic." Yet the fact that Sarris speaks for himself in For the Love of Movies and Kael appears only in archival footage creates an unfortunate disequilibrium; the pair were nothing if not evenly matched. Peary started shooting in 2001, by which time Kael was too infirm to participate. (She died of complications from Parkinson's disease later that year.) Denied the romantic-comedy ending—Andy and Pauline falling into each other's arms—the viewer is also denied the sight of the lions clawing at each other in winter.

By the 1970s, with the blistering auteur wars ending in a TKO for the Sarrisites, the veterans regrouped just in time to man the barricades for the Second Golden Age of Hollywood. Kael was firing on all cylinders at The New Yorker, defending the kiss-kiss bang-bangers Brian De Palma and Sam Peckinpah, Sarris was obligatory reading in The Village Voice, championing cinephilic New Yorkers like Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese, and across the nation, dozens of newspapers and magazines lent copious space and splashy cover stories to long-form think pieces analyzing filmmakers happy to be hailed as great artists.

Lopate's collection gives a fair sampling of the gems—Richard Corliss and Richard Schickel at Time, Molly Haskell at The Village Voice, Vincent Canby at The New York Times, and Susan Sontag anywhere. Of course the gauzy flashbacks to a time when voracious moviegoers devoured erudite essays by equally passionate critics is as romantic a conceit as any released by MGM. But the box-office returns accrued by offbeat hits suggest a symbiotic relationship. Cheek-to-cheek, film and film criticism thrived.

Even when Hollywood turned to high-budget but lowbrow blockbusters in the 1980s, film criticism maintained its sharp edge and upward arc. Reviewing the decade, Peary, Lopate, and Roberts all give due regard to the salutary impact of Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, the Chicago-based tag team whose television point-counterpoint, which made its debut nationally on PBS in 1978, brought a new level of film smarts to a video forum long dominated by dolts in turtleneck sweaters. "At their best, Siskel and Ebert's lively talks were marked by the immediacy, drama, comedy, intelligence, and surprise of live theatre," argues Roberts.

Then a different kind of termite art burrowed into the house that film criticism built. In the mid-1990s, the wide-open frontier of the blogosphere allowed young punks who still got carded at the multiplex to leapfrog over their print and video elders on user-friendly sites with hip domain names. If the traditional film critic was a professorial lecturer who lorded his superior knowledge and literary chops over the common rung of moviegoer, the Web slinger was a man-boy of the people, visceral and emotional, a stream-of-consciousness spurter with no internal censor or mute button. Listen to the war cry of the Internet Movie Critic ensconced at http://home.earthlink.net/~usondermann: "What sets me apart from the Siskel & Eberts of this world is a simple truth: I don't read books!"

The poster boy for the fanboy-as-critic is the bearded, gnomish taste master Harry Knowles. In 1996, Knowles executed an Internet end run around print film critics by setting up his own aisle seat at Ain't It Cool News (http://aintitcool.com). Soon his site was as coveted an imprimatur as the opposable thumbs of Siskel and Ebert. Knowles boasts two and a half million readers a day—though maybe "hits" is a better measurement—which explains why Hollywood ads are now more likely to quote from Web sites than from print critics.

Predictably, the old guard sees the newbies as semiliterate troglodytes who prowl the viral veld grunting out expletives. "The Internet has made the proliferation of these people possible in a way that it never was before," rasps Rex Reed in Peary's film. Schickel concurs: "What I see of Internet reviewing is people of just surpassing ignorance about the medium expressing themselves on the medium." Many film critics would agree with the condemnation of "the spectacle of 22- and 23-year-old boys taking 40- or 50-year-old artists to task without being able to show a sign of technical knowledge." (Actually, the Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels said that last bit after banning uppity critics from Reich newspapers in 1936.)

Defenders of the bloggers, texters, and tweeters laud the democratization of opinion and the instant access to inside dope. (Many Web-based critics have few qualms about pirated scripts and studio screeners.) Untethered to the industry and not co-opted by plush press junkets, the argument goes, the unpaid fan-bloggers are more independent, more honest, and more in sync with the mass audience than the jaded sexagenarians. Moreover, purely as a media forum for cinematic analysis, the widescreen Net blows away the printed page, offering unlimited space for analysis, links to like-minded sites, and photo "captures" and streaming clips for illustration. The bloggers get the info out first and fast, the readership bookmarks its own comfort zones, and critic and reader begin a two-way conversation that collapses the distinction between interlocutors. The print-bound critics are lumbering dinosaurs grousing about their own extinction. Survival of the fittest, gramps.

To watch their backs and retain their 401(k)'s, most print critics have been forced into sleeping with the enemy. As a form of ancillary outreach, blogs, podcasts, and chat-room discussions have become a required part of the job description for print reviewers. Or maybe the print part of the gig is now the ancillary outreach.

Feeling the same heat, academic critics have also plunged into the brash new world. The film-studies panjandrum David Bordwell—think Knowles with chops in postmodern theory—runs one of the most closely watched blogs at David Bordwell's Website on Cinema (http://davidbordwell.net/blog). The impact of the academic bloggers on Hollywood's box-office gross is negligible (sorry, David), but the 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.

The problem, however, especially for graduate students and younger scholars, is that the powers that be in academe still have not sussed out how to calibrate the value of online work in decisions about hiring, tenure, and promotion, how to weigh the contributions on Web sites like Sense of Cinema (http://sensesofcinema.com) and FlowTV (http://flowtv.org) against peer-reviewed brands like Cinema Journal and the Historical Journal of Film, Radio, and Television. Is heavy Web-site traffic the modern version of frequent citation from respected colleagues? Is a year in harness as a conscientious Webmaster equal to the publication of a scholarly article? Not yet, but the hoary admonition to "publish or perish" may soon morph into "post or perish."

For the print-minded film critic who refuses to evolve, the writing is on the digital wall. The jacket cover for Lopate's anthology shows a pair of analog antiques: a creaky 35 millimeter projector and a clunky manual typewriter. The freeze frame closing out Peary's film shows Sarris, clutching a cane, and Molly Haskell under a theater marquee, as if about to enter their last picture show.

Not good omens for a craft rooted in the literary grace and humanist sensibility of the revered Agee. "The Italian made Shoeshine is about as beautiful, moving, and heartening a film as you are ever likely to see," he confided to his readers in 1947, in full swoon over Italian neo-Realism. "I will review it when I am capable of getting more than that into coherent language and feasible space."

Coherent language within feasible space—words to write by, even when the prose is no longer bound by linear rhetoric and finite column inches. The demise of that tradition of film criticism would really suck.

Thomas Doherty is a professor of American studies at Brandeis University and author of Hollywood's Censor: Joseph I. Breen and the Production Code Administration (Columbia University Press, 2007).


1. honore - March 01, 2010 at 08:47 am

question nothing, accept everything and paw at that lap-top...works at my school.

2. wtdugas - March 01, 2010 at 10:07 am

The author seems to intermingle "critique" with "review." Many print "reviews" are simply padded versions of "it sucks." And, if I'm making a decision whether to see a film, that may be all I need from a trusted source.

Similarly, not all "critiques" are equal. Vapid, jargon infested criticism infects "scholarly" critics just as vapid, shallow criticism infects "internet" critics. Just find someone you respect, regardless of the channel of communication, and follow them.

I suspect the real problem is buried three-fourths of the way into the article. Internet channels of communication don't get no tenure respect, so "save the film journals" is a rallying cry. But that doesn't mean film criticism is dead.

"The problem, however, especially for graduate students and younger scholars, is that the powers that be in academe still have not sussed out how to calibrate the value of online work in decisions about hiring, tenure, and promotion,"

3. sid_from_somalia - March 01, 2010 at 10:31 am

Just read the New Yorker (either print or on-line) and consult Rotten Tomato on a regular basis and you'll be fine.

4. edtanji - March 01, 2010 at 01:12 pm

If there is no audience for thoughtful criticism, there must be very few of us following the Chronicle's publications.
Among 6 billion people worldwide, 300 million in the U.S. alone, there will also be audiences for the crass, pompous and banal. Those audiences can be large; it is easier to be a follower than a leader, reactionary than deliberative. That doesn't mean an audience for quality in writing, research and general opinionizing will dissipate in a flood of online chaff, just as the audience for quality films hasn't been overrun. That the "Hurt Locker" can compete against "Avatar" in 2010 suggests the competition for quality remains high. Whatever you think of the level of violence, there is little question of the quality of the storytelling.
(The audience for quality might need to spend more -- on nights at the theater and on DVDs-- to establish its presence though.)

5. jrosenbaum2002 - March 01, 2010 at 01:35 pm

I find the double standards employed throughout this essay rather disturbing. Yes, the impact of Bordwell and other academic bloggers on Hollywood boxoffice gross is negligible; so was the impact of Agee's columns--not to mention Kael's and Sarris's. The Lopate collection's omissions and inclusions are, to me, proof of the volume's lack of seriousness. And how can The Complete History of American Film Criticism "live up to its title" when it doesn't even try to deal with academic film criticism--a lack even more egregious than Lopate's token acknowledgment? Doherty's wider assumption appears to be that "serious" film scholarship and academic film study are virtually the same, but within my experience, only a few of the best film scholars are employed by universities. And the fact that Doherty doesn't even bother to mention the most sophisticated online blogs and sites devoted to film (e.g., Dave Kehr's and Girish Shambu's blogs, or Rouge) apart from Bordwell's, which he jokingly slights because it doesn't have the industry clout of Ebert and Siskekl's TV show, is not exactly encouraging. Personally, I don't read Harry Knowles, but even on the few occasions when I have, I don't find the slangy, with-it, would-bepopulist tone there all that different from the tone of Doherty's piece. The root of assumption of both is that quantity seems to equal quality, whereas the best film criticism, online and offline, on paper and on the Internet, should be judged by the quality and seriousness of the readership, not by the number of hits or readers.

6. chutry - March 01, 2010 at 02:48 pm

FYI, I've written a response to Doherty's article that echoes many of the very significant critiques raised by Jonathan Rosenbaum above: http://www.chutry.wordherders.net/wp/?p=2457

7. findingd - March 01, 2010 at 06:12 pm

I think Rosenbaum's a teeny-tiny bit upset that he wasn't mentioned in this article, eh? Yes, Jonathan Rosenbaum is and has been a brilliant reviewer for _The Chicago Reader_ and no doubt feels the pangs of being excluded by these "retrospective" histories. "Doh! Thwarted again by Siskel and Ebert," we can hear him grumble in btw the lines. Now that we have petted Rosenbaum's ego, may we move on to the point of Doherty's argument? Doherty's not interested in Hollywood's bottom line but rather the once synergistic relationship btw academic film scholarship and popular film criticism. He provides us with a rich (and well-researched) historical survey of film criticism in the U.S. (this is a review essay, after all). The article impressively moves back to early writings on film, reminding us that the French weren't the only ones who wrote engagingly about film since its inception. Thanks for all your hard work in mining these recent books and placing them in an historical perspective, T.D.

8. princeton67 - March 01, 2010 at 06:23 pm

"In film criticism, the blogosphere is the true sphere of influence..."
BS (sorry, can't write out the word).
Proof: Simply google any (name of)film + IMDB. (International Movie Data Base) Click on "external reviews". Select from the twenty-plus reviews - from Roger Ebert through the Village Voice to Classic Movie Reviews.
All well-written; all insightful and allusive.
That much more crap now exists doesn't negate the growing amount of excellent writing that has always been, still is, and will be, available.

9. jrosenbaum2002 - March 01, 2010 at 07:41 pm

For whatever it's worth, I'm one of the critics included in Lopate's anthology, and that didn't and doesn't prevent me from lamenting that book's lack of seriousness. And my objections to Doherty's article have nothing to do with whether or not I'm mentioned in it. (Thanks, but I'd rather have my ego petted in other ways.) What I'm objecting to is pettiness in both the tone and in the unexamined social divisions, described well in chutry's response, linked above--and incidentally, I'm not saying this because he mentions me. Nor am I (or anyone else, to my knowledge) denying that "engaging" criticism has been and continues to be written outside of France, in this country and in other countries as well. Nevertheless, one might legitimately object to the segregation of American film criticism from film criticism written elsewhere--which is so central to Lopate's collection, Peary's documentary, and Roberts' "complete" history--routinely replicated and taken for granted in Doherty's review-essay.

10. sunoxen - March 01, 2010 at 07:57 pm

First off, can anyone recommend Twitter feeds of enlightened critics?

I have noticed something interesting lately, and it pertains to the topic at hand. The simple point is that criticism is distrusted by most internet-savvy kids today. Not the criticism itself, but the idea that there need be criticism at all, and the idea that any thought you could bring to a work of art is meaningless, because it's just an opinion, and everyone has one. And why criticize a piece of music when it's all about emotions anyway? That sort of thing.

Now, I like to stick it to the man like anymore else, but this attitude of cultural tribalism is becoming more and more prevalent, because finding a community of people to wallow in a Joanna Newsom sewing circle is as easy as getting a last.fm account.

11. eelalien - March 02, 2010 at 07:09 am

I agree with sunoxen's observation that serious, well-informed criticism is all-too-often dismissed as "well that's YOUR opinion" or "different strokes for different folks" - simplistic back-to-the-wall defenses for those not wanting to do one's homework in becoming better informed. Insofar as film criticism, I have found very enlightened - albeit brief - critiques by the likes of Bob Mondello, David Edelstein, and John Powers over the NPR airwaves. These contain informed, thoughtful commentary that aren't ponderous or paternalistic. I check sites like Rotten Tomatoes only when curious about their ratings, finding myself agreeing and disagreeing with the overall review in equal measure. And I have not once consulted someone's blog - those are for the most part merely opinions, and not typically informed ones.

12. graemeharper - March 02, 2010 at 09:34 am

The problem with much of this discussion is that it fails to consider the digital world in which we live. Criticism lives! But it is no longer in the control of centralised systems of validation and approval. And this is the case not only for criticism of film, but also for criticism of literature, theatre, fine art, and so on. My own thesis is clear: commodification of cultural criticism has shifted (from what was, essentially, a 18th century commodity culture to a 21st Century post-commodity address); definitions of professional criticism have thus also shifted. Too little has been written about this, and too little work is being done to consider it, generally. It is time to begin more actively addressing the digital world in which we live, and the ways in which this world truly works, and can be developed.

13. saintfrank - March 02, 2010 at 11:22 am

Those darn kids, with their Internet tweet-blogs and their cowabunga chat rooms and their punk rock movie writing, better stay off my lawn!!

Anyone who bothers to delve into the world of serious film writing on the Internet - i.e., going beyond a five-minute CNN report about twitter and a cursory glance at AintItCoolNews - will find writing as strong and thoughtful as the best Golden Age film criticism. Further, they will find it distributed more democratically. Film criticism, like film itself, reaches a wider audience thanks to the Internet.

What the Internet doesn't do is quickly and obviously contextualize opinion or demarcate between preestablished source hierarchies. Historically, the vast majority of film criticism (i.e., film reviewers in newspapers or magazines) has been bad. This was as true before the Internet as it is today. However, it was once easier to identify the best film critics, because they would usually be writing for the New Yorker (though not always, as the pre-Kael era shows us) or another eminent publication. Conversely, you could usually ignore whoever was writing for - say - the Des Moines Register or the Albuquerque Sun Times (no offense to either of those fine cities). Today, you can't rely on such conventional hierarchies (or the market) to demarcate between the good and the bad.

Fortunately, serious cinephiles are typically equipped with mammalian brains and good taste, both of which aid in the search for and discovery of worthwhile critics. Sorry that the Internet destroyed your newspapers...but the kid in small-town Alaska who just discovered Kiarostami and Kael is glad that it exists.

14. joelce - March 02, 2010 at 02:51 pm

It is astounding how poorly written this article is. No one seriously considers Harry Knowles to be an actual film critic. I doubt even Knowles considers himself such. He *is* a fanboy and Hollywood uses him as a marketing mouthpiece. But the same can be said of a Gene Shalit or any of the Yes! Men working for any variety of TV and print publications, offering their validation for nothing more than a junket and some swag.

If you're going to criticize the state of online film criticism and discussion, you'd do well to actually research the medium before citing references. Film criticism isn't dead and it certainly isn't dying due to film bloggers. It's just going through a transformation. When I was growing up in a mid-size American city in the 70's and 80's, my only options for film reviews were my local paper, TV "critics" like Rex Reed and Gene Shalit, Siskel and Ebert's At the Movies, or travelling to the library to dig out reviews from print journalists around the country.

Now I can access hundreds of published reviews from around the world, follow online discussions and interrogations of entire bodies of work, and participate in that process, all just a mouse click away. The responsibility for determining the quality and veracity of said critical analysis remains my own, as it always has. Just because a "critic" or "scholar" was/is published in some lofty tome or prized newspaper doesn't make them worth their salt. There are and have always been just as many hacks as qualified experts in the business. Castigating the online world because it doesn't carry the credentials or limitations of yesterday is what really sucks.

15. rotoscope - March 02, 2010 at 09:07 pm

I seriously doubt that Mr. Rosenbaum loses much sleep from being neglected in these sorts of articles. I say "these sorts" because the 'death of film criticism' thing has been pretty much driven into the ground at this point (like the 'death of cinema' pronouncements that preceded it) and I can't imagine why Dr. Doherty thought this recapitulation was called for.

Rosenbaum's enormous contributions to film criticism could hardly be understated (something Jean-Luc Godard recognized when he compared him Andre Bazin). He's one of the very few critics who manages to effectively traverse the rifts that exist in the field between the popular and the academic, the historical and the theoretical.

His mention of the blogs run by Dave Kehr, Girish Shambu, and Adrian Martin indicate a degree of awareness about the present state of global cinephilia that are unfortunately lacking in the other comments (and the original article). e.g. Really, the New Yorker? David Denby is skilled at providing well-crafted plot summaries, but basically gives worthless, snap judgements, unintentionally revealing an astonishing ignorance of film culture and historical context in the process.

Finally, I should mention that I actually do admire Thomas Doherty and his contributions to film scholarship. This article is genuinely unnecessary and slightly irksome, but this in no way downgrades the incredible research that he's done over the years (most recently, his book on Joseph Breen).

16. usaret - March 03, 2010 at 08:41 am

What!?! No mention of Joe Bob Briggs? http://mottaindustries.ipower.com/joebobbriggs/

On a more serious note, I'd recommend following St Louis Post-Dispatch film critic Joe Williams. Honest, direct, fine writer.

17. chguk - March 03, 2010 at 08:49 am

eelalien: There is no difference between "serious, well-informed criticism" and the blogs you disdain as "merely opinions, and not typically informed ones", just as there is no difference between Picasso and Warhol, Spears and Lennon. Criticism is just another form of self-expression.

You like something (or not), you say so in print or other media. That's pretty much it. Just because some people like to use longer words to express themselves, and define "liking" something as "finding interesting things to say about it" does not validate their opinions over anyone elses.

What I would really like to see, from someone who disagrees with the above, is a concrete example of an objective measure of artistic quality which is neither a) tautological, nor b) a disguised version of "lots of people like/liked it, so it must be good".

18. godmcgough - March 03, 2010 at 09:07 am

It's as dead as a silly tit-licking finger-licking chicken-loving dodo. And this thread is hilarious. How to adapt a bunch of 18th century books to 21th century technology? Will someone please consider our CV at Bright Lights for tenure? Has Rosenbaum, or Martin, and all them global passeurs, contribution to what exactly? For instance, if I eat a banana, instead of an apple, must I consider an apple criticism? Therefore, are we to infer that criticism is one thing instead of the other? Conclusion, like any corporation, if I want to go up in the Fundación Rafael del Pino, I wax on how beautiful BAA's airports are. But this Otis Ferguson/Manny Farber quotawhorathon's problem is it doesn't generate enough finance. Now that the printing press is a bunch of imdb reviews, even if we wanted to painstakingly climb up to the few positions available, who in their right mind, in private, believes the rubbish they say when they quite obviously have to quote Rosenbaum and Bordwell? It's quality, not quantity, that's something Ayn Rand would say to Daniel Ellsberg. I am your God and judge and condemn you all to boringness. XOXO!!!

19. rebert - March 03, 2010 at 10:12 am

There are two possibilities. Either Thomas Doherty has never read David Bordwell, or he doesn't know what "post-modern" means.

20. mubbs - March 03, 2010 at 11:16 am

Lament! Lament! Lament!

Digital media---ahhhhhhh! You, dearest sir, confuse the medium and the message. You also don't understand what exacelty the internet is being used for--just becaue you post something online doesn't mean you consider yourself a writer or film critic. The internet and digital media is about sharing--If I say "The English Patient Sucks!" on my blog it is no different than a friend asking me my view on a film. It's about people. It's about sharing. Not about the decline of literary culture into the mass ravings of the populace.

The real question is about audience. If you have really interesting content then you shouldn't have a problem finding readers online as well. If 1000 people bought your monograph last year, well, then expect about 1000 people to read your e-book.

Words of advice to the author---adapt! They thought sound was going to ruin the silent pictures. They thought radio would kill books. In the words of Queen, "noooothing lasts forever." But I (being one of those ape online movie critics for moviegorge.com) think that if you have something interesting to say people always want to listen. Maybe if nobody reads you, the fault is yours not the audience. Hemmingway still sells a lot of copies. Cormac McCarthy is doing well. Stephen King reads William Carlos Williams.

21. mubbs - March 03, 2010 at 11:19 am

Also, you can interpret the spelling mistakes above as either (1) ironic (2) a poor digital kid raised in the era of the spellcheck. Whatever.

22. 22122118 - March 03, 2010 at 11:43 am

I'll match the (online) reviews found at Arrow in the Head (http://www.joblo.com/arrow)anytime with "serious" film criticism, whether in print or digital format. Of course, the site is weighted toward certain film categories, so not everything gets the treatment. But what does....well, you learn everything you need to know, including interrogation and contextualization. Yes, AITH knows how to use that language, but generally, and thankfully, eschews it.

23. dank48 - March 03, 2010 at 12:45 pm

Sunoxen has made a valid point, imo. There's an unfortunate logical leap from the reasonable proposition "Everyone has the right to their own opinion" to the rather less reasonable "And therefore all opinions are equally valid."

It's too bad that this "I am the measure of all things" mentality has taken such firm hold. For one thing, it tends to make it more difficult for one to realize that--despite the firmness of one's opinions, beliefs, and convictions--one may well be mistaken, in error, inadequately educated, misinformed, deluded, wide of the mark, off target, otl, fos, stupid, crazy, or wrong.

24. nomess - March 03, 2010 at 12:52 pm

Come on everybody...here is the truth:

Film critics speak to an academic world

Movie critics speak to consumers

25. meshabob - March 03, 2010 at 03:48 pm

The article begins: "It sucks," decrees an Internet movie critic, sharing the most common aesthetic reaction in contemporary film criticism.

In fact most Internet critics are as superficial as print journalists who they seek to emulate. I have been a member of New York Film Critics Online for 10 years and see very little difference between online and print journalism. Both tend to follow the awful example of the Rolling Stones's Peter Travers who treats every trashy Hollywood movie as if it were the second coming of Orson Welles.

I have read Bordwell and other academic film critics in Cineaste over the years and find them interesting but basically they are not really about holding up recent films to close and unstinting scrutiny. Obviously this is not their function.

My problem is mainly with the guys who have undeserved reputations as cognescenti like David Denby. I have a strong suspicion that prestigious newspapers and magazines have some kind of sub rosa understanding with the studios that their job is to get people to buy tickets, and consquently popcorn which is how the movie business really makes its profits.

It is not just movies that are being oversold. Has anybody taken the trouble to read some of the novels that get hyped in the NY Times Book Review as the second coming of John Updike or Norman Mailer? Pathetic.

I think one of the reason people rely on Rotten Tomatoes and other Internet sites is the same reason newspapers are going out of business. You can get by on bullshit only so far.

Louis Proyect

26. alankurtz - March 03, 2010 at 09:58 pm

"In cyberspace," writes Thomas Doherty in a catchy paraphrase, "everyone can hear you scream." Since no commenter has questioned his alarmist premise, they (like he) must consider it self-evident. But while it's fair to say, "In cyberspace everyone can scream," to be heard requires someone to be listening. In fact, the overwhelming majority of us screaming in cyberspace are simply ignored. It reminds me of Edvard Munch's fin-de-siècle expressionist artwork, where The Screamer facing the viewer has attracted not the slightest notice from the couple behind her. If she were alone on the bridge, we could reckon that, like a tree falling in the distant forest, the sound is too remote to reach anyone's auditory apparatus. But this couple isn't that far removed, well within the range for a woman's scream to penetrate their eardrums. Unless they're both deaf, they fail to react because they CHOOSE not to hear. They are oblivious. That is the true state of cyberspace.

27. jrosenbaum2002 - March 03, 2010 at 10:15 pm

To Alan Kurtz: It should be self-evident that plenty of people can hear you scream (or talk, or whisper) on the Internet. Not everyone, of course--but then again not everyone reads books or magazines or academic journals, either, or can hear you screaming or whispering or talking there, either. Checking the traffic on my own web site, I see that 1,063 people visited it yesterday. But I think that playing the numbers game in any of these fields is a bit pointless, because "hits" aren't necessarily the same thing as "reads," and the number of people who subscribe to The New Yorker doesn't equal the number of people who read David Denby. And it doesn't tell you how closely or seriously the reading is done.

Personally, as I've argued elsewhere, I'm far more interested in the quality of my readership than the quantity. The writing of mine that's had the strongest and most lasting effect, on paper or in cyberspace, is the writing that's reached the right people, not the writing that's reached the most people. The French magazine Trafic has never had a circulation greater than about 2000 tops, but the fact that some of my readers there have included the former director of the Cannes film festival and Jean-Luc Godard, both of whom have offered me some feedback, has guaranteed that what I published there has had more of an effect than anything I've ever published in, say, Premiere or The New York Times or Le Monde or Cahiers du Cinema or the Village Voice.

28. bpilgrim - March 04, 2010 at 09:43 am

Thank you 18. godmcgough. I have no idea what you are saying but I appreciate the lack of self-importance in your entry (unlike the others) and I found it amusing in a Monty Python sort of way. Perhaps "serious film critism" is an oxymoron because film is entertainment for the masses, and therefore by definition not "serious." Go ahead and write in your French magazine for "the right people" (did you really say that?). No one cares. Thanks for listing all your other venues at the end, but those are the "wrong people" who you don't really care about, right?

29. jrosenbaum2002 - March 04, 2010 at 04:28 pm

Sorry, guy--or should I say bpilgrim? I guess Agee and Farber in The Nation (as opposed to Agee and Farber in Time) and Godard in Cahiers du Cinema must have been writing for the wrong people, unlike our more democratic and populist teachers, e.g. Monty Python and Quentin Tarantino and Mr. Roeper. My apologies if I offended you and your healthy lack of seriousness.

30. ktrout - March 04, 2010 at 09:55 pm

bpilgrim -

The statement "film is entertainment for the masses, and therefore by definition not 'serious'" is one of the sillier things I've read on the internet in quite some time. Firstly, even if film was solely an "entertainment for the masses" (it's not), "entertainment" and "seriousness" aren't necessarily contradictory. Secondly, "serious criticism" is still possible for even "non-serious" items. One can write insightful and intelligent and, yes, serious critiques and analyses of even the most shallow items of pop culture.

Thirdly, and most obviously, film is an artform that can serve many purposes beyond simply "entertainment for the masses" (not that quality entertainment is something to be deprecated,) a fact evidenced by the existence of films like "Shoah" and "Empire" and "Satantango" and "Night and Fog" and "Syndromes and a Century". Like them or not, it should be quite clear that they were intended to be at least a bit more than mere entertainment and certainly worthy of serious consideration and analysis.

And, yes, they all fit every accepted definition of "film" (no, you can't just make up definitions to suit your rhetorical needs.)

31. audiovisualsalvage - March 07, 2010 at 05:58 am

I would also like to praise Chutry's response to this article. For me, it is unlikely that I would even be aware of many of my favourite film writers today, were it not for the prevalence of online blogs and journals. Mr Rosenbaum's blog is a constant source of thoughtful film writing which only makes me want to improve my own abilities in this practice. We're not all content just to let off a bit of steam.

The continual conversation occurring over at Dave Kehr's blog is a daily reminder that my knowledge of the subject of film and film criticism is greatly lacking and a reminder that there a lot of folks out there who know a lot (it may not be well-organised, slowly developed critique, but often a little trivia will cause a few surprises). And several noted film writers engage on the site almost daily, which I commend. The future of film criticism and music criticism is still somewhat illegible and I appreciate the avenues explored by these writers.

I recall Mr Rosenbaum commenting upon the tendency of print-based film critics to make statements along the lines of: 'it's been a bad year for film, as far as quality if concerned' when they have only seen a fraction of the sum total of films released the world over on any given year (I apologise jonathan, but I could not find the reference). Well, online, commentators from all of the globe can refer to enlightening moments that they have experienced with films and trade information on where to obtain elusive DVDs.

The issue of age is bound to cause some frustration. I think intelligent, perceptive comments about films can come from those of all ages.

I could go on and on, but I have enjoyed the discussion that this has opened up.

32. oscargrouch - March 07, 2010 at 07:14 pm

A very shallow article. And being sloppier than many bloggers, Doherty writes that Sarris wrote his early pieces for "Film Comment" although they were actually published in "Film Culture" (big difference). And, considering that Doherty is an associate editor of Cineaste, it's odd that he doesn't cite their 2008 symposium on Film Criticism and the Internet. If he had read that feature closely, he'd have a more nuanced view of the subject.

33. thomasdoherty - March 08, 2010 at 11:19 am

I am heartened by the enthusiasm with which so many net-savvy cinephiles took to their electronic accessory of choice to blog, post, text, twitter, flame, and email in response to "The Death of Film Criticism." The old ink-stained film criticism may be wheezing and hooked up to a heart monitor, but apparently criticism about film criticism still gets the adrenaline flowing.

I haven't responded to the posted comments because of a cautionary note from the great literary and cultural historian Paul Fussell. A connoisseur of the Letters to the Editor section of the New York Review of Books, Fussell wrote an instructional essay on the minor epistolary genre composed of responses from aggrieved authors who bear their hurt feelings and vent their righteous outrage at the clod reviewers who lacked the insight and sensitivity to appreciate the brilliance of their work. Fussell dubbed the missive launched by the wounded writer an ABM--Author's Big Mistake. His point was that having written your book or article and said your piece, you've painted a bull's eye on your back. If you complain when someone shoots an arrow your way, you'll only come off as petty, thin-skinned, and foolish. Nonetheless, my Chronicle of Higher Education editor suggests I get with the interactive program and pen a brief comment on the comments on my commentary.

First, cover illustration notwithstanding, my own thumbs are not all the way down on what the internet hath wrought for film criticism--the digits are actually more like needles quivering somewhere in the mid-range. I had hoped to avoid coming off as a doddering POB (print based bastard) wagging an ink-stained finger at the young web-slingers, of playing the 21st century version of a medieval monk who cut his teeth on illuminated manuscripts grousing about the decadent media world wrought by that punk Guttenberg. Still, as I read the literary lights collected in Lapote's American Film Criticism and surveyed the prose on the current film sites, I couldn't help but lament the passing of the old guard. Like Gerald Peary in For the Love of Movies, seeing beloved bylines (and knowing some of the faces behind them) fired and forced to adapt made for a poignant montage. I know that film critics should be no more immune from the march of technology and bottom-line lay-offs than any other profession, but it's a melancholy passing nonetheless.

I also did a good deal of ruminating--most of which didn't make the final cut--about what makes good film criticism. Obviously, the virtues apply whatever the communication platform--newspapers, blogs, chatting over coffee--but here's what I look for:

1) expertise. Do they know what they're talking about? Whether you admire the writing or agree with their aesthetic opinion, can the critic teach you about film style, technology, or history? From this vantage, there's no substitute for time in harness. Todd McCarthy at Variety fits the bill. The man has been reviewing films for almost a half century now, if I'm not mistaken, and he brings an unmatched depth of experience and industry smarts to his criticism. He has a personal data base of awesome storage capacity. When McCarthy reviewed Gladiator (2000), he harkened back by way of comparison to Anthony Mann's The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire (1965), the last time the swords and scandals epic had been on the Hollywood screen, before costs made the cast of thousands attired in Roman armor prohibitive. He also has a keen eye for gradations of visual technology--color registration, lab work, print development, you name it. From a McCarthy review, I learn why the flat 2-D version of Up (2009) looks better than the 3-D version of Up. From the blogs, I learn that Megan Fox was a real pain on the set of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009).

2) chops. Can they write well? "That's not writing," purred Truman Capote about the speed-propelled prose of Jack Kerouac in On the Road. "That's typing." Sure, some internet criticism, especially in the on-line dailies and magazines, is as good as the print weeklies and newspapers, but after reading a raft of internet bred and born film criticism, I think, "That's not even typing--that's texting." The luminous Agee was before my time, but I did catch the late, great, and often grating Pauline Kael of her legendary go-around at the New Yorker. I almost never agreed with her, but when hit-and-run Pauline was in full swoon or snit, she was more entertaining than the films she gushed over and gutted. Camille Paglia--who I wish wrote more on movies and less on politics and poetry--possesses some of the same slash-and-burn verve. Passion and a fancy prose style will let you get away with murder. I also am in total awe of those film critics in whatever forum--Manohla Dargis at the NYT, Peter Keough at the Boston Phoenix, and Ty Burr at the Boston Globe--who manage to be so witty and illuminating under the ax of deadline pressure.

3) taste. Do your two cinematic hearts neat as one? Whether on the op-ed pages or in the arts and entertainment section, most of us seek out a simpatico byline--a critic we come to trust because he or she shares our artistic sensibility and guilty pleasures, a reliable weather vane for our own tastes. Like a lot of people of my generation, Andrew Sarris first guided me through the pantheons and poverty rows of classical Hollywood cinema and I take to heart whatever he recommends. Back in the 1980s, when Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel went nose to nose over teenpic horror or bonehead comedy, Gene often made some irrefutable points, but if Roger recommended a film, I'd check it out because our thumbs tended to be in alignment. This is probably the most solipsistic reason for reading film criticism. I know the film critic is a brilliant arbiter with refined taste because--she always agrees with me!

As yet, few of the digitally bred crew have had their shoulder to the wheel long enough to accrue the level of expertise of the old guard. Also, the blog forum seems to invite a kind of conversational, stream of consciousness, cut and paste practice with few editorial filters between thought and prose. The signature strength of the digital film criticism is the nurturing of communities of shared interests--the back and forth dialogues between critic and networks of off-the-cuff critics, a dialogue that, Paul Fussell and me notwithstanding, may not be such a big mistake.

34. jmittell - March 10, 2010 at 09:33 pm

Thomas - I'm glad you've decided to respond, as clearly people want to engage this topic. But I'm still left frustrated by the lack of clarity as to what these blogs are that you're reading and basing your condemnation upon. You've cited two sites: Ain't it Cool News, which is not a film criticism blog but a gossip/preview/fansite, and David Bordwell's blog, which certainly has never reported on Megan Fox's temperament. Your commenters have pointed to many cinephile/critical blogs that seem to do the very things that you decry are not being done online. So is this a case of you generalizing based on misinformation? Or do you have something relevant to say about actual critical writers like Girish, Kehr, Rosenbaum, etc.?

35. b_brentsmith - March 17, 2010 at 11:23 am

The mention of this reminds me of a recent article by Roger Ebert on his blog:


In it, he praises this terrific online critic named Dan Schneider, and his website Cosmoetica. I later found it ironic that he recently lamented the loss of Variety reviewer Todd McCarthy when Ebert has championed great Internet critics like Schneider and James Berardinelli. Both meet Doherty's 3 standards, and are far superior to McCarthy, or Rosenbaum to be frank.

And, what I like particularly about Schneider is that he writes in depth criticism of forgotten films and does so in a style that mediates between the Cahiers crowd and the Thumbs up/This Sucks bunch.

36. b_brentsmith - March 17, 2010 at 11:25 am

And Mr. Doherty, if you like slash and burn there is no one better at it than Schneider. His website: http://www.cosmoetica.com/

37. geoffrey4 - March 17, 2010 at 04:36 pm

Though I am an admirer of Dr. Doherty's work, surely I cannot be the only person to appreciate the irony of the fact that in his above response to this thread the professional academic (while defending professional criticism) has erred with regard to both the title and date of Mann's 1964 "The Fall of the Roman Empire"? If the factual errors were originally McCarthy's the observation may be even more relevant to the larger conversation in a subsection which begins with the line, "Do they know what they're talking about?" since the professional safeguards of editorial oversight clearly failed to catch the mistakes not once, but twice.

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