“If we can’t help sell tickets for movies that we love, then what is the point of all this writing? Such has, and continues to be, the lot of the work of art criticism in the age of commerce, which only means that those who take it upon themselves to write need to shout louder as urgency increases.”
– Jeff Reichert, from review of The New World, published in Reverse Shot
Before I succumb any further to the distractions of the working stiff, let me wrap up my coverage of the Moving Image Institute and post some reflections on the responses of my and others’ coverage received in the past week.
First, I neglected to report on one of the highlights of Day 3, the panel and dinner with Molly Haskell and Andrew Sarris. Karina Longworth has already issued a fine report on the session; I’m especially appreciative of her recalling the part of the conversation when we younger critics lamented missing the golden era of film culture when cinephiles would congregate at a cafe following an evening screening and passionately discuss the film they just saw, leading Haskell to dispel us of our manufactured nostalgia. As I listened to them recall their epic disputes with Pauline Kael and affiliations with major critics such as Susan Sontag, John Simon and Stanley Kauffmann, I reflected on an observation that kept resurfacing throughout the program, being just how New York-centric arthouse film culture is, and was; indeed it may have been even more insularly Gothamic back in Sarris’ heyday than it is now in the age of the internet.
On the other hand, Thursday’s visit to the New York Times building to meet the newspaper’s film editorial staff may have offered the counter-argument that all things of cultural relevance must emanate from Times Square, though I’m afraid I can’t say more since the meeting was off the record (personally I don’t think anything discussed was terribly proprietary). Much has been made of the perceived antagonism between print institutions like the Times and the blog-barians storming their gates. As rousing as these posts and discussions have been, let’s cut to the chase: in three years this isn’t even going to be an issue. While I won’t divulge any details of what was discussed at the Times meeting I think it’s fair to say that they are as anxious as any blogger about securing their audience in a sea of competing critical voices. They certainly have more at stake to lose (7% of Times newsroom staff laid off so far this year). I wouldn’t be surprised if soon we’ll see A.O. Scott chatting up the reader comments section beneath his reviews or even visiting other blogs if the Powers That Be become further ensconced in the current Web 2.0 wisdom that community in addition to content is what sells online.
The point is that the rules are changing and everyone is trying make sense of a shifting landscape, with radical implications for how culture will be generated and disseminated. So yes, I think the field is leveling out, for better or worse. I see little point in being resentful about how bloggers are being perceived now, when the door is wide open to define what blogging should be about. Filmbrain left a comment on my last report that ponders this question of where online film criticism is going. Meanwhile, while we’re busy debating the relative merits of blog critics, someone has just issued another great, thought-provoking piece for all of us to enjoy; may I suggest we direct our attention to the real action?
Not a whole lot to report about the afternoon session at Sony Pictures Classics that wasn’t already touched on by the earlier panel of film distributors and publicists. I suppose that here would be an apt place to reply to a comment that was left on my last report, suggesting that the Moving Image Institute was subsuming film criticism to the needs of the industry (or to put it less tactfully, that the participants were being converted into marketing shills). I can fully appreciate the commenter’s concerns, and indeed there was at least one item of feedback raised on the last day of the program that there hadn’t been enough discussion on the art and craft of film writing. The sessions with the company reps and even the filmmakers amounted to being more industry shop talk than about fostering a deeper appreciation for how to write more knowingly about movies (though filmmaker/cinematographer Ellen Kuras offered some helpful pointers on how critics could be more sensitive to the pictorial aspects of a film). On the other hand, even a dyed-in-the-wool formalist critic like David Bordwell would tell you that an understanding of how the movie business works is essential to having a comprehensive, well-informed perspective from which to write about films. If that’s what the Institute had to offer this year, it still amounted to a lot to take in, much of it soberingly stark in what it had to say about arthouse film, and not just as an industry, but as a culture, that in some respects, seems on the brink of exile into a virtual, digital corner of society.
This is where my point about the film critic as advocate and activist comes in, a point that the commenter picked up as part of his criticism of what he though the Institute was trying to do to its participants. The blog post and the comment actually sparked a lengthy discussion among the participants about the role of the film critic in relation to the community. There was some back and forth about what the word “advocate” entailed in relation to criticism, and a weird continuum seemed to emerge: one that had a highbrow intellectual writing hermetically rigorous tomes for a handful of self-selecting, appreciative readers on one end of the spectrum, and a studio-fed blurbwhore on the other. Maybe I like to have it both ways, but if I were to end up being an intellectual blurbwhore who could write about challenging cinema in such away that it engaged a mass audience, well at least there would be a respectable precedent. Say what you will about Roger Ebert’s thumbing-down of criticism, but there was a time when he could make Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers appeal to fans of The Exorcist by drawing bold, inspired, and compelling comparisons of the two films’ treatment of horror, existential as well as corporeal. This is what I mean by advocacy, activism, and just plain great film criticism: smart, intrepid and engaging.
The greater problem looming at present is that there are now fewer print outlets than ever for an Ebert to issue his exhortations to a mass readership to see films they otherwise wouldn’t know or care about. This choking off of film criticism from these major publicity channels couldn’t come at a worse time, when the economics of independent film distribution are becoming increasingly dire for distributors and especially filmmakers. In the face of such circumstances, how can a film writer who cares about the future of their beloved medium not see themselves as an advocate, and act accordingly?
And if the most energetic writing about film is taking place online, is that enough for us to see results in the non-virtual world? Peter Noble-Kuchera and Doug Cummings lamented the lack of in-person alt-film communities in Indiana and Los Angeles (!), while Jette Kernion shared observations on the thriving film culture in Austin. In an age where even I, in New York, am more likely to discuss film online than in person, how much does having a localized community matter? But more to the point: if discussions of film are increasingly being relegated to specialized online spaces than in general interest news outlets with a broader readership, then are we being consigned to a cultural ghetto? If so, I’m not sure if this is what I signed up for. As much as I love movies, as much as they matter to me, I also want the movies I love to matter.
Of course the counter-argument was made that one’s loves shouldn’t be imposed on a larger audience, to each his own and all that, but in light of a specialty market film industry that’s more or less in crisis, and a film culture that seems to be in the midst of being shuttled to the wings, I think that taking such a position is a luxury that the our film culture can no longer afford, if it ever could have.
I will cite one instance of the kind of film programming that is achieving the results I’m talking about: the summer outdoor cinema series sponsored by the Museum of the Moving Image in my beloved Astoria, Queens. As bold in its curatorial selections as it is welcoming to the general public, this free series programs an unexpectedly off-beat lineup of films from countries representing the rich ethnic diversity of the Queens community: Brazil, Japan, India, from Bollywood to Ousmane Sembene. And it works, drawing crowds not just from the highlighted ethnic communities but from a wide range of people, including people who wouldn’t be inclined to see an arthouse film save that it was a free way to spend some time catching a movie in the open summer night air. Judging by the ongoing success of the series, it seems the majority doesn’t regret it.
So yes, tar and feather me a populist – but not so much in my tastes in film as in my vision of film culture. My position was only reinforced on the final session of the Institute, a panel on digital technology that did less to tie film culture to the digital realm (and really, this topic deserves its own day, not just a single panel, if we’re to make this a forward-looking program) than to draw parallels with other media. For instance, in a discussion on gaming, Heather Chaplin and Ed Halter described how avant garde game designers were creating difficult to the point of unplayable games that provoked players into a more conscious appreciation of the form and artistry of video game design – not dissimilar, Halter maintained, from what avant garde or arthouse filmmakers do with cinema. When Chaplin recalled how one group of such gamers, eager to expose their work to a larger audience, struck up a deal to have their games sold at Target, this led to an argument about the meaning of such a gesture to the work’s aesthetic and cultural relevance. Halter’s counter-argument invoked Apichatpong Weerasethakul as a filmic corollary to the type of anti-commercial stance he espoused: “Weerasethakul doesn’t make his movies with the intention of reaching a broad audience. He just has something very personal and unique to express for whoever wants to experience it.”
Now I love Apichatpong Weerasethakul as much as the next guy (well I probably love him a lot more than the next guy, since the next guy doesn’t even know who he is), but I don’t see how keeping him close to one’s vest does cinema a service. It may be the filmmaker’s prerogative not to care how much of an audience he will garner, but I feel that the critic has a different imperative, a different role to play in society, assuming that he cares about society. Maybe that’s what it comes down to. Those who disagree with me make arguments amounting to “art for art’s sake” irregardless of its function within greater society (except as the obstinate margin against which the mainstream is defined – or vice versa). But when it gets to the point that one argues that neither artist nor critic have a duty to even make their work understood to a larger populace – well I was kind of relieved when another participant floated the word “elitism” to describe the position Halter was advocating, lest I felt compelled to utter it myself. When I spoke with Halter after his presentation, he used a different word – “separatist” – to describe his position, and when he argued against the old-school universalist theory that promotes a dominant mode of art and culture at the expense of others, I had to agree with him in part – and in fact the blogosphere is one of the major avenues that is demolishing this hegemony of the mainstream, while at the same time connecting smaller pockets of discourse where they would have never encountered each other before.
I would have loved to have more of these kinds of discussions brushing right up against the earlier, industry-centered panels instead of bringing up the rear of the program. As heady and difficult as they are, these conversations bring us into a larger, more philosophical realm of understanding the purpose of film criticism in the world we live in and what roles we have to serve. It was a fine way to end the Moving Image Institute and return back into the real world with a renewed sense of purpose, a perspective I hope to carry with me as I continue to work through my self-appointed role of cinema advocate. And if that sounds pretentious (or even “elitist”?), I don’t think it does if enough people join in. Like the best of the web, it’s an open source platform.