A Vision of the New Criticism

Go on any major film site and marvel at the display. Let your jaw drop at the crass wasteland masquerading as Eden, where neon banners sit atop the words in all their glittering pageantry. Now scroll down to their denizens of the deep, scouring in the muck in search of the almighty Quote. Now look beyond it, to the expanse it could have occupied. Gasp in awe at what it could have been—a beacon of salvation upon a hill shining its light for all to see. But the people won’t look, nor will they listen, they’re too busy suckling at the teat of false knowledge. Junkies looking for the next critical fix, and the site provides. It pushes its content into their ossified network of veins, blasts it in their deafened ears just so even a faint blip might register. Truly this is hell, if only because some of us can still see that hill, and we’re moving further from it every day. The train has left the station, it’s teetering above the chasm, and there’s no stopping its descent.

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But there is way out, and it begins by stopping the fix. Don’t take the drug, let the brain supply itself. Then you will see that not every film need be mentioned. If a film has nothing to say, then there’s no need to listen, no need to acknowledge, there’s no reason its name should even need to be spoken. The film system would collapse, runs the counter-argument. Would it? The majority of the public already know the difference between straight-to-video and a theatrical release, they can even somewhat distinguish the difference between a wide theatrical release and a limited one. So never doubt that the same can’t happen in the critical arena. Give comment only to the films worth commenting. Do not devalue the art of criticism through supersaturation. If a film or filmmaker be worthy of comment, then bestow it upon both or either, mark their criticism to be a mark of distinction, and not as a matter of course. Let them earn the right to enter the critical arena, rather than as a foregone conclusion. It’s a sad fact that some films aren’t looking to make any statement, they can’t be reasoned out or understood; some films just want to make money. Don’t let them infect us with their intellectual poverty. And if that’s their claim, then let them take it and be on their way—thirty pieces of silver for the hangman.

The system is broken. Camelot is in ruins. Titanic is planing towards the murky bottom, and we’re all going down with it; unless we can make a change. And it begins right here. The founding fathers of America (I like to think of them as Cousin Frank and Uncle Tom) wrote the Declaration of Independence in order that the government may form a more perfect union with its citizens, so consider this my declaration. For what union is there between film and its citizens? When one system fails, another must rise to take its place.  The society of film is stagnating, and the critics, the guardians of cinema, have let it get that way. And why shouldn’t they, it’s good to be king. Or was.

To a certain extent this system is already in place in the academic sphere of film criticism, however the discussion is relatively small and constrained by the apparatus of publication. Whether it be digital or physical printing, a significant delay in the communication keeps the discussion at a pace removed from the daily arena. But then, my goal is not to undo the academic system, for such lofty ideals are necessary: filmmakers must be allowed to hope that their films might reach such transcendent plains. Let’s not tread on the vaulted steps of heaven, let not our revolution on this mortal plain touch the vaulted palace of eternity. After all, film needs a vault.

No, what I see is a world where the business of making movies is removed from the business of commenting on movies. Films are not created equal. Films do not arbitrarily deserve consideration by sole virtue of their existence. Otherwise, why don’t we talk about student films in major trade publications? We don’t because there’s money to be made. But film is our collective dreamspace, and there’s a price to pay when it’s monetized. Dream of dinosaurs and you owe Universal Studios a dime. I can get over charging admission for that, if only because I haven’t a better system to put it its place, but what I can’t stomach, and hope no one will either, are the scavengers who swim in cinema’s wake, those who see their lot in life as the process of cleaning a film carcass, one review at a time. What’s worse is they expect to make a business model out of it. They’re selling you their excrement, and they want you to think it’s fine dining. This is amensalism of the worst degree, and the film industry knows it. Let’s change all that, let us make film criticism a commensal experience, where analysis swims freely alongside the films in this ecosystem, and not scuttling from corpse to corpse. Because you don’t need creatures to recycle your garbage if you never produce it in the first place.

You’ve seen it happen here, dear readers, not 24 hours ago. You heard the first whispers of Utopia. Let’s see a film director go to one of those wastelands of film and discuss his work. We laugh at the thought, because we know it wouldn’t happen, could never happen, precisely because every director knows better than to go swimming in those waters. Well I make a solemn promise to you, dear reader: that will never be the case here. That’s not to say the discussion will never be anything but amenable to a film or its director, but the goal is a more perfect union—where constructive criticism means to construct more than it does to criticize. We may need to raze a city to the ground before we can build anew, but by god will I work my fingers to the bone to see the glory of cinema renewed.

I know I’m not alone out there, I know there are other lifeboats floating in these waters dark and deep. Now is the time to lash our oars together, and to be a light upon the seas. We may never reach that beacon on the hill that calls to us, we may be too far gone, but it’s within our power to try. Here let us form a more perfect union with film, where the voices of all films struggling to be heard can come and sing to us in their melodious harmony. Here let us create a new world, a better world; one that has only been dreamt of before: a pure kingdom of cinema.

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Link by link, let us build.

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2 thoughts on “A Vision of the New Criticism

  1. Pingback: The State of the Art | digital didascalia

  2. I thought of this article while I was flicking through the television channels the other night. I was looking for something to watch, and I noticed that “O Brother, Where Art Though?” was on. My initial reaction was excitement . . .”Oh, good, something decent is on!” Then I second-guessed my own excitement. Why? Because as soon as I flipped to that channel, and the synopsis of the movie flashed on the screen, I noticed that a star rating was included alongside it. The movie only had two stars. I’m a little embarrassed to admit this, but my first thought was, “Oh, only two stars. I thought the movie was better than that.” Keep in mind that this was a movie I’d already seen several times, and I knew that I loved it, but all it took was the quick flash of those two stars to convince me that my own opinion of the movie was wrong. Talk about a subtle version of mind control! As I realized how manipulated my own thoughts had been by this seemingly insignificant detail, I started to get a little angry. How can this be possible, that television can just decide for its entire viewing public exactly where on the five-step bad-to-good ratio this movie stood? It’s no longer television offering you something to watch, it’s television actually telling you how to feel about what you’re watching before you’re even given a chance to form your own opinions.

    I went to do a little browsing on the internet and discovered that IMDB gives “O Brother” 4 stars, as does Rotten Tomatoes. Amazon gives it 4.5 stars. But, for some reason, “television” gives “O Brother” only two stars. The large discrepancy in ratings between television and the rest of these sites only accentuates the problem with reducing expressions of art to a five step scale that will influence not only what people watch, but how they watch it. The two star rating for “O Brother” had me scanning my own memories of the movie for imperfections, watching the screen for cinematic failures I must have missed on my previous viewings. I was searching for reasons to justify the rating, rather than just watching a movie I already knew I loved.

    When I first began reading your ideas on modern criticism, I was excited by them, but didn’t really see the importance of changing the system. I guess I thought of the way films are evaluated as a necessary evil. “Well, there has to be some kind of a guide.” But now I’m beginning to realize how harmful the current system is, and these new thoughts have now formed a little wedge to let some fresh sunshine into my brain . . . I find myself scrutinizing other evaluative systems in the world all around me, beginning to realize how much my own opinions about a wide range of topics (from art to which toaster oven to buy) are more accurately subtle forms of manipulation than useful information.

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