In the last week we’ve heard two seemingly differing perspectives on the state of film criticism both in print and online. You’ll no doubt be aware of Charles Passy’s ill-informed, ill-thought piece for the Wall Street Journal, in which he casts wildly contrasting assertions that critics both unanimously pan popular films while concurrently yielding to the pressures of press junkets. His curious theory regarding Tarantino and his sourcing of opinion from an anonymous Yahoo commenter has rightfully seen the critical profession laugh and shrug off the shabby article, though not without feeling the sting of small insult – which was probably the intention.
Taken substantially more seriously was Pitchfork’s midweek announcement of a sister site, The Dissolve, slated for a late summer launch. It features many A.V. Club alumni – among them trusted voices in Keith Phipps, Scott Tobias and Nathan Rabin – and intends to give film the same rolling review treatment that has ensured Pitchfork’s ascendancy as primary music tastemaker across the last decade plus.
Both of the week’s news items are playing a similar tune despite, at first glance, offering opposing prospects on the health of film criticism. Ryan Schreiber’s expansion into film, however sincere its intentions, presupposes that The Dissolve is primed to plug into a space devoid of the all-encompassing film coverage it hopes to provide. Not so; from Reverse Shot to Slant, there’s an abundance of sites dedicated to quality analysis and engagement of releases past and present.
The readiness of The Dissolve is – aside from its roll call – indebted to the affiliated brand name of Pitchfork that can be trusted to offload loyal web visitors onto its sister site. The precedence here, surmised from association, is on taste-making; of seizing the power over consumer choice that Pitchfork has enjoyed for so long. But while consumer guidance is just one function of the critic’s role, there is nevertheless a far greater requirement to provoke discussion and greater engagement with the text so as to influence thought in a far different way. It’s not enough to simply say ‘see this film.’ (Interestingly, The Dissolve is said to include a comment section – something Pitchfork omits.)
This is where the role of the critic diverges from Charles Passy’s narrow definition. He suggests that the public can trust themselves to recommend one another the pick of the weekend’s cinema picks. His tone, befitting of its publication, is squarely concerned with criticism as a form of advertising, from one critic’s voice influencing the mind of the buyer to donate a chunk of their wallet to the box office tally of whichever film. Passy disregards the function exclusive to a critic that has seen the likes of Richard Brody, Nick Pinkerton, Keith Uhlich and many more enjoy their contemporary positions of influence. Their responsibility to encourage engagement between text and audience is informed through a thorough, time-consuming consumption of cinema from over the world and across time, in addition to the literature and news items that surround them and provide a cultural context for their assessments. They know their stuff – and this isn’t with the express purpose of telling consumers what to do, but rather talking with the consumer and kickstarting a cultural dialogue in service to the artform.
In previous entries, I’ve observed the ascendancy of web brands in lieu of print editions and their respective stalwarts, of a revolving door of writers occupying the same space under the umbrella as opposed to one person – say, Roger Ebert – wielding said umbrella and popularising film engagement. When compiling coverage of this year’s Cannes Film Festival to compensate for my own absence – an exhausting task, in retrospect – I became more aware than ever of an overabundance of sites claiming to be the ‘definitive word’ on film criticism, with not much else to back up these claims despite some strong writing here and there. Quantity overrode quality in the end, and as the days wore on I found myself backing off from a number of entries in favour of some truly striking engagement. (Adam Cook and Daniel Kasman at MUBI take the prize, for what’s it worth.)
Instead of a few contemporary, learned writers rising to the cream of the crop, countless sites are now jostling for top spot within a web environment moving faster than print was ever capable of, with reviews now required almost as quickly as news stories. It’s a refreshing experience to be able to purchase a copy of Sight & Sound every month and savour each piece, fully aware that another 30 days will expire before the next edition is available.
Observe a few of the younger pop culture websites (expanded beyond film in order to attract more pageviews) and you’ll notice that a good number of them began around 2007-2009, when Twitter was taking off and social media began to prove a viable tool for spreading influence. What hope is there for any such site to begin life now, from scratch, with the wealth of content already at our fingertips? Aside from The Dissolve, that is.
As sites pray, individual writers can hold hope. As long as the precedence is less on influence, and more on quality engagement, beautiful writing and a thorough appreciation of every facet of filmmaking from craft to context, there’s no certifiable reason why any cinephile can’t dip their foot into the pool. Over a month ago I covered Sundance London for Sound on Sight, and I met a number of critics who were – I suppose, just like myself – writing for their blog in the guise of a fully-formed website. Their quality of writing was commendable, of course, though it was intriguing how many were keen to position themselves as a brand/business model, as an editor of that brand, and not as a singular person making a plea for critical recognition. Then again, the internet is primed for precisely this modus operandi, of tallying pageviews and banner advertisings, of retweets and listicles. So it goes.
What will be the fate of budding tastemaker sites once The Dissolve swoops in and scoops a hefty portion of cinemagoers’ web traffic? Such a question currently comes secondary to estimations over the site’s actual content. But will there eventually be a Dissolve festival, as there is with Pitchfork, and will it lean toward Sundance and SXSW content as opposed to Cannes or Venice? Will 2001: A Space Odyssey receive a 10.0 or a 9.2?
Whatever the final effect of The Dissolve on web criticism, at the very least its probable dominance will enable many film writers to question why exactly they do what they do, who or what they’re doing it for, and encourage them to mount their own singular cultural offensive. Sites like Reverse Shot are a prime example; let’s hope they bear heavy on the makeup of The Dissolve, and not the other way round.