In an interview with fellow critic Todd McCarthy, Roger Ebert said that the standard of film criticism is now “Better, because of the internet. This is a golden age of film criticism, although it no longer is a paying job. There are no length restrictions. Writing can be more esoteric or expert.” Though I agree with his basic premise, the average review I read on the internet gives me trouble in sharing his optimism. Helen Faradji of Québec cinema magazine 24 images is as skeptical as I am, noting the “deplorable return of the pithy judgment that can often be resumed to a sad ‘like it, don’t like it’.”
There must undoubtedly be a good deal of quality reviews on the internet, but being able to find them is another story. As a foodie friend of mine once recommended, “If you want to find a good restaurant, go somewhere where the menu only has a few items. Sure, the place with the large menu might have some good dishes, but how are you going to find them amidst all the rest?” The same could be said of reviews on the internet. The lack of editors preventing the worst of writing from ever reaching human eyes means that most of what can be found online is nothing more than internet pollution.
Yet print has little more to offer. Since it is impossible to escape the dominant culture, the role of popular criticism has been clearly assigned by it. It is just one more wheel in the machine of consumption. The consumer world is seen as overwhelming – too many books, too many movies, too much music – and, at worst, the role of the critic has become to help consumers navigate this world, to tell them what is worth their time and money. However, as Kaija Pepper writes in “Diving into Dance: A Critic’s Manifesto,” “The work of art should not be regarded ‘as simply another phenomenon and product in a world already crowded with them’, and it is the critic’s job to pursue the depth beneath the surface.” French philosopher Jacques Rancière also views criticism as a way to deepen, to extend the work of art into a continuous but alternative mindspace: “For me, film criticism is not a way of explaining or classifying things, it’s a way of prolonging them, making them resonate differently.”
Unfortunately, such lofty aspirations are often left unfulfilled. At best, the contemporary critic is a tastemaker. And since, raised in the age of readily accessible media, keeners with good taste are a dime a dozen, newspapers can easily replace them by someone just as easily “qualified” (meaning nothing more than someone whose taste is just as good) for just that price.
Gone are the days when film critic Jonas Mekas would push avant-garde cinema in his column in the Village Voice. Of course, that was in the 1960s, a much more political time. Today, it is impossible to tell the artistic and political convictions of most critics by reading their reviews. Hence the death of anything that is of value in popular criticism.
Nowhere does this become more apparent than on websites that attempt to summarize the opinion of critics, the most popular being Metacritic. Given that the critic as consumption adviser is now the norm, Metacritic indeed bares its name well. There are now so many critics with contrasting views (“Who to believe??”) that we need websites to help us navigate through them, to read all of them by reading none of them. To offer a metareview is to effectively get rid of what little discourse there already is. Movies are no longer loved by some and hated by others; rather, they have merely received a lukewarm critical reception.
The most critically acclaimed film of last year, according to Metacritic calculations, is The Social Network. Of course, the biggest feat of the movie about Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is just that: it deals with a currently popular subject matter. With its fast-paced dialogue, the first half of the film plays like a good episode of Gilmore Girls; the second, like a bad one. However, The Social Network does have a lot of testosterone, which made it easier for critics and audiences to elevate it above Gilmore Girls. Otherwise, The Social Network suffered from what has become David Fincher’s usual uninspired directing. It still managed to score 95 (out of 100) on Metacritic.
On the other hand, Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void, quite possibly the only feature-length fiction film that truly mattered on an artistic level in 2010, barely managed to score 69. Arguably, Noé’s 161-minute drug-like cinematic trip is not as easily likeable as The Social Network. And that’s precisely the point; as long as critics judge artworks by how much they “like” them – as though artworks were nothing more than a Facebook status – they will fail to reward risks taken by artists. As Jonathan Rosenbaum notes in “They Drive by Night: The Criticism of Manny Farber,” when asked what the role of evaluation was in his critical work, Farber replied, “It’s practically worthless for a critic. The last thing I want to know is whether you like it or not; the problems of writing are after that. I don’t think it has any importance; it’s one of those derelict appendages of criticism. Criticism has nothing to do with hierarchies.”
Metacritic (and hence the most read popular critics) also fails to go beneath the surface when it comes to music. The highest rated release of 2010? Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, with a score of 94. Apparently, all you have to do to be exposed to the most innovative music being made today is listen to Top 40 radio. This also reveals that, if a pop record is only half bad, people are so pleasantly surprised that they will elevate it to the status of masterpiece.
Given my negative outlook on popular criticism, one might be tempted to ask if there are any contemporary critics whose writing I do admire. In the vast polluted ocean of the internet, I have stumbled upon a few, sometimes in the most unlikely places. Some of the users on rateyourmusic.com often surprise me with their ability to perfectly capture a movie’s underlying themes in a most concise and witty manner. The Stranger’s Lindy West has turned her ability to see through Hollywood sexist bullshit into a hilarious trademark. Many of the writers at thisrecording.com have tackled 90s movies, such as The Hot Spot and Wild Things, in surprisingly insightful ways.
Maybe twenty years are indeed needed to gain enough distance to see artworks more clearly. After a certain period of time, whether an artwork is “good” or “bad” ceases to matter. Perhaps we should focus our reviews on older works. It would certainly be a way of avoiding criticism that reads more like advertising. Again, Pepper argues that “a critic is neither a publicist nor the artist’s champion and, like any audience member, must enter into and discover the work on independent terms. Donald Kuspit in ‘Art Criticism: Where’s the Depth?’ (in The Critic is Artist: The Intentionality of Art (1984)), writes that art can only be significant if it is shown to connect beyond its appearance, and beyond what the artist might say about it, to the deeper world view and consciousness that it represents.”
With regime overthrows in the Middle East and the Occupy Movements in North America, it does seem like maybe once again the times are a-changin’. As people politicize themselves, we can only hope that they will also ask to no longer be seen as mere consumers, but as thinking subjects in the artistic landscape, and that popular criticism will reflect these new attitudes.