The Crisis of Criticism and Film Culture

Written by Film, Television

It probably isn’t much of a shock that Americans, especially students, have declined in their critical thinking skills over the last 30 years or so. Of course, this observation tends to get shrugged off (uncritically, natch) as your typical brand of “these kids today”, except that, in fact, this decline has been studied and demonstrated, both culturally and in terms of education policy. The reaction to these facts tend to mirror the problem, with some people in confident denial and others in an unaffected apathy. Some suggest school uniforms, because knee-jerk, and uncritical, habits die hard.

But it’s in the realm of culture that I want to focus on because critical thinking, in the popular form of media criticism, seems particularly damaging in the Information Age – a time when the process and digestion of information has become absolutely necessary to avoid the overwhelming absorption into the rudderless noise of the internet. When combating against niche echo chambers and some of the more ludicrous lengths people feel entitled to their opinion regardless of any qualitative merit (and actually get offended when this lack of quality is pointed out), it’s arguably the most important time to examine exactly why criticism should be a great deal more than simply “opinion,” and why more culturally lucid understandings of art and meaning are not useless leisures but actually necessary evolutions of our collective media experience.

Specifically, I want to look at film, film criticism, and the rather strange social petri-dish that is Rotten Tomatoes. The state of modern film criticism has long been mourned, especially as such lights as Kael, Sarris and Ebert have passed on. There’s still a great deal of interesting study of film being done, both in the arcana of academia and by relative amateurs with blogs. The problem is in the institution of the corporate professionals, which shows not only a general intellectual lethargy on the part of many critics, including and especially “top” or mainstream critics, but a parallel condescension from these critics who paternally fret over the masses’ ability to care much about anything of substance.

Armond White is the modern pariah (not even registered on Rotten Tomatoes anymore) of film critics, although he is still is influential member of the New York Film Critics Circle. His criticism of his fellow critics was excellent, and would have been more powerful if White himself wasn’t so frequently guilty of exactly the kind of critical lapses — into snark, bias, critical inconsistency, and his vertible quest to continualy troll online fanboys (and act martyred for the trouble) — that he’s accused his peers of. If someone were to read his article anonymously, unaware of the author, it would still make perfect sense.

As hypocritical as White “the critical idealist” vs. White “the contrarian troll” comes across, at the very least he’s still obviously insane enough to frequently make for entertaining reading by those of us who don’t require opinion-allegiance in order to appreciate a critic. Far less interesting are the bland bourgeois establishment critics who write in streams of blurb candidacy. Many critics — I’ll use Entertainment Weekly as a convenient example — are simply as intriguing as tepid milk, and hardly distinguished when compared to the average “amateur” blog review. White, in attacking the blogger critics for the coarsening of intellectual examination of film culture (“the death of cinephilia” has become one of his favorite phrases), seems to ignore that many of the blogger critics he’s talking about are merely mimicking the coarsening already evident in mainstream commercial criticism. The lack of some fans to move beyond such asinine determinations as “like” or “hate” or “meh” or some vaguely modulated star rating system, this is all in the same direction that much of professional criticism was heading even prior to the advent of cable modems. Perhaps the reason for this burgeoning of amateur criticism is just as much a realization that the professionals have abdicated their critical responsibilities a long time ago. But White is just as much of an elitist in this regard as the condescending “taste-makers” he rightfully accuses of elitism.

Still, it doesn’t take long to browse through Rotten Tomato user reviews to see the point White makes. Not only are so many of them so very stupid (and proudly so; it’s almost a “right” in itself) and shallowly reductive, but they remain stubbornly disinterested in debate – “let’s just agree to disagree.” These reviews are transcipted impressions, feelings rather than thoughts, and these impressions rarely go beneath the surface which is exactly where criticism is intended to probe. Worse yet, recently the Tomatometer has garnered some kind of undeserved currency. I’ve frequently encountered people who know the “score” before they even know anything else about a film. I encounter fewer and fewer people who even actually read the reviews themselves for context. People like firm numbers — “consensus,” unambiguous, uninterpretive. Again, not critical, questioning, debatable. There’s nothing new about the authoritative notion that people are generally unable to think for themselves, but the popularity of the Tomatometer is an especially Pavlovian example of this groupthink. The uncritical bullying, such as last year’s Dark Knight Rises incident, which resulted in the removal of users’ ability to comment on individual reviews, is also symptomatic of this.

The entire premise of criticism requires thinking about the movie you’ve seen. It entails discerning conceptual substance in the work, examining the meaning and significance of the filmmakers’ intentions (or unintended implications), and positing the film as an element of Myth and its vicarious relevance to its audience. This seems very textbook when clearly stated, but this kind of art literacy is not as ubiquitous in today’s culture as the depth and speed of our culture demands it to be. To salt the wound, the very Liberal and Fine Arts degrees that people interested in this substantial appreciation of art have pursued have recently been deemed as economically non-nviable avenues of study or vocation. Just as journalists go unemployed with their hard-earned degrees in a time when context and factual validity are most needed in the current avalanche of information, a generation of Liberal Arts students find themselves in a culture that refuses to appreciate the need to add context and aesthetic validity to the artistic reflections of that culture.

But even given the various contingencies of the online realm — the trolls, the plants, unattended children, Facebook procrastinators, etc. — the average disdain for intelligent discussion of film, the average stubbornness to insight, the typical tantrums for beloved escape in “no-brainer” entertainment, all of these half-thoughts are in no short supply. Some people have always acted like their thoughts are taxed, and hoard them frozen in their numbskulls for some future rainy day. The problem, in my opinion, is when the culture itself begins to encourage such intellectual thrift. By this, I mean those people who hold executive and editorial control over the engines of cultural industry, and it shouldn’t shock anyone that Hollywood doesn’t encourage people to think too much about the quality of its product. What exactly about “no-brainer” do you mouths not understand?

This last point can be more insidious than an aggregate site can be responsible for. It turns out that Hollywood studio executives also prefer numbers to concepts (like stories and such), and the intervention of their marketing departments into the creative aspects of filmmaking has been a recent sign of this. There’s various reasons for the studios’ ultimate distrust of creative variables, the lack of predictability being central. Money is obviously a major factor, and it isn’t a coincidence that it was only after the 2007 Writers Guild strike that Hollywood would declare that there are no original ideas anymore. What they mean, of course, is that they are no longer willing to pay for new ideas when they have a reservoir of copyright properties and enough production assistants…oh, sorry, I mean “writers”…available and eager to do what they’re told. “A nutless monkey could do your job.” -Les Grossman

In addition to the dogma that all of the original ideas have been exhausted, which some non-creative people seem to believe, there is another factor that has been endemic in the modern studio recently — the somewhat Orwellian designation of “execution dependent.” What does this mean? In short, it means that studios don’t want to make films if they have to be good. Seriously. A script or a pitch that is potentially an innovative idea is far more of a risk because people will only care if it’s a quality-made film. Battleship? Who cares? Built-in name recognition, 3D thrills, a couple of stars — hell, it just markets itself. When the studios have to depend on a film actually being a quality film, they get shifty. More importantly, they get shifty for exactly the same reason that lil’ Tomatoes get shifty when confronted with substantial film discussion. Both prefer numbers (quantity) to abstract concepts (quality). A film that is execution dependent will force a studio to actually care about its work and be accountable to its success. It’s like they actually get paid for this work or something. As long as they can effectively market swill to morons (um, I mean, “viewers”), then why work too hard making sure any of it has to make sense?

But, alas, it’s almost like these creative components were still too human somehow. The studios have taken to hiring “script consulting services” (as if this is cheaper than a writer) who use data analysis to write scripts without having to bother with any such emotional subjectivity that burdens personal expression. The consultant in question, Vinny Bruzzese — a statistician — has no discernable background in Drama or any other narrative art. (Before asking why that should matter, take a moment to understand that this question is part of the problem.) There are a couple of other revealing quotes from that article: “For instance, he bills himself as a distant relative of Einstein’s, a claim that is unverifiable but never fails to impress studio executives.” Of course it does. But are these executives just marks and suckers for the con of a slick hustler? “Mr. Bruzzese is also pitching script analysis to studios as a duck-and-cover technique — for when the inevitable argument of ‘I am not going to take the blame if this movie doesn’t work’ comes up.” Interesting. So basically, these kinds of number-crunching schemes have more to do with deflecting accountability than in any real intent of making movies that people will actually enjoy? So Vinny Bruzzese does a kind of “Script Rescue,” scrubbing the individual voice out of the script, transplanting quantity (data, numbers) for quality (craft, context) wherever possible. And the execs are the marks for this particular confidence show, because it seems to be easier and less accountable (to them) to blame “the numbers” when they fail to do their jobs adequately. Why not? Maybe now, they’ll even stop blaming the audiences.

Which is why I brought the matter up. It turns out that Hollywood doesn’t necessarily have the highest opinion of American filmgoers. It might even occur to you that they prefer you when you’re stupid. If you’re not stupid, you just might be the enemy. This Marshall Fine article is pretty clear on this point, even as it pretends to defend the poor proletariat populism that thinking people have held under siege. Here, Fine attempts to define what an “audience-friendly” film is, and courageously sticks his meager chest out to defend this endangered species. The critical problems arise immediately. Most importantly, Fine has devolved “the audience” into a single unit that a person is either a part of or antagonistic to. An audience-unfriendly film looks like this: “They don’t offer themselves to the viewer; indeed, they force the viewer to dig in and excavate meaning for himself.” Offer themselves. (“‘You can’t look at much, can you, man?’, as she herself prepares for him.” -Dylan) It never occurs to Fine that there may actually be an audience, in every valid sense of the term, for exactly these kinds of deeper and more challenging films. He is essentially doing the bidding of the studios, and indeed the larger corporate media conglomerates, by erasing this multiplicity of audience-interest into a more flat, either/or, us/them paradigm of the assumed-to-be authentic audience vs. those codgers who may enjoy something more out of the ordinary — which is challenging to most audiences by definition. Rather, Fine here seems to be defending the conformity of what he assumes is the majority of film-goers, and defending the increasing facelessness of the brainless films we’re expected to conform our liking to. Having a “general audience” template is far simpler than catering to the interests of multiple audiences with their own criteria.

There’s other examples of Fine’s binary flaw: “The fact that it works on the viewer emotionally, however, is often seen as a negative by critics who aren’t comfortable with movies that deal with feelings, rather than ideas or theories.” Because, kids, obviously a viewer cannot have ideas about feelings, or have emotional reactions to ideas. You either feel or you think, not both. Of course when critics moan about “emotion” in a film, it’s usually because of its manipulative manner rather than some kind of neurotic discomfort towards emotion. It’s just easier to say that sort of thing when you wish to disavow a wide array of complicated thought about a film’s meaning — they must be heartless! Nothing manipulative about that, you know. “That’s the critic’s role – to identify something that seems off-putting or uninteresting and share your passion for it.” I still have no idea what Fine’s passion about film is, so good job.

Criticism, of any media, is a necessity of cultural studies. It’s a cruel irony that at this time when our technology has exploded the possibilities of cultural exploration and expression, globally, that we find ourselves in a particular culture that doesn’t encourage cultural curiosity while excusing stubborn ignorance. At a time when “the audience,” proverbially speaking, is wider and more diverse than before, that we would fall for these notions of audience-homogeneity, willingly conforming to Hollywood’s demographic ledgers. We could be so easily fooled into believing that we are no longer capable of original ideas, or the more cynical notion that a “good” movie is something that the studios are no longer obligated to produce. In a culture without a population capable of independent critical thought, it’s easier for the studios to tell audiences to be grateful for their no-brainer entertainment, and by the way, have a headache surcharge to boot.