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September 14, 2008
Film Criticism & the Blogosphere
The latest edition of Sight & Sound (October 2008) has an great set of articles examining the state of film criticism to day in the light of the development of Web 2.0 and also the rise of the "Critic-Proof film". The full set of features brings together critics from around the world to discuss their favourite critics. It is a work of metacriticism in other words, however, here I intend to focus on the issues of criticism and the rise of Web 2.0. Nick James the Editor of Sight & Sound introduces the feature making many interesting points. There is a recognition that there needs to be a culture of change within traditional print-based criticism in order to respond to the rise of blogging and its predominant culture of instant criticism on the one hand and the squeeze upon critics to try and make their films critic-proof. With marketing budgets sometimes approaching as much as 50% of the rest of the costs in the case of Hollywood blockbusters obviously distributors are keen to avoid flack. Arguably they can influence the blogging community interested in films and pass off pap onto them. However it has to be said that newspaper owners and critics have often been guilty of passing on pap themselves as loss of advertising revenue was a serious danger at least as far as film criticism is concerned. Nick James cites Graham Greene on this dangerous tendency:
He has got to entertain and most film critics find the easiest way to entertain is 'to write big'. Reviewing of this kind contributes nothing to the cinema. The reviewer is simply adding to the atmosphere of graft, vague rhetoric, paid publicity, the general air of Big unscrupulous Business." (Graham Greene, cited Nick James: Sight & Sound - Oct 2008)
An article I found very well thought through was one by Mark Fisher acting deputy editor of The Wire entitled "On Critics: Bloggers Without Boundaries". Fisher takes a sensible line with regard to all the hype surrounding Web 2.0 when he carefully cites the documentary film maker Adam Curtis who launched a strong attack on bloggers arguing that rather than forming an alternative space blogging is "parastitic upon already existing sources of information". Certainly the hype about interactivity, and choice and access has largely hidden from view the fact that there is very little valuable critical discourse within many of these blogs. Indeed in my own experience there are a lot of pages which are just copy and pasting other ones and trying to get advertising. However I think that as more people get familiar with the ways of the web the weak stuff will get weaned out. The structuring of search engine optimisation will contribute to that but only if quality critics start getting off their backsides, stop whinging about the hard time they are having and actually learn how to adapt to the changing world.
If I was a government lacky I would describe this as Continuing Professional Development (CPD). Everybody else has to adapt to the revolution that the internet is bringing. Critics film or otherwise must get out there and compete, and so must their publications. The message is that critics need to get online stop depending on free rides and cosy little press previews. You can get into the cinema on the day a film happens if the distributors keep you out and get your words out to the world a few hours later. Remember much of the profit from a film comes from the after sales in the DVD market and TV rights etc.
The publication you work for needs to get a strong online presence which gains respect, in the way that the BBC has. Look at the numbers of really good blogs the BBC has as well as podcasts and the rest. A big advantage for an online presence is the sophistication of online advertising and the new models of delivering targeted audiences to the adverts. Nick James worries that perhaps only Pete Bradshaw of the Guardian has the power to make or break a film. Well I'm not sure that a single critic should be in that position anyway, however, if his readership respects his views developed consistently then clearly a critic will have some influence. If a critic has that power and a loyal audience then their articles will pull in the best advertising, in this new online world a loyal audience for a brave committed critic will not lose advertising revenue but gain it:
For Anderson this was the worst kind of English cant. His view, on seeing Cooke's views reprinted in 1953, was "there is no such thing as uncommitted criticism, any more than there is such a thing as insignificant art. It is merely a question of the openness with which our commitments are stated. I do not believe we should keep quiet about them." (Lindsay Anderson, cited Nick James: Sight & Sound - Oct 2008)
There is an issue of how the critic online through their publication should react to other parts of the emerging critical discourse. Bloggers justifiably complain that on-line presences of mainstream media is a sort of virtual black-hole. These sites don't feel that they have a responsibility to link out to other sites which perhaps have different views. There is a certain arrogance that the critic is the expert to whom others must listen. Failure to take part in the democratisation of the media and to recognise fellow critics or castigate what they think is bad criticism is already part of Web 2.0. There is no point in being jealous of bloggers in a way which Pete Bradshaw has mentioned (see Whither the Film Critic below), bemoaning the lack of writing space in the print medium. Well spotted, the print medium is very limited. It is the online space which needs to become the primary critical space, the offline space the summary.
Nick James needs to take the next visionary step and get Sight & Sound to entirely adapt itself to the online world. Get the advertising online, get the criticism online, get a much larger global market become a central critical hub for film criticism in the globe. The competition online and in the blogosphere is pretty feeble so far but it is getting stronger everyday. Take the plunge relieve yourself of the fears of sorting out advertising Adsense and Amazon Associates will do it for you, like Aston University Alumini all sorts of organisations are using these services. Remember any advertising space is 27/7 globally! Rather a tempting prospect for any advertiser, why is it moving onto the web? The more popular the pages th more the publisher gets. Transparency is increasingly coming to rule the market. At the moment there is a tone in the discourse which smacks of neo-luddism. This is more than about the criticis it is about the future of hard copy magazines specially specialist ones lik Sight & Sound. There is no viable online -film presence which can hold a candle to Sight & Sound - YET. But it will happen unless change comes internally. The aspirant critics with the determination the nouse and the experience to develop several powerful online critical presences online.
Arguably we have reached a point where there is a defining moment. This moment offers the opportunities based upon the strengths of the present Sight & Sound, the weaknesses are a lack of a coherent vision to come to terms with the on-line age and revive the tradition of the angry voics of Anderson and his colleagues and later the young critics of Cahiers du cinema as Nick James has noted:
Never mind that it was a bunch of critics that transformed cinema in the 1950s to create the nouvelle vague, or that another bunch paved the way for Britain's "Angry Young Men" to transform British cinema in the 1960s. (Nick James: Sight & Sound - Oct 2008)
Nick James is showing signs of neo-Luddism and cultural pessimism in the face of change rather than creating a firm line to adapt to the online world. James has commentd in the past that he wants Sight and Sound to be the Vinyl to the iPod. It is an analogy which died years ago in the world of audio. The moment it died was when Linn finally built a CD player despit the fact that they had built their reputation on the famous Linn Sondek record deck. Now Linn is a leading light in the world of music servers and digital downloads offering a quality level many times better than CD. Naim too has just brought an expensive music hard drive to market. Linn still make an upgraded version of their decks but the vinyl brigade is a dying breed. Does Nick James want Sight & Sound to die? The cinema itself has a powerful history of technological change and many pople's job specifications changed. James still hasn't really imagined how the magazine can be changed and how the magazin world is changing. The following sentence in tone sees blogging as a diminished task not an opportunity although he is right that critics who a well informed and genuinely critical can become distinctive again.
Otherwise they may collude in their own extinction by becoming bloggers themselves. Whether or not they stay in print or migrate to the web, they will need the support of their editors to become truly distinctive again by making more than the occasional passionate noise. Nick James: Sight & Sound - Oct 2008)
In this sense James still hasn't fundamentally moved his position from on whihch the Londonist writing some months ago commented on
What we found frustrating was that both members of the panel and the audience had an incredibly unsophisticated knowledge of blogging and online journalism. More than once online writing seemed to conjure up an image of lonely spotty teenage fanboys, wanking in bad grammar about the movie they had just seen, in between whining posts about how misunderstood they are. (The Londonist)
I have to agree with the Londonist there are plenty in the blogosphere who have high standards of writing, knowledge and ability to gain an audience.
Blogging is so much more developed, and richer, and sophisticated than traditional media give it credit for. There are communities out there (note "communities" rather than isolated, socially retarded freaks with broadband) with as much discipline and editorial rigour as any established print journal. Editorial rigour is, in fact, even more keenly followed in online publishing because of the speed and the means available for writers, readers and editors to respond to one another: if an article is released with incorrect information or highly contentious material, it can be a matter of minutes to react and amend. (The Londonist)
The future is gradually closing in on old critical models, models which had many flaws. Hopefully the best of the old media will migrate successfully. Mark Fisher identified some impressive online critical presences.
The uniquness of the best blog writing...contradicts the assumption that bloggers are at best earnst amateurs, at worst talentless mediocrities motivated by resentment. Many succssful bloggers ...are able to pursue their own agendas free from the pressure of word count and independent of th time of consumer capitalism...The best blogs...occupy a space between journalism and academia, between disciplines, between films and other cultural forms offering a new type of criticism. (Mark Fisher, Sight and Sound October 2008 p 19)
Doubtless the debate will develop.
Who Needs Critics? Nick James - Editor of Sight & Sound in the October 2008 edition
Whither the film critic in the blogosphere? Guardian report on disucussion at the BAFTA awards