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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
June 23, 2008
The Rise of the "Critic Proof" Film: Commerce Rules OK?
Mark Lawson had an interesting article in today's Guardian which I also discovered on the Guardian website. As an important critic who presents such programmes as the BBC Front Row it is was very disturbing to find that he, along with other critics, was being constructively excluded from giving a review of Sex and The City which was launched in London a few days ago. Critics are obviously an increasing danger to the "high added value" (overpaid 'celebs') fare which Hollywood is serving up to fairly uncritical audiences who are seduced by the marketing aura of celebrity and massive PR, publicity and profiling campaigns. These can rise to as much as 50% of a Hollywood film's costs.
"Refusing to hold previews is increasingly common," says Solomons, whose irritation is institutional as well as personal: he's just become chairman of the film section of the Critics' Circle. "It used to be a rare event, the most famous case being The Avengers with Uma Thurman and Ralph Fiennes. In fact, that film not being given a press screening was a news story. But now, such an event, even for a big film with big stars, is greeted with a shrug of indifference."
Lawson argues that the rise of the World Wide Web and the has contributed to the attempts to shut out professional critics from the media loop of production and consumption.
online comment is responsible in two different ways for the new resistance to professional critics. The first is that the spread of the web means that a cruel early review can have national or even global impact far beyond the range of the site on which it appears. Secondly, publicists now gamble that blogging and fan site comment may create a kinder environment for new releases than members of the Critics' Circle. In theatre, the Nimax group, owner of five London playhouses, is planning to survey theatre-goers and use their comments on the website instead of those grouchy newspaper guys.
Certainly cultural artefacts are likely to get much higher exposure much more swiftly via various platforms on the web and certainly social networking sites can spread gossip and opinion extremely fast. However there is a slight problem with Lawson's argument for as he points out towards the end of his article:
...cinema's main target audience: 15-24-year-olds seeking, in two senses, a big release on a Friday or Saturday night.
However, how many 15-24 year olds actually read any form of serious criticism - hardly any I suspect. But then I don't think that that many read any serious film blogs. I have a slight concern here in that this is the second item within the last month that bloggers about film and cinema have been under attack from professional critics. Nick James the editor of Sight and Sound being another important person within the film critical establishment who attacked bloggers in the June edition page 5, as well as sites like Rotten Tomatoes (which I believe is under Murdoch control nowadays). If the new democratic rights to publish are undermining the position of critics (I don't think this is the case) then Lawson is in danger of developing a grouchy defence of his and other colleagues work, however it is undermined by a few palpably ignorant bloggers which is the impression being given at least this is just an elitist trench-digging exercise and is untenable. Let's face it if critics had that much influence over audiences then presumably half this genre junk targeted at impressionable youth wouldn't ever get made.
Critics Bite Back
Lawson draws attention to one disgruntled critics attitude to the film The Happening:
Last weekend, News of the World film pundit Robbie Collin explained to his readers: "I wasn't allowed to review The Happening here last week in case I 'gave away the big secret'. But now it's been out for a couple of days, I can. So here it is: The Happening is a load of shite."
Apart from the fact that it takes one to know one so as to speak this puts this particular critic in a hard place. Does he say that anyway about the usual third rate generic offerings that come along or does he normally bite his lip and play the game?
What Now For the Film Critic?
Lawson again notes Solomons who is effectively saying the writing is on the wall for film critics. It is hard to disagree with the following statement which asserts perhaps a little pessimistically that the critics days are numbered:
"The worry," says Jason Solomons, "is that film companies will now just prefer to advertise on TV to let the target audience know their product's arrived. They save a few quid on setting up screenings and avoid any negative reviews. The old idea that all publicity is regarded as good publicity has simply gone"
However on a note of optimism critics can now feel much more at liberty to trash the films when they finally do see them. As film companies are highly dependent on the video and TV aftermarket with the cinema acting as more of a shop window, making sure these things have the briefest possible afterlife and have wooden stakes thrust into them is an honourable and necessary role for the critic. Forget the first few days of a release of entirely forgettable films they aren't worth the candle.
Here are some snippets from the Londonist about the future of the critic in the digital age which included Nick Jasmes and Pete Bradsahw from the Guardian. Andrew Pulver in the Guardian also covered this discussion:
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.
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. This is a luxury, a privilege and an advantage that print journalism and publishing does not have, and we are keen to emphasise that online journalism and publishing is the better medium at this present time for editorial discipline. Rather than the unbridled, anarchic, grammatically incorrect writing that is so widely presumed when blogging is considered, there are many out there striving to emulate and even exceed the disciplines and ethics of print journalism.
Andrew Pulver's last paragrah however offers a salutary warning about the virtues and vices of blogging:
Steve Hunt, who works for the British arm of the Hollywood studio Paramount. "Blogging is, for us, just another carriage, a way to get through to our audience."
The reality is that any media platform can become subsumed, the point is to find trustworthy consistent critics. It may take the blogosphere a long time to reach that standard. I can't say that I can imagine this blog getting around to dealing with Sex and The City. I'm sure they will all cope in their Louis Vuiton outfits anyway.
March 30, 2008
David Lean (Croydon 1908 - 1991)
David Lean filming the funfair sequence of This Happy Breed
David Lean was the son of Quaker parents and as such the cinema was forbidden territory on religious grounds. Lean disobeyed his parents and saw the Hound of the Baskervilles (1921) and was instantly won over to cinema. Lean entered the film business in 1927.
Throughout his career David Lean was closely involved with editing
Lean concentrated on editing whilst closely observing how directors worked, he nevertheless laregly avoided making the ‘quota quickies’ as he was concerned that these wouldn't help his career. He quickly gained the reputation for being the best editor in the country working on Pygmalion (1938), and Powell and Pressburger’s 49th Parallel (1941). Lean then worked with Noel Coward on In Which We Serve (1942). Lean then made Blithe Spirit (1945) a Coward play which Coward felt he had not made the best of.
Celia Johnson as Laura Jesson & Trevor Howard as Dr. Alec Harvey from David Lean's Brief Encounter (1945).
Brief Encounter (1945) was based upon a one act play by Coward. It had a disastrous preview which had the audience in hysterics nevertheless the film has now become a classic.It can however be seen as a very conservative film as its basic message is part of an overall post-war message that women should get back to their prewar positions in society following the much freer moral milieu of wartime Britian especially in London and the big cities.
Kevin Brownlow argues that Lean’s two Dickens adaptations of Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948) are still regarded as the finest among all British films. Unsurprisingly American critics in particular complained that the representation of Fagin was deeply anti-semitic and was similar to much Nazi anti-pre-war propaganda. They were so effective that the filkm wasn't released immediately and had to be edited before its eventual release. Lean's defence was that the looks of the character were modelled on the original illustrations for the text by Cruickshank and that furthermore as a Quaker he didn't have any notion of what anti-semitism was. This is a little hard to swallow from somebody who had an astute and acute visual awareness. There can have been few adults in 1948 who were unaware of the realities of the 'Holocaust' and at best this representation could be considered as insensitive. Who is to say that Cruickshank wasn't anti-Semitic in any case?
Alec Guiness as Fagin on the right in Lean's Oliver Twist (1948)
Passionate Friends (1948) followed. Madelaine (1949) by comparison fared rather les well being seen by many as cold tributes to his third wife. In the 1950s he progressed through The Sound Barrier (1952), to Bridge Over the River Kwai (1957 UK) gaining several Oscars including best picture and best director. In 1962 he made Lawrence of Arabia which also received many awards and is considered by many as a masterpiece. This was followed in 1965 by Dr. Zhivago which received public support through the box office despite many reservations from critics.
Sarah Miles in Ryan's Daughter (1970)
Ryan’s Daughter (1970) was seen as a very old fashioned picture and was badly received by critics although it can now be seen as interesting in its representation of Irish resistance to British rule. In 1984 He made Passage to India which gained critical plaudits and academy recognition. He died just before shooting on Nostromo was about to start. In the August editionof sight & Sound Nick James argues that it was Lean that was the grandfather of the British 'Heritage Film' making specific reference to Passage to India (1984). Arguably Lean's contributions to heritage cinema are embedded in most of his cinematic output. Blithe Spirit, Brief Encounter, seem to be infused with a sense of nostalgia a sense of a mythical golden age which was somehow lost. Most of them show a sense of anxiety with the processes of change and a loss of the notions of fairness and fairplay which Powell & Pressburger had hearlity dismissed in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.
Money for Speed (1933). Directed Bernard Vorhaus. (David Lean Editor)
The Ghost Camera (1933). Directed Bernard Vorhaus. (Editor David Lean)
As You Like It (1937). Directed Paul Czinner (David Lean Editor)
Pygmalion (1938). Directed Anthony Asquith (David Lean Editor)
49th Parallel (1941). Directed Powell & Pressburger (David Lean Editor)
One of Our Aircraft is Missing (1942). Directed Powell & Pressbuger (David Lean Editor)
In Which We Serve (1942). Directed David Lean & Noël Coward
This Happy Breed (1944). Directed David Lean. [First official credit as sole director]
Blithe Spirit (1945. Directed David Lean
Brief Encounter (1945). Directed David Lean
Great Expectations (1946). Directed David Lean
Oliver Twist (1948). Directed David Lean
The Passionate Friends (1948). Directed David Lean
Madelaine (1949). Directed David Lean
The Sound Barrier (1952). Directed David Lean
Hobson's Choice (1953). directed David Lean
Summer Madness (1955). Directed David Lean
The Bridge On the River Kwai (1957). Directed David Lean
Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Directed David Lean
Doctor Zhivago (1965). Directed David Lean
Ryan's Daughter (1970). Directed David Lean
Passage to India (1984). Directed by David Lean
Sight and Sound August 2008. Nick James David Lean special feature Part II
Sight and Sound July 2008. Nick James David Lean special feature Part I