Film

Critical Confessions: Part 8 - An Open Letter to the Online Critic

Dear Fellow Writer:

The time is now. It's our moment to put up or forever shut up. Print is dying, there's no two ways about it, and those left rummaging for readership are turning to the old fashioned wire services for their rote, by the book copy. As a community, we've been waiting for an opportunity to shine, to show that we are just as legitimate as the men and women who dictated filmic fashion for the last 60 years. New technology may mean a new way of communication, but frankly, we're doing a piss poor job of getting our point across - that is, when we can come up with a cogent and coherent argument to begin with. It's time to cast off the amateurish aura given off by what many of us do and recognize the role we will play in the next decade.

As more and more fourth estaters are "bought out", as the studios see the honest to goodness lack of interest audiences have in what the critic has to say, it's time to reconfigure the cinematic aesthetic. It's all well and good to be advocates for the unusual, to champion the disregarded and unfairly marginalized. But with said obsession comes a blindness. We can't see the formative forest for our own particular (and often petty) trees. Perhaps it's time to open up the lines of dialogue and come up with a consensus - not just on the magic of motion pictures, but on what constitutes the art of film writing in this new webbed day and age.

Let's get a couple of caveats out of the way right up front. First, there is a big difference between film criticism and film reviewing. It's the difference between a paragraph and a gesture. A reviewer offers a simplified shorthand, letting the reader (or listener) know quickly and without much mental strain whether a movie is worth their hard earned dosh. Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with such a strategy. It gives the would-be ticket buyer a consumer advocate advantage. If they generally trust your guidance - meaning they agree with your up/down assessment more times than not - they will use your 'review' as a means of solidifying their sentiment. It's how Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel transformed the craft. They went from skilled champions of letters to reliable men of fingers (or thumbs, actually).

Second, a blog is not a legitimate place to opine. Don't take this the wrong way - the web log has come a long way in the last few years, respected by many in fields as diverse as sports, politics, and music. But since the art of filmmaking is founded in a solid sense of unified perspective, a million different judgments cannot create a viewpoint. Journalists are sworn to maintain some level of indifference, to weight both sides of an issue before putting out an assertion. In the blogsphere, such concrete contentions are all there is. Certainly, some put great thought into what they say, but as Harlan Ellison once accurately offered, everyone is not entitled to their own opinion, just their own learned one.

Of course, not everyone can find a place upon a paying site, nor is everyone associated with such a capital venture vindicated or valued. Money is not the object here, and real film criticism has little to do with number of hits, page views, or outside links. No, if we are ever going to change the studios idea of what the new Internet critic can and will be, we have to recognize the problems we're constantly creating for ourselves, and strive to reevaluate what our position really stands for. In the last few decades, since the advent of home theater, cinema has become a diminished, almost disposable commodity. Perhaps if we set up some guidelines, or better yet, some personal and professional objectives, we can speed the problematic plow.

Initially, we have to recognize that marketers and advertising representatives live by some arcane, insider rules. Back when editors demanded deadlines and writers had to squeeze screenings in between duties as a desk jockey, it was easy to play by their parameters. But nowadays, thanks to instantaneous publishing and day/date turnaround, it's easy to fudge with such strictures. If online critics suffer from one grand overgeneralization, it's that we're desperate for that scoop, hoping to hit the information superhighway with our take on an upcoming title as soon as we can upload our text. Naturally, by violating the embargo dates and other studio demands, we bite down hard on the very hand that feeds us.

Until the day when the notion of print media prerequisites goes the way of the dinosaur, we should vow to keep by these silly rules. Sure, we can't stop the 'anonymous' audience member from rushing over to IGN or Ain't It Cool News and posting their thoughts on a blockbuster several weeks before it premieres. Studios will never stop that unless they cease handing out free tickets to drum up word of mouth support. But if you are lucky enough to be invited to a press screening, you should play by whatever industry mandates exist. They will come around to our way of thinking eventually. Until then, pushing the issue will only force them to circle their wagons.

Next, act like a professional. That means treat everyone you come in contact with in a dignified and respectful manner. Some screening reps are merely part time help whose love of film has led them to counting heads and writing up reports. Pissing them off does very little, but it sure helps cement your status among the rest of the local community. Established writers have no problem blackballing you, taking time to write the actual suits about how rude, arrogant, unreliable, and amateurish you are. Remember, there is already a stigma attached to what we do. Acting like an asshole when a certain amount of decorum will do simply adds months to the eventual decision toward acceptance.

As part of said discussion, avoid being a shill. If you love a movie, let your analysis argue for it. Spouting off sentences in hopes that they will be picked up for theatrical poster/DVD cover art inclusion may seem like a great way to get your name recognized, but real writers recognize a suck up rather quickly. Pandering to the audience - or in most cases, the messageboard demographic - does a disservice as well. Outright vitriol has a place in criticism, but not simply to sell your fanboy credentials. You are entitled to your learned opinion remember, and the only way anyone can tell if your take is well thought out is by showing them - literally.

If you want to call yourself a writer - the first stage in any claim of critical expertise - you've got to fly outside your comfort zone once in a while. Don't pride yourself on being the 'horror expert' or the 'foreign film champion'. Specialization leads to isolation. Indeed, if you adore science fiction and only want to write about/fixate on same, you'll hardly be heard when you need to talk about comedies or kiddie films. This doesn't mean you can't lean toward one genre or another, or develop a serious appetite for one cinematic style over another. But to defend your expertise in martial arts movies and then dump all over an animated cartoon infers a sloppiness - and arrogance - on your part.

Perhaps the most important facet of bringing the online critic in line with his or her print predecessor is the notion of analysis. Pauline Kael remains a wildly regarded writer because she measured her judgment with a great deal of understanding and perspective. She earned same from years in appreciation and study. Her name is now remembered as one of the artform's greats, a pioneer who placed every movie she argued within a context of knowledge and perception. For now, it's okay to have little or no frame of reference. You can get by without delving into Hollywood's past, or Europe's Neo-realism/New Wave phases. But sooner or later you're going to need a proper film foundation. Avoiding it just makes you look foolish.

Marshall McLuhan used to argue that every new medium mandates its own unique set of standards. The old is frequently tossed completely aside, only to have its established elements creep back in over time. It's not out of necessity. No, it's more or less a question of respectability. The major sports keep stats as part of their history, using comparison and the conquering of same to track their legends and make them linear. Criticism requires the same subtext. Tossing aside what so many have done so well for decades smacks of stupidity. After all, in order to rewrite the rules, we first have to engage and embrace the laws that led us here. Sure, there will be growing pains. But it's better to have the opportunity to progress than to be shut out of the situation all together.

Unless you're happy with having every motion picture placed on a simplified 'pro/con' consideration, if you believe that letting unfettered freedom dictate how the movies we love are forever remembered, it's time to stop whining and start writing. It will require a kind of toughness and an attention to discipline that the current post and pronounce ideal just won't support. It always happens - once the rebels take over the town, they tend to revert back to the power poisoned policies that fostered the revolution in the first place. By recognizing a universal need to grow up (present company MORE than included), we can create the benchmark before others initiate it for us. True, it might mean that not everyone can play - at least on any semblance of a level field. But it's better to lay the foundation now, before those without a clue do it for us. And we know which side they're on.

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