Crisis Averted: Film Comment Reports on “Film Criticism in Crisis?”
In the last six months, New York City has hosted three major symposia on the state of film criticism. In March, Nicole Brenez, Adrian Martin, and Jonathan Rosenbaum led discussions at NYU’s Film Criticism Workshop. In April, the Museum of the Moving Image presented the “Moving Image Institute in Film Criticism and Feature Writing.” Now, this past Saturday afternoon at the Walter Reade Theater, the Film Society of Lincoln Center threw its hat into the ring with a panel entitled, “Film Criticism in Crisis?” Officially part of this year’s New York Film Festival, the discussion was organized by Film Comment Magazine and moderated by Film Comment editor Gavin Smith. Among the panelists were Rosenbaum, Cahiers du Cinema editor Emmanuel Burdeau, blogger Pascual Espiritu (aka Aquarello), former reviewer for Korean film weekly Cine 21 Seung-Hoon Jeong, Film Comment editor-at-large Kent Jones, and O magazine critic Jessica Winter.
Three subjects hung in the air Saturday afternoon. Firstly, the precarious financial situation of the print criticism industry was addressed–many film critics having been laid off or bought out in the last year. In the case of Cahiers, entire publications are faced with bankruptcy. Secondly, the advantages and disadvantages of the Internet, and how it’s changing the modes of communication between critics and their audiences, seemed to be the most vital and ongoing topic of inquiry. Finally, the evolving face of global film culture was directly tied into how the Internet has been changing the worldwide practice of cinephilia.
All participants came from highly diverse institutional and geographical backgrounds which helped illuminate a tenet that Espiritu, Hudson, and Rosenbaum continued to stress: thanks to the Internet, former national boundaries that once separated various film cultures are disappearing. Rosenbaum pointed to this new global film community as the direction cinephilia and criticism was headed toward. “I started as a film critic in Paris, London and New York,” Rosenbaum said. “In those days you had to live in a big city to learn about the history of cinema . . . now you can do it anywhere.” He went on to state that DVDs and the Internet have afforded “people I’ve met in their 20s [to] know more about film than I ever could have in my 20s.”
Within that new global film community sit Rosenbaum himself (who claimed that he felt a stronger connection to those who read him online than to the local audience of the Chicago Reader), Hudson (whose GreenCine Daily aggregator has done more for exposing and legitimizing Internet-based film writing), and Espiritu’s Strictly Film School. Their diversity supports Jones’s claim that there is a rich “multiplicity of voices . . . many eloquent ones” on the Internet. While Hudson sifts through the plethora of material traveling through cyberspace, and Rosenbaum makes available many older and more obscure writings he has produced over the years, Espiritu says that she is “here to fill in holes where they exist.” Indeed, Espiritu claimed that her biggest aspiration was to give “information that opens it up to people writing [for] themselves.” In other words, one of Espiritu’s goals is to help create the next generation of film critics. This generosity of spirit was affirmed by Hudson, who mentioned how “many good writers point to other good writers.” Perhaps the most significant progenitor of this trend–-aside from Hudson himself–-is Girish Shambu, whose website not only highlights other great online film writing but is specifically designed to open conversation rather than start ideological battles. For Hudson, Shambu represents the best of what internet film writing can achieve.
The major theme of the afternoon very quickly became community. “Someone once said that Pauline Kael, in the 60s and 70s, led a national conversation on film. And I think that’s absolutely true. And at a certain point, that all disappeared,” Jones lamented. Smith pointed to the anti-intellectual spirit of Reaganism, when “leading an intellectual life not only became unfashionable, it became anathema.” Rosenbaum proclaimed that “you can’t say ‘we’ in this country anymore.” It was generally agreed upon by the panelists that one of the primary tactics of establishing a new “we” was the Internet. Burdeau offered the experience of watching television shows on DVD as a way to bring people together. From there, the most celebrated single work of the afternoon, The Wire, was discussed by Burdeau and Jones. Burdeau revisited a concept created by French critic Serge Daney, in which the relation of human sociality depicted onscreen–and that of the audience watching–was directly proportional. In the case of The Wire, both Jones and Burdeau felt hopeful that this meant a new “we” was being established in the living rooms of those who enjoyed the Baltimore community drama.
All in all, the panelists seemed hopeful for the future. As Rosenbaum put it, film criticism is experiencing “neither an end or beginning. We’re in the middle of something.” That transition, thanks to the eight people sitting at the long table on Saturday afternoon, is going to be much more smooth and enjoyable than many doomsayers have feared.