Binge and Purge
January 15, 2020 12:41 PM   Subscribe

The Rise of Extreme Film Criticism (Noah Gittell, LA Review of Books).
posted by sapagan (20 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Once again, I think we're caught up in confusion over film criticism and film reviews. Most self-styled film critics are mostly film reviewers. They watch a movie, give it a score, and tell the reader whether it's worth their time to watch the movie or not. To perform true film criticism is "to decipher and analyze, to tell us what the films meant and how," but that sort of writing is rarely what you find linked to in the reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. (And, to be sure, there are some film critics who write film reviews that include true film criticism in them.)

Then you have the phenomenon of fandom, and the Obligatory Consumption of Ancillary Media, including reading the reviews for the film that you're going to see anyway, responding angrily to the reviews that are not effusive enough about the film you're going to say anyway, and creating media like the "31 Details You Might Have Missed in ‘Avengers: Endgame’" mentioned in the article. (Or, for that matter, the "Everything Wrong with $franchise film in X Minutes" videos.)
posted by SansPoint at 1:45 PM on January 15 [19 favorites]

CTRL-F "Film Crit Hulk"
CTRL-F "Lindsay Ellis"
CTRL-F "Patrick Willems"
CTRL-F "Bob Chipman"

Kinda weird to write an article like this without referring to ANY popular critics who actually do film criticism.
posted by Gaz Errant at 1:59 PM on January 15 [21 favorites]

I think what's happening is not film criticism, nor even film reviews: what we have is "film consumption" in which we are given a franchise movie, a set of promotional tie-ins, and a host of articles/videos/commentary which explain the film to us, give us context on the background characters that appeared for 30 seconds or the secondary media that fleshed out the story somehow, interviews with the third credited screenwriter's second aunt, tell us what we missed, what it did wrong, how it should have ended, how it could have been, and so on.

There is no point in criticism or review; the franchise movie has a built in audience that will see it regardless (and I include myself in that audience for many of them), and everything around it exists to build either on its hype or to build from it. The franchise blockbuster is immune to both negative criticism and bad reviews; the only thing that might change the direction of the franchise is the reaction of the most vocal parts of the fan base.
posted by nubs at 2:01 PM on January 15 [9 favorites]

Is there a website with film criticisms of recent movies? I never read any reviews or watch trailers of the movies I intend to watch, but I'd be very glad to read in-depth analyses afterwards.

It seems reviews these days are just part of the marketing cycle (if not for the movie, at least for the publisher of the review) and contain zero interesting analysis of the movie being reviewed.
posted by Captain Fetid at 2:09 PM on January 15 [1 favorite]

I thought they would write about ‘deeper’ video essays like those from lfts, or nerdwriter, criswell, or cinefix or many others...
posted by growabrain at 3:01 PM on January 15 [4 favorites]

Is there a website with film criticisms of recent movies?

As pointed out, Bob "Moviebob" Chipman does actual film criticism in both his reviews (which he now runs under the Escapist branding as Escape To The Movies) and his cultural analysis series The Big Picture.

Review example: Little Women (which he really liked.)

Cultural analysis example: Discussion of the Ghostbusters: Afterlife and Wonder Woman 84 trailers with a clear focus on the cultural settings of each.
posted by NoxAeternum at 3:06 PM on January 15 [3 favorites]

Is there a website with film criticisms of recent movies?

I'd recommend FilmJoy (aka Movies with Mikey) which contains a lot of really good analysis and insight, not just "was it good" (although sometimes that too).
posted by axiom at 4:03 PM on January 15 [5 favorites]

As far as I can tell, written film criticism basically dissolved with the dissolution of The Dissolve. A few of them are still kicking around - Film Crit Hulk, for one - but most of the consistent voices are doing video essays now.

For an article very bothered around the state of the world these days, I'm not sure why the author hasn't mentioned that China will buy American special-effects driven blockbusters but prefers not to buy mid-range dramas for English-speaking adults, of the kind the author would prefer to cover. The movie studios are merely responding to what makes the most money; that's capitalism, baby!
posted by Merus at 4:29 PM on January 15 [7 favorites]

I'd also recommend Siddhant Adlakha, who does some great criticism on the big franchises, among other things.

Let's see, who else: Priscilla Page, who recently wrote in depth on Tarantino's latest.

And links for the ones I mentioned above: Lindsay Ellis, Film Crit Hulk, Patrick Willems, and Bob Chipman (his reviews for Escapist here).
posted by Gaz Errant at 4:36 PM on January 15 [1 favorite]

I can never accept Rotten Tomatoes because of the duality of the judgement: Fresh Tomato / Rotten Tomato. (Thumbs Up/ Thumbs Down at least had the possibility of two thumbs, one thumb, no thumb)
Every movie that is 80 percent good should score a hundred, because it isn't bad. And I don't give a damn about that 100th reviewer who didn't like The Godfather. It's not meaningful. Grumble, grumble crappy metric method.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 4:36 PM on January 15 [7 favorites]

Film criticism is alive and well. In English: Senses of Cinema. In French: Cahiers du Cinema. There are many, many others.
Also, TFA is fairly pointless, as others here have pointed out, as it's talking about a stunt watching and merchandise consumption as if it were criticism.
posted by signal at 4:46 PM on January 15 [2 favorites]

I read a lot of film (and TV) criticism, but it's all by freelancers and spread out among many different platforms nowadays. I mostly find writers on Twitter - personally started with Jourdain Searles and looked at who she was interacting with.

Based on the title, I thought the article was going to be about extreme exercises like the viewings Roger Ebert used to host where anyone in the audience could stop the film for discussion (often meaning it would be stopped every few seconds) or watching the same film every day for some period of time. What's described in the OP is more properly called affirmational fandom.
posted by muddgirl at 4:47 PM on January 15 [3 favorites]

If you're looking for a new site that does good and thoughtfully-written criticism and film/TV discussion, I can heartily suggest The Spool. (full disclosure: I'm Facebook acquaintances with people who work on it, but have no personal or financial stake otherwise) This month, they're doing a Jim Jarmusch retrospective which has been great so far, along with their usual reviews of current movies and TV.

Also, critic Drew McWeeny (previously of Hitfix and Ain't It Cool News, as well as the late lamented '80s All Over podcast) just launched a new blog/newsletter called Formerly Dangerous. He's already posted a few inaugural pieces looking at the current state of movies (and the state of online writing about them) with a ton of good insights from a guy who's worked in multiple capacities within the industry.
posted by Strange Interlude at 5:27 PM on January 15

Binge watching and writing for clicks isn’t film criticism.
posted by Ideefixe at 5:43 PM on January 15 [2 favorites]

(I will say that I thought the posted article's fixation on Matt Singer's promotional-menu-based social media stunts came across as pretty condescending. I'll agree that it's a silly bit, but it seems pretty clear that if it really was the manifestation of unhealthy habits -- he's clearly not eating all of that food himself -- Singer would have stopped after the first such stunt.)
posted by Strange Interlude at 5:46 PM on January 15

Harlan Ellison's Watching rests on the top shelf of my bookcase.
posted by Jessica Savitch's Coke Spoon at 6:22 PM on January 15 [1 favorite]

For deep analysis, there's always David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson's blog. They're pretty academic, they literally wrote the standard Film 101 textbook, but there's a ton of stuff to read on their site.
posted by octothorpe at 7:04 PM on January 15 [1 favorite]

Gittell isn't exactly wrong about the increase in stunt movie reviewing and where that's coming from. It does follow from the logic of the franchise film "universes" as model for popular consumption as more traditional criticism becomes largely irrelevant for a model that little sense of resolution and rewrites its history as it goes, basically rendering attempts to capture any meaning one might see as fleeting glimpses of open ended possibilities rather than offering a reading to clarify a whole from a particular vantage point. Fan culture buoys the franchise films by drawing out their possible goals and pushing for the franchises to take path X instead of path Y, largely by trying to fit the movies into familiar trope and convention pathways that would give the fans who argue for it their favored ends that don't stray from the expected format. This puts reviewers in the position of trying to also catering to the fans and franchise as well as the demands of the publication they work for by attempting to find new ways to say basically the same things, both about movies designed as product lines and that the myriad other movie sites aren't saying.

At the same time, this new world of near infinite reviewing, from fans, amateurs, and those trying to make a living off it, has opened movie reviewing and criticism to a glut of voices that are mostly speaking about the same things, making movie reviewing its own form of entertainment that competes for audience much like the films it covers. Within that vast bulk of engagement with movies, one can find voices taking on films from a much wider range of perspectives than ever before and some of it is much better than the criticism from the few famous movie critics from the gatekept past of movie journalism. That anyone can potentially find an audience for their thoughts opens up criticism to new challenges and possibilities, but does have some downsides, at least depending on what it is one thinks important in criticism.

Not having the same kind of gatekeeping as there was when you had to write for the New Yorker or a small group of other artistically interested publications means that there is a loss of coherency in what is being talked about, as the conversation is being carried on all over the place and there is no supposed authority one can point to as carrying the main line of argument. What is being responded to now is harder to capture cultural zeitgeist, "people" don't like movie X, or the wrong people like it, or its popular but bad are all grasping at some notion of there being a consensus on a movie that has no clear originating source, just those others one wants to disagree with or validate. That makes criticism a more amorphous concern for the vagueness of audience and worth of thought behind the writing as any feedback will also be so overwhelming and varied that it becomes difficult to develop a foundation of values around what is being critiqued that might matter. Long term movie aesthetics have a hard time taking root in such shifting sands.

At the same time there are some really good critics and criticism being written by people either doing it outside standard publications, like posting to youtube on their own, or just writing occasionally on Letterboxd or some other site without any financial gain at all. The variety of writing or even manners of approach to movies right now is enormous. Just from the links mentioned above, you have writers approaching the movies from a more mechanical or craft sense, describing how scenes or movies are made or work, this is the Bordwell school of film appreciation, not entirely blind to values or assertions of meaning, but more interested in the how of film and its history.

Others are finding a renewed sense of moral evaluation of films, mostly along lines of social justice and associated concerns that had been mostly absent from movie criticism history, or if not absent, narrowed to accepting a male dominated framing as the norm that had existed without question until recently. Even more are just doing review like pieces, expressing enthusiasm and getting into the stories as stories, rooting for characters, and wanting the movies to fit certain desired outcomes. Both those latter two often advocate for movies to show the world we want to see and often find fault with movies that don't do that. The sheer amount of information about how movies are made, the behind the scenes info, is really unprecedented in movie criticism/reviewing history, the push for movies to fit demands for social justice has likewise taken on a whole new role in talking about films, which can sometimes run counter to other forms of critical practice.

There are still a good number of serious film lovers who follow a more artist driven model, not unlike the Cahiers gang, and despite what the article sort of suggests, there is still some value in that because bodies of work can build to a larger whole of meaning and one can better understand that whole by seeing how the artists involved change or maintain things over time. It is also true that the value of this can be exaggerated, which one can see in a lot of film criticism now and all of the above often misses out on alternatives, treating limited conventions as standing in for the whole due to familiarity rather than any greater value. But there are those who do try to see it whole and practice film criticism with that view as the goal, Priscilla Page is a good example of that.

A lot of it though is really more informed by the Siskel and Ebert show, reviewing movies as another form of entertainment, trying to draw views and clicks because the hosts are fun people to spend virtual time with as much as anything else. Competing with all of that are the numbered "of all time" lists and other nonsense like the Gittell describes. All of that is basically empty calories, but then so much of the other writing and videos out there are much better than Gittell's seemingly preferred example of Kael, that trying to summarize the extremes as the norm is I guess not unlike claiming Kael as the norm prior to the internet. There have always been more Gene Shallets than Kaels and the Kaels aren't necessarily even the best at their craft, just the most famous of a shallower pool.
posted by gusottertrout at 2:18 AM on January 16 [5 favorites]

Every movie that is 80 percent good should score a hundred, because it isn't bad.

I'd also argue that Rotten Tomatoes promotes a sort of homogenized goodness while penalizing a movie that, however great, dares to take the kinds of chances that will alienate some. All their 100-percent means is congratulations, nobody hates your movie, everybody thinks it's at least good enough. Whereas I can't honestly think of a movie I've ever loved that some haven't hated. Such is culture when it's done right. We can violently disagree without resorting to real violence. I want more of this. Not less.
posted by philip-random at 11:02 AM on January 16 [2 favorites]

I think I prefer Metacritic for its ability to parse out 'inoffensive pap' and 'interesting and divisive', but Metacritic is better known for its video game review aggregation, where it's significantly less successful.
posted by Merus at 7:06 AM on January 19 [1 favorite]

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