"Toward Prescriptive Lenses for Our Myopic Movie Critics"

For my final paper, I propose to write on the topic of contemporary film criticism. It's my personal opinion that it's just plain awful, for the most part coopted by the studio conglomerates' publicity machines.

Film criticism, by definition, is a form of media criticism, so any film review could function as a text for our class, "Theories of the Media." In McLuhan's terms, it's one medium (print) commenting on another (film), only in a reversal of a newer medium using an older one as its content, the content of film reviews is movies. Many of the mass media critics we've read in this class (from Adorno to Greenberg to Baudrillard) have written about the mass media and its newer, all-powerful mediums to critique their power to stupefy and enslave the masses, yet most film criticism not only fails to engage in this sort of critical ambivalence or outright hostility, it exists as a justification and promotional outlet for the mass media while wearing the clothes of criticism. I will argue that rather than existing as a channel for people interested in analytical thought about film and the unrealized possibilities located therein, it reinforces the tightly-controlled boundaries imposed on film by the commercial oligarchy that controls its distribution to the masses (eg. 90 to 180 minutes long, telling a simple, resolved story involving a small group of characters w/easily recognizable traits). Most film criticism that can reach a large enough audience to influence "public opinion", even within a small subgroup like self-styled intellectuals or filmmakers, already exists within the mass media system that ensures a homogenized product. Film reviews get a lot of space in our mass media (large, full-color sections in the "Variety" section of the newspaper, a 5-minute review portion of the local news broadcast, etc.) What are the institutional constraints and mechanisms that reinforce this kind of superficial, gloves-on approach? (Preliminary answers to this self-imposed question: Space w/in which most reviewers work demands that they can only review new products, they have to review the main commercial offerings, etc. Also, the “thumbs up/down” or 1 to 4 star rating system so common and Consumer Reports-y in our contemporary film criticism erasing the space a Pauline Kael worked in, where she’d often proclaim ambivalence about the film she was talking about, leading to a much more nuanced discussion.)

I will try and make distinctions about the kind of criticism out there. There are varying levels of engagement and critique of film and the film business out there. What is the basic history of film criticism? Film has a relatively short history. Where did it first appear? Was it always in this form?

What distinguishes a "good" critic from a "bad" critic? What do they talk about? How much space is given to simple plot synopsis (an obvious constraint to getting at larger issues and a personal pet peeve of mine....since we're all constantly exposed to commercials and billboards and trailers for movies w/simple, one-sentence plots ANYWAY, why does the review have to spend all it's time dealing with the plot?)? How much about the biographies of the director and stars? How much about technical film issues? (not much in mainstream reviewers....are mainstream reviewers forgetting their McCluhan and mistaking the novelistic content of film for the meat of the matter, rather than the actual medium of film and it's attendant devices (editing, cinematography, sound design?)) From this, I hope to make a loose dialectic distinction between a "low" and "high" sphere of film criticism using Bourdieu's distinction between low and high art (roughly, low = talking about what is immediately there, while high= relating the movie to the larger, artificially learned history or story of the art form.....also, "low" critics taking a very literal approach to morality in issues of depictions of sex and violence on the screen, whereas "high" critics take a more abstract, aesthetic approach, taking it for granted that the audience is sufficiently socialized to be able to enjoy violence on the screen w/o returning home from the theaters and murdering their entire family), trying to give examples of engaged, rigorous, hell, just plain interesting critics (Pauline Kael being the best example I can think of) and trying to illustrate their endangered species status. One technique I may use to make distinctions between kind of critics would be to take a film that straddles the fence between “product” and “artwork” and examine the different ways critics deal with this director (David Lynch being the best and most interesting contemporary example I can think of).

Can the market and mass media be resisted anymore? Have the smart citics just given up? Or do they just no longer have any space or audience to work w/in? How has the Internet, with its possibilities of subverting the one-way, broadcast nature of mass media subverted this? Has good, hearty intellectual film criticism found its new home in blogs?

The scope of the issues I'm trying to explore may exceed the format of a 15 page paper, so as I proceed with this I may start narrowing down my subject. Any advice on interesting avenues I should concentrate on will be greatly appreciated. Also, any good books/articles/writings on metacriticism would be appreciated. Right now, as far as readings go, I'll be concentrating on some of the writers we covered in the course (McCluhan on mediums dealing w/each other, Greenberg on kitsch and avant garde, Baudrillard on broadcast media, perhaps Hal Foster on the Lacanian "traces of the real" in terms of depictions of violence and its connection to morals in film critics' writings) and others as they occur to me. I'll also be referencing and talking about a vast array of film criticism, particularly through the writings of Pauline Kael and the website www.rottentomatoes.com, which collects all the "major" film reviews of all the commercial films in its searchable database.