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Bloggers Accused in the “Death” of Film Criticism

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Well, ladies and gentleman, it has come to this: blog writers are being accused of causing the “death” of film criticism. At least that is what author Thomas Doherty, a professor of American studies at Brandeis University, tells us in his article “The Death of Film Criticism,” in the February 28, 2010, issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education. It seems that Professor Doherty is all riled up about the “viral salon of bloggers and chat-roomers” who have taken over as film critics. He laments, “In cyberspace everyone can hear you scream.” Indeed.

At this point in time and space, it seems almost ridiculous to have to defend bloggers, or blogging, or any other thing about writing that happens on the Internet, but here we go again. Of course, as in any other venue, there are those who do a better job than others, but it is obvious that the stodgy “old guard” feel we are rattling their cages. Their sacred Ivory Tower is slowly but inevitably teetering toward obsolescence, but that’s what they get for making academia such a breeding ground for ostriches in the first place.

Professor Doherty notes that film critics used to have “the ballast of traditional credentials,” meaning they had to suffer through university courses being taught by individuals who followed a narrow focus to get their terminal degrees in film studies and then wanted to transfer that same limited awareness of field and subject matter to their unsuspecting students. How many film course students, myself included, had to suffer through viewings of The Red Shoes, Un Chien Andalou, or Battleship Potemkin, we can never know, but none of us has anything to lose but our chains. Vive la Revolution!

Doherty’s “bleak diagnosis for the ink-and-paper crowd” echoes the cries we hear from publishers and editors of printed matter. Daily newspapers, magazines, journals, and books are all in competition with electronic versions that are quicker and more accessible for many of today’s readers. With things like Amazon’s Kindle, Barnes and Noble's Nook, and the Sony Reader Pocket Edition available, it would seem that Doherty rightly notes that “the writing is on the digital wall.”

Please understand that I love books. I enjoy sitting in a chair with a log on the fire reading a favorite novel, and I hope that experience is something everyone can enjoy for many years to come. I also like to read regular books to my children, and I don’t imagine ever using an electronic device to do that. There is an enjoyable intimacy in turning a page, feeling the paper and connecting to the printed word that is almost akin to putting a needle on a vinyl record, but that’s a different story about another fading experience.

In this article Professor Doherty goes into an abbreviated history of film criticism from Carl Sandburg (yes, the poet), Siskel and Ebert, The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael, The Village Voice’s Andrew Sarris, and Vincent Canby of The New York Times, among others. All of this is meant, it seems, to strengthen the argument of their meaningful contributions to the “the long tradition of discerning film criticism in America.” While, obviously, there are some movie goers who think that these critics had or have some sort of magic wand necessary to declare a film worthy of viewing, happily, many people do not.

In looking back at these famous names, or thinking of any video or print film critics presently active, I cannot remember one time I have failed to see a film because of anything they wrote or said. I am sure many of you feel the same way. Nothing is going to stop most people from seeing the film they want to see, whether it is Avatar, Hurt Locker, or an animated film like Up. Bloggers have long known this while the “old guard” (whom Doherty tells us see “the newbies as semiliterate troglodytes who prowl the viral veld grunting out expletives”) and their progeny either do not know or do not care what the general public wants.

Doherty hails all these past and current voices for their contribution to the tradition or canon of film criticism, and then launches into his harpooning of the blogger sharks who seem to come up on his radar in the 1990s, calling them “a different kind of termite art burrowed into the house that film criticism built.” Well, my dear Professor Doherty, your termites have shaken the foundation of that austere domicile at this time, so better tip-toe around while getting a glass of water.

I am proud to be a blogger, and I will have Professor Doherty know that I do a great deal of reading (of both printed and electronic material), and I have great respect for the written word in general. When I am preparing an article, I do careful research and make sure of sources before I start writing. I have read many fine articles online, some of which are just as scholarly and well-researched as anything in print.

As for my fellow bloggers who fancy themselves as film critics, most of them have a deep sense of passion and an abiding feeling of respect for the movies they review as well as their readership. Bloggers do not write condescending reviews for people looking down from the Ivory Tower, but rather for those of us who are looking up at a screen in a movie theatre.

Doherty reveals his true feelings (and obviously his fears) when he says, “the wide-open frontier of the blogosphere allowed young punks who still got carded at the multiplex to leapfrog over their print and video elders on user-friendly sites with hip domain names.” Blog writers are not an affront to his education or experience; rather, he sees them as a threat to his very existence. He calls these writers “punks” as if they were heaving eggs at an oncoming city bus, but in essence what they are really doing is exposing the festering and irrelevant world that Doherty is defending and his irrational hope of saving it.

As in any case when one thing surpasses another, there are those who will mourn its demise. I am not against film courses in universities, but the professors who teach these courses are not the keepers of all things holy in film past or present. Professors and pundits and everyone in between have to realize that the voice of the people is just as important, maybe more so, than anything else in a medium that is based on percentages of people attending the theater. They also have to give those people credit for not only knowing what they like, but for being able to recognize what they think is a good film.

Many years ago in Annie Hall, a film that maybe the old guard and many of today’s blogging critics would agree is a classic, Woody Allen’s character warns Annie not to take any course that includes Beowulf. As a high school student seeing that film for the first time, I laughed out loud in the theater and many other people did too. The point Allen made is significant here because it is those same people from academia who rammed Beowulf down our throats who wanted to make us sit through The Battle of Algiers or The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

Bloggers write about things they like and things they assume other people will or will not like. While some of them have degrees, they are unlike the traditional critics of today or the past in that they have no allegiance to anything or anyone. The tenured professors, those up for tenure, and all those guys getting paid to crank out reviews for the print publications or television stations feel the heat from the blog furnace. Even Doherty realizes this when he notes that “the writing is on the digital wall.”

I will continue to write movie reviews in my blog, and am thrilled that I can do so without worrying about owing anything to anyone other than writing well about a movie I liked or did not like. Someday, if someone wants to pay me to do that, I’ll accept the remuneration as long as I can continue writing what I see as the truth.

Doherty tries to be amusing when he ends his article, reverting to what he feels is supposedly the blogger language: “The demise of that tradition of film criticism would really suck,” but he actually hammers home the truth because the only thing that “sucks” is his ranting and raving about a battle that has already been lost.

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About Victor Lana

Victor Lana's stories, articles, and poems have been published in literary magazines and online. His books 'A Death in Prague' (2002), 'Move' (2003), 'The Savage Quiet September Sun: A Collection of 9/11 Stories' (2005), and 'Like a Passing Shadow' (2009) are available in print, online, and as e-books. His latest books 'If the Fates Allow: New York Christmas Stories,' 'Garden of Ghosts,' and 'Flashes in the Pan' are available exclusively on Amazon. He has won the National Arts Club Award for Poetry, but has concentrated on writing mostly fiction and non-fiction prose in recent years. He has worked as a faculty advisor to school literary magazines and enjoys the creative process as a writer, editor, and collaborator. He has been with 'Blogcritics Magazine' since July 2005 and has written well over 500 articles; previously co-head sports editor, he now is a Culture and Society editor. Having traveled extensively, Victor has visited six continents and intends to get to Antarctica someday where he figures a few ideas for new stories await him.
  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    Bravo… Well Said!

    I’ve become so tired of these dinosaurs bashing something, for the life of them, that they don’t seem to “get”. Even with their higher education & credentials, they portrait this technophobia either because they couldn’t foresee the future or because they were of the mindset that computers were just a hobby for nerds. So, they sat up in their Ivory Towers without a care in the world of what this robust future might do to their beloved careers all in the spirit of the attitudes that their bosses had which was to hold a tight fist around their market share and not sacrifice a tiny bit of their profits to establish an online identity and further progress their supposed integrity by supporting a technology that can ultimately benefit the consumer by not being a “bible” but by being a guide to a vast sea of knowledge. Now we are starting to see this science fiction become reality and those lazy dinosaurs have to do whatever they can do to burn the witches at the stake.

  • Very good article, Victor. Please contribute more to this section.

    While Doherty has a valid point about some bloggers who traffic in film reviewing, to paint with such a broad brush is rather foolish. His ancestor probably bemoaned when people gave up the oral tradition and started to write things down. Change is not always bad. Adopt, adapt and improve!

  • Fantastic comments, gentlemen. Thank you.

  • You wrote: “Doherty’s “bleak diagnosis for the ink-and-paper crowd” echoes the cries we hear from publishers and editors of printed matter. Daily newspapers, magazines, journals, and books are all [a dying breed]”

    The brackets are what I was thinking there. I recall about two years ago that old woman Helen somebody who is like 90 saying that bloggers have ruined journalism.

    After she made that comment the mighty printing presses began to fall right atop her comments. I read this just as I was about to enter my two movie reviews.

    BTW I had to read Beowulf and saw The Battle of Algier snd translated the French copy for fun! So, for those who use the argument that we are not classically educated cum film school are crazy.

    I’ve noticed that my reviews (I don’t read them before I create mine) are in line with the “top critics” who no doubt went to the school of film critics. His argument is moot totally. They are shaking in their academic boots. In fact I just read a factoid that women are underrepresented in the film critic industry. If I waited for someone to give me a job or ask me to review films for a living…I’d still be waiting.

    I’ve been going to the the Arts movie houses of Chicago for nearly 40 years. I have had An Education in film, thank you very much.

    Good article. I am going to read the linked one too.


  • Heloise, her name is Helen Thomas. They’ve been propping her up to ask questions for many years. She’s like that leader of some planet on the old Star Trek series who was propped up but someone else was doing the talking.

    Thanks for your comments.

  • “In cyberspace,” writes Thomas Doherty in a catchy paraphrase, “everyone can hear you scream.” I question this premise. While it’s fair to say, “In cyberspace everyone can scream,” to be heard requires someone to be listening. In fact, the overwhelming majority of us screaming in cyberspace are simply ignored. It reminds me of Edvard Munch’s fin-de-siècle expressionist artwork, where The Screamer facing the viewer has attracted not the slightest notice from the couple behind her. If she were alone on the bridge, we could reckon that, like a tree falling in the distant forest, the sound is too remote to reach anyone’s auditory apparatus. But this couple isn’t that far removed, well within the range for a woman’s scream to penetrate their eardrums. Unless they’re both deaf, they fail to react because they choose not to hear. They are oblivious. That is the true state of cyberspace.

  • VERY interesting article. Film criticism isn’t even close to dead, if anything more it’s booming more than ever…it just doesn’t pay. The true people who love film do it because they like to do it; they (usually) don’t have egos and assume that they can sink a movie because they didn’t like it.

    And as the idea of needing a film degree to write about it is completely stupid. That’s just holier than thou talk from college graduates who were wrongly fed the idea that a degree makes you instantly better than people. You don’t need a degree to review films, write novels, or do anything creative, unless you want to teach it; you just need the passion.

  • Thanks for your comments, Alan and Jonathan. Alan brings up Munch and it has me thinking that perhaps, just perhaps, the screamer is mute. He wants to scream, tries, but is unable to connect with anyone but the viewer of the work.

    Besides that, I think lots of people are reading online and checking out blogs. The fact that Doherty wrote this article is testimony to that; however, I think print is far from dead (and who wants it to be).

    I think we must celebrate the many voices that have entered the conversation because of this wonderful venue. Supposedly, academia loves discourse, but I guess it’s only if you have letters following your name.

  • Victor, she asked JFK questions. I know who she is. Just couldn’t spit out her last name.

  • I did go back and read the linked article. He’s a damn good writer. But his point was moot. The real question: are people reading blogger’s reviews and taking advice? Hell yes. And does he read us here? Hell yes.

  • Heloise, you are right! He reads us and so do many others in academia. He even mentions that some of his colleagues are kind of selling out and joining the pack. Hmm, I wonder why.

    Yeah, Helen Thomas has been called on for questions by every President since JKF, and so many people are sitting there and never get to ask a question. And she’s always in the front row.

    I think at Obama’s last press conference she fell asleep, but she still got to ask her question (how that worked I’m not sure). Damn, she’s persistent!

  • Victor Lana (#8), why would a mute woman scream? Perhaps you should stick to fiction.

  • Alan, that’s the whole point. She can’t but wants the world to hear her. Just my take. Thanks.

  • So you’re saying (metaphorically) that those of us screaming in cyberspace are mute, meaning incapable of speech, but are trying nevertheless to connect with an audience? Now you really have lost me.

  • Deano

    Is it the quantity of alternate voices and opinions that bothers him or the quality? Because I think it touches upon two utterly different issues – one being the fact that traditional publishing, which has reach by virtue of its size, subscribership, and revenues, has always served as an aggregator and gatekeeper for formal “criticism” – what gets looked at, why, how it is interpreted and nuance, what deserves recognition, what deserves scorn, what is style etc. This is undergoing radical change.

    The second is the quantity of voices. The digital realm eliminates the barriers or gate-keepers that restrict reach – you don’t need a newspaper to reach 10,000 people anymore, so the effect is a great leveling of the barriers that make newspapers things of value – their ability to reach a wide audience and restrict / dictate the quality of writing and/or who’s voice may be heard.

    The result is wide almost universal reach at minimal cost, and allowing myrid voices to be heard. Not all the voices are pretty, nor are they traditional, nor do they necessarily fit the established norms and many are just plain badly written and poorly communicated. The market conditions and barrier that previously restricted them are gone now.

    Good writing, good communication, innovative approaches and ideas will rise up – as with every new medium. Claiming that the current crop of bloggers or online writers are automatically better or worse then anyone who previously came before based on the nature of their medium and not their talent or ability is foolish and short-sighted.

  • Boeke

    I thought it was obvious that “Scream” was silent. Silly me.

  • “the writing is on the digital wall.”

    Good article.

    I watched a year ago as, Kieth Olbermann -MSNBC, sneered when he called someone a “blogger.”

    Now, blogs are being quoted from, by people standing on the floors of the House and Senate.

    Bloggers have come a long way, in a short time, and it didn’t cost everyone here a ticket to get into the private club.

  • Forgive me, Screamer. I didn’t realize you were a mute. You see how heaven plans. Me, a poor blind man, and you … a mute. An incredibly big mute.

  • “In cyberspace everyone can hear you scream.” That one statement negates all Professor Doherty wrote. The fact is, in cyberspace only those who chose to hear you scream do so (as has already been noted). If Doherty cannot make the point that “in cyberspace anyone can scream,” how can we trust any of his other opinions? In an attempt to be clever, he sacrificed credibility. –Bob E.

  • Oooops! I forgot to thank you, Victor Lana, for reminding me of those painful days in college watching “Un Chien Andalou” and “Battleship Potemkin.” How well I remember polishing my fiction skills with essays of appreciation. –Bob E.

  • Hey, Bob, to listen to those professors, you’d think these flicks were the best thing since sliced bread (or sliced eye). Ah, those weren’t the days.

  • “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream,” by Harlan Ellison, also comes to mind.

  • Some bloggers are better critics than some traditional media film reviewers, in my opinion.

  • “At this point in time and space, it seems almost ridiculous to have to defend bloggers, or blogging”

    I just wanted to point out that you’re defending writing on the Internet to a man who just put an article on the Internet.
    Irony and ignominy? I think so.

    The true reason for his bitterness is clear in this statement.
    “Knowles boasts two and a half million readers a day—though maybe “hits” is a better measurement—which explains why Hollywood ads are now more likely to quote from Web sites than from print critics.”

    Hollywood prefers bloggers. Yes. They. Do.

    He doesn’t seem to be aware that his use of a quote by Schickel creates a complete contradiction.
    “Schickel concurs: “What I see of Internet reviewing is people of just surpassing ignorance about the medium expressing themselves on the medium.”

    I just did the review for Schickel’s latest documentary.
    DVD Review: The Eastwood Factor by Richard Schickel

    And he was nice enough to give me an interview.
    Author/Filmmaker Richard Schickel on Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese, and More
    He’s a very fascinating man with a great sense of humor. I enjoyed our interview very much. I can’t imagine him calling me ignorant. Ever.

    It makes no sense at all to complain on the Internet about people who write on the Internet to people who read the Internet.

    I always thought the Screamer was a man? Just sayin’

  • Geek Girl, thanks for your illuminating comment, which clarifies the way Doherty has a green-eyed monster thing going here.

    You write, “I always thought the Screamer was a man? Just sayin’.” And that made me laugh, but I also thought he/she was inspiration for the silent killer’s mask in Scream. Hmmm.

  • Interesting piece. Although, I certainly hope you’re being facetious when you refer to having to “suffer” through films like “Battleship Potemkin.” Eisenstein was quite literally a genius. “Potemkin” is one of my favorite films of all time. And I’m afraid by undercutting it, you’re actually playing into the hands of the critical establishment. I don’t object to your assessment of “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” as the “Beowulf” of film scholarship, but “Potemkin,” now that’s a different story.

  • Eric, of course some of this is written tongue-in-cheek, but the overall message is what it is. Thanks for your comment!

  • Don’t laugh. I have that mask. Hee

    I just love this article. You’re my new favorite snark Victor.