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.