Film Criticism—The Reboot
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This special issue inaugurates a “reboot” for Film Criticism as we embark upon a new digital era—a move from our traditional print-based format to free-to-access online publication. The transition also coincides with a change of editorship, as Lloyd Michaels, the journal’s founding editor of 37 years, has graciously passed on the reigns. As incoming editor, I’ve spent the past year laying the groundwork for FC’s new platform, organizing resources, expanding the editorial board (with newcomers sharing space alongside continuing members), and assembling material for the first online issue. Along the way, it’s been my privilege to get a “behind the scenes” look at Lloyd’s careful hand in crafting what continues to be a highly regarded journal in the field. I can only hope to achieve a fraction of what Lloyd’s accomplished, consistently publishing work of the highest academic quality and providing readers with accessible writing that centers on close textual analysis.
By going open access, FC is afforded the chance to expand this project, growing its potential readership while also providing opportunities for new and exciting scholarship. As the world of academic publishing continues to undergo reinvention (much like the medium of film itself), FC aims to stay in touch with concurrent developments in the field, incorporating convergent areas of research into other moving-image media such as television and online video. To that end, I’ve organized the first online issue around the topic of “film criticism in the 21st century.” I’ve invited contributors to write 500-1000 words on the question: What is the role of film criticism today—a time of proliferating platforms, emergent forms of representation, new practices of production, distribution, mediated experiences and viewing habits? The result, I’m happy to say, is a range of scholarly voices which offers a snapshot of the present moment, highlighting zones of critical interest across genre and form, cultural politics, media convergence, aesthetic value, and critical practice.
No doubt, the category of “film” continues to mutate, but so too does the space of film criticism. The decline of traditional print venues, for example, parallels the proliferation of online criticism in web magazines, blogs, and other new media formats. Surely, these shifts provoke a sense of disciplinary introspection as regards the continuing tradition of academic film criticism. But the sheer profusion film-critical writing, not to mention digital film practices, also raises the question of value. Indeed, a number of contributors (e.g., Aaron, Corrigan, Frey, Gunning, Klevan, Sayad, Sperling, Staiger) engage this question—of what is “good” or worthwhile about film and/or film criticism today. Some suggest the primary task is making distinctions: aesthetic, ethical, political. Others agree that even as the terrain of film culture continues to spread across the digital landscape, the discursive tools of film criticism might still offer, as Timothy Corrigan puts it, “one the most incisive and flexible ways to analyze and access the expanding world of contemporary images.”
It follows that the debate over which tools are the most valuable underpins the question what role film criticism is to play in the present. While some recognize the enduring usefulness of certain established methods of film analysis (e.g., Belton), others advocate new or hybrid forms of critique capable of responding to practical problems (Buckland), related media platforms (McNutt), emergent philosophical perspectives (Stoddard), new media ecologies (Flisfeder, Niessen), and changing classroom conditions (Griffin). Still others argue for a position somewhere between the standard elitism of professional criticism and the shifting banalities of everyday film culture (Flaxman, Ganguly, Metz, Rushton, Polan). Altogether, these contributors avow the lasting relevance of criticism as a durable mode of scholarly engagement, while offering divergent potential horizons of critical practice.
Insofar as these horizons are implicated in the tendency toward media convergence, film criticism is obliged to find new ways of engaging transformations in production, distribution and exhibition that render the “film experience” inextricable from other media—something that takes place across the multiplex, the Internet, and the iPad. A number of authors point in this direction. Amanda Ann Klein and Seung-hoon Jeong, for example, spotlight the paradoxes of DIY film criticism: on the one hand, digital delivery renews the possibility for academics to reach beyond the confines of the academe; on the other hand, it offers democratizing potential for new voices to emerge beyond elite institutions. In both cases, the glut of film-critical writing threatens to reduce the discourse of criticism to merely another form of “online fast food,” as Jeong puts it, something to be digested alongside the next “status update” or Facebook post.
Then again, contributors like Adrian Martin and Catherine Grant stress the possibility of “rebooting” film criticism in accordance with digital technologies that extend beyond the conventional written format of Film Studies. Grant, for instance, reiterates Martin’s call for creative, convergent forms of analysis, such as the video essay, which reactivate the possibility of “creative/critical methods that turn on immersion and immanence” (and indeed, Grant’s video essay here provides a compelling example of such “sensuous methodologies”). Meanwhile, other contributors highlight various forms of digital media practice that surface potentially new (or renewed) objects of study, including music videos (Ball), franchise storytelling (Benson-Allott), GIFs (Newman), “post-cinematic” aesthetics (Shaviro), new millennial remakes (Verevis), and digital screen “figuration” (Yu).
Last but not least, several authors reiterate a mode of film criticism that is explicitly engaged in cultural politics. This tradition takes on a wider set of social and political questions, which nonetheless find articulation through the study of film and media. Whether this takes the form of nuanced textual analysis of racial stereotypes (e.g., Alsultany), re-energizing practices of anti-racist, anti-imperialist or feminist critique (e.g., Reich, Saljoughi, Cobb & Tasker), or interrogating new types of cultural labor vis-à-vis DIY media (e.g., Mukherjee), these contributors are all committed to a mode of criticism that is squarely situated in a political context. In Roopali Mukerjee’s case, the interplay between “the epistemic logics of race” and new media practices reaches a critical point in viral texts like the Eric Garner chokehold video, which circulate and perpetuate “scopophilic spectacles of black trauma, suffering, and death.” In these instances, the politics of identity meets the politics of criticism, affording a critical methodology that will, as Mukherjee says, “enable us to parse the value of difference and the currency of authenticity as well as their uses for domination and survival within the contemporary culture industries.”
Ultimately, I believe Film Criticism can be a vital platform for such discussions, as well the more intrinsic challenges of “doing” criticism in a digital age. Whatever this comes to mean, it is clear that the evermore fluid categories of “film” and “criticism” supply scholars a fruitful occasion to not only revisit their objects of study but also think through the converging expanse of 21st century film culture, including the ethical, political and social implications of such shifts. The first online issue of FC sets out to do just that, giving contributors the opportunity to offer their own vision of what film criticism is, should, or could be in the contemporary moment.