The Dysfunction of Criticism at the Present Time
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In a recent piece for the Sunday New York Times, one of the paper’s chief film reviewers, A.O. Scott, lamented that serious discussion of cinema is still subject to charges of snobbery. Where other forms of high-brow criticism have wriggled free of this imputation, he says, film criticism remains bound by suspicions of elitism. In response, Scott initially tries to dismantle the category of snobbery altogether, before insisting on a category distinction (he is a critic, not a snob), and then, finally, admitting that snobbism is unavoidable. Though he never actually recasts Whitman along the lines of “very well then, I am a snob,” the defiant suggestion is unmistakable. “I like my pleasures slow and difficult,” he writes. “I look up in admiration at models of artistic perfection, sound judgment and noble achievement, and I look down on what I take to be the stupid, cheap and cynical aspects of public discourse.” This is fine as it goes, but why take Scott’s article as an occasion for considering film criticism, especially if one does not agree with his argument (and, in large part, I don’t)? Briefly, I’ll say that his sentiments are symptomatic, and as such I’m less concerned with the charge of snobbery than with what its affirmation discloses about film criticism—or even simply criticism.
Criticism is virtually impossible to circumscribe or define—its implications seem to extend indefinitely, but its explication can be parsed into nothingness. At the very least, we know that the age of criticism is modernity, when the dissemination of print culture reached a threshold (of venues, readers, surplus capital) to support this slender vocation of the critic. For this reason, the critic has always existed apart from the bulk of academic scholars. Of course, scholars write criticism, but when they do so they traditionally enter into a discourse that, however intellectual, lies in closer proximity to the popular and public. Having been conditioned by capitalism, then, the critic—and, especially, the reviewer—is occasionally bestowed with the power to affect the marketplace, and I suspect that this influence, however enviable, has proven perversely reassuring. Without wishing for the “good old days” of such critics, which invariably sounds like longing for lost despotism (“with Mussolini, the trains ran on time!”), it’s possible to feel nostalgia for an age in which criticism could change why, how, and even whether one saw a film. At any rate, I suspect that Scott’s defense of snobbery is more vividly the expression of wistfulness for a world—at once a public sphere and a film culture—in which criticism mattered.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the figure against whom Scott manifestly opposes his snobbery, Pauline Kael, was arguably the last American film critic to have mattered on such a scale. Writing about the movies for almost forty years, much of it as the reviewer for The New Yorker, Kael carved out a reputation for a brilliance that was contemptuous of pretense. Of her seminal “Fantasies of the Art-House Audience” (1961), Scott admits that Kael “skewered a certain high-minded, right-thinking sector of the movie-going public with such force and acuity that I can feel the sting after more than 50 years.” No doubt, Kael suffered from her share of idiosyncrasies and prejudices—snobbism of her own sort—but she had the good fortune to write in an age of American cinema to which her sensibility was largely commensurate. Arriving at The New Yorker in 1967-8, Kael’s tenure neatly corresponds to the beginnings of “New Hollywood,” when American cinema seemed to have found a kind of golden mean between artistic ambitions and popular conditions (her rave review of Bonnie and Clyde, the film most identified with the beginning of this era, was purportedly what got her hired at the magazine). The directors whose praises Kael sung—De Palma (of course), but also Altman, Coppola, Scorsese, and occasionally Spielberg—emblematically belonged to New Hollywood, but it was still Hollywood: their technical feats, formal inventions, and occasional avant gardism were still tethered (however ironically) to familiar genres.
Over the course of Kael’s career, New Hollywood eventually gave way to “High Concept” cinema, and by the time she retired in 1991, almost everything about popular film criticism was in flux: Hollywood had been corporatized, its products geared to a younger audience, and the movies would soon go digital. In the same stroke, the print venues that had supported film criticism would begin to disappear. Obviously, this loss has been more than offset by the profusion of online criticism (what criticism is not, ultimately, online today?), but the world of criticism is vastly different than it was twenty years ago. Where critics like Kael had once encountered a daunting topography of differences, of highs and lows, the “leveling force” of newer media has fundamentally altered the landscape. “The world of the Yelp score, the Amazon algorithm and the Facebook thumb is a place of liking and like-mindedness, of niches and coteries and shared enthusiasms,” Scott writes: it is “a Utopian zone in which everyone is a critic and nobody is a snob because nobody’s taste can be better than anyone else’s.” For the critic, it seems, the only fate worse than elitism is indifference.
In this respect, the resolution to declare oneself a snob, to manufacture a kind of distance where none arguably exists, strikes me as the dysfunction of criticism at the present time. If anything, snobbery today is the symptom of a criticism that has refused to work through the schism between a fading film culture and an ascendant fan culture. Scott has often acknowledged this division, and this year he actually attend Comic-Com in San Diego, but what he wrote about amounted to a kind of ethnography, as if the conference were another planet. And yet, I’d suggest by way of conclusion that the task of popular film criticism today is precisely to bridge the divide between film culture and fan culture. This task does not demand “true standards of excellence,” as Scott describes his own criticism, but something closer to Kael’s approach, the expression of a sensibility that is smart, supple, and sincere enough to bring “the two cultures” together.
Gregory Flaxman is Associate Professor in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He is the author of the author of Gilles Deleuze and the Fabulation of Philosophy (University of Minnesota Press, 2012) and the editor or The Brain is the Screen (University of Minnesota Press, 2000). His latest book, coauthored with Robert Sinnerbrink and Lisa Trahair, on the subject of “cinematic thinking,” will be published by Edinburgh University Press in 2016.