The Academic Film Blog (2000-2015), A Eulogy
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While there is no true consensus on when, exactly, we were in a “golden age” of film criticism, there was one brief moment when a vocal majority united, briefly, in synchronous predictability to declare the worst time for film criticism: the early 2000s. Time’sRichard Schickel lamented “What I see of Internet reviewing is people of just surpassing ignorance about the medium expressing themselves on the medium,” while Thomas Doherty informs us in The Chronicle of Higher Education that “the ballast of traditional credentials...has been thrown overboard by the judgment calls of anonymous upstarts without portfolio but very much with a DSL hotline to Hollywood's prime moviegoing demographic.” Back then, Web 2.0 meant that the once-passive consumer of film criticism in respected print media like The New York Times, The New Yorker or Entertainment Weekly was now able, usually without pay or prestige, to become an active content-creator. The proliferation of film criticism all over the internet—in online magazines like Slate and Salon, online academic journals like Bright Lights and Scope, but also, more informally, on personal blogs hosted on free sites like Wordpress and Blogger—meant that the film critic’s labor was no longer a privilege of the few.
But it wasn’t just the fanboys and your recluse aunt who were taking advantage of the new freedom to access and publish content on the web. Academics were taking advantage of these newly available content platforms too, resulting in dozens of single-authored academic blogs devoted to film and media studies throughout the 2000s. They were written and published by graduate students, tenure-track faculty, and those who were beginning to seek out alternative academic careers as the job market continued to tank. Film blogs, blank screens begging to be filled with content, offered academics the chance, not simply to read, but also to write, comment, retort and debate with complete freedom. No word limits! No image limits! No peer review! Hyperlinks for all!
Blogs offered a space for film criticism that was too ephemeral for a journal article, which might take years to go from writing to print, but too weird or too scholarly for a newspaper. We could not only post words, but also screen grabs, short videos, GIFs, and, perhaps most importantly, links to the writing of other bloggers, thus building a lovely web of scholarship that connected the ideas of one scholar to the writings of another, and the comments section on yet another. As Hossein Derakhshan writes of those days when “blogs were gold”: “the hyperlink provided a diversity and decentralisation that the real world lacked. The hyperlink represented the open, interconnected spirit of the world wide web...” These were heady times for amateur bloggers, when a popular blog could sustain considerable traffic and conversation, regardless of your number of Twitter followers or whether or not someone was getting paid to promote your work. For a short period of time, approximately 2000-2015, blogs were a space of democratic exchange where rank disappeared and was replaced by the primacy of the idea and the passion for the idea, giving “public voice,” as Charles Taylor explains, “to the way movies function as private obsession.”
The film blog, which reached its peak in roughly 2009, offered a level of access to the critical stage in unprecedented ways for new scholars, while simultaneously giving established scholars an opportunity to break ranks. It was good for everyone. I use the past tense here because the academic film blog, as we knew it then, is dead. Sure, the blogs still exist, but they stand empty, like gold rush towns after the last bits of ore have been excavated from the earth. There are many reasons for this collapse.
First, blogging did not yield the legitimacy so many of us hoped for. Despite my best efforts to demonstrate the value of my own blog—citing research opportunities it unearthed, connections made in the field, and the way the medium forced me to grapple with new and exciting ideas I never would have explored on paper—the glaring absence of traditional peer review makes it difficult to quantify how blogging has impacted my research, teaching and service (the holy trifecta of academic values), even though it has greatly contributed to all three.
The second nail in the film blog’s coffin is, ironically, the success of film blogs and all other manner of online criticism. There is, simply put, too much film criticism out there. The democracy generated by Web 2.0 and the rise of social media, viral content and mobile devices, has led to carefully curated streams filled with content “liked,” shared or re-tweeted by people you’ve selected or who were selected for you based on your user profile. That means that certain work is read a lot or not at all. Productive spaces for unconventional film criticism still exist, of course, it’s just that doors that once beckoned to us all have stopped rotating. And left inside are, once again, established, professional critics, with built-in followings like Matt Zoller Seitz or Richard Brody. The retrenchment has begun, and those erudite critics, for better or for worse, are filling the niche of smart, quick takes on film that film blogs once filled.
The slow disappearance of the academic film blog, that single-authored, ad-free space where no idea was too big, too small, or too weird, isn’t exactly a crisis—not like the academic job market crisis, or the humanities crisis, or the crisis in higher education. But I miss it. It was as if, for a short period of time, tenure requirements, the realities of the academic job market, and even capitalism itself ceased to exist. But rather than mourn an irretrievable past, like Schickel and Doherty, I try to remember that there are as many so-called “golden ages” of film criticism as there are critics with opinions. The new golden age of film criticism is coming, and it’s already here, and it’s already happened, and I can’t wait to miss it when it’s gone.
Amanda Ann Klein is Associate Professor of Film Studies in the English Department at East Carolina University. She is the author of American Film Cycles: Reframing Genres, Screening Social Problems, & Defining Subcultures (University of Texas Press, 2011) and recently completed the anthology Multiplicities: Cycles, Sequels, Remakes and Reboots in Film & Television (University of Texas Press). She is currently working on a book project about MTV reality programming and youth identities. Her scholarship has appeared in Quarterly Review of Film and Video, Jump Cut, Flow, Antenna, Salon and The New Yorker.
Quoted in Thomas Doherty, “The Death of Film Criticism,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, February 28, 2010, accessed October 30, 2015, http://chronicle.com/article/The-Death-of-Film-Criticism/64352/.
Hossein Derakhshan, “The Web We Have to Save,” Medium, July 14, 2015, accessed October 30, 2015, https://medium.com/matter/the-web-we-have-to-save-2eb1fe15a426#.levum6d1k.
Charles Taylor, “The Problem with Film Criticism,” Dissent Magazine, Fall 2011, accessed October 30, 2015, https://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/the-problem-with-film-criticism.