What should concern scholars about film criticism in the twenty-first century? I would argue that criticism serves the same functions in the changing media environment that it did five or twenty years ago. As I. A. Richards succinctly stated it, criticism "is very largely, though not wholly, an exercise in navigation."[1] Criticism helps readers steer through texts. It really does not matter where the criticism is (in a book or a blog) or how long (140 characters or encyclopedic) or what form (prose or a cartoon or parody film). Criticism particularly benefits re-readings since new roads to old places may improve, or at least, change the journey. I would, of course, also want to distinguish between "criticism" and "good criticism."

Good criticism gives us a new work of art. Since every reading and viewing is a new experience (we can hardly be the same reader/viewer that we were the first time through the text), good criticism opens up the work further than would happen in a routine re-reading/viewing. We start looking for motifs or stylistic effects or character interplay or minor plot developments to which the criticism has alerted us to notice. In speaking with people about their uses of criticism, people report that they gravitate to critics whose observations are useful for their own experiences, although even reading critics with whom they have no sympathy can be illuminating for contrast.

Good criticism gives us fresh eyes and ears. It not only renews the work, it affects the reader and viewer. Good criticism removes obstacles and points toward fascinating corners. It highlights and links. It works like the text itself, defamiliarizing our perception. It produces new emotions and affects.

Good criticism gives us ideas to explore and debate. The water cooler effect is not just about scandal but about dialogue among readers and viewers. This is one place where I might be inclined to say something is different in the twenty-first century. With the Internet and social media, we can access criticism faster (and it can thrust itself upon us more easily). But more importantly, we can engage immediately in international conversations. The water cooler is not only local but global. In a cliché that is still worth noting, new media is collapsing time and space. It is not unusual to debate the ideological premises of the latest Steven Spielberg movie with a colleague down the hall and then go into a online group discussion with scholars from Russia, China, and England. Such dialogues expand not only our sense of the work but also the world in which we are living. Hopefully, such conversations draw us closer or at least opens us up to appreciating difference.

Criticism is itself a work of art, freshening perception, revitalizing itself, and requiring engagement with it and among other people. We should enjoy it and learn from it as we have in the past and will in the future.


Thanks to Cindy McCreery, Susan McLeland, and Peter Staiger for chatting with me about this.

Author biography:

Janet Staiger is William P. Hobby Centennial Professor Emeritus in Communication and Professor Emeritus of Women's and Gender Studies at The University of Texas at Austin.


    1. I. A. Richards, Practical Criticism: A Study of Literary Judgment (1929, rpt. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1956), 10. return to text