Beyond Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down

Large_ANDY Continuing my occasional series, the Death of Pretty Much Everything We Hold Dear, I want to consider, once again, the death of film criticism. Film critic Glenn Kenny is the first professional film critic that I’ve read to throw up his hands in surrender to whatever is destroying film criticism. After going through the latest round of teeth gnashing over the state of film criticism, Kenny writes,

let me quote Vladimir Nabokov, as is my wont: “Sex as an institution, sex as a general notion, sex as a problem, sex as a platitude–all this is something I find too tedious for words.” Now, just substitute “the future of film criticism” for “sex” in the above and you’ll have pretty much summed up my attitude. Why? Because I know it’s over. It is quite highly unlikely that I will ever make my living from “just” doing film criticism ever again, and that the practice is largely going to be an avocation for me–same as it is for many of the people who are doing some of the best film writing/criticism on the internet today. People such as Girish Shambu and Farran Smith Nehme, aka The Self Styled Siren. [. . . ] And I’m fine with my circumstance. In fact, I’m better than fine with it, provided I can continue to make some kind of living somehow.

Kenny advises Rex Reed, Richard Schickel, and other veteran film critics “bitching about these damn kids on their damn computers” to accept that the Internet is going to devoir everything, sucking out all the money and spitting out the bones for the former professionals to pick at.

Staff film critics like Kenny are between paradigms, and, too often, between jobs. Losing one’s job in this economy is a near death experience I wouldn’t want to wish on anyone.

I’m a blogger who writes about film, and I don’t get paid for it, so I guess I’m part of the problem. But I’m not an amateur. I have a Ph.D. in Literature and Film Studies, and once upon a time I made a living teaching both subjects at Temple and Villanova. I’ve been published in major film periodicals like Cinema Journal and Film Quarterly, and I never received a dime from those publications, as per the standard practice for scholarly journals. I never got free passes to any film I wanted to see (or, to be fair, an assignment to watch a whole bunch of films I didn’t want to see). I never got to have a beer with Quentin Tarantino or Jason Reitman at the SXSW Film Festival. If I were to contribute my rant to the death of the film critic debate, I would point out that these whiny staffers are standing on the shoulders of their film professors, who developed the entire field of film studies and made possible the film critic who’s allowed to think beyond thumbs up or thumbs down.

So it’s misleading to see the problems of film criticism as a battle between the sage veterans and the damn kids on their damn computers. The battle is also between the sage veterans and the rest of the world. Film studies people are a tetchy lot. Kenny tells the story of Andrew Sarris (pictured above) being advised against writing about film because literature was worried about losing another critic to the movies. Now it’s the other way around. Film studies people, both inside and outside the academy, are fierce defenders of their territory. One of the reasons why I no longer teach is that film people suspected I was an English professor slumming in film studies. (English professors saw me as a film guy, but without the undercurrent of suspicion.) Film critics rarely, if ever, stray into other areas of interest. Nor do they like it when others trespass into their territory. A.O. Scott can write about literature, but James Wood can’t write about film. You’re either all in, or all out.

If literary critics (and English professors) secretly fear that they’re expending tremendous amount of intellectual labor on books no one will ever read (and maybe shouldn’t), film critics secretly fear that their profession will devolve into little more than a consumer guide to spending $11 on a Saturday night. Kenny is right to remind his fellow critics that change is coming no matter how much they complain. No one knows what the new paradigm will be. Personally, I don’t care what the new paradigm looks like. I just want to get paid.


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