Monday, January 19, 2015

The End of Criticism

In his Gettysburg address, Lincoln predicted "The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here…" It's hard to know if he really believed this, but there's no doubt it applies to critics. Of all the professions disrupted by the internet, professional art criticism was an early casualty. With their profit margins under siege, many newspapers and magazines simply eliminated them. Once, every daily newspaper employed at least one full-time movie critic from the local community. Now most just print reviews from syndicated, out-of-town "celebrity" critics—if they print them at all.
          In place of authentic, local voices, most people now get their impressions of new films from social media, or from sites like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, which aggregate "yea or nay" verdicts from users, bloggers, and columnists. The vast majority of movie bloggers proffer their precious insights for free. Netflix claims to have an algorithm that will predict whether its customers will like a piece of "content". Such data-driven approaches have their uses—I've used them myself to scope out which films might be worth seeing, week to week.
          But no algorithm can do actual criticism. None can ferret out and discuss what might be interesting themes, or read subtext, or place a film in its particular political, social, or artistic context. None of them have a sense of history. For those things, we must resort to individual experts.
          Alas, the rise of the internet—of "user-provided content"—has meant a decline in public regard for experts of any kind. For many, the act of googling a subject makes anyone qualified to argue with much, much more informed people who may have devoted their whole lives to studying something. On the serious side, this has deeply obfuscated public debate on issues like health care and climate change. On the less serious, it has rendered art criticism into something like the human tailbone—a vestige of life in a bygone environment.
          All this is reflected in lack of public engagement. When I was the weekly critic for The Ithaca Times from 1985-1990, it was common for my editor to receive feedback from readers, commenting on (more often, disagreeing with) something I wrote. My files are filled with those old letters, which I cherish regardless of whether they praised or torched me. By contrast, after 352 columns to date in Tompkins Weekly, almost no one has written in more than eight years (since October, 2006). The precise number—exactly one letter—is telling.
          It's probably not because the issues have become less provocative. More likely, it's because, in lives of unrelenting activity, with stagnant wages and social media and DVRs and Tinder and YouTube, people simply have no energy to think very deeply about anything they read—much less summon the effort to put together a coherent response to it. In a time when "clicks" count more than the most crafted arguments, why bother?
          All of which occurs in the context to the ongoing juvenilization of movies in general. The Bible enjoins us to put aside childish things, but never Hollywood. None of that is new, but it is fortunately still possible to find challenging fare. This column has tried to highlight some of it, including the superb programming at Cornell Cinema and Cinemapolis. Trouble is, while you can lead people to better stuff, you can't necessarily make them care. According to Indiewire, the total US box office for foreign language films has plummeted 61% in the last six years. Despite promises of a brave new world of wide-open access to anything, the advent of video-on-demand has not reversed this trend. Instead, in practice, it has merely reinforced the domination of the same old thing.
          This will be my last regular posting for VIZ-arts. This is partly because I will be pursuing other opportunities as a novelist. Despite the fact that this column has been largely a one-way conversation, publisher Jim Graney and editor Jay Wrolstad have been consistently supportive of it—for which I am eternally grateful. I'm also fortunate to have had the opportunity to address the Ithaca community, which is (and I hope will continue to be) one of the most film-friendly in the nation.
          When I ended my column at the Times, I wrote "If any of you have felt a connection to the soul behind the words, I've been talking to you." I can think of no better way to end this one too.
© 2015 Nicholas Nicastro

1 comment:

  1. I will certainly miss the sense of history and artistic content "Soul Behind The Words" you posted on VIZ-arts. Your talent, gift for words, as a writer, a novelist is very special.