Monday, April 12, 2010

The Future of Criticism: or, A. O. Scott, Time to Get in the Fridge

About a week and a half ago, I read a misguided and admittedly self-serving piece on the future of film criticism by the New York Times critic A. O. Scott.  Until recently, Scott – whose reviewing style will one day be remembered as a pioneering influence on the the "Vague-Plot-Summary-Followed-By-Dismissive-One-Liners" school – has continued to believe, despite, as he puts it, "all appearances to the contrary," that the future of criticism is bright.  But this was until what he calls his "own brush with the grim reaper" of contemporary cultural malaise: his syndicated TV show "At the Movies," which back in the day used to star Siskel and Ebert, has finally been canceled. 

Please don't cry.  Here's a little something to help you take the news:

Who needs therapy when you have this picture, seriously?

Anyway.  Scott's article addresses how "At the Movies," which "in its twilight, looks exalted and heroic" (to him), was once regarded as an enterprise that would dumb down the level of the cultural discourse about films into a simplistic see it/don't see it product evaluation.  Ya think?  Citing an older article called "All Thumbs, or Is There a Future for Film Criticism?" by Richard Corliss, Scott writes, "The threat Mr. Corliss identified has migrated to the Internet, where self-credentialed commenters snark and snipe and where the simple binary code of the thumbs-up or thumbs-down voting that Mr. Siskel and Mr. Ebert trademarked has been supplanted by the crunched numbers of the Metacritic score."  Where once we had "James Agee, now there is Rotten Tomatoes."  (Apparently Scott is unaware that if James Agee were writing now, there would be links to his articles on Rotten Tomatoes; there are unfortunately links there to A. O. Scott's.)  But all is not lost.  Scott indicates – and I believe he thinks he's being generous – that the future of criticism is "the same as it ever was," that the detractors of today's internet criticism are no more right or wrong than the generation that took Siskel and Ebert to task for their moronic reductionism.  "How can you do a movie justice in 60 seconds?" he asks, referring to the time allotted for discussion on his now-defunct show.  "You can’t, of course – or in 800 words of print or in a blog post – but you can start a conversation, advance or rebut an argument, and give people who share your interest something to talk about.  And that kind of provocation, that spur to further discourse, is all criticism has ever been."

A. O. Scott is not always wrong, but he is always shortsighted.  And in this case, he's absolutely both.  Criticism has not always been about "starting a conversation," the intellectual equivalent of chatting up a hottie in a dark bar, and criticism at its best is not about that now.  Criticism is fundamentally, ideally, about having something to say.  Now, there are times when that can be said in 800 words, or a blog post, or in sixty seconds of dialogue.  But the idea that extremely limited space or time constraints are an inherent part of the critical enterprise is something A. O. Scott has brainwashed himself into believing, probably because he wants to think the snarky blurb fodder he shells out for the New York Times is the apogee of commentary on film. 

Great criticism, like great art, finds its own shape.  Sometimes it sprawls and meanders; sometimes it explodes.  I think of David Foster Wallace's masterful essay on the films of David Lynch, or Mark Twain's truly wondrous "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses."  But, since A. O. Scott brought up online criticism, I think first and foremost of the best movie reviewer I may have ever encountered.  You might've met him already.  His name is Mr. Plinkett, and he's got just one question for all the pretentious assholes out there:
 What's wrong with your FAAAACE?

Mr. Plinkett isn't a real person.  He's a pizza roll-devouring serial killer, the brainchild of one Mike Stoklasa, a writer/director/Star Wars fanatic, and his bite-your-tongue brilliant, coughing-fit hilarious reviews of sci-fi films have held YouTube viewers as captive as prostitutes shackled to a basement wall.  The same week that trees died for A. O. Scott's misinformed "At the Movies" elegy, Plinkett's epic ninety-minute long review of Star Wars Episode Two: Attack of the Clones was garnering views on hundreds of thousands of screens around the country; Red Letter Media production company, who put this masterpiece online, announced their channel was the most viewed on all of YouTube.

The phenomena of Mr. Plinkett gives me hope, and not just because he's able to attract an audience without the grandfathered-in prestige of a dinosaur print publication or high-overhead cable station.  Rather, I'm blown away by how thorough, and smart, and dead-on-target his critical assessments are -- and by the fact that viewers seem to notice that. 

Here's the thing: in a world where what Scott calls the "democratic forces of the Internet" have supposedly made everyone a potential critic, people can still tell the difference between lame generalizations and incisive, witty critique.  If anything, they're more discerning than anyone could have possibly expected.  To watch a review the length of an entire movie represents a wealth of patience, intellectual engagement, and deep curiosity about the mechanics of narrative that a lot of so-called intellectuals would have us believe flew out the window sometime before The Elements of Style was published.  "But maybe people just find these videos entertaining," a naysayer might argue.  To that, I'd say the fact that Plinkett's reviews are well-written, carefully edited, with masterful comic timing and even fragments of story only serves to further prove that, when given the option, viewers, at least these ones, prefer criticism that aspires to the condition of art.

Only time will tell what the Internet holds for American intellectual culture in general, and for film reviewing in particular.  But I'm hoping that the world of pat, cramped mini-essays and 60-second discussions die with the media outlets that contain them, and that something more idiosyncratic, more expansive, more deeply thoughtful will take their place.  To me, the future looks like a much better time for what Scott calls "a commitment to the independent, open-ended exploration of works of art in relation to one another and the world around them" than the recent past ever did.  Then again, maybe someone's just fucking with my medicine.


Research Intensive Investing said...

awesome post!


laurajaynemartin said...

Great post, though, I mainly liked it because I agreed with everything you said.

The Chawmonger said...

Thanks so much for reading and commenting, Eric and Laura! I do love the Plinkett...

ErikTheRedd said...

Plinkett is a very informative reviewer and my idea of the prequels has totally changed forever