Anghus Houvouras on the state of modern film criticism…
If you spend any time on the internet, you’ve probably come across any number of stories about the incredibly negative age of media we currently waft through on a daily basis. The perception being that our current worldview is nihilistic to a fault and that even the most basic thought can be a polarizing topic that anyone can tear to shreds with animalistic anger.
It’s easy to see this kind of behavior exhibited in politics where the American election cycle is a ‘knives out’ affair and the Brexit has left our friends in the UK in a state of paralysis. But I don’t write about politics, I write about film. So for the sake of this discussion, and our latest deep dive into Binary Theory I’m going to focus on film criticism.
Film criticism has devolved into a puzzling, maddening space. Our more traditional film critics are aging out of relevance. The classic era of writers like Kael and Ebert are well behind us. There’s a few writers from that era still pumping out reviews and reminding us of their existence, but they are little more than echoes; reminders of a different, less contentious time in criticism.
Our middle-aged critics like Devin Faraci from Birth.Movies.Death and Drew McWeeny over at Hitfix have settled in nicely to mainstream roles after spending a decade and a half contributing to the ruination of the artistry of film criticism. These critics were inspired by the contentious nature that Siskel & Ebert created as they argued across the aisle. Though to be fair to both of them, their frustration was usually reserved for one another. The internet age of criticism brought forth a number of changes in the online critical voice, but the one constant that connected them all was indignation.
When sites like Ain’t It Cool launched in the late 1990’s, there was a shift in how films were criticized. There was a time when film critics analyzed the film. Where the movie and its contents were graded from the opening titles to the closing credits. The internet era started an uglier trend where films started to be judged based on so many ancillary factors. Studios were raked over the coals for their lack of vision. A failed adaptation was blamed on ‘the wrong choice’ of creative talent. The movies themselves weren’t just being judged, but the entire process and the people involved with their creation. Executives were named in reviews as being poor shepherds of properties. The entire system came under frequent attack.
These critics and columnists with ‘inside sources’ began to see outside influences bleed into their reviews. And when asked about how negatively the pop culture landscape has skewed, Faraci told USA Today: “We’re in that weird position where everything sort of seems terrible and so as a result, people become negative and combative.”
‘Negative and combative’ is the foundation Faraci and many of his peers built their careers upon. They started young and angry, and now they’ve achieved mainstream success they’re far less interested in rocking the boat. So the indignation birthed by Siskel & Ebert and betrothed to the Ain’t It Cool generation of writers has been handed off to a new crop of critics even less interested in discussing the actual movie.
So it should be no surprise to see the new generation of online film writers have an even less respectful tone when it comes to cinema. Like this article from io9 contributor Eve Peyser, who has brought the concept of film commentary to a staggering new low.
This is the kind of brain seizure inducing, incoherent nonsense that passes as post worthy. Peyser’s hatred for Suicide Squad is apparent, but she just doesn’t attack the movie but everything involved with the movie. She looks for empirical evidence to back up her hate, for example mitigating the record-breaking opening and mentioning financial benchmark to be considered a success:
“Suicide Squad apparently has to make $750 million in order for the studio to just break even, so it still has a long way to go.”
She brings up the fact that the box office was better on Thursday and Friday and saw a decline throughout the weekend.
“On the bright side, the Associated Press reports that although there were large audiences Thursday and Friday night, ticket sales sharply declined on Saturday.”
‘On the bright side?’. Here’s a columnist, critic, or whatever a contributor at a Gawker site calls themselves these days actively rooting for the movie to fail. The strange, all too common perspective of malice towards anything that the writer is unable to appreciate.
Here’s the thing: Film criticism should be smart and surgical. It’s not a flamethrower. It should never be about burning everything (and everyone) to the ground. We’re living in the aftermath of the scorched earth created by Ain’t It Cool News and its ilk. All of these middle-aged movie critics who basically turned criticism into one long ‘the sky is falling’ argument are now asking ‘how did this happen?’ Well, party people, you created this acidic, bile spewing monster through years of engaging in epic, endless hyperbole. What did they think would happen when the most popular voices online were attacking the studios and executives in their reviews? Or taking their personal axe grinding bias into vitriolic, soapbox standing lectures of how creatively bankrupt Hollywood is. Did they think reviewing screenplays prior to production was going to help the creative process or hurt it or naming executives they believed to be worthless while hiding under the protective freedom of being nothing more than a passionate fan?
The answer is painfully clear in hindsight, but it should have been just as obvious in the moment.
And now we’re raising a generation of critics who can’t even articulate what they hate about the film. Hyperbole is the only language they know how to speak. Like the aforementioned Eve Peyser from io9 (or Gizmodo, or whatever part of the sticky Gawker web she resides) who decided to unleash her ire at Suicide Squad. But here’s the most damning of her many poorly constructed thoughts:
“What turned out to be deeply mediocre film. Seriously, Jared Leto should get his Oscar revoked.”
Deeply mediocre? That’s it? You’re this upset over a movie you found to be mediocre? Christ almighty. I wouldn’t want to be the film you outright hated. And the second part of that sentence; do you genuinely think that? Do you believe Jared Leto should have his Oscar revoked for his role as the Joker in Suicide Squad? Or, like everyone else these days, are you someone who can only speak in the language of pointless hyperbole, turning your flamethrower onto the scorched earth that the last generation of internet critics have left you to continue burning away the center so that only the extremes exist?
A generation of people writing about film who can’t even be bothered to articulate anything other than their indignation, and badly at that.
And that, my friends, is disappointing.
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