Saturday, 12 January 2013

Professional Criticism


noun \ˈkri-tə-ˌsi-zəm\

Every now and again I spot warning flags raised about threats to the survival of film journalism. They are obviously not imagined threats. Indeed, I began reading the reviews of Todd McCarthy routinely because he was let go by his longtime employer, Variety. McCarthy's peers obviously saw this as a travesty of justice and I read several pieces entirely about their feelings on this, significantly increasing my awareness of his writing. Fortunately, Mr McCarthy later got a steady job writing for The Hollywood Reporter, who maintain an exceptionally well designed site, which I find allows me to keep up with a lot of film news while I am riding the bus to work. The Internet is generally considered the culprit responsible for cutting into the profit margins of print journalism, although if I had had the internet as a teenager, I would have been able to learn much more about film, having grown up in places where access to media was not always simple. Perhaps this is the praise-tempered-with-cynicism that is the meaning behind the internet meme that has been growing ever ubiquitous; 'well done internet'.

It seems to me that there is a strong sentiment pervading the times in which we live questioning the need for learned criticism. It strikes me as being an odd one. Cinema, television, and music are art for the masses; most of us spend disproportionate amounts of time on at least one of these. Escapist entertainments are fine, often better than fine, and occasionally rise up to become milestones for future generations to pore over and analyze in minute detail. James Cagney's many starring roles in the 30s clearly were not intended to be dissected as gallery pieces close to a century later, but there is no denying Cagney's ability to rarely seem to be acting, rather almost always charging out of the screen, fully embodying the scripted character. Decades before 'method acting' and 'Marlon Brando' had been drilled into the lexicon of movie-goers. There is also the fact that he worked with directors who are now revered as auteurs like Michael Curtiz and William Wellman. 

But now we live in an age where the average worker has a career that is existence defining, dedicating exhaustive hours of service. Never mind the hours still needed for a healthy family life, and if you are a single-parent such as myself, many more of these hours are needed. We are now also bombarded by a plethora of entertainment (hopefully art) of such an intense volume that the chance of making the wrong choice and spending a couple of hours recoiling in revulsion because our intelligence is under assault is high. Especially as the main distributor of film has often decided that the key to keeping its bottom line strong is to cobble together badly shot scenes of expensive garbage, with recognizable faces, then set the marketing machine on overdrive.   

Despite this being a method that is showing increasingly diminishing returns, the ostensibly arthouse successes of recent months being a hopeful indicator, I doubt we will ever reach a stage when entertainment barons are not desperately trying to force-feed audiences empty-headed - and ludicrously expensive - nonsense. It is also becoming clear that the studios see developing countries, such as the one where I reside, as being a replacement dumping ground for their celluloid atrocities.

The blogosphere is all very well as an outlet for hobbyists like me. But I generally find it necessary to look to established voices to learn more about what is out there to watch during the precious few hours I can spare away from home for personal entertainment during a given month. I crave practiced prose, the benefit of years of experience and more knowledge about film-making than I can possibly hope to forget. I have subscribed to certain writers for years now and with the familiarity which this brings, I find that it is even possible detect from a less-than-flattering review that I personally may yet be interested in seeing the title - such is the power of the critic's words. I read about most of the films I watch for the first time from these same writers. Be it a revived silent, a non-English language film, or an ostensibly shallow genre piece bearing subterfuge for those looking. Given the limited opportunities to socialize presented by my aforementioned situation, I often find that it is in print, with unwitting participants, that the real discussion is to be had. Most rewarding of all is the ability to progressively seek out entertainments, art-as-entertainment, and every now again the kind of artistic statement that leaves one under its spell days, or quite possibly years, later.

I pity (yes, pity!) those who seek to be entertained, and instead end up wallowing in the bottomless depths of whatever inanity Hollywood has decided to unleash during the summer blockbuster period. The chances of finding thoughtfulness, or well-crafted escapism (usually thoughtful itself) go up during the present award season. However, so far I have only been able to count on one hand the number of award frontrunners to make it to local screens, while the possibility of wandering into a film ridden with queasy-cam, CGI, yet devoid of a single intelligent idea is precariously near. 

The internet is awash with remedies to this, expounded by wise minds who are as in love with the world of film as much as the people who make films. A furniture-dwarfing HD television seems to be an essential piece of equipment in the home of an upwardly mobile family, while digitally restored DVDs are revelatory when compared to the rotten VHS tapes which were all that were available not so very long ago. It is baffling that more people do not put such modern technology to better use, when good free advice is a few clicks of the mouse away. I take special content in having rarely subjected myself to films that I have actively disliked over the years.


Rotten Tomatoes





The Guardian - Film

The AV Club

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