Introduction to the Thematic Area | Jacqueline Beck

Print journalism and film criticism are facing drastic changes as a result of digitalization. At the same time, however, the digital means of the production and reception of films can help us, possibly now more than ever, to view our society on a global scale. In this thematic area we will ask about what potential a critic of moving images can have in the digital space.

The End of Film Criticism?

"Was heisst hier Ende?" is the title of a documentary film that was shown at the Berlinale in 2015 as a tribute to the film critic Michael Althen, who died in 2011. And “what does it mean, the end?” we ask regarding a film criticism, which seems to appear only as the closing credits after the end of a glorious era, according to the remarks by upcoming editors and filmmakers. «What does an ending mean, when the happiness of lovers is in fact only beginning?», Althen pondered in a text from 2002. Just as stories evolve after their finale, the analysis of a film begins when we leave the cinema – as does the criticism.

Cinema fans really had a lucky break with the age of the Internet. Never before have so many films and series been produced and made globally accessible thanks to global channels of distribution. It has also never been so easy to learn about films, to formulate one’s thoughts about films and to share them with others.

Indeed, it doesn’t look good for the film critic these days. In 2007, the Irish literary scholar Rónán McDonald declared the “Death of the Critic” (McDonald 2007), and in 2009, film journalist Sean P. Means assigned the same diagnosis with a list of 55 American colleagues who had lost their jobs between 2006 and 2009 (Means 2009). Almost simultaneously, the long-standing film editor for the Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ) Christopher Egger wrote the “Farewell of the Film Critic” during his early retirement. The «unfortunately already legendary film desk of the NZZ», commented Schweizer Radio und Fernsehen expert Michael Sennhauser, via his blog, «which had already endured massive cutbacks in previous years, will now effectively cease to exist».

[...] Commercialization and superficiality present a threatening scenario, while turning to the Internet in an attempt to defend their own position has turned into an almost endless fight for attention.

Upheaval in Print Journalism

It has been primarily the editors of major daily and weekly newspapers who have dismissed their salaried film critics in recent years. The main cause for their departure is, as summed up in the words of Christoph Egger, «the current economic crisis, which is cyclically bound to a structural crisis (represented by the Internet) so that the (daily) newspapers and the profits from advertising break away twice».

To date, traditional media houses have not found a sustainable funding model for online journalism – the austerity measures in editorial offices are restricting most publishers. For print journalists in the film industry, working conditions have massively deteriorated. There are hardly any permanent jobs left – those that remain are only small part-time jobs –, the fees for freelancers are low and the pressure to produce for multiple channels, or to release publications with sound, images and text is shortening the time that one has to truly analyse any particular theme.

Film critics are not only struggling for time, but for space as well: «Interviews, portraits, even the occasional report from a film shoot are widely used as popular genres, but they are increasingly serving to replace the critic», writes Christoph Egger. While the cultural sections of many newspapers are decimated to a few pages, the classic film review now has to share pages with personal stories and lifestyle analyses. «The most obvious competition is the tabloid and lifestyle magazines, whose central vehicle is the key: short, colourful, and flooded with stars». Commercialization and superficiality present a threatening scenario, while turning to the Internet in an attempt to defend their own position has turned into an almost endless fight for attention.

[...] In some commentaries it seems that this “web weaver” can also be a parasite: one that captures the object of his desire – and thus robs it of its essence.

New Protagonists in the Field of Cultural Journalism

In principle, every film critic can be on the Internet; but at first they will basically have no audience whatsoever. Moviegoers and cinephiles are not necessarily relying on local newspapers or subscribing to monthly magazines. Thus the film journalist is competing on the Internet not only with the online content of newspapers, journals and magazines; he is also competing with sites like cineman.ch or imdb.com, who gather information, promotional material, reviews and a community in one place. They serve as the first port-of-call for many users – and often remain as their primary or sole source of information, because attention spans and time are limited.

Last but not least, the traditional film journalist is competing with the online figure of the blogger, who builds his own net of “followers” in a reinterpretation of readership. Those who are interested follow his text, sound, or video posts via RSS or Twitter, subscribe to his YouTube channel and friend him on Facebook – and thus he expands his own reach as he connects with others, shares content and becomes more visible with each link in the chain. In some commentaries it seems that this “web weaver” can also be a parasite: one that captures the object of his desire – and thus robs it of its essence. Because of his lack of expertise and because he follows the credo of speed, his content no longer lives up to a good standard: he is driven by his reflexes rather than reflection.

[...] «Internet criticism has, instead, unleashed a torrent of deceptive knowledge, “a form of idiot savantry” usually based in the unquantifiable “love of movies”».

Who Will Be Taken Seriously?

«By offering an alternative deluge of fans’ notes, angry sniping, half-baked impressions, and clubhouse amateurism, the Internet’s free-for-all has helped to further derange the concept of film criticism performed by writers who have studied cinema as well as related forms of history, science, and philosophy», wrote Armond White, chairman of the 2010 New York Film Critic Circle in an article. «This also differs from the venerable concept of the “gentleman amateur” whose gracious enthusiasms for art forms he himself didn’t practice expressed a valuable civility and sophistication, a means of social uplift. Internet criticism has, instead, unleashed a torrent of deceptive knowledge, “a form of idiot savantry” usually based in the unquantifiable “love of movies”».

In reality, the Internet offers a space for all forms of film reception: from thumbs up and rotten tomatoes, or from 140-character reviews (which also deserve to be taken seriously, as demonstrated by the first awarded prizes in the category “Tout court” of the “Prix Pathé” for film critics in 2017 at the Solothuner Filmtage) to elaborate film analyses in video-essays. The latter are becoming more relevant – for example, at the Locarno Film Festival – and are being talked about as the new customary means for reflection, «in which the interests and knowledge of film-experts and enthusiasts can be effectively linked» (opening text for the round table “Film criticism in motion”).

[...] History has shown us that every major upheaval, in the media, is accompanied by fears and culturally sceptical statements.

Reproduction of Old Mechanisms in Online Criticism

The most watched video by Tony Zhou, one of the most renowned essayists in the USA – where the genre of video-essays had spread before it did in Europe –, might actually count more than 9 million views. While video-essays start by getting into the production means of a film as well as its aesthetic realisation, many other forms of online critics reproduce what had already appeared on the radio, on television and in print. «According to Claudio Bisoni, the web and the digital do not guarantee that the style and language of traditional criticism will be challenged», write Giacomo Manzoli and Paolo Noto in the conclusion of their analysis of Vlogs in Italian. «Those who do not have access to certain cultural institutions are allowed to reproduce the dynamics found elsewhere: being the expert, playing the role of indisputable authority, enjoying intellectual prestige, and so on, in a kind of pop re-appropriation of the “expert” paradigm» (Manzoni-Noto 2015, 112f).

The death of the film critic is, therefore, also about the purported departure from an authority and a prerogative of interpretation, which one had to earn as a journalist or academic, but which is hardly called into question once a certain stature had been attained. As the film and media scholar Mattias Frey illustrates in an analysis of the film rating portal Rotten Tomatoes, these mechanisms are also maintained on the Internet (Frey 2015): films receive the award “Certified Fresh” only when they are recommended by 75% of the “Approved Tomatometer Critics”, including five “Top Critics”. The classification of the ratings is based on an accreditation system that rates the professional status and reputation of a critic.

«From the very first film critics», notes Frey, «including the early trade press through the post-war leading organs of film criticism, the worry over a loss of status as well as the “dumbing down” of film criticism, has continually reappeared in remarkably consistent language» (Frey 2015, 83). History has shown us that every major upheaval, in the media, is accompanied by fears and culturally sceptical statements. But when we look at it separately from the figure of the critic, it is more a question of what effect the development of the digital world is having on our collective social consciousness.

[...] «Speaking has become easier, but being heard is more difficult than ever».

[...] Many niche-communities are evolving out of a resistance to the mainstream at the moment.

Between Marketing Logic and Developing Niches

«Speaking has become easier», writes Frey about the possibilities for online publication, «but being heard is more difficult than ever» (Frey 2015, 95). Those who want to draw attention amidst all of the babble can try one of two things: either screaming at the top of their lungs, in order to be heard by as many people as possible, or breaking away and attracting a group of listeners, who are especially interested in a particular concept or knowledge. Both tendencies are viewed with some concern.

The promotional machinery of the film industry is threatening to drown out everything around it, and it has become much more difficult for the film critic to function independently in the face of this dominating figure or to draw enough attention amidst the clamour of the industry’s self-promotional barrage. The marketing logic encompasses both the listings and the reception: «Film distributors and cinema operators have given up on the uniqueness of earlier arthouse cinemas in recent years. Today an alternative to mainstream programming is almost nowhere to be found», bemoans the German film critic union in its “Leaflet for Film Critic Activist”. In parallel to this, the critic finds himself in a tight predicament: «In order to succeed, he has to adapt his way of thinking to the prevailing norms and market conditions, […] Whoever gives up on thinking loses the ability to question the current situation». 

«Where there is a tendency for too much information», the cultural scientist and journalist Mercedes Bunz states in an essay, «it is worth taking notice when something is well-made, wonderful or successful – failure is more likely to fall into oblivion» (Bunz 2014, 271f). Are we, as a society, still able to critically scrutinise and to discern different viewpoints? Yes and no: one could answer, looking at the second strategy to overcome the babble. Many niche-communities are evolving out of a resistance to the mainstream at the moment. Specialised know-how is playing an important role in this and is, accordingly, being carefully examined and fervently debated. The only thing is: communities mostly keep to themselves, with a limited view to the outside world, as much as the view from the outside looking in is also limited.

[...] an implosion of society, resulting from the formation of insular “bubbles” as fewer people are relying on the same opinion-forming sources of information.

What Do We Want to See?

What was once gained by leafing through a newspaper or listening to the radio is becoming a rarity and being replaced by the personalised searching and following on the Internet: the accidental discovery, the broadening of our horizon. Sites like Rotten Tomatoes, which link and combine reviews from a global database with the help of algorithms, or also hand-picked and even curated sites such as the Facebook page of Filmbulletin or Revolver, who make noteworthy contributions and reference a wide variety of sources, all look to fill this gap. On the whole, Ruedi Widmer, Professor of cultural publicity, has spoken about an implosion of society, resulting from the formation of insular “bubbles” as fewer people are relying on the same opinion-forming sources of information (Widmer 2014, 17). Common levels of knowledge, relevant discussions and valuations can no longer be taken for granted.

When the Focus editor Harald Pauli asks, in “Was heisst hier Ende?”: «What is left for us to expect from a film critic?», we ask: «What are the important functions and tasks that the film critic should carry out in the digital age?». And when Claudius Seidl, from the Sunday edition of the Frankfurter Allgemeine laments: «One who claims to have re-invented the way of writing about films or to have a completely new perspective, just doesn’t cut it», then we ask about the (un-) claimed potential in the digital space. A passion that is shared by many seems to provide a good premise for a dialogue to take place, in which many can participate. Where should it take place? We would propose viewing this end as a new beginning.


The Contributors

Film and media scholar Mattias Frey looks at the crisis of film criticism from a historical perspective and says: «Fundamental changes will have to do with undemocratic limits to content».

Cultural scientist Mercedes Bunz questions the effect that technology has on us and how we use technology: «Today, it is about understanding our responsibilities and our participatory roles beyond criticism».

Kevin B. Lee, former protagonist of the video essay scene, is stepping aside after having published over 360 works in order to gain a more holistic view of the economic environment around the moving image: «How can we break the spell of online self-hypnosis?».

Michael Baute is an expert on film-mediating films and is working together with students to find an individual voice in video essays: «I would like to see more idiosyncratic work in the field of film journalism».

Short Bibliography

Bunz 2014: Mercedes Bunz, “Was ist Kritik im Zeitalter der Digitalisierung?”, in Ruedi Widmer (ed.), Laienherrschaft. 18 Exkurse zum Verhältnis von Künsten und Medien, Diaphanes, Zürich-Berlin 2014.

Egger 2009: Christoph Egger, “Abschied von der Filmkritik”, Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 11th of June 2009.

Frey 2015: Mattias Frey, “The New Democracy? Rotten Tomatoes, Metacritic, Twitter, and IMDb”, in Mattias Frey, Cecilia Sayad (edd.), Film Criticism in the Digital Age, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick 2015.

Manzoli-Noto 2015: Giacomo Manzoli, Paolo Noto, “The Price of Conservation: Online Video Criticism of Film in Italy”, in Mattias Frey, Cecilia Sayad (edd.), Film Criticism in the Digital Age, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick 2015.

McDonald 2007: Rónán McDonald, The Death of the Critic, Continuum, London 2007.

Means 2009: Sean P. Means, “The Departed – No. 55, Phil Villareal”, The Salt Lake Tribune, 7. Mai 2009 (Online-source no more available).

Sennhauser 2009: Michael Sennhauser, “Abschied eines Filmkritikers von der Filmkritik”, Sennhausers Filmblog, 12th of June 2009.

Verband der Deutschen Filmkritik, Flugblatt für aktivistische Filmkritik; VDFK Online, 4th of May 2015.

White 2010: Armond White, “Do Movie Critics Matter?”, First Things, 19th of March 2010.

Widmer 2014: Ruedi Widmer, “Für Interpretation”, in Ruedi Widmer (ed.), Laienherrschaft. 18 Exkurse zum Verhältnis von Künsten und Medien, Diaphanes, Zürich-Berlin 2014.

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