The Permanent Crisis of Film Criticism | Mattias Frey

«Fundamental changes will have to do with undemocratic limits to content»

The permanent crisis of film criticism

The Internet is both cursed and promising: lauded as the technology that makes possible the democratisation of the production and reception of cultural goods, demonised as a space that transforms criticism into superficial nonsense dominated by commercial interests and click-rates. The film and media scholar Mattias Frey highlights the consistency of this discourse throughout the history of the developing media. Yet in fact, film criticism finds itself today at a crossroads, he says.

Text-Interview with Mattias Frey

Mattias Frey, in 2015 you published a book titled The permanent crisis of film criticism. How bad is the outlook for film critics in your eyes?

The depth of today’s crisis of film criticism hinges largely on a matter of perspective between the consumers and producers of criticism. For many of the former, film criticism could hardly be in a better state: today anyone who can afford a reliable internet connection can access writing about film from Iran, Nigeria, Japan or anywhere else with a few clicks of a mouse and largely for free. Aggregators like Rotten Tomatoes, Metacritic, AlloCiné or allow a quick overview of many evaluations. No longer is the consumer subjected to tyrannies of geography whereby he or she must read the opinions of a few local or national critics. There is a hitherto unprecedented diversity of forms – from capsule reviews and vlogs to video essays and long-form academic articles – available among an ever-proliferating array of websites and publications.

And from the perspective of film journalism?

Seen from the other perspective, film criticism could not be in worse shape. The media landscape is under huge strain from digital disruptors and film critics have suffered even worse than their ailing peers in political or business journalism. Despite the aforementioned easy availability of writing on film, almost all of this is being offered for a pittance or nothing at all. In 2009, an American colleague estimated that there were 100 people making their living as film critics in the United States. I would reckon that this number has fallen by at least a third and as much as a half since then and that a similar trend is at work in other countries. This development is surely more drastic in countries with a more consolidated media sector (e.g., Britain) than others (e.g., Germany), but it is taking place in every highly industrialised country that I have studied. In sum, then, film criticism finds itself at a crossroads. To where this itinerary will lead is as of yet uncertain, but it will doubtless pertain to much larger developments in media ownership, future consumers’ behaviours regarding paywalls, to what extent Facebook and Google (or others) will play gatekeepers to information and news, and so on.

Which scenarios can you imagine?

A nightmare scenario would be an end of net neutrality and an oligopoly of (pseudo-) criticism by the likes of Google, Facebook, Amazon and the Murdochs. Another scenario would see much quality criticism behind paywalls. There will surely come a point where – because of paywalls or better monetisation of advertising – a core volume of criticism becomes better compensated financially. The present situation, where too many are writing essentially for free, is unsustainable. For a while now we have seen our best students – our brightest minds – go into business consulting or finance because professions in these sectors are compensated to such a high degree. This is a huge waste of talent and the quality of our culture is suffering for it

Can you roughly outline which crises the film criticism has already endured since the uprising of video technology?

The initial crises of criticism were existential battles. Writers needed to prove that film criticism, then a laughable prospect to many (who saw motion pictures as trivial diversions unworthy of serious thought), were even necessary. Some tried to prove their worth by catering to the industry’s needs; others, in contrast, attempted to justify themselves with a highly critical stance towards the industry and instead followed the lead of important precursors, like theatre, music or literature criticism. Once film criticism became a more or less accepted part of newspapers’ scope, it underwent another series of crises that had to do with the expansion and dispersion of film culture: suddenly, small cinephile magazines arose that challenged the function and tastes of the representatives of mainstream media and state-sponsored arts institutions.

A further challenge came with the rise of television.

The appearance of film criticism on television and in syndicated columns pitted those who sought to spread criticism as widely as possible (via so-called public, authoritative critics) against those who found such criticism to simply dilute, cheapen or “dumb down” the activity and profession of criticism. Most recently, the movement of criticism online, the rise of aggregating services like Rotten Tomatoes or AlloCiné and the perceived waning of important critics with name-recognition (now mourned rather than demonised!) have produced the latest iteration of crisis.

How did the role of the film critic change over time?

Although the best film critics are elegant literary stylists, as a mode of expression criticism has a fundamental difference to poetry or the novel: it always responds to a pre-existing object, in this case a film. Thus, film criticism has always had a symbiotic relationship with film distribution: after all, only films that are being shown can be evaluated. But this also means that the function and status of the film critic will to some extent wax and wane according to the quality and social value of the films distributed at any one time.

How was this manifested?

In the beginning of film history, films were very short and consisted of very quotidian, some might say primitive, scenarios. Correspondingly, film criticism took place not in daily or weekly newspapers, but in trade publications aimed at the industry. It functioned as a service somewhat like a quality control department: pointing out mistakes (blurry shots or continuity errors) or advising on which films or scenes made the audience laugh or pay attention.

The advent of the film critic appearing in newspapers and magazines came together with an increased demand for films of higher quality.

Once films became longer and aspired to be more complex in their narratives and stylistic techniques in the later 1910s and especially in the 1920s, newspapers responded by beginning to publish film reviews. Specialty magazines aimed at cinephiles (rather than industry types) arose. It was only at this point that film criticism, in the way most people use the term today, began taking place, and dedicated film critics began to work (rather than theatre or music critics moonlighting in cinemas). Film critic associations were formed in France and Germany, a step that further professionalised the activity.

Film critics would later become one of the most important entities next to the artists themselves.

In the postwar period, film became more widely recognised for its artistic potential and a circuit of arthouses and repertory cinemas began showing more sophisticated fare; festivals added glamour and sex appeal. Film critics enjoyed an increase in status and visibility: see, for example, their appearance as characters in films by Woody Allen or Bob Fosse. There was a sense – at least amongst hip, in-the-know culture vultures – of dialogue with critics who shared their opinions in confessional or unabashedly subjective ways, whether Pauline Kael at the New Yorker or Frieda Grafe at Filmkritik.

Today, film critics are reproached once again for their superficiality and their proximity to the film industry.

Many commentators point to the emergence of high-concept blockbusters like JAWS – a by-product of Hollywood producers more attuned to audience demographic segmentation – as the beginning of the film critic’s long decline, by which they mean the redefinition of the film critic as purveyor of consumption advice, a mere extension of marketing departments. I tend to see this development in a more nuanced way. Although surely films such as Star Wars and other top-dollar franchises dominated boxoffices and headlines by the 1980s, many if not most film critics continued to write about and advocate artistically challenging material, even if such films were being increasingly relegated to festivals and arthouses.

You have shown that the mechanisms of expertise and authoritative opinions are also maintained in the Internet. On what grounds do you make this assertion?

Many if not most film critics have reacted with suspicion if not outright hostility to new media developments such as Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic, arguing that such websites degrade the status of critics and criticism by reducing fine-tuned arguments rendered by experienced professionals to a misleading numerical quotient. In my book I demonstrate how such diagnoses are exaggerated at best; my analysis shows that such sites venerate critics and criticism in crucial ways by proposing that consumers should pay attention to the opinions and knowledge of critics – rather than advertisements, trailers, word of mouth and so on. Indeed, critics often overlook that most film viewers see criticism as existing on a spectrum of many possible sources of information about a certain film, a spectrum with blurry boundaries that the hyperlinking logic of the internet has arguably blurred even further.

How influential are critics then in reality?

Again, I think there is a disconnect between the conversation that critics have been having essentially among themselves and the thinking and behaviour of the “average user”. In my book I demonstrate how Pauline Kael – the US-American reviewer remembered by filmmakers and other film critics as having a “make-or-break” effect on productions – in fact never wielded such a magical power and authority. And this phenomenon is international. Empirical research has shown that no matter how authoritative the critic is supposed to be, reviews maintain no effect on the box-office of most films and only a modest effect on some films, in particular, small arthouse films that have very small marketing budgets and would not have enjoyed much publicity at all.

Is there a difference online between the significance attributed to film critics working in more traditional formats and those who work with newer forms of publication like blogs?

I think what is interesting about the phenomenon is how traditional instantiations of authority – whether the powerful “public” critic or institutions like the New York Times arts pages or Sight and Sound – are, on the one hand, being usurped to some extent by upstart bloggers and online publications. On the other hand, these older institutions are often absorbing these competitors in order to preserve their dominance. But I see this less as a revolution and more as a predictable fluctuation as new players emerge. In the history of film criticism we have often seen attempts by established players to stay ahead of trends by essentially enveloping upstarts. The new media have only accelerated this effect.

How would you assess the fact that film criticism on the Internet is not so democratic after all, as many have hoped or feared?

Much of my research revolves around the history of new media. One common pattern coincides with the introduction of a new medium, whether the telephone, cinema, television or the internet: the democracy discourse. This entails claims that this new medium will revolutionise users’ lives and will rebalance the hierarchy between elites and commoners, producers and consumers, city and countryside, and so on. This thinking begins of course with the marketing rhetoric from those who stand to benefit financially from the new technology and then infects the paraindustry: Wired magazine and its precursors, newspaper reporters and columnists and finally academia (e.g., Henry Jenkins). But in nearly every case, the story ends as follows: (1) the new medium is not as revolutionary or democratic as advertised; (2) large companies or corporations succeed in controlling and monetising the new medium for commercial gain; and (3) the new medium sets into motion socio-cultural changes or challenges that were not initially predicted.

Considered with this history in mind then, I am not surprised that a film blog established by a seventeen-year-old is statistically bound to remain little read by more than his or her circle of friends and then quickly abandoned. Likewise, I am sure that there will be some fundamental, perhaps surprising changes likely to coalesce soon. But if I had to predict I would say that they have to do with further “undemocratic” limits to content (for example: paywalls becoming the norm for most quality criticism and journalism).

Accompanying the discussion on democracy, there is the fear of a loss of a public platform, the foundation of which supports the communication of a whole society. Do you believe that the media can function as a forum?

This forum function has always been the media utopia; and yet truly achieving this function would make most media – at least in a capitalist order – superfluous. If the reader/user were to be able to enter into a conversation with the writer/critic on an equal footing (that is, they both possessed an equal amount of information or knowledge and expressive ability about a certain topic to be able to function as coequal discussants), then why would the reader/user need the writer/critic? This has always been the contradiction of the critic, as Jürgen Habermas demonstrates: s/he needs to function as both member and leader of the public sphere’s formation of opinion.

Can you give an example of this?

In the history of film criticism we see how this has played out in practice. In my book I elaborate on the example of the West German cinephile magazine Filmkritik. It began as a publication dedicated to a mode of analysis in the vein of Siegfried Kracauer: the critics eviscerated contemporary German films by highlighting how they displayed continuities with lingering fascist thought. After a few years of this – this is clear from the letters to the editor and comments in other film journals – readers were sophisticated enough to perform these kinds of analysis on their own and many saw no added value in buying a magazine to tell them what they could discover by themselves. Faced with this mutiny of their readers, Filmkritik largely abandoned political-symptomatic criticism and moved increasingly towards a subjective, personalised, opaquely written form of engagement with films. This had the benefit of being essentially unique and unreproducible.

Are there hubs or platforms on the Internet that one can relate to, as a film scholar or critic, and where one can assume that they will be heard?

Both film criticism and film scholarship have become increasingly atomised, although I do not register this as being necessarily a negative phenomenon. The so-called fragmentation of society and the public sphere, a perennial concern since at least the Victorian Age, has often been exaggerated by stern newspaper columnists and in books such as Eli Pariser’s The Filter Bubble. In fact, I think the increased scope of film culture demonstrates how strong and diverse the interest in film has become. But it is true that the proliferation of film blogs and academic journals means that each individual article or review – unless it somehow goes viral – is being read by fewer and fewer people than in the heyday of Screen or the visibility of Laura Mulvey’s essay on “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, which most film critics and every film scholar has read. Again, though, I think we are in the middle of a massive media consolidation so that many of today’s blogs and journals will no longer exist in a few years’ time. It is perhaps too early to predict, but maybe we will soon readjust our notion of a successful publication’s life span: pop-up journals.

The networking mechanisms on the Internet help support the development of communities. Are they more conducive or obstructive to a democratic consciousness and the sense of civic responsibility?

This really depends on the intentions and motives of the individuals who make up and guide these networks. Humans are social creatures and we all need to feel that we belong to a community, whether that group meets face-to-face or exists virtually via IP addresses. But I have little faith in the naïveté of the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world, who seem to believe that social networks are a priori good. The gatekeeping functions that were once exercised by editors-in-chief or press regulators are now being performed by Facebook newsfeeds and Google’s search algorithms, but in a way that is intentionally less visible and suffused with a mendacious democracy discourse. These companies are not solely to blame for the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom and the last presidential vote in the United States, but I would find preposterous any claim that their services have on balance produced a more informed community better able to execute their democratic duties.

In the book It’s only a movie! Films and critics in American culture, Raymond J. Haberski writes that the youngest generation of moviegoers has become very apathetic. How would you explain this development?

I am not sure his claim is true. In my book I contest the argument that film viewers are as a whole becoming less discerning by demonstrating that in almost every period of film criticism, writers have maintained that the current generation’s films or viewers have become “dumbed down”. But what is true is that young viewers have experienced film through much different means than I did. One scholar has recently conducted a study to contrast those who first experienced film primarily via home video from the older generations, who often associated film with cinemagoing. What we are seeing among the younger generation (but I suspect increasingly among all age groups) is a general devaluation – not of film, but of the individual film.

Why is that?

On the one hand, there has been a huge increase in the sheer quantity of productions since the advent of digital cameras, the proliferation of festivals and increased funding avenues. On the other hand, we have witnessed the move towards unlimited DVD rentals by post, automatic DVR recording functions and above all the all-you-can-watch streaming subscription models of Netflix and Amazon. These services have decoupled the traditional link between payment and individual films. Rather than appointment viewing – i.e., I read a listings magazine or a film review or see an advert or hear my friend’s recommendation and go to a cinema at a certain time to see the film or to a video store to rent that film for the night – we see the rise of another relationship with film, whereby I turn on Netflix and might start four or five films that fail to engage me before I actually settle on the film (or, increasingly, series) that will occupy me for the evening. Of course, this is not to say that films today no longer move audiences emotionally or no longer fascinate them or make them think. But it is clear that faced with the huge supply of films, the increased ease of access and the increased competition from thousands of other potential leisure activities available via a screen interface, the value of an individual film has decreased significantly.

Yet, some films manage to build an audience worldwide through the global reach they have obtained. By what means can this be used for a socio-political debate?

I am sometimes asked what I think about the Academy Awards or critics’ awards and I think my answer is applicable also here to the general question about the resonance of a film beyond a local or insider audience. These factors are important for agenda-setting. They put a film and its concerns onto an agenda larger than cinephiles, larger than the people normally willing to spend their precious time to be moved or experience something innovative. It has been a traditional function of film criticism (but also film programming, such as festivals) to serve as the conduit for this agenda-setting. Often, exposing the film to larger public will prove to be a case of diminishing returns: research has shown that as a book (and the same should be applicable to film) wins important awards, its audience increases but its users’ ratings decrease. Nevertheless, if these people are moved by the film enough to grapple with an important social issue, perhaps how they evaluate the film aesthetically is secondary.

In the documentary film Was heisst hier Ende? many are saying that film criticism has become very boring, or to have lost its edge. Does this also apply to the film criticism online? In your opinion, what would be the most exciting and promising approach?

I watched this film in April at a conference of academics and film critics, after I had given a presentation about my research. Several commented that the interviewees in the film seemed like paradigmatic proof of the “permanent crisis of film criticism”. But part of their blasé, or even cynical, attitude can be explained by a phenomenon that we see again and again in the history of film criticism: it’s a job that wears one down. Watching dozens of films a month – many of them of poor quality and most of them conforming to predictable genre rules – and having to offer a well-written opinion on them has proved soul-destroying for many. We see this with almost all critics, even in the reviews of Siegfried Kracauer, Pauline Kael or Manny Farber, for example. Most film critics come to the profession as an efficient way to live out their hobby. How horrible is the disappointment then when their expectations have begun so high. Some of the young internet critics are watching Antonioni or Welles or Oshima or an Ecuadorean film for the first or second time. And some of the vloggers are skilled filmmakers in their own right, able to produce a video essay that transcends a bored rereading of a written text. There is further room for improvement in the video-essay genre.

In what way?

Too many exemplars are simply shovelware, that is, they do not actually make productive use of the formal properties of video; production values are often low. Others feel more like trailers. (To be sure, the added value of criticism vis-à-vis publicity has long been a subject of debate, well before vlogs began.)

What is the most important task that you think the film critic should take on today?

Here I must return to Kracauer: «the film critic of note is conceivable only as a social critic». I understand this dictum in a broad sense: not, as is sometimes claimed or practiced, to reduce a film to a simple ideological message or to conjure up fanciful meanings in service of a political project or rant. Rather, criticism should examine its object with the knowledge that it was made by people, about people and for people, that it is a product for, and by-product of, society. This requires a certain sensitivity to human motivations and stories: the big picture. It demands an approach that understands the details but refuses to remain lodged in minutiae. Critics must be cognisant of film history but also attend to culture beyond feature filmmaking: television, video games, music, art, literature, psychology, human history. Good criticism acknowledges that films are no longer usually seen in large dark halls with strangers and that their readers – the strangers for whom critics write – probably do not look like them nor share their life experiences.

Does the Internet help to accomplish this task in a way that is more supportive or aggravating?

The internet can – potentially – help a good critic fulfil his or her task, including in acquiring knowledge, gaining empathy, accessing film history and in disseminating criticism. We will have to await the outcomes of the coming battles of media ownership and consolidation, however, in order to estimate whether good critics will be supported or hindered by the technology and its corporate masters. Upstart, transformational critics have always defied institutional hegemony – two examples from my book are the early Filmkritik or the challenges to Sight and Sound from Movie and others – and caused larger players to change. But I must admit I sometimes worry about corporate interests that would like to increase barriers to entry on the internet. If they succeed in closing down this supposedly democratic channel, what other avenues will quality criticism have to find an audience?


The interview was conducted by Jacqueline Beck in writing - September 2017

Trailer of «Was heisst hier Ende?» (2011), Essayfilm by Dominik Graf on Michael Althen

Mattias Frey is a reader in Film and Media Studies at the University of Kent, Managing Director of the Centre for Film and Media Research and an Editor of the journal Film Studies. Frey's books include The Permanent Crisis of Film Criticism: The Anxiety of Authority and Film Criticism in the Digital Age (co-edited with Cecilia Sayad). In the 2000s, he reviewed movies for the Boston Phoenix and for many years he reported on film festivals for Senses of Cinema.