Friday, June 22, 2018

Caspar Salmon proposes that "everyone" needs film critics at The Guardian

The rebuttal to the charge that film critics aren't necessary is to the reactions that have proposed that some badly reviewed films like A Wrinkle in Time and Oceans 8 have gotten bad reviews because white male critics are too dominant in the critical establishment. I vaguely recall that claims that misogyny was to blame for the Ghostbusters remake not doing as well as hoped was bandied about a couple of years ago.  Mercenary sequel-churning from a studio doesn't seem like it can be ignored in the case of the Ghostbusters gambit.  Coverage from the time that attempted to present it as a woman-led action comedy seemed to just skip blithely past the success of the Underworld and Resident Evil franchises.  The idea that the Ghostbusters film had anything unusual to commend it simply because the female-team was supposedly unusual had to forget that two long-running action-horror genre franchises were headlined by Milla Jovovich and Kate Beckinsale (unless film critics want to seriously claim that everyone was watching the Underworld movies for Scott Speedman)

There are points Salmon raises about how inaccurate review aggregation at a site like Rotten Tomatoes is about what critical consensus even is.  That's worth noting.  A film could do well despite being labeled "rotten" at Rotten Tomatoes.  Salmon proposes that if female film-makers are given more projects and responsibility (which we could interpret as creative control) within production that they will have opportunities to make more films; by contrast, having more female film critics is not going to make things any more than indirectly better for women in film.  As stated the argument seems very nearly unassailable.  Let Patty Jenkins make another Wonder Woman movie and if it does well then whether or not white male film critics can bring themselves to take superhero films seriously is less significant.

But the concluding argument has me completely unconvinced by Solomon's overall case that film critics are somehow "necessary".  It's not that I can't appreciate the value of a review written by someone who would suggest you spare yourself the twenty you have to spend these days to see a movie that may eat up a couple of hours of your life. One of the many reasons I read criticism is because in many cases I'd rather read about a film more than I care to see a film.

But I just finished reading Jacques Ellul's The Empire of Non-Sense, out in an English translation since 2014. His last chapter addresses critical establishment from a late 1970s early 1980s moment in history in the West, and he points out that critics had by then largely sloughed off the recognition of how the emergence of the critic and critical tradition was inextricably tied to the bourgeois.  He wrote that just as bankers and businessmen have brokers so arts consumers have critics who tell them via reviews and critical traditions and expectations what product is worth buying.  Ellul pointed out that the critical tradition as we've come to recognize it in scholastic and literary terms was not an aristocratic tradition. The aristocrats who paid artists and musicians had no need of a critic to tell them what to invest in because the aristocrats already had the leisure, money and education to decide what they would and would not pay for. 

Though Ellul didn't give more specific examples the Esterhazy dynasty had no need of a music critic to tell them to hire Haydn, for instance.  The counts and dukes who commissioned Beethoven to compose music for them already knew Beethoven was good at what he did.  But as classical music became a middle-class proposition, as published sheet music became a popular and profitable means of sharing and promoting musical culture the 19th century polarity of profound Beethoven vs puerile Rossini kicked into high gear among critics and musicians. The arbiters of such a narrative were, historically speaking, critics.  Writers like Scott Timberg can lament that arts critics and writers can hardly get work these days but given the trajectory of post-industrial economics and globalism in the last forty years who could have expected things to turn out differently? 

To put it another way, if the middle class is dwindling then it's a matter of course that the middle-class tradition of arts criticism in connection to arts pedagogy is going to fade.  Ellul's polemic from 1980 was that art had devolved to the point where in a post-Barthes critical Western scene the critic was at the peak of the arts hierarchy by being able to decide what X or Y means for the consuming and commissioning social worlds.  The problem, as Ellul formulated it, was that arts critics wielded power at cocktail parties and social gatherings which was where artistic careers were really made rather than on the basis of looking at works as works.  Critics had been established as the priesthood that decided what was really art to begin with and therefore worth discussing but all without this priesthood coming to terms with its own inherently bourgeois nature amidst highbrow theorizing that Ellul believed served more to entrench a self-perpetuating critical aristocracy than the interests of art, an art that Ellul thought had devolved into theory-heavy jaunts into what might be dorm-level weekend pranks rationalized as art theory and art-as-politics rather than as anything like a traditional art discipline.  It's a cranky book, one I may have to write about later but it's an interesting book.  But then regular readers know I've been going through a few Ellul books in the last few years. 

If we can think of arts critics as priests who pronounce "clean" and "unclean" then it may be all the more salient why we "need" critics.  I'm all in favor of criticism as an artistic discipline and literary tradition, actually, but what I'm more skeptical about as I get older is how often criticism seems to not examine its own ... class distinctives.  It seems more and more as I get older and see the bromides about critical crisis that the bros may not recognize the privilege and ease with which they can dedicate their lives to writing about entertainment as if it is the Bible and they are exegetes who get to decide what is and isn't canonical. 

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