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2008.03.22

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Peter Nellhaus

I'm not sure if I'm one to speak about responsible film criticism, but what it seems to boil down to is a sense of territory and hierarchy. You'll find this in virtually every kind of society.

GrimFey

It does seem as if the conference was lite on content or discussion of the subject at hand. A roomful of great minds hanging out for a day, preaching to the converted.

You bring up a good point about responsibility, particularly at a time when more people are relying on the net for film information. Many bloggers are openly subjective, unlike many intellectuals who hide behind a perceived objectivity. Is that always a good thing? No. But I'll take that over one more name and/or theory-dropping piece any day.

girish

I just wanted to pop up and clarify a couple of things. As Kevin notes, the accounts at his site are not literal transcripts, just summaries of conversations, so generalizing from them can sometimes be misleading because the context might not always be apparent.

For example, Jonathan's comment about 'writing before thinking' was made in the very specific context of some unpleasant experiences he had at his Reader blog. And from everything I know of his writings, Adrian is all about demolishing cultural hierarchies in and beyond cinema. He has written with as much passion and enthusiasm about teen films and horror flicks as about art cinema or avant-garde cinema. I don't remember the exact details of that specific bit of conversation now, but I know for sure that he wasn't bemoaning the collapse of any cultural hierarchy, only the occasional collapse of civility on the Net.

Actually, I discovered from listening to them that Adrian and Jonathan spend quite a lot of time on the Net. Adrian (perhaps Jonathan too, I didn't get a chance to speak to him about this) is very enthusiastic about the possibilities for film criticism on the Net. He had nothing but good things to say about the film-blogosphere. The only time he expressed a minor reservation (that he wished that blog writing could be a little "tighter"), he immediately (and modestly) confessed that he was guilty of feeling an "old-fashioned" impulse to see a blog post cast into a traditional essayistic format. He even writes a regular monthly column on film blogs and sites for the Dutch magazine Filmkrant. On my site, I link to these columns regularly; they usually come out at the end of each month. In fact, contrary to our (or my, I should say) habit of sticking largely to the English-language film-blogosphere, he constantly searches for and turns up filmblogs in other languages and countries. I wish we did more of this.

I should also mention that the conference didn't strike me as an 'elite' event. I wasn't formally invited to it; I heard about it through the grapevine and dropped the organizers an email asking if I could fly down and attend it. And they said fine. The reason it wasn't formally open to the public until the very end had to do with NYU/funding-related reasons.

James

I'm a film blogger who has strenuously avoided calling myself a critic. I'm not. I'm a writer about film, or more accurately, about films. I think the blogosphere has plenty of room for people like me who are not academically trained in film theory, or who are not full-time journalists. Simply people who like films and like writing about their responses to them. The academics will find each other, and the average film lover will generally read the person whose responses resonate most closely with their own, whether that's in print or online.

When it comes to responsibility, my only real feeling is to try to expose my readers to some stuff that isn't widely distributed, like indie or documentary films. Other than that, I try to write honestly, and that's it.

Filmbrain

James --

I see your point, and while I don't disagree with your observations, I think the distinctions between blogger and critic are beginning to blur, at least from the perspective of individuals who simply Google the title of a film when looking for reviews.

As Girish pointed out, my misreading of Adrian Martin's "collapsing of cultural hierarchies" comment indicates that in the (near) future things won't be as clear as, say, going to a newsstand and choosing between Sight & Sound and Entertainment Weekly.

In conversations I've had with "real" critics, it is a perceived lack of responsibility that comes up time and again as a key factor in their opinion towards bloggers. I feel this needs to be addressed, somehow, so we don't all get lumped under the same umbrella.

HarryTuttle

Great reaction to this conference, Filmbrain, I have the same reservations about the format and the content coming out of what was a great opportunity to engage with serious issues with responsibility.

As you point out, the "established critics" enjoy rehashing the same old arguments about the "amateur blogosphere" as if nothing ever change year after year. They also keep focusing on the negative side as if defending their threatened territory. This is not news to anyone by now, who are they talking to? Could we move past the superficial generalisations on the "average blogger"? It's not helping to fix the problem when you keep polarized sides apart.

Girish, it's not your fault. Even if there was more talk, Kevin (who is filmmaker, critic and blogger) picked up comments that stood out (and I don't think he invented them). So if this serious topic brings up that kind of reflection it's not going to be productive, unless the point was to stick to conservative values of "print academia" and close your eyes on the future. I understand why they are attached to their tradition, but like Filmbrain says, we would like to hear what these great minds of the film criticism scene think about the new deeper problematics raised by the internet era (outside of the obvious flaws that an ignorant pundit could point to).

James,
everyone has responsibilities when they write about somebody else's work. Freedom of opinion about a film is one thing, and uneducated slander is another thing. Like Filmbrain says, when every article or blogpost on a film gets on equal footing in Google, when readers (and writers!) think that everything that is written on a film is therefore "criticism"... the audience begin to think that any argument is valid and that misinformation is the new standard.


Campaspe

"In conversations I've had with "real" critics, it is a perceived lack of responsibility that comes up time and again as a key factor in their opinion towards bloggers. I feel this needs to be addressed, somehow, so we don't all get lumped under the same umbrella."

Yep. I am not even sure who these perceived irresponsible film bloggers are. I guess I don't read them, though lord knows I have a long blogroll and you'd think one or two would be somewhere on it. I don't discuss all the phoney "critics" cited on the ads of lousy movies every time the name of a distinguished print critic comes up. I will take it as a given that the "bad" bloggers are out there, but how relevant are they?

Maya

It's good to hear your reservations about the event, Filmbrain. Thanks for bravely placing them on the table.

Adrian

Filmbrain - I appreciate your comments and the ensuing discussion here (see - I do check the blogosphere!), but some of your conclusions (like Dave Kehr's) based on a persual of Kevin's abbreviated/approximate/selective notes (but thanks for doing that, Kevin!) are, like, way off-base!! I agree with Girish's corrections and impressions (as always!). I certainly did not say that finding an anti-me webpage represented the collapsing of a cultural hierarchy, good lord!! This was meant mainly as a humorous anecdote about occasional tendencies to 'bad behaviour' on the web, not a statement on the Decline of Western Civilisation! And you may have found the set-up/registration process of the NYU conference event 'elitist' in some sense, but I honestly do not think that Jonathan or I (or Nicole, in absentia, for that matter) were pushing an elitist barrow, or trying to territorially preserve criticism as a thing that should only be done by official/certified critics. This would go against the spirit of most things I have done in my adult life!

Adrian

Filmbrain

Like Filmbrain says, when every article or blogpost on a film gets on equal footing in Google, when readers (and writers!) think that everything that is written on a film is therefore "criticism"... the audience begin to think that any argument is valid and that misinformation is the new standard.

Harry -- an excellent point. Where I think will be a serious problem in the future is for smaller, independent and foreign films. How will we find what's worth reading amidst all the noise?

Campaspe - yep, they're out there. In droves. As for their relevance -- well the studios are certainly taking them seriously, and it's not taken much to turn them into loyal servants. (Fly them out to the coast, buy them a drink and a meal, and they're yours.) Now obviously we don't care about the games studios play to get positive press for their tenth-rate product, but I do think it sets a dangerous precedent as well as creating dangerous generalizations about bloggers.

Filmbrain

Adrian --

Thanks for your comments. Your presence here is living proof of these collapsing hierarchies, and I apologize for misinterpreting your comment.

I woke up this morning to learn of Nathan Lee's dismissal from The Village Voice. That's the fourth full-time critic in NY we've lost in a month. The days of picking up a paper to read a trusted voice are dwindling fast. Sure, we'll always have the Times, but the majority of the populace will be reading syndicated hacks and corporate shills. Smaller, independent and foreign films are, more than ever, going to have to rely on online coverage, which is why I think a dialog on the responsibility of bloggers/critics is crucial.

As for the elitism of the event, the original registration page on NYU's site made it quite clear that outsiders weren't welcome. A shame. While I think it's great that Girish, Zach, Danny and others were able to attend, perhaps some voices from outside the circle might have made for a more beneficial and productive discussion of the topic at hand. This should have been a major event, not a tiny forum relegated to a single room at NYU.

With its lack of editors, the blogosphere is, by design, a big, beautiful, unruly mess. Yet as it continues its exponential growth, there simply won't be time for people to read through n-hundred blogs to determine who they like, and why. Perhaps one day computers and search engines will be intelligent enough to differentiate between those writing responsible criticism versus those simply trading in snark, or blurb whoring, etc. But until that time, how do we indicate a commitment to responsibility?

nkw88

I don't get the concept and context of responsibility in this situation. For me, 'being reasonable' or 'making sense' is a key point of film criticism. To mention the responsibility has been related to the role of a journalist. I am not sure if Rosenbaum and Martin consider a film critic as a journalist. The cultural hierarchy or the authority of a film critic comes from 'being reasonable'/'making sense' of one's own work, not from what kind of medium s/he writes one's own criticism on.

Blogosphere is a case of "open market of thought", the John Milton's classical concept. If a blogger's thought and review make sense and are attractive, there are many visitors.

logboy

a lot of the time i get the impression people writing about films online are saying something in order to be seen to have had something to say - to gain an audience to prove to themselves they're right in what they're saying, to give themselves something to do without it being the original or intended purpose thing that's being done as the priority.

more upsetting for me, people seem to want to avoid an understanding of the myriad of places creative characteristics appear and instead heading for one overall tone / approach / style / age or any other well-established feel / effect that can be found in art which is more broadly taken - and film, i think, is more prone to this than any other creative passtime or interest - to be the accepted norm for what's deemed a creative success; i.e you either get exhaultation for legends to be regarded as beyond reproach, or you get derogatory and frivolous attention to the latest trash novelty, but little understanding of how there's successes and failures in all places because creativity is far more subtle, detailed and deceptive than it's often remembered as being. there's also cycles in the industry of people intentionally discarding the past in order to attempt something new (and yet, although value remains in those once discarded, it's often a sticking point for people moving on and trying to progress - something key to creativity as much as past success), and that new legends are always going to be created and these people often start out initially being very much misunderstood or hard done by, and therefore you see little understanding (and confidence, bravery if you like) to be willing or able to say something doesn't interest you when it's often said it should (and without question) and certainly little confidence to say when something does work and should be held in higher regard when it's either incredibly popular, already dismissed, not regarded as having the approach or feel of art...

they're empty words often, or they're intentionally imbalanced (heading for certain fields, genres and sticking to them stubbornly, or just being reactionary in order to give the impression that more angry / derogatory words equates to more / deeper understanding), blatantly not attempting to find (or rather relax into) the natural, intended, true, detectable and distinguishable message / tone / intent of the film.

for me, with assessing something creative from my own opinion (and, although i've written before, i certainly don't see that much value in value in talk by comparison to experience, instinct, understanding in a way that words are struggling to capture and convey) i try to sense the intention and compare it to my reaction - if i instinctively feel the work fills the space it was intended to, i deem it a success.

Campaspe

Filmbrain, I see what we're talking about now -- the streetwalkers of the film blogosphere, we'll say. Well, there are definitely radio, tv and print critics like that as well. As long as the studio has money to throw around there will be. It is distressing, because the obvious aim is to make filmgoers believe in that saying that opinions are like a certain body part. No, they are not. Some opinions are well-informed and carefully thought out, and some are hasty, trivial and trite.

How do we indicate a commitment to responsibility? I guess ultimately all we can do is try to write well, and link to others who do the same.

Hugo Alexandre

Deceiving Apperances.

Seems to me like the blogosphere, the "responsible" one, badly wants to differentiate itself from bad criticism and in turn wish the existence of systems that recognize their exclusivity! Sounds very elitist to me.

If your writing is good, the reader will recognize it. That education of recognizing good criticism could be done within its own criticism (but should be largely done elsewhere). Yeah, the Village Voice lost a good critic. And yeah, high-profile publications don't always have the "best" writers. But that only means that the individuals who seek change must keep up the fight for visibility. Whether it's by starting DVD companies (here's looking at you filmbrain), or applying for positions in highly visible publications or better promoting their website, or starting their own magazines! (that is to say, we must do more than just write well and link to others who do the same).

Sometimes it sounds like people cant decide who their target audience is: the initiated or the unitiated. It's hard to do both. I think Adrian can do both while his articles at Rouge are more geared towards the former.

Paul Grant

Hi. I'm one of the organizers of the event and just wanted to clarify a few things:
1. Over half the people who attended the ROC event were non-NYU affiliated.
2. Nothing on the googlepage indicates that this was a closed event.
3. President Sexton wasn't exactly showering us with dough for the event, in fact I paid some of it out of my pocket, and as a grad student with a wife and child this is no minor feat.
4. The idea of 'responsibility' was explicitly in opposition to anything resembling a paternal "should." rather we wanted to explore criticism's various capacities to respond. Therefore Nicole's paper has everything to do with criticism, unless of course your definition of critic is synonymous with reviewer.

Anyway, it occurred to me while reading your response that you didn't care much for the various presentations, which leads me to wonder why you're concerned with maximizing attendance?

Paul

Filmbrain

Paul --

As organizer of the event, your response reads as if you feel personally attacked, and I'm sorry for that. I'm also sorry that NYU stiffed you for some of the cost - that sucks.

That said, this is New York City, and if you really wanted to publicize the event, it wouldn't have been hard to find film blogs and other online communities to help promote it. (Hell, you could have even charged people to attend.) People I've spoken with who were at the event confirmed that it wasn't exactly open to the public.

As for the presentations themselves, it's not that I didn't care for them, I just found that they (at least according the summaries I read) weren't addressing the topic as described by you, here. I'm not alone in my reaction, and you can read much more over at Harry Tuttle's Screenville, who wrote a far more eloquent response that can be found here.

Both of us express the same sentiment -- a missed opportunity.

Filmbrain

Logboy, Hugo, NKW -- thanks for your responses. Lots to chew on, and I'd like to take some time to ponder on them a bit more before responding.

Paul Grant

Hi,
Not personally attacked, but a little irritated. Both your discussion and HT's remind me of the complaints lobbed at programmers because once again at a Godard retrospective they programmed Breathless instead of six fois deux. The hypothetical curator is lambasted for not having a more catholic approach to the selection of films, when more likely it was a financial constraint, a lack of access to prints or the inability to get the film into the country. All of which is to say you don't know enough about the planning of the event to make the suggestions that you do, ie could have charged admission, which is not true; the small amount of money given to us by the school precluded the charging of admission. Its true that the event was not 'exactly' public, but no one who contacted me was told they couldn't attend, even though this was technically a school event for the students of the cinema studies department at NYU. We made a small effort to sneak the word into the public, but all this with a looming caveat that security might turn people away if it got too crowded or if the number of outside guests was larger than NYU affiliated participants (again, I mentioned before that there were in fact more non NYU attendees than students/faculty). The fact that you even know about it is in some sense an accident, which leads me to think that it was not so much a missed opportunity, but rather an opportunity a few people missed. Recently Pratt and Princeton held Rocha events, at Pratt Sarah Rocha spoke and brought two films. I didn't make either of the events, as I found out about Princeton after it happened and about Pratt only moments before. But at no time did I start suggesting that the programmers betrayed the popular aspects of Rocha, or that Sarah Rocha's presentation was bogus because she didn't touch on what I thought were the important themes in Rocha's work. Ultimately it was just one of those unfortunate 'missed opportunities' (I'm sure that right now there is some poor bastard who hasn't heard about Ranciere's speaking engagement at Columbia, and s/he's going to feel cheated when he does!)
However, the most irritating thing for me about the criticism I've read of the event (which so far I haven't heard too from anyone who attended) is the bandying around of the word "Responsibility." The word just keeps floating up to the surface, again, like some sort of punitive stricture. This finger wagging aspect of responsibility has little to do with what is interesting about responsibilities of criticism. Again, I repeat, it is about criticism's various abilities to respond. The description you have linked to was part of a grant proposal that I wrote to try to get some dough for the event. I didn't know it would be published, but it is not an accurate reflection of the intentions of the event. Just like any grant I apply for the wording is chosen to appeal to the giver, and not reflect the intricacies of the various projects. I suggest, also again, that Nicole's paper addresses this issue precisely and I am baffled by the confusion. It seems like responsibility isn't the crucial word to be interrogated but rather criticism. It is sort of like reading Sade/Fourier/Loyola and then saying that Barthes (a literary critic, at least!) didn't address whether Justine has a neat style, or if the sex scenes are hot enough, or whether Fourier's utopia is believable, or whether he gives these writer's a thumbs up or thumbs down. It is about-for Barthes ecriture- but for our purposes the circulation of works and ideas, the creation of curiosity and monstrous canons that approach their audience with an axe, and perhaps gives a big thumbs down to the reigning deflationary images and sounds that stand in for film and its criticism. It seems to me this is exactly what Nicole does, and in doing so she maintains a fidelity to the word responsibility in both your definition and mine.
I'm hoping next year that we can get Nicole to try again to come to NY. Maybe that event can be more public-actually I just wanted to add one last thing: I contacted a number of outside institutions (film related) to see if they wanted to hold a parallel event that would be open to the public: not a single taker-anyway back to Nicole, hopefully the next event can be structured in a way that is open to the widest possible audience.
Paul

HarryTuttle

Hi Paul Grant, I don't know you but I congratulate you for organising this ambitious event. There is no reason to feel ashamed of the debate that took place. I don't think anybody here has but respect and admiration for the people involved (Jonathan, Adrian, Nicole and Girish). It's disheartening to see you backpedal like this and deny your own words labelling the topic projected. You don't have to justify yourself (though it does explains certain misunderstood aspects we questioned). If you recognize that you couldn't realize your dream event (because of constraints out of your control, like having Nicole in), would you agree it is OK for us to criticize what we perceive from outside?

Now let's keep in line with your topic, and protect the right to dissenting criticism. We're just engaging with the content of the debate (at least I speak for myself). This is the backlash of the highest ambitions. Don't take it bad.

May I ask you directly if it is practically possible to access publicaly the recordings of the discussions? We'd be less misinformed next time if all this was shared in the public domain. Or is there any copyrights issues with NYU to put up MP3s of this kind of event? I thought this was the heart of your abstract : "As the technologies of filmmaking and distribution continue to proliferate, criticism must also develop in ways that are commensurate with its object in order to effectively respond…" indeed a great subject! Connecting and sharing with the online community would move in the right way.

Maybe next time we can get an event podcasted live (like the cinema debates organised at the Paris MoMA)

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