Thursday, July 16, 2015

Looking at Modern Criticism Where Television Flourishes and Cinema Crumbles

Last week was a flaming cannonball to the gut with the news that the best and most in-depth movie site, The Dissolve, was closing down. Some took this as a sign that "specialization" was dead in pop culture writing, which has the sad consequence that smaller independent and foreign films are going to get less and less words because there is only so much space and so many writers to cover cinema when the hand is being forced to pay attention to television as well.

And in a "wow, my timing is almost near perfect" moment for my career, many movie critics and writers are lamenting the state of film criticism and analysis as the medium no longer tracks the audience necessary to make it profitable (though my disappearing clients already was telling me that). There are those that disagree and sites like RogerEbert.com seem to have grown a loyal and strong audience. Basing on broad appeal across the internet, film criticism has tumbled down the mountain and may have stabbed its pick axe into the rocks but it is still dangling.

While this is happening, television criticism is soaring into the heavens and sprinkling its magical fairy dust across the nations. It is popular. A big example is TV critic Alan Sepinwall's daily columns and TV reviews, What's Alan Watching, is one of the most popular sections on the major pop culture site, HitFix, and is also the only writer that gets a permanent and easy to find link on the front page. Their film critics need some navigation to be found but Sepinwall is trotted out like fine China to impress the guests. He deserves it, because he is considered the writer that has elevated the form and made writing and reviewing TV into the hot commodty it has become on most entertainment websites (even most movie websites are now covering some television).

Why is one form of criticism struggling while another thrives? Now, it is likely in both cases to be hard to make a living on just criticism unless you have an established name or have incriminating photos of a major magazines editor-in-chief. But one medium has several new writers emerging and is gaining loyal readers while another is collecting dust. Why exactly is that happening?

TV is at a Golden Age with not only works like The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones with rabid audiences that are eager to discuss and dissect each episode but also challenging, compelling and complex series like The Americans or Fargo. They're telling the kind of stories that movies once did 40 years ago with a similar counter-culture and subversive tone. TV is on a creative roll and maybe that is flattening out the thrills for the more stagnant movie industry. An industry that is becoming more and more devoted to one kind of story.

But there are still movie sites with eager and frothing fans that want to see every trailer and clip and on-set still that can be offered. It isn't like all fans have died off or the industry is in the toilet. To be fair, despite my above paragraph, there are quite a few great to amazing movies being released not just at the independent level but as this summer has proven at the mainstream level with instant classics like Mad Max: Fury Road and Inside Out.

TV is hot, but I wouldn't say movies are cold. Yet film criticism is light years behind in popularity compared to TV. It is even proven on this site where more often my TV reviews garner a way larger audience than my movie reviews (with some exceptions). I think it is something about the form and style that makes one review more popular than the other.

A traditional movie review is written like a sneak preview where there is a short summary that describes the main set-up and then in a spoiler-free fashion tries to work out some of the themes, describes the aesthetic quality, the value of performances, and generally lets the viewers know if they should see it. It is like a consumer guide. Usually a critic will need to analyze and reveal a few scenes in order to back up their views and points. There are attempts to explore the depth of the movie and create provocative discussion, but in the end, it is often written for readers that haven't seen the movie.

While TV show reviews and recaps are often written right before or shortly after the episode has been aired. There is largely an assumption the reader has seen the episode or understands the risk that it will be spoiled when reading. Plot points are deeply analyzed and discussed, and often the entire episode is recapped. A good review though is more than just a regurgitation of what happened, but still explores the themes and does the analysis that exists in movie reviews but now the entire plot and several scenes are used to bring depth and back up points. There also are usually predictions of what the events will mean for future episodes and working through the motivation of the characters. The TV reviews simply provide a lot more meat and substance.

The TV review is a conversation starter. It triggers debates on social media. It gives readers a new perspective on the episode. It breeds excitement over future episodes' potential stories. The key here though is likely how it encourages and brings life through interaction. The modern reader wants to engage and be part of the conversation. A movie review can't do that until after it has been seen by the masses.

I also think spoilers are highly overrated. I do believe that for a new movie that the major twists and turns should be left alone. A good writer can dig deep into the guts of a picture without spoiling the experience for the reader. I also think that a film review needs to have depth and be a lot more than a recap of the first 20 minutes and then a recommendation to see or avoid. There needs to be complex analysis not just of the acting and cinematography and if the screenwriting worked but rather explore what the movie means and how all the elements came together to create emotion and an experience for the viewers. This means discussing and analyzing actual scenes even if it has to be in vaguer terms than a television review. A good review is something that should add more value and thought for a reader after one returns from seeing the movie. It should be way more than just a thumbs up or down.

Roger Ebert was probably the best film critic to do all the things I described. He also probably was the most bullish when it came to revealing spoilers (especially if he didn't like a movie). He realized that movie reviews needed to be conversation starters. His reviews were companion pieces to movies that added to the experience.

Film criticism isn't dead but it can't be exactly like TV criticism. Mainly because they are very different mediums. One is supposed to be a standalone story (thought Marvel and company are making that less the case) and the other is long form storytelling that opens itself up to more hypothesizing. In both cases, it should be more than just deciding if something is good or bad.

Criticism of art is valuable. It is valuable if it offers insight and new perspectives. It should be used to compare against today's major social issues and look at how society has influenced it or what the art means to us. It should dig into how the past has influenced it. It should look at what the technical aspects say about the story telling and how those elements amplify the message and art. Art means something and is valuable to our culture. Film and TV criticism can play a big part in adding to that value and bring forth important discussion.

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