TAKING THE NOSEDIVE INTO POP FILM CRITICISM
At all of seven years old, my father decided to officially induct me into the glamorous world of pickiness, hard-assery, and popular film criticism by flipping on Mystery Science Theatre 3000.
Just in case your own goofball father never wised you up to the wonders of MST3K, I’ll give you a quick catch-up:
Flung to life on a literal shoe-string budget, this hit comedy special series revolves around the premise that a guileless American everyman had been shot into space by an evil mad scientist, where he would be forced to watch the most terrible moves ever made until he was driven insane.
Spoiler alert: the villain may have underestimated how resilient the American everyman can be when faced with garbage entertainment. Instead of going batshit, every episode Joel and his snarky craft-made robot companions would plop down in theatre chairs and read box office bombs to filth, from gaggy ‘80s flicks like Werewolf to the iconically horrible Manos Hands of Fate(1966).
Back then, as a near pre-YouTube child who hadn’t yet enjoyed the pleasure of watching someone eviscerate the worst that Hollywood has to offer, this goofy ritual was practically high art to me. And now, as an adult studying Film and Media in a university setting, I can understand this childhood pastime as a more sensational branch of a larger legacy of popular film criticism.
In the decade that has passed since this initial encounter with popular film criticism, I have witnessed nothing short of an explosion of film criticism rising from the ranks of the public in the golden age of digital media. It’s doubtful that any viewer perusing this article is unfamiliar with at least one of the many titans of YouTube’s critic community, ranging from fresh social media superstars Danny Gonzales and Drew Gooden to the lesser known but much beloved Ralph Sepe and Jeremy Janhs.
From comedic rant channels such as I Hate Everything or YourMovieSucksDOTorg to serious filmic scientistic such as Every Frame a Painting or Pop Culture Detective, the rise of digital media has established a litmus test for the most violent and thoughtful public reactions to film and television.
In our modern moment, the mass participation of digital media has allowed relative unknowns to gain high esteem in fields where they once never had a chance of entering. Furthermore, these digital critics match or even well surpass the level of viewership as was once thought exclusive to academic film theorists or entertainment journalists with years of credibility and practical experience under their belts.
This radical shift, of course, has come with its mixed bag of both great and terrible consequences, as almost every historical shift seems apt to do.
On the sunnier side of things, digital media and YouTube have been negotiated by some critics as an epitomic example of media as a constantly accelerating movements towards participation, mass engagement, and interconnectivity (Van Dijck). More specifically, respected media scholar Jose van Dijck describes YouTube especially well when he uses Raymond Williams’ Television: Technology and cultural form as a theoretical springboard off of which to understand YouTube as a crystallization of the concepts of “flow” and “mobile privatization,” referring to a constant stream of content and the ability to watch said content on one’s one terms and where one likes, which were both initially endeavored by television (Van Dijck 147-148).
Aren’t popular film critics, therefore, merely the next step in media’s constantly evolving push towards connectivity and intimacy? The warmest, most personal, and most responsive iteration of popular film criticism that contemporary American society has experienced?
The short answer is no. Or absolutely yes. Really, it depends on who you ask.
After all, while popular, ‘digital’ film critics might sing their own praises and preach about the democratizing power of digital media, which undeniably gives a voice to mass public, and media theorists like Van Dijck might smile sunnily on the fascinating movements of digital media, there’s always individuals who are caught on the wrong side of history.
Take, for example, the sobering testimony of David Denby within the greater collection of writings for “Film Criticism in America Today: A Critical Symposium.” A half-article, half-personal reflection on how at the turn on the millennium, Denby grapples with the world of popular film criticism as it is being subsumed by a brutal pace of media output and constantly rising demands for higher volumes of content (Ansen 31).
A talented writer feeling utterly torn at the vicious turning point towards the rise of modern media, Denby shares a perspective on the negative effects of digital media’s arrival over the world of film criticism that should be considered in our negotiations of the medium. This testimony provides a personal, anthropological glance into the effects of digitized media that is so often overlooked.
Furthermore, in order to fully grasp the significance of what the digital pop film community has become in our contemporary moment, we also have to key into the socio-historical rise of popular film criticism. That is to say, we have to understand how the original landscape of popular film criticism had been laid out, so that we can better appreciate the form that the field has taken in our digital age.
And what better text could there be for this endeavor, at least from the far West’s perspective of things, than Jerry Roberts’ laughably, perfectly named The Complete History of American Film Criticism?
Weighing in at a not-too-shabby near-five hundred pages, Roberts launches into his historical landscaping of film criticism with the origins of film itself: the Silent Era. Digging in with the rise of such publications as The New York Dramatic Mirror, a film dedicated offshoot of The New York Times, and Motion Picture Classic, Roberts reveals how the seeds of popular film criticism were sewn well over a hundred years ago. Surviving off of newsprint deals and winning staffed spots in editorial columns, early popular film critics emerged in such figures as Frederick James Smith, whose “‘comments,’ wrote [publishing icon Anthony] Slide in 1982, ‘are probably the closest to those by exponents of current popular film criticism'” (Roberts 32).
As someone who had practically thought that popular film criticism was born and died by the work of Roger Ebert, I was fascinated by Roberts’ careful chronology of popular film criticism. It only makes sense, now that I reflect on it: the moment that movies are made, criticism sprouts up alongside it. Simple. However, the more surprising discovery is that since its very infancy, pop criticism had been a more rough-and-tough, sardonic, and variantly humorous version of its sister school, academic film criticism.
I’m not ashamed to say that I was taken completely by surprise at this idea, the fact that apparently popular film criticism has always been wry, meanly clever, and subversive. I suppose, then, that the uniqueness of contemporary, digital film criticism as we know it is shaped less by the ‘creative’ icons that have risen to popularity, who are just carrying on the spirit of the great minds before, and more to do with rise of creative, digital mediums. Points for McLuhan. I guess the medium really is the message.
However, before we tumble down that rabbit hole of cynicism over the hard truths of modernity, let’s quickly bridge the gap between Frederick James Smith’s seeds of pop film criticism, and the field as we know it in cyberspace today.
Enter the aforementioned Roger Ebert, one of the most famous, well respected, and iconic popular film critics in living memory and the purported architect for what we know as contemporary, popular film criticism today. Now, I’m well aware the I’m making quite a leap here, as Smith began writing for Motion Picture Classics in 1918 while Ebert joined the Chicago-Sun Times in ’67. However, suffice it to say that the history of popular film criticism is a startlingly rich one, a long legacy of writers with their sleeves pushed to the elbows and their eyebrows cocked, living off of the deep relationships between them and their publishers.
It’s where Ebert is concerned, and his popularization of televised film critique with his Sneak Previews and At the Movies, that things start to get truly interesting for the world of popular film criticism in the modern age. Consider this historical footnote as pop film criticism’s baptism into the impending world of digital media. Though, admittedly, television is analog, Ebert’s televised broadcast signaled the transition of film criticism into a new technological foundry, introducing conventions of mass virtual viewership and notions of live, authentic presence that have since become staples of modern film critic icons.
This is the culmination of analog film criticism right up until the mid-2000s, the transition point at which harried publication critics, such as Delby, and iconic televised personality critics, such as Ebert, were confronted with a medium that could instantaneously establish an intimate, mass connection between critic and a public audience and even allow for the flexibility and democratizing popularity-based power structure through which any dedicated user, from any background, could rise to the same level of viewership as a professional, trained critic.
This, of course, is our contemporary moment. This is the moment in which college students have the capacity to snag a fantastic following for their film analyses before even completing their degrees.
This is our democratizing, mass moment wherein the world of published film criticism is suffering under the strain of our contemporary insatiability for content and the paradigm of who will, and who should be, listened to for their insight and dedication to the field of film criticism is now being called into question.
So, you might ask yourself, dully having flicked to the end of this article: what’s it all amount to? Why oh why, Natalie, did you square your efforts onto this topic, onto the historical tracking of popular film criticism, of all possible choices? And for the love of God, what am I supposed to take away from all of this?
And I guess to best answer your question, I would have to backpedal to that moment when I was seven and my dad was excitedly waving me over to watch his third favorite program in the history of television. I suppose that I’d also have to direct to five years ago at my parents’ computer, or just this morning, where I similarly flipped, liked, and scrolled through dozens of different examples of this insane shift in the world of film criticism without even batting an eye.
You see, though it might not be as visible or as obsessively discussed as, say, the fractious relationship between Instagram models and Runways models or the issue of false advertising, popular film criticism and the shockwaves of digital media on a field with a legacy of over a hundred years is something that surrounds us in our everyday digital landscapes. The radical shift of a profession is something being warped before our very eyes, and I for one am terrified and exhilarated to understand the implications of the mindless entertainment that I so often take for granted.
Ansen, David, et al. “FILM CRITICISM IN AMERICA TODAY: A CRITICAL SYMPOSIUM.” Cinéaste, vol. 26, no. 1, 2000, pp. 27–45. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41689315
Roberts, Jerry. The Complete History of American Film Criticism, Santa Monica Press, 2010. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/emory/detail.action?docID=1598936
Van Dijck, José. “YouTube beyond Technology and Cultural Form.” After the Break: Television Theory Today, edited by Marijke De Valck and Jan Teurlings, Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam, 2013, pp. 147–160. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt46mv1q.12.
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