Lady in the Water (2006)

By Tim Hayes

Wise words echo from 1991:

“In such a world, art becomes the remaining link to the unknown. Art may be needed now to provide us with just those fearful insights that the uneasy complacencies of our leaders do their best to avoid. It is art that has to take the leap into all the truths that our media society is insulated against. Since the stakes are higher, art may be more important to us now than ever before.”
– Norman Mailer, grappling with Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho.

More wise words from 19 centuries earlier:

“The People have abdicated our duties; for the People now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.”
– Juvenal, student of human moves and proto-blogger.

The Dissolve closed abruptly on 8th July 2015, and made a lot of people very unhappy. Dead film websites litter the landscape in piles – at least one other long-established venue has joined the heap since July – but The Dissolve was held in high esteem for publishing what was reckoned to be the right kind of writing from the right kind of writers. Its backers at Pitchfork Media, having largely refrained from on-site advertising in favour of something more altruistic, turned the lights out anyway – or shot the site in the face, depending on your perspective.

This at a time when money is flooding into certain districts of the online writing maelstrom. Buzzfeed has shaken hands with NBCUniversal to the tune of $200 million; Vice has signed two deals both worth more than that. This is real money – from investors who like to gamble, and from large media companies feeling compelled to do likewise. And opinions differ as to whether times are properly catastrophic or not for freelance writers operating in open water.

How much of those gazillions will trickle into arts criticism or into the hands of freelancers inclined to create it remains to be seen. The assumption that none of it will – because of the internet and marketing analytics and listicles and hot takes and the rest – is a retread of Juvenal’s complaint, and will be just as right and wrong as he was. But film criticism has a particular problem: an authentic cultural revolution has changed the nature of cinema for large numbers of people, and more or less junked Mailer’s hopes into the bin. We’re now spending a lot of time doing art wrong.

Mainstream films and all their related forms are often no longer watched but aggressively consumed. Instead of approaching cinema as even small-letter-a art – a two-way process previously considered something that human beings might actively want to do, involving a certain kind of engagement and supplication – the mainstream audience is now bravely invited to do nothing except sit in their chairs and say Feed Me. This change is strictly business. A decent choice for the starting gun would be Sony buying Columbia Pictures, marking the point when a film studio’s owners wanted it specifically in order to feed product into their existing distribution activities, rather than as a source of artistic renown or reflected glory – and that was in 1989, just as Ellis and Mailer were painfully aware that something was up.

A quarter-century of this shift has changed not just the films, but also the cinemas, the audiences – everything. Complaints about dull and generic DVD box covers miss the point that they are now sold like breakfast cereal and indeed sold next to breakfast cereal, so they had better look like breakfast cereal. Film screenings range across the physical landscape, freed from their old dedicated venues entirely but also freed from the original cultural purpose they had there. Anyone genuinely mystified as to why cinema-goers talk and tweet in the cinema has misunderstood the type of consumerism now going on around them; a community of interest rather than a community of purpose.

It’s tough to get paid for writing about breakfast cereal. This process has left its hefty bootprint on criticism too, since the ability to attach a workable revenue stream onto arts writing has always been based on some aspect of its social currency, including the most basic one about whether it’s worth leaving the house for. Lose that, and the fiscal currency fizzles out too.

And now film commentary has to build a new legitimacy for itself. Charitably speaking, this is still a work in progress; an attempt to build something that looks like a functioning freelance vocation but lacks the defining criteria.

The cultural tides that have brought all this about came from outside the film-criticism bubble, and there’s a limit to how many workable solutions can come from solely inside it – a low limit. Until the tide comes back in, or even if it never does, or especially if it never does, engaging with film culture now takes on all the attributes of the traditional radical’s mission: change the status quo with the tools at our disposal and our own informed hands. In a better world, film criticism is the conversation going on between particular films and the culture they have landed in like a pebble into a pond, with the critic as informed moderator – this description comes to me from critic and humanist Gareth Higgins; Tara seconded a similar emotion not long ago

So a modest manifesto: be informed. Be cultured, by being cultural. Step outside the online bubble; step outside the film bubble entirely, to engage with other arts and sciences. Foster a sense of obligation; ruthlessly squash a sense of entitlement. Buy tickets for things at festivals, and know when you’re acting as the provisional wing of a marketing operation. Recognise that it’s the art that’s communal, not the outdoor venue you’re sat in; and one has more cultural potency than the other.

Take art on Mailer’s terms, and consider that the film you’re looking at is political in ways that won’t occur to you until you step outside, even if it’s crass. Especially if it’s crass.

Appreciate the difference between commercial revenue-bearing arts commentary and academic careerist film studies; create both if you like, but not by accident. Journalism and scholarship can overlap in purpose, but not much in skill-set. Slow Criticism is a tool but not much of a trade.

Consider saying nothing; discover that you burn to say something.

Ponder the ecstasy of influence; hesitate with appropriate levels of awe. And then speak.