Thumbs Up: A modern take on film criticism

François Truffaut — filmmaker, actor and controversial critic — was born in in 1932. This year, had he not died prematurely of a tumour, he would have been eighty years old. On 6 February, Google marked the occasion with a doodle. It showed three slides, one for each of three Truaffat films: The 400 Blows, Jules et Jim, and Bed and Board.       

Truffaut fully deserves a tribute. To this day he is considered one of the most important figures in the history of French cinema. But seeing it, I couldn’t help but wonder if any of today’s professional film critics will ever get a Google doodle. I wondered if any of them were original, knowledgeable or even well-known enough to merit special recognition. Inevitably, that led me to consider that timeworn question: is the art of criticism dying out?

There are many kinds of film criticism, broadly divided into journalistic, academic and online. You have the option to read this article in The Oxford Student or on its website, where you can cast your judgement on my writing in the comment box. The Internet has certainly become a major impetus behind the creation and consumption of criticism. It allows anyone and everyone to dissect the latest blockbusters at will. But although we’re obsessed with the threat of SOPA and PIPA, not everyone agrees that limitless freedom of expression is a good thing for the quality of criticism. Two years ago, the Chronicle of Higher Education released an article panning the so-called “democratization of opinion” caused by the blog endemic. “In the viral salon of bloggers and chat-roomers, the finely tuned turns of phrase crafted by an earlier generation […] have been winnowed to a curt kiss-off,” Thomas Doherty writes bitterly. “In cyberspace everyone can hear you scream. Just log on, vent, and hit send”. He refers, presumably, to the sort of ‘reviewers’ we see roaming unchecked around YouTube, who spend their days stabbing the dislike button and offering the elaborately crafted opinion that “this film sucks”.

Those who defend the blogosphere argue that independent filmgoers have no attachment or obligation to the industry. Their opinions, therefore, must be more reliable. The other major camp believes in the supremacy of the old guard: educated film critics who have devoted many years to the study of film and its history, who are able to insightfully compare, contrast and criticise new releases. Their intellectual approach has led some to dub their area ‘film studies’ rather than ‘film criticism’. Others, however, might just call it ‘film snobbery’. Who, after all, wants to read a lengthy dissertation about the structure of a film when you could read the Filthy Critic or watch Jeremy Jahns?

Doherty identifies a divide between young, Web-savvy critics, who speak for ‘the people’, and the desperate cinephiles of the twentieth century, who couldn’t make a dent in the Box Office if they smashed it in the face with a sledgehammer. To survive these harsh times, the more willing professional critics have started to leap between platforms. David Bordwell, who has written such insightful volumes as The Poetry of Cinema (2007), is one of many theorists to have done this successfully: he and his wife now run the blog “Observations on film art”. It’s still pretty heavy, but it reaches out to a far wider audience.

So is criticism really dead? Of course not. There is still value in all spheres of criticism. Admittedly I have to be biased — if not for “democratization of opinion”, a student journalist wouldn’t have the authority to write film criticism. I have no degree in Film Studies and have written no books on film; I have only experience and a lifelong love of cinema to recommend my work. Doherty and other print-bound critics are feeling the heat of the blogosphere, but that doesn’t mean their work has lost value: all it means is that they’re going to have to work a lot harder to earn their bones and keep their readers.

Film criticism is not dead. It is no longer a lecture, but a dialogue — and absolutely more alive than ever.