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In Memoriam: The Dissolve

In Memoriam: The Dissolve

For those who looked to it as a beacon of integrity in a sea of flyweight listicles and superhero casting news, the end of The Dissolve has prompted both sorrow and sober reflection. (My own thoughts on the subject are here.) Perhaps it will seem less so once the shock wears off, but for many, this feels like a turning point, a sign that that there’s no place in the current environment for a film-focused publication with a sense of history that steers clear of inflammatory argument and actually pays its writers. At the very least, it’s been an occasion for their fans and colleagues to reflect on what it means to write about film in this day and age, and whether it’s still possible to make a living at it. 

The more than 2,000 comments on The Dissolve’s farewell post attest to the intensity with which the site’s fans followed it. There may not have been enough for the site’s owner, Pitchfork, to sustain it as a going concern, but it’s not that The Dissolve failed; it just didn’t succeed enough. That’s journalism in 2015: You can build it, they can come, and that’s still not sufficient. (Check out Slate’s selection of eight of the site’s best essays._

Here are some of the most heartfelt tributes to The Dissolve, and some of the most eye-opening takes on what its demise means for the future of criticism.

Matt Zoller Seitz, RogerEbert.com

Anybody who’s tried to make a go at supporting themselves through writing or editing or other journalism-related work—criticism especially — without a side gig that’s actually the “real” job, or partner or parent who pays most of the bills, can read between the lines. Staring at a blank page every day, or several times a day, and trying to fill it with words you’re proud of, on deadline, with few or no mistakes, and hopefully some wit and insight and humor, is hard enough when it’s the only thing you do. The days when it was the only thing writers did seem to recede a bit more by the week. It’s even harder to make a go at criticism in today’s digital media era, now that audiences expect creative work (music, movies and TV as well as critical writing) to be free, and advertisers still tend to equate page views with success. These factors and others guarantee that writer and editor pay will continue to hover a step or two above “exposure,” and that even the most widely read outlets won’t pay all that much. Most veteran freelancers will tell you that they earn half to a quarter of what they made in the 1990s, when newspapers and magazines were king. I make the same money now, not adjusted for inflation, with two journalism jobs and various freelancing gigs as I made in 1995 with one staff writing job at a daily newspaper.  

That’s all a long way of saying that it’s a miracle that The Dissolve was able to publish so much memorable writing in such a short time span, on such a wide array of subjects, with the world allied against it, save for the people who enjoyed it and looked forward to each new post. The writing was mostly analytical and paid a lot of attention to form, which is still unusual at a time when too much pop culture writing relies on versions of “What X gets wrong about Y” and “Why A owes B an apology” and “What so-and-so doesn’t get about such-and-such.” Day after day, The Dissolve writers were not content merely to talk about what films said; they took the trouble to discuss how they said it. They talked about framing. They talked about editing. They talked about sound and color. They talked about what movies actually are.

Alyssa Rosenberg, Washington Post

One of the best parts of the Dissolve was its willingness to inform, to treat readers as if they were smart without requiring them to pass some sort of entrance exam to participate. When the site ran its week-long explorations of classic films such as “White Men Can’t Jump” or “Aliens,” these reassessments weren’t just an opportunity for writers to just about what they loved best; each piece fleshed out some aspect of the film or filmmaker in question, whether it was Sofia Coppola’s use of music, the way “Aliens” approached building a supporting cast, or Ron Shelton’s fondness for hustlers. When the site ran an inventory or a ranking, the lists were less an opportunity to feel the satisfaction of seeing our favorites acknowledged and more watch lists that made me want to further my film education. And the site encouraged readers to explore and acknowledge the technical and craft aspects of filmmaking, rather than simply reading the results as straight dispatches form directors’ brains.

Todd VanDerWerff

There are more good web publications than bad right now, and we’re starting to see a world where people might actually make some money doing this. (Granted, we’re not there yet, and we still have a long way to go.) But the natural march of evolution means that most sites need to be about everything nowadays, and that requires time and effort and money, things that are in increasingly short supply. Had The Dissolve succeeded, it would have stood in direct contrast to that approach. That it didn’t suggests the specialty web is probably on its way out, barring new business models (and I, for one, would have happily paid a subscription fee to keep reading the site). 

I’m sad, obviously. I had too many friends there (who will go on to amazing things elsewhere), and I loved reading the site. But I’m also sad about what this means for people (or publications) who are outstanding at doing ONE thing, instead of really (or even just kinda) good at doing a bunch of them. The sky is not falling, but the one we’re left with looks different enough that it might as well have done so.

The Solute

I’m old enough to remember life before the Internet.  The most absolutely compelling aspect of online life, hands down, is that no one need be alone anymore.  No one has to go through life thinking that there’s no one to talk to, no one who can share their experiences and obsessions, no one who understands what it’s like.  Anyone can find a community.

The challenge, then, is living with that community and making it something worthwhile.  Like no other place online, the Dissolve’s writers and commenters did this.  We (and I’m so proud I can say “we”) made something that wasn’t there before; the world is different than what it was because of what we did.  And once you make something, no matter how big or small, the world can never go back to being what it was.

Steve Katz, The Alpha Primitive

In the aftermath of The Dissolve’s cruel and unusual punishment, it is likely that more people than ever had will read its articles. It has been trending on Twitter all morning, with a wealth of tributes like this one coming from people who are far more qualified than me, and far better writers than I ever will be. Perhaps that could be considered some sort of silver lining to be found in this morning of cinematic, cultural and critical despair. Perhaps The Dissolve will become most revered after its death like so many artists who toiled in relative obscurity, only for their true genius to be discovered after it was too late. That is barely a balm for the searing wound so much of us feel right now, but the creators and contributors that made the site so special should know now more than ever that their little two year journey meant the world to a lot of us out there.

Luddite Robot

More than any other place online, it fostered a sense of community among its commenters. I think this wasn’t an accident: the generosity in the commentaries of its editors and writers, the wide range of films they featured, the sense of open discourse they encouraged … these all help generate genuine discussion, debate, and comraderie. The sense was that we were all in it together, trying to figure out how these things work and what they mean. And they paired it with extensive news round-ups, worthwhile outbound links, deep dives into individual films, and fun, engaging compendiums. I don’t know how it could be done better, at least to my taste.

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