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In a Time of Change, Pondering the Tension Between New Film Journalism and Old

Photo of Eric Kohn By Eric Kohn | Indiewire April 18, 2008 at 4:27AM

If the primary accomplishment of the Moving Image Institute in Film Criticism and Feature Writing--a five day workshop for film critics that completed its second year at the Museum of Moving Image on Tuesday--was New York Times film critic A.O. Scott's diminished hesitance to comment on blogs, its contributions to the larger issues of the discipline would be moot.
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If the primary accomplishment of the Moving Image Institute in Film Criticism and Feature Writing--a five day workshop for film critics that completed its second year at the Museum of Moving Image on Tuesday--was New York Times film critic A.O. Scott's diminished hesitance to comment on blogs, its contributions to the larger issues of the discipline would be moot.

Fortunately, that was more like an appropriate jumping-off point: After Scott visited the Institute on its inaugural day and caught flack from Spout blogger Karina Longworth for refusing to engage in reader comments at the bottom of his reviews, he later admitted to commenting on another blog during the week--perhaps as a transitional point. "There's a difference between engaging in a conversation and answering abuse," Scott initially said in his defense, but that was before Longworth, on her SpoutBlog, lamented that "it's hard for me to wrap my head around the power dynamic expressed in such absolute terms."

When spotlighting a tension between new and old models of film journalism, the Institute remained relevant. Arriving on the heels of national news stories bemoaning the alleged demise of film critics, the gathering of a dozen participants--all of whom had some degree of journalism experience--contained a majority of Internet-based writers. Conventional print journalists are notorious for regarding the blogosphere as a bunch of anarchic college freshmen getting sloshed on watered-down beer, but this crowd offered a rebuttal to trite stereotypes. On Saturday, a panel of online film journalists--including The House Next Door's Matt Zoller Seitz and The Reeler's Stu VanAirsdale--suggested Old Media's misgivings resulted from their uncertainty about the future of the practice. "A lot of it is insecurity," Seitz said.

Arthur Penn (left) and Dennis Lim (right) at the Museum of the Moving Image on Monday. Photo provided by the Museum of the Moving Image

Many discussions, deftly moderated by MoMI curator David Schwartz and editorial director Dennis Lim, veered from the intent of the practice to whether it remains sustainable as a profession. When legendary critics (and longtime married couple) Andrew Sarris and Molly Haskell paid a visit on Sunday, they came across less like the final holdouts of a dying breed than as veterans of a crowd continually diversifying around them.

Haskell, a pioneer of feminist film criticism, and Sarris, the jovial auteurist rival of the late Pauline Kael, hardly feared the impact of the web on their livelihoods. Despite Sarris' admission that he continues to file weekly reviews for the New York Observer on his typewriter, Haskell said that "if the Observer ever goes under, Andrew and I could do some sort of video thing." In a lively conversation that continued into the evening when the duo joined us for dinner, many of us pressured them to do just that. "I've sort of thought of bloggers and Internet writers as living only in the present tense, but I was wrong," Haskell said later.

Which isn't to say the present doesn't need some fixing. Some members of the industry were pessimistic about the livelihood of the critical establishment. IFC Films' Ryan Werner and Kino's Don Krim complained that the firings of print critics in cities like Washington D.C. have caused them to rethink their marketing plans, and Sony Pictures Classics co-president Michael Barker admitted that he was worried about the state of the field. Among buyers, only Bingham Ray, from Sidney Kimmel Entertainment, exhibited a fair amount of optimism, especially for critics reporting on the festival circuit.

Among the participating filmmakers, the only one to really get excited about the critical process was retired. Octogenarian Arthur Penn dropped by for an informal chat about his career, primarily focusing on the divisive reaction to "Bonnie and Clyde" and how Pauline Kael's rave review solidified its place in history. Penn contrasted her understanding of the movie to New York Times critic Bosley Crowther's infamous pan, pointing out that he had been working on a broader study of violence in the movies when he saw the movie at a festival. "It fell right into his wheelhouse," Penn said, adding that he isn't resolutely opposed to negative reviews. "If the critic finds that the intention (of the film) is not fulfilled, that is a valid critic," he said.

But for the film publicists at the Institute on Friday, valid critics are the ones pumping up the movies they're working on. Cynthia Schwartz of 42 West used the polarized reactions to Paul Haggis' "Crash" as an example of a time when positive notices outweighed negative ones, and Miramax Films' Julie Fontaine recounted a similar experience with the release of "No Country for Old Men." Both participants openly acknowledged their admiration for fellow attendee Susan Norget, who only represents films she likes.

At no point in the conversation did the critics or publicists suggest they were doing the same jobs, but that didn't stop New York Times contributor Dave Kehr from complaining about the visit in a comment left on participant Kevin Lee's Shooting Down Pictures blog. "The underlying assumption of the MVI seems to be that film criticism is and should be a component of the marketing system," he wrote. Kehr appears to have misunderstood the intention of instigating dialogue between the publicists and the critics as a way of condescending to the latter bunch, but his written remarks contributed to an engaging debate the following day. Without a doubt, the ongoing confrontations with related professionals helped distinguish film criticism from other aspects of the film community. We talked about programming as a form of criticism, and it was generally agreed upon that advocacy was an essential component of the critical apparatus.

From left, Stephen Becker, Kevin Lee, Cynthis Fuchs, Dan Kois, Eric Kohn, Artemisia Ng, David Kipen, Karen VanMeenen, Peter Noble Kuchera, Jette Kernion, Doug Cummings, Aaron Aradillas, and Karina Longworth. Photo credit: Ixiana Hernandez, courtesy Museum of the Moving Image.

The local nature of the Institute caused it to have a distinctly New York feel, despite that there were a fair share of non-New York participants. Although some of them had to spend some time getting oriented in the city's insular film culture, the adjustment period helped embolden their assertions of responsibilities in their own communities. "It's really important to do this stuff on a local level," said Peter Noble-Kuchera, a film critic for WFIU Public Radio in Bloomington, Indiana. "The audience for the type of movies most of us really like isn't a mass audience."

Nevertheless, it's important to assume that a readership for serious criticism will persist as long as it's still available. As a sort of post-script to the workshop, the museum plans to launch an ambitious online publication called MovingImage Source this summer, which intends to showcase festivals around the world. Kicking off on June 5 with an assembly at the Times Center (during which Jonathan Demme will publicly interview Werner Herzog), MovingImage Source offers one more example of a point on which all of the Institute's participants can agree: If criticism works as a "formalization of an impulse that exists everywhere"--as Scott suggested last Friday--then, simply put, it's not going anywhere.

[New York based writer Eric Kohn, a frequent contributor to indieWIRE, was a participant in this year's Moving Image Institute.]