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Mark Kermode, 21st Century Film Criticism and the Fruitful Instability of Online Reputations

Why Praise Is Riskier Than a Pan

Forrest Gump on a tractor.” With those words, writes  British film Mark Kermode in an article in The Observer, a colleague poisoned any chance he might have had of enjoying David Lynch’s The Straight Story. Such is the power of the pan.

In a 5,000-word excerpt from his forthcoming book, Hatchet Job: Love Movies, Hate Critics — due out in the U.K. on October 10 — Kermode writes about the way a single sharply honed sentence can get its hooks into a prospective viewer’s mind, especially if it’s tinged with humor. Any good critic will tell you we work harder on positive notices than negative ones, that there’s a greater challenge in rising to a great film’s level than sinking to a stinker’s depths. But it’s a fact of critical life that nothing succeeds like a pan, a review where the writer sinks his or her claws into a movie’s soft underbelly and gives a mighty pull. “Like it or not, Kermode writes,

negativity is noteworthy, and — to invert a popular adage — “good news is no news.” Everyone who has ever worked in film journalism knows that there’s far more chance of grabbing a headline by getting an actor to admit how much they disliked a particular director or hated working on a certain film than there is if they simply tell you how marvelous the whole experience was.

But there’s more at stake when a writer goes to bat for a film, especially when, as in Kermode’s defense of the Twilight franchise, he first goes out on a limb. “Criticism without risk to the critic has no value whatsoever,” he writes. “An opinion is only worth as much as its author has to lose: their good name; their reputation; their audience; their job.”

What’s especially interesting about Kermode’s formulation — and what fortuitously dovetails with his argument in favor of a movie franchise usually dismissed as being only for teenage girls — is the way he applies it to the explosion of film writing online. If it wasn’t before, the internet has made it abundantly clear that opinions are cheap, especially when anonymity is an option; it costs nothing, financially or otherwise, to leave a comment or start a blog, to hurl one’s thoughts, worthwhile or not, out into the void. But if everyone’s entitled to their opinion, an audience for them has to be earned, and kept.

Rather than draw the traditional line between print critics and bloggers — a distinction that, as publications with a history in newsprint find ever-larger audiences online, becomes more and more academic — Kermode splits the world between the accountable and the unaccountable. Online film writers (Kermode singles out The Playlist, Hope Lies at 24 Frames a Second and Badass Digest) have as much if not more to lose from an erosion of credibility as their ink-and-wood-pulp counterparts, even if the terms of that credibility are set by their particular audience. Even pseudonymous figures like Outlaw Vern and Film Crit Hulk have reputations (or, if you will, “brands”) to maintain. Goodwill is earned and lost every day: the New York Times features some of the best film writing in the world, but on a day when they dismiss Tsai Ming-Liang’s Stray Dogs as “a nearly wordless exercise in Asian miserabilism,” you may choose to place your trust elsewhere. As more traffic funnels in from search results and social media links, the institutional structure around a piece of writing matters less and less. There are critics this frightens, and some who grudgingly accept it as the way things are, but the best wouldn’t have it any other way.

Read more: “Hatchet jobs, anonymity and the internet: being a film critic in the 21st century

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