It may feel like it’s been a small eternity, but it was just over a year ago that Joker premiered to an explosion of controversy, moral panic, and hype. In the seeming century that followed, you probably saw it, and you probably have an opinion on it. Most importantly, though, your opinion almost certainly includes some qualifier about Joker as a phenomenon: whether it’s an “incel” film or a stealth anti-capitalist film, how ridiculous the backlash and controversy was, what that controversy says about the state of criticism, and so on. This is because Joker stopped being a movie and was transformed into a cultural signifier as soon as it came to theaters. Your thoughts about Joker didn’t have anything to do with the fact that it’s a dreary mediocrity, because they’re not supposed to. Rather, your opinion on Joker is supposed to be an extension of your fashion and politics, your way of proving your superiority over a cultural enemy. Art solely for metatextual posturing.
At some point in the past ten years, studios fully realized the lucrative potential of incorporating the “culture war” — a nebulous term broadly referring to competing consumer choices (disguised as moral-political choices) offered to smug liberals and aggrieved reactionaries — into their marketing, and the ensuing effects on cinematic discourse have been disastrous. The 2016 Ghostbusters remake, though practically prehistoric by now, was in many ways the turning point: months of advertisement, discourse, and backlash; endless posturing from online factions; and genuine harassment towards the cast cynically weaponized by fawning reviewers all in service of a film that rightfully vanished in months. The Trump presidency (and the subsequent liberal self-flagellation) seems to have exacerbated this dynamic: as Oscar season rolled around later that year, discussions flared in pop culture outlets and among professional critics about whether or not Manchester by the Sea and La La Land were What We Need Right Now; Manchester, a film about a working-class suicidal father, was described as a a story of “white male guilt” in the Los Angeles Review of Books and “a sad-white-guy movie in an industry that’s drowning in them” in a laughably performative review by Polygon. Newsweek published a La La Land thinkpiece that sarcastically characterized it as “a story for our age” and asked “what could be more 2017 than a movie that celebrates mansplaining and whitewashing?” On the flip side, Moonlight was venerated in publications such as The Boston Globe as a rebuke to our era of hate, suggesting that the Trump administration helped the film “blossom into a much-needed meditation on diversity, inclusion, and how its absence can lead to ruin” (which does a considerable disservice to the film proper, which needn’t be representative of our times to be terrific). The following year, Disney released The Last Jedi, a moderately compelling blockbuster that proved to be the biggest discursive online battleground of the entire decade, due in part due to a diverse cast (especially newcomer Kelly Marie Tran) and vaguely liberal themes. So wildly divisive was this solid if unremarkable blockbuster that its sequel film, The Rise of Skywalker, was split down the middle trying to appease both frothing reactionaries and a progressive audience. Most recently, there was Cuties, which brought perhaps the most cynical weaponization of the culture war yet: an exploitative advertisement by Netflix featuring children posing provocatively — all but designed to pre-designate it as a victim of the conspiratorial “Pizzagate” factions of the right — that brought out accusations of the director disseminating child sexual assault material before the film was even released. This isn’t to suggest that the above films are undeserving of any criticism or backlash; discussions of Casey Affleck’s misconduct are certainly warranted with regards to Manchester by the Sea, and Cuties, particularly its vile marketing campaign, merits serious discussion if not outright condemnation. The problem is that the quality of the films — the starting point for any serious art criticism — is increasingly treated as besides the point.
The Culture War has been embraced by the companies that are the most destructive for the future of artistic and creative cinema and by the media outlets that feed off those companies, to the point where these “controversial” cultural elements have moved from metatextual to plainly textual. The villain of the aforementioned Ghostbusters remake was a group of NBC sitcom writers’ vague caricature of an internet misogynist, a “feminist” framing which encourages the audience to pat themselves on the back for being good allies by buying tickets to this film (never mind that Sony’s leaked emails showed a massive gender pay gap at the company responsible for the remake; Sony Pictures Entertainment Chairperson Amy Pascal, who publicly championed the movie, blamed the actresses for not asking for more money). The Last Jedi, a much better movie, gets bogged down in its share of pseudo-resistance nonsense (particularly the final shot, with its cowardly Gen-X refrain of “the kids will save us!”), again engineered for no greater purpose than to congratulate the audience for purchasing tickets for one of the most popular franchises ever made. More and more, the major film studios — Disney-Marvel-Lucasfilm, AT&T-WarnerMedia, Comcast-Universal, and Sony — have come to realize that their products are powerful cultural rallying-points, and that the most profitable course for filmmaking is to make the text indistinct enough for mass appeal while including enough metatextual winks to establish itself as a culture-war signifier. The result: films that are devoid of meaningful politics yet solely exist in the minds of critics as political signifiers.
None of this is to suggest that “issue films” or political hedging by studios are new phenomena; look to any Oscar season in Hollywood history and you’ll find no shortage of films awkwardly straddling the line between social commentary and profit margins. But the world of filmmaking has changed in a way that has made the current cinematic culture wars much lazier and more corrosive. Since Jaws and Star Wars helped invent the blockbuster model, studios have developed films with less regard for personal expression and more regard for franchising, as the latter has proven significantly more profitable. The effect has been both the crushing of the mid-budget movie and the artistic neutering of any project with a large budget. Films themselves have become secondary; they need to be competent enough to hit their financial goals and indistinct enough for mass appeal (especially as markets have expanded abroad). Older “issue films” such as the MGM-produced Edge of the City, for their considerable flaws, at least carried distinct visions. A Captain Marvel or a Ghostbusters possesses so little film that the discourse is all that’s left—and if fears of a Joker mass shooting are any evidence of a broader trend, that discourse is only getting worse.
The world of criticism has found inspiration in this symbiotic relationship between studios and exacerbated culture wars. One can’t expect much out of hordes of idiots online, but one would hope that critics, who should be driven by a deep appreciation for the cinematic arts, could wade through that nonsense and deal with the text itself. Instead, they’ve sunken to the level of the internet crowds, just with more rarefied taste. IndieWire’s review of Joker was a total embarrassment, labeling the film “a toxic rallying cry for self-pitying incels” and its director a “glorified edgelord.” As tedious as Joker was, the over-the-top disgust from major liberal segments of the critical world is almost an argument in its favor, as their commentary more often read like a review of “incels” and the “alt-right” than of the trite superhero movie that featured such choice lines as “Kill the Rich: A New Movement?”. On the opposite end, Black Panther and Captain Marvel were treated by critics as significantly more subversive and radical than a Disney film could ever hope to be, while independent films are warped in the same way that Moonlight was during its Oscar season; treated as either a tonic to or emblematic of Trump’s America, often at the cost of formal or historical analysis that would prove far more productive. Our critics treat films not as works of art but as tools to illustrate one’s Correct Taste.
Combine this downward trend in critical writing with a shrinking interest in the history and theory of cinema and you’re left with a critical landscape that understands what it’s supposed to like without ever understanding why. Marketing for superhero films generally dictates their critical discussion — Captain America: The Winter Soldier was compared to ‘70s paranoia thrillers by both producer Kevin Feige and by critics, despite being made by a company that would serve as a villain in an Alan J. Pakula film. Joker was discussed as a tribute to Scorsese’s collaborations with Robert De Niro, without digging deeper into what makes that comparison so facile and surface-level. Good, meaningful criticism has been circling the drain for more than a decade now; while there’s always been terrible “industry criticism,” the 2008 recession and the subsequent rise of the gig economy cost talented writers their livelihoods and allowed only the most guileless, uncritical hacks to survive. Thoughtful criticism became unsustainable for many outlets; illiterate reviews designed for the broadest possible audience, coupled with the occasional inflammatory thinkpiece, became the last vestiges of written criticism. Now, reviews are too often uncritical fawning over new Products, only daring to be even slightly mean for the trashiest art there is (regardless of whether that trash is interesting) and for designated culture-war enemies. One need only look at the embarrassingly high, upward-trending RottenTomatoes scores for the Marvel Cinematic Universe films (or even the astonishing mixed-positive scores for children’s movie dreck like Detective Pikachu or Sonic the Hedgehog) to yearn for the fiercely overcritical days of Pauline Kael.
The solution, then, must be a call to engage with the text itself first and foremost. Not to say that art criticism should avoid politics — far from it, as many of the greatest critics and theorists, from Eisenstein to Cahiers to Kael, were and are deeply political — but art criticism should privilege the text on its own terms even as it grapples with its cultural context. A sea of cultural criticism cut off from beauty offers us nothing but a future of endless Hollywood liberal back-patting and adolescent reaction. The solution is not “leftist” cultural criticism, either; too much Jacobin-esque “socialist analysis” of cinema, in addition to lacking any meaningful understanding of socialism or criticism, simply switches some liberal culture-war discussions with “leftist” ones. Great art criticism seeks to understand art and its place in the world, its rich history, and its potential for bringing clarity to the human spirit. Marxist film criticism, even as it analyzes the cultural, economic, and political implications of a text, has a responsibility to discuss the artistry — form, rhythm, auteurist expression, creativity — and its intersection with the context.
The solution for critics, then, must not be resistance but transcendence; not fighting an endless turf war but working towards a better future for art. Those who care about film must reject the paradigms imposed on us by capitalist values and by a manufactured culture war and push forward with criticism that cares about the medium. Crowdfunding has allowed for great writers such as avant-garde scholar Michael Sicinski and sites like Bright Wall/Dark Room to survive outside of the world of hot takes and Disney sycophancy. Even at some more-traditional outlets, there are still film writers who care deeply about the medium: K. Austin Collins mixes some of the most superlative prose in modern film criticism with cultural criticism that feels honest and historical. Though the great Dissolve was shuttered years ago, its many former writers and contributors — particularly the ever-sharp Vadim Rizov, who cuts through discourse with dry wit and punchy prose — are still active and producing some truly terrific writing. Veteran writer Jonathan Rosenbaum continues to be one of the most important voices alive in the world of film, bringing a profound sense of morality and scholarly idiosyncrasy to each review. These writers represent a potentially brighter future for the critical world, one that maintains a measured antagonism to artists while remaining utterly reverent toward the beauty of the medium — fiercely critical, but on the terms of the art itself.
And if art criticism is great, great art can be uplifted. The days of Rivette and Truffaut (or even Kael and Ebert) are far behind us, but there is reason for optimism. The internet has allowed for pockets of online cinephilia independent of traditional criticism to provide much-needed counter-consensus to festival hype and its runoff while championing neglected artists such as Nobuhiko Obayashi and Elaine May. But even if film criticism and discussion can be improved, that does not mean that the more capital-intensive art of filmmaking will follow suit. Sony, Disney, Warner, etc. will not suddenly care about the art-value of cinema due to a resurgence in great writing about film; even independent distributors and producers will in the end be driven by profits. Despite his Oscar win for Moonlight, Barry Jenkins’ superb Baldwin adaptation If Beale Street Could Talk was buried by distributor Annapurna, notwithstanding the fact that it was even better than his previous film. And A24, despite releasing some excellent films, has been increasingly representing itself as a fashion accessory, encouraging its young fans to care about terrific works like High Life and First Reformed less as works of art and more as collectible trinkets — Disney fandom for a hipper crowd. The future of Hollywood filmmaking is bleak, and only the outright destruction of the capitalist arrangements that produce and market (and thus suffocate the art of) cinema could be enough to markedly improve the medium.
The near-absence of new cinema in 2020 has given many a chance to (re)visit the canonical greats, and looking to the immense power of works that inspired a generation of filmmakers (such as the classic Hollywood films that brought us the French New Wave, or the Hong Kong action that’s proven impossible to imitate) provides a reminder of what great art can look like. The great explicitly-political art of the past, too, has proven a useful reminder that socially-relevant films can be more than just a bland string of trendy signifiers — Johnny Guitar remains a high-water mark for Old Hollywood cinema in part because of its powerful anti-McCarthyite position, but primarily because it articulates that vision in the passionate, intense manner that only Nicholas Ray was capable of. After returning to the classic works of the canon, the flailing attempts by producers and screenwriters to capitalize on recent controversies seem increasingly silly, as does the critical presentation of mediocre new releases as “era-defining.” While the outlook is grim for both filmmaking and film criticism, neither is defeated. The potential for enthusiastic people with a scholarly passion for the arts to uplift and produce greatness has not been extinguished. Only in a world where film can be created and critiqued for the sake of film, and not for the sake of maximizing box office revenue and link clicks, can a spiritual rejuvenation, for people and for cinema, be achieved.