Analysis, critical!

Posted on October 8, 2016


Social media may not have killed the film critic, but it has definitely changed the business of film criticism.

In a panel discussion at the Indywood Film Carnival, held in Hyderabad last week, I was asked about the impact of social media on critics. It wasn’t the first time I’ve been asked this question. It won’t be the last. So far, I’ve dished out some version of the same answer: It’s great. Things weren’t so great before Facebook and Twitter, before everyone could chip in about a film – what’s known, generally, as word of mouth. People looked to critics to deliver not just an analysis about the film but also the word of mouth on it. In other words, we were expected to say whether we liked the film. We were also expected to say if you would like the film. And then you’d come back and say things like, “But how could you like it? I hated it.”

Let’s say we were painting a wall. I say I like off-white. But you’re a magenta person. Earlier, you wanted me to be a magenta person too. Today, you know there are many, many magenta people on Facebook. There’s probably a magenta list on Twitter. You don’t need the critic to be a fan too. Heck, you can make a gif of the critic going up in magenta-coloured smoke. This is most liberating for the critic, for the review, after a really long time, has become the domain of pure analysis. Which is not to say that you’re never going to make up your mind about a movie based on a critic’s opinion of it. It’s just that there are many other opinions out there, and you’re very likely to find a voice you agree with, a more casual voice than the critic’s. It’s a win-win. You get your word of mouth. The critic gets to do his analysis. Everyone goes home happy.

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If I look like I am drawing a line in the sand, it’s because the way a critic analyses entertainment is going to be – has to be – vastly different from what’s out there on social media. The former is a piece of criticism, the latter a review. These are just words, not value judgements – though I’ve met filmmakers and film scholars who dismiss people who write reviews on Facebook, on Twitter. “What do they know?” they’ll say. But if film is about feeling something, and if someone puts that feeling out in words, and if those words resonate with others, then why not? Perhaps the concern is that the business of issuing a verdict about films has transformed from a commandment delivered from a mountaintop (Thou shalt not watch this movie, which stinketh to high heaven!) to a samizdat pamphlet circulated in the streets. But that’s how it is. Things change. Had the Bhagvad Gita been written today, it would be a BuzzFeed list.

But of course it’s not that simple. The real question isn’t about the impact of social media on film critics – we still get space (at least, I haven’t been told otherwise) – as much as how social media has changed the profession of film criticism. AO Scott, the New York Times’ film critic, weighed in thus: “Critics in positions like mine can’t just rest on their laurels. We’re going to have to prove ourselves, outwrite the competition day in and day out.” And it’s not just writing. The critic, today, has to compete with the Twitter reviewer who keeps tweeting impressions about the film every ten minutes (while watching it). I wouldn’t call this writing, exactly. Then there is the five-minute YouTube reviewer who puts out his views on camera. And we have the lay audiences who, on the way home, whip out their smartphones and add to the noise (aka word of mouth).

All of this is changing the DNA of writing about film. The critic doesn’t have to worry so much about older readers. They have grown up with books in their hands. They aren’t afraid of text. But you have to appeal to younger readers as well, people to whom a text is something you get on a phone. You know it’s serious when scholarly texts are analysing this phenomenon – books like Film Criticism in the Digital Age, from Rutgers University Press. If you have doubts about the universality of this issue, turn to Chapter Nine: Finnish Film Critics and the Uncertainties of the Profession in the Digital Age. Sometimes, I feel for producers. At least earlier, they only had to contend with a handful of critics who wrote about the film a day or two after its release. Today, they have to deal with tens of thousands of social-media users who all want to be the first person to say something definitive about a film. They’re not interested in being Kael or Ebert. They want to be Tenzing and Hillary.

I still think a critic can be an influencer (in the word-of-mouth sense) when it comes to a certain kind of film, one without stars or one that came without much publicity. But this, increasingly, is more exception than norm. Social media is the norm today. Its widespread use has already caused print (and online) reviews to shrink. When you get so used to 140 characters at a time, even a 500-word review –  a modest one, by any yardstick – can seem like Dickens. Depending on where you stand, it’s either the best of times, or the worst.

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