More than once this weekend at the Moving Image Institute, we’ve been told that filmmakers have an intense, almost irrational desire to have their work exhibited theatrically rather than on video, even if that means losing considerable sums of money. Distributors shake their heads while describing filmmakers turning down straight-to-video deals or spending virtually all of their cash earned from video sales to make prints, advertise, and book a screen or two here in New York City (a venture that can cost anywhere from $75,000-$100,000, three to four times what it costed fifteen years ago). No doubt this is largely a question of formal purity–filmmakers make, well, films, and want their work to be exhibited on celluloid rather than 525 lines of resolution on a video monitor. But it’s also a question of prestige and public visibility. The question remains: how long can this continue?
Underlining virtually all of our discussions this weekend is the need to find or create an audience, a topic that goes far beyond commercial profits and into cultural transformation. Superficially, the more dependent on consumer markets filmmakers, distributors, and critics are, the more quickly artistic standards and the idea of specialty cinema evaporates from the agenda. But even academics talk of “smuggling” international or classic titles into film courses so as to not turn off prospective students. Everyone says it’s the more challenging, progressive, adventurous films that inspire them to do what they do, but they continually offer reasons why such films cannot be emphasized in the public consciousness–particularly in uncertain times–often on the assumption that “the average person” inherently rejects them.
Setting aside the fact that I believe this fabled “average person” is more often than not a straw man for safety, fear, and convenience (is the “average person” really reading critics or enrolling in universities in the first place?), a primary question emerges: is the purpose of criticism to reflect the public’s taste or to articulate and defend its own insights?
The journalists attending the Institute come from a wide variety of fields–magazines, radio, newspapers, blogs, academia–and one of the best aspects of this weekend has been hearing and resonating with their personal stories. But it’s startling to hear how often their passions are seemingly at odds with their professions, not intrinsically but through a haggard, defeatist perspective, as if the demise of print criticism is the latest inevitability in a war that grows more labored and tenuous with each passing year. There is plenty of gallows humor–jokes about job opportunities in a field increasingly comprised of a handful of positions–but the mood is certifiably grim. The poets huddle together in an evacuated city as the barbarians storm the gates.
I believe one of the central purposes of criticism is to convince or convert, to educate and inspire. When critics decide their writing should be determined by others (implicitly or explicitly), they cease to matter. On the other hand, critics who refuse to compromise their passions, who figure out ways of sharing their observations with infectious conviction (in whatever form) become agents of cultural reflection and renewal. Criticism worth reading is always a form of activism, a resistance to conformity and a ringing call to arms. It attracts an audience and a culture; it is never passive. Whether in print or online, the critical vocation remains the same–explorers, interpreters, and ambassadors for a diverse and global art form.