Friday, July 23, 2010

It's Alive!: The Top Film Criticism Sites: An Annotated Blog Roll, Part One

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There's one word that sums up the World Wide Web: huge. Faced with the Internet's exponentially expansive growth and sprawling heterogeneity, every other generalization comes up short. Though the all-too-familiar "death of film criticism" polemics prefer to frame the current era in terms of (degraded) quality, the truly epochal shift in digital-age criticism is a function of quantity: total media saturation and head-spinning content overload.
Mid-century cinephilia offered its transatlantic disciples something that, for the other fine arts, had reached its breaking point in the Modernist period: a canon that could be mastered in its entirety by an individual consciousness. If you subscribed to a dozen or so of the "right" periodicals and faithfully patronized the art-house premieres and repertory revivals of London, Paris, or New York (or, later, San Francisco and Los Angeles), you could quite literally see everything that was considered worth seeing and read all the critics thought to be worth reading. This culture, of course, was built on a kind of artificial scarcity: the back catalogues of film history were just starting to be excavated and archived, much of world cinema was off the Western radar, and most of the accomplished criticism published in student newspapers, mid-sized metropolitan dailies, and underground film journals went largely unnoticed. The last two decades have yielded so much to cinephilia—from digital archives and movie-review clearinghouses to TCM and Netflix—but the surfeit has taken at least one thing away: the illusion of all-encompassing critical authority. The spirit of encyclopedic completism embodied in, say, Andrew Sarris's The American Cinema seems more anachronistic by the day. There are just too many films to see and (more to the point) too many smart writers to compete with.
So where do we get off appointing ourselves the selection committee for the top film criticism sites? If that strikes you as a little presumptuous, you're totally right. Though not "meaningless," the selections below are meaningful only in a contingent, puzzle-piece sort of way. There are plenty of sites that could just as easily have made the cut: Arbogast on Film, Buzz Buzz, Chronicle of a Passion, Cinema Styles, Confessions of an Aca-Fan, The Crop Duster, DVD Savant, Elusive Lucidity, The Independent Eye, Movie Morlocks, New Deal Sally, Rightwing Film Geek, Shooting Down Pictures, Theo's Century of Movies, Zero for Conduct, plus a dozen others we could name off the top of our heads—and who knows how many more that we're not even aware of. But here's the thing: while we could have billed the selections as "43 Semi-Randomly Selected but Genuinely Distinguished Film Criticism Sites," that meme just doesn't trend as well (#awkward). To tantalizingly mislabel the headline above and then clarify the stakes here in the introduction seemed like the best compromise, in a lie-that-tells-the-truth sort of way.
The blog roll has become the defining trope of critical exchange in the early Internet era: its network of laterally enmeshed connections quite literally defines "the Web." But the long, scrolling lists of hyperlinked sites are easily overwhelming. Jumping into a random blog midstream is often disorienting. And if you're already the kind of person who actively seeks out intelligent film criticism, your reading queue is no doubt pretty full. But maybe you'd like to refine your short-list of go-to sites, match your favorite venues against a few others in a Darwinian death-match—because how else are your tastes going to expand and evolve?
Our goal here is to make that process as easy and efficient as possible. For every URL included, one of our crack contributors has come up with an elegantly pithy synopsis of the critical style and obsessively revisited subjects that define the spirit of the site. When you've found a couple of capsules that pique your interest, bookmark them at the top of your browser and click over when you have some downtime. Try to have patience if the writer's personality doesn't immediately hook you. Just as in real life, the person who at first strikes you as slightly boring may later become your best friend forever. So give it a week or two of casual browsing; peruse the backlog of posts by subject tags; linger in the comments sections. Every writer has his own rhythms, her own hidden wellsprings of ideas and emotions, and sometimes it takes some up-front effort to tune in to that. The more you put in, the more you get out.
The projects included here span a wide range of genres: digital film journals, multi-writer theme sites, side projects of film studies academics, digital outreach by professional print reviewers, and, above all, the personal blogs of unpaid enthusiasts. Our only criteria for inclusion were that (a) posts must be written primarily in the English language and (b) the content must be specifically produced for online consumption. The selections are unranked and in randomly generated order (our highly sophisticated algorithm is modeled loosely on the perennial schoolyard favorite MASH).
For years now, Internet film critics have been relentlessly dumped on by many (but by no means all) in the legacy media. Though they've gotten little in the way of social recognition or financial compensation, cinephile bloggers have filled in the gaps of mainstream review coverage, corralled hard-to-find source materials, enriched cinema's theoretical vocabularies and historical narratives, and shared their personal obsessions in often fascinating, hilarious, and deeply affecting ways. I feel personally privileged and just really fucking happy to shine a light on their work—all of them life-affirming examples of democratic participation and humanizing cultural exchange. —Paul Brunick
The Self-Styled Siren
selfstyledsiren.blogspot.com
Self-Styled SirenClassical Hollywood fetishism has found a most enchanting ambassador. Farran Smith Nehme of The Self-Styled Siren turns the articulation of cliché and convention into a sport—no surprise she's chosen melodrama as her champion underdog and counts Max Ophüls and Douglas Sirk among her favorite directors. A witty, working mother of three (the blog originated during afternoon naptime), the Siren is a unique and refreshing voice in a field often prone to nostalgic vacuity or esoteric one-upmanship. An "Anecdote of the Week" feature showcases her extensive bibliographic endeavors. Her obituaries are the most dependably poetic on the scene. Whether dusting off forgotten gems and industry players or providing fresh analysis on the already canonical, the Siren speaks with the grit, gumption, and savvy of the pre-Code ladies she so admires. Her extensive research is a valuable corollary to the Hollywood Babylon school of salacious folklore; not that the blog is without juice (delicious bon mots care of her beloved George Sanders) or mysticism (a reverential moment of silence for Charles Boyer's "incomparable way with a hat"). The Siren abandoned anonymity upon co-programming a series for TCM, but lifting the veil, in true Merry Widow style, has only furthered the blossoming of her appeal: a recent blogathon hosted in association with the National Film Preservation Foundation has raised $13,500 and counting. Not only is the Siren the best film geek friend you ever had but an increasingly powerful force. —Brynn White
Strictly Film SchoolNo one embodies cinephilia in the Internet age better than the pseudonymous Acquarello (aka Pascual Espiritu), a self-described "NASA flight systems design engineer" who single-handedly creates all the content for Strictly Film School. Unapologetically auteurist in design, Strictly Film School's biggest draw is its jaw-droppingly extensive Director's Database that boasts over 500 names, from canonical faves like Chantal Akerman and Pedro Almodóvar to the less known (but no less worthy) Joaquim Pedro de Andrade and Lisandro Alonso—and that's just scratching the surface of the As. The directory doesn't offer bios but instead concise capsules whose brevity is belied by their insights. While online platforms offer practically limitless writing space, Acquarello's economical and precise prose is something to treasure. And for those looking to venture beyond auteurism, Strictly Film School offers the option to browse reviews by genres (of the academic sort: "Neo-Expressionism," "Cinema Verité"), themes ("Generational Conflict," "Aging/Obsolescence/Death"), and images ("Chromatic Shifts—State of Consciousness, Existential Realm" being my personal favorite). "Film-Related Reading Notes" on recently browsed print matter and a "Film Fest Journal" tops off this exhaustively (and exhaustingly) comprehensive site. If only real film schools were as informative and passionate as Strictly Film School. —Cullen Gallagher
Diagonal Thoughts
diagonalthoughts.com
Diagonal ThoughtsIn the distant future—when we are nothing more than incorporeal abstractions coded into the algorithmic consciousness of a virtual singularity, or blue-skinned, loin-clothed power-forwards cybersexing flora and fauna with our FireWire pony tails, or whatever!—I sincerely hope that our post-organic nervous systems will occasionally light up to the archived index of Diagonal Thoughts. Media and culture aficionado Stoffel Debuysere, a member of Belgium's Courtisane collective and co-programmer of its film and video festival, maintains a dense and diligently curated collection of "notes on seeing and being, sound and image, media and memory." The site presents fresh, often mind-bending findings drawn from the worlds of neuroscience, philosophy, sociology, computer science, cultural studies, and (of course) the cinema. Collating quotations from innumerable sources, Debuysere is much more than a mere cut-and-paster—the rhetorical patchwork of interviews, articles, and program note snippets have a synthetic brilliance all their own, further gilded with Debuysere's original observations and erudite commentary. Alongside his interest in new media's ontological collision with human cognition and perceptual reality is a stalwart passion for old-school avant-garde celluloid (lovingly categorized as "Indeterminate Cinema"); recent "Artists in Focus" have included Guy Sherwin, David Gatten, and Morgan Fisher. Tracking the intersecting vectors of technological and aesthetic evolution, Diagonal Thoughts is nothing less than the cinephile's survival guide for the 21st century. —Jesse P. Finnegan
Not Coming to a Theater Near YouRumsey Taylor was reared in the hinterlands of rural Kentucky, nurtured by VHS rentals and late-night cable TV. It's fitting that he would go on to found Not Coming to a Theater Near You, an ambitious online resource for reevaluations of forgotten and fringe cinema. Taylor's prowess as an editor lies in an innate ability to skirt both irreverent fan-boy pitfalls and highfalutin postgrad navel-gazing; the writing remains doggedly non-academic while retaining a sharp populism and simple elegance often lacking in similar niche sites. Not Coming increased its profile in 2009 by partnering with the NYC revival venue at 92YTribeca, where editors and contributors present public screenings of rare and controversial classics. The site sets itself apart through its assemblage of talented contributors, many of whom are able up-and-comers in New York's criticism and repertory programming scenes. In addition to reviews, Not Coming offers independent festival coverage, interviews with significant figures in alternative cinema and criticism (filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, animator Don Hertzfeldt, and New Yorker film editor Richard Brody were all recent respondents), as well as comprehensive essays on intriguingly obscure subjects. A recent piece analyzed the rogue cinephilia of underground video mixtapes, most of which are of questionable legal status. It's rare to find such subjects spotlighted with so much eloquence, and it's with essays like this that the site really scores. —Benjamin Shapiro
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