Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Phantom Menace Review and the Future of Film Criticism

As usual, I was late to the game in discovering the latest viral video sensation - this wonderful 70 minute review of The Phantom Menace. It's hilarious, and if you haven't seen it yet, I think it's worth watching all 70 minutes, as some of the best stuff is buried in the end. Ironically, I finally got around to seeing it after gazillions of tweets came my way when I was doing some research into the current state of film and media studies. Ok, I was wasting time on that instead of anything productive, but I did find something great from Eric Faden, the Bucknell professor who made the Fair(y) Use Tale video a few years ago. It's a great "Manifesto for Critical Media" published in the online journal Mediascape where he renounces traditional criticism/theory for something more robust. As he puts it: "I vow to abstain from that most sacred but restricted of intellectual practices-the literary academic essay-no matter the temptation. From here forward I put my faith in media over text, screen over paper."

Eric goes on to explain that what he wants to practice is the "media stylo," an update on the idea of the Camera Stylo proposed by Alexandre Astruc. The idea, in brief, is that media theory/criticism should use the modern tools we now have at our disposal - media, the web, interactivity, etc - to critique the media. It's not just putting a film review online, or even responding to your readers via blog comments and tweets. It's much more than just hypertextuality. It's, well, much like the video review of the Phantom Menace, but even more robust. As Eric explains:

In a key difference, the media stylo moves scholarship beyond just creating knowledge and takes on an aesthetic, poetic function. Critical media, unlike say the traditional journal article, should evoke the same pleasure, mystery, allure, and seduction as the very movies that initiated our scholarly inquiry.

While Phantom Review is decidedly less high-brow than what many an academic theorist would likely produce, it is definitely even more pleasurable than the movie it is critiquing. In fact, I'd argue that it is more thoughtful than pretty much any movie review I've read this year, even by the better academic film critics. It's also much funnier, more playful and more captivating.

My hope is that it will inspire other film critics to re-evaluate their own practice. Not to copy what is done in the Phantom Review, especially not the voice or the weird madman side story, but rather to imagine how criticism can move forward, how the field can change progressively - using the tools we have in the actual production of criticism instead of just it's dissemination. If I was IndieWire, I'd hire this guy now and give him a small budget to experiment more - I'd love to see a more sober video analysis of the current top ten indie films, for example.

I'll end this by quoting a lengthy section of Eric's essay explaining the concept further, but it's worth a full read.

In 1998, on the 50th anniversary of French critic and filmmaker Alexandre Astruc's inspiring essay "The Birth of a New Avant-Garde: Le Caméra Stylo," I began making short films and videos in lieu of academic conference papers. Astruc's essay called for a new film practice that moved beyond both avant-garde abstraction and narrative story telling and embraced a full range of intellectual practices from filming philosophy to emulating the 17th century literary essay. My work imagined how traditional scholarship might appear as a moving image, and since it combined film, video, voice, text, music, sound, and computer animation, I updated Astruc's phrase and called my work "media stylos." 

I embraced this practice because I felt film and media studies scholarship formally conflicted with the discipline's subject matter. To explain, let me cite Walter Ong's Orality and Literacy. In this seminal book, Ong locates two historical shifts in human communication: the move from an oral culture to an alphabetic culture (with Sumerian cuneiform script around 3500 BC) and then, with film, television, video, and new media's invention, from an alphabetic culture to an electronic culture (which Ong calls "secondary orality"). Our discipline, caught in the swift current of the traditional academy's literary river, swims upstream against Ong's historical trajectory. For example, we are interested in film, video, and new media (electronic culture) but publish essays (alphabetic culture) and, even worse, we take these essays to conferences and read them aloud (oral culture). 

Formally, we are going backwards. Critical media moves forward. 

My first media stylos invaded the academy stealthily and subversively. In 1998, as a graduate student, I discovered that proposing a film or video to an academic film studies conference resulted in immediate rejection (it still does nearly 10 years later). So, instead, using a sophisticated surrealist technique for generating proposals, I submitted the most conservative and traditional of paper proposals. This technique guaranteed my acceptance to every conference I applied to. Once at the conference, I presented my media stylo (often on a topic entirely different than the panel at hand) instead of the randomly generated paper topic. This practice immediately injected some life into the conference proceedings while having the additional advantage of alienating my panel colleagues who chose to read their papers aloud. At the very least, my practice raised questions of how we conduct and present scholarship and I recommend this procedure for all graduate students approaching the job market.


Casper said...

I actually watched the entire review on youtube just last week and was really impressed with all the work put into it. I do think that the face of "Movie Critics" will evolve with technology and these are the baby steps to that vision.

Anonymous said...

Although I found it difficult to read to the end of your post, the links kick powerful ass brilliantly.