To Nullify Film Criticism: Analysis by Armond White for CityArts

Knight Rises, Culture Falls: How Internet fanaticism over The Dark Knight Rises overtook film culture

By Armond White

Already, The Dark Knight Rises has caused movie media to embarrass itself. Those front page headlines in both the Daily News (four stars) and New York Post (four stars) are heralds of film journalism’s decline into boosterism. It’s happened before and will happen again. Looks like the decline is here to stay.

But the most pathetic aspect of TDKR hype is the fanboy backlash via Rotten Tomatoes. It’s become the latest example of Internet mania being confused with genuine cultural response. Blogger Eric Snider posted a pretend negative review of TDKR triggering the usual fanaticism that is the source of Rotten Tomatoes prominence–name-calling, death threats and other hostility that also caused the site-crash of another critic who also posted a negative review on RT.

If this was merely the dysfunction of cellphone-texting kids who fell asleep during junior high English class (where they supposedly were introduced to the idea of art and judgment), it wouldn’t matter much. What’s troubling is the rush to non-judgment–and hype–that causes newspapers to trumpet commercial product even when it’s movies that haven’t yet opened (and so, in journalistic terms, are not actually cultural or news events). This leads to extreme reactions by fans who haven’t yet seen the product. Both camps lack the patience for reasoned response–the inhale/exhale cultural process of a healthy cultural response. Both are missing the cultural conditions for critical thinking. That’s what Eric Snider’s stunt cleverly exposed: Both professional and amateur fanaticism have taken the place of criticism. And for his pains, Snider was banned from Rotten Tomatoes, ever vigilant to protect its harboring of fanaticism–the anticipation of 100% scores that is the source of the site’s income. RT poobah Matt Atchity issued an Open Letter that disingenuously evades this fact. According to Nikki Finke of deadline.com, RT is owned by Warner Bros. One deadline.com commenter wondered why Atchity “has dragged his feet on this issue.” The answer is simple, fanboy fanaticism is RT’s lifeblood and drives its ultimate purpose: to nullify film criticism. (Full disclosure: Atchity and RT abetted the many death threats and insults this writer received for reviews of Toy Story 3, The Dark Knight, Inception and other films. RT-bullying is nothing new.)

Reviewers who want to get the jump on each other by abetting the marketing of film products will continue to receive special sanction from the “embargoes” that studios use to restrict some outlets. Fanboys who want their love of movie product unimpeded will continue to be defensive about it. And Rotten Tomatoes provides a platform for both.

This aggregate site phenomenon has caused basic curiosity about new films to warp into the intellectual cowardice of mob-mentality and group think. This wouldn’t matter much if the mainstream media didn’t give it so much importance that fanboy fanaticism becomes today’s reflective standard.

I wrote about this before in the Sept. 28, 2010, New York Press article “Discourteous Discourse”:

Attacks from internet bloggers–crude interlopers of a once august profession–is not about diversity of opinion. What’s at root is an undisguised rivalry. Every moviegoer with a laptop claims equal–vengeful–standing with so-called professionals. This anti-intellectual backlash defies the purpose of the New York Film Critics Circle’s founding in 1935. Professional dignity is the last thing internetters respect. Their loudmouth enmity and lack of knowledge are so overwhelming it is imperative to put this crisis in perspective.

These new social networks overturn the informed judgments and occupational decorum of journalist-critics, substituting the glib enthusiasms and non-discriminating devotion of apparently juvenile cliques. Worse yet, this schoolyard style of peer group fanaticism has devolved into all-out, ugly intimidation (internet bullying). It has begun to sway the professional ranks already frightened by media transitions that have cost many of my colleagues their jobs.

The most important concern exceeds the critical profession; it’s the danger these changes pose to the culture in general. Ridiculing the need for mature thought and discriminating judgment diminishes film culture. Any opinion that challenges the blockbuster market gets punished. We never experience a healthy exchange of ideas. The social networking approach to criticism encourages anti-intellectual harassment and the excoriation of individual response, it may spell the end of critical habits altogether.

So now, on the eve of TDKR’s public premiere, here’s our dilemma: Until journalists and bloggers wake up to the problem of aggregate non-thinking and stop willingly reducing criticism to the whims of the mob, the dark night of TDKR will hasten film culture’s demise.

Follow Armond White on Twitter at 3xchair