September 17, 2013

ZAHOS | The Rise of the Online-Movie-Hype Machine

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The following column is about words. Written with, surrounded by and about … words. There a lot of words out there, more than you or I could ever hope to read, so it’s a good thing Facebook, Twitter and BuzzFeed “feed” them to us these days in bite-size, GIF-compatible form. Since we all have only 24 hours to the day, these websites make sure we waste at least 12 of them with sensational headlines and hyperlink rabbit holes. This leads to a lot of oversimplification, obviously, which is acceptable if the paired article digs deep into its chosen topic. However, this is almost never the case, and as a result, the loudest online film criticism could not be more vapid.

Consider the short film Noah (not the upcoming Darren Aronofsky one about the biblical flood), currently attracting a lot of attention after its premiere last week at the Toronto International Film Festival. Walter Woodman and Patrick Cederberg, the young filmmakers behind this clever project, use the awkward breakup between a teenage boy and his possibly disillusioned girlfriend as a means to examine the isolation and obsessions nurtured by Facebook and social media. The 17-minute film tells its story only through computer and iPhone screens, where Noah, the eponymous protagonist, effectively lives. Often, the frame zooms in and zips about from notification to notification, as if we are watching through Noah’s bleary, restless eyes. It is a sad film, one that virtually every student at Cornell can connect with, to an embarrassing extent.

Noah deserves its fair share of praise, yet its status as a short film and one available to watch on YouTube keeps it off most reputable critics’ radars — at least at the moment. Instead, sites like The Huffington Post have assumed the role of hype man, dishing out a few words of praise for this anti-social media film to anyone they may reach … through (mostly) social media. With the irony likely lost on them anyway, let’s look at what HuffPo had to say: “The Facebook era may now have its Citizen Kane.” Say what now? Aside from the fact that The Social Network is obviously the Citizen Kane of the Facebook era for its similar narrative structure, megalomaniac protagonist and critique of entrepreneurial excess, what does this lead tell us? I don’t know who this writer, Michael Bolen, is, or whether or not he has actually seen Citizen Kane. All I know is that those “X is the Citizen Kane of…” tautologies are about as bland as compliments come, except if you’re aiming for extreme, ironic specificity as The Chicago Daily Herald’s Dann Gire did when he called Babe “The Citizen Kane of talking pig pictures.”

Indiewire, perhaps my favorite website if I had to pick one, spread the word of Noah on Sunday with an article providing a blurb and an embedded YouTube link of the film. That was all well and good, yet I found it through the site’s Facebook page (these filmmakers know their anti-Facebook film is making them stars through Facebook, right?), where it posted the article with the tag, “[Noah] will definitely go down as one of the definitive 21st Century films, mark our words!” Now, I doubt the Western canon circa 2100 A.D. will include Noah (I liked it, but come on), and this seems like the type of hyperbole meant to attract hits. However, I let this one slide. For one, there’s the possibility that the writer was sincere, which is just an adorable thought, and, more importantly, I have some cache with Indiewire. I trust them. If one of their writers, such as Eric Kohn, bets all his critical integrity on 12 Years a Slave and implores me to watch it, there’s a very good chance I’ll direct my movie-watching dollars its way (he gave it an A+, by the way).

Now, compare the headline for Kohn’s review — “Steve McQueen’s ’12 Years a Slave … Is a Slavery Movie for the Ages” — with that of the review by Vulture’s Kyle Buchanan: “Your Best Picture Winner Will Be 12 Years a Slave.” If limited to one, you’d click on the latter, now wouldn’t you? That’s because you love Oscar shorthand, like the rest of us. Oscar shorthand is commonly employed to bestow extravagant praise on movies released between September and December without actually saying anything about them at all. Whereas Kohn’s analysis digs into the themes and techniques behind 12 Years, Buchanan substitutes self-generated impressions for meaningless Oscar worship. Never mind that any self-respecting critic slams the Oscars for getting it wrong year after year, and let’s ignore the fact that Buchanan’s piece isn’t even a review (which is saved for David Edelstein, his very talented colleague) as much as a prime slice of link bait. We are reading a professional critic go on and on about how great a movie is without supplying any real reason as to why.

Critics make a name of themselves by writing insightful, honest and readable analyses, and by doing so on a public, respected and consistent platform. Only once their name carries some weight can they simplify their allocation of accolades. The late Roger Ebert, a preeminent critic if there ever was one, could just call a movie “great” and we would consider it so — of course, he still wrote essays over 1200 words each, detailing the intricate greatness of Unforgiven or Citizen Kane. But he worked to build that reputation, while the nameless machine of online movie hype guarantees its writers will never rise to that level of stature. What makes me, an unknown on the film criticism landscape, the authority on critical authority, you ask? A fair question, one I will mull over as I walk backwards, off this soapbox and out of sight once more.