In a new piece on Wired.com, “Could This Be the Year Movies Stopped Mattering?” Brian Raftery suggests that movies have “devolved from Culture-Conquering Pastime to merely Something to Do When the Wi-Fi’s Down,” and that their former centrality to the culture has been taken over by a diverse range of media events—serial television above all, but also Pokémon Go, “Hamilton,” YouTube memes, and visual albums such as Beyoncé’s “Lemonade.” The simplest refutation is that what matters is determined not by media discussion but by each person for herself; movies matter to me, therefore they matter.
But Raftery is on to something important, even if, as I think, he comes at it backward. He’s right that the kinds of work that capture widespread attention and find widespread favor have changed in recent years—and he’s right that these changes are inseparable from the realm of criticism, the very nature of which has changed drastically in the same period. Raftery’s fixation on “the pop-cultural conversation” and the “zeitgeist” is one that’s shared by the era, by the critical community at large, and this fixation yields its own predestined results. Modern cultural criticism gives rise to its own cultural artifacts, and the two fit together like a lock and key. As a work of criticism, Raftery’s essay is exemplary of the very phenomenon that he’s documenting—and that circularity, that self-fulfilling critical criterion, is the defining trait of the time.
The rise of so-called quality television has coincided with the advent of widespread access to the Internet, which is closely correlated with consumers’ level of education. The serial nature of serial television lent itself to online discussion—blogs, comments, e-mails, and then, a few years later, social-media postings—in a way that the one-time-only and freestanding experience of going to a movie doesn’t, at the same time that it also locked specifically into the new habits of the educated in a way that moviegoing didn’t.
The principal quality of quality TV has proven to be its ability to generate discourse—not just on the part of critics and viewers but on the part of journalists. As particular series, and television over all, became the subjects of widespread public discussion—discussion in the literal sense, of writers and viewers responding to each other—that discussion became news. Suddenly, television was propelled from the arts page to the front page, and that trend was accelerated by the nature of the shows. Their emphasis on stories and characters involving iconic phenomena in cultural history and hot-button issues of contemporary sociology and politics grabbed—and still grabs—hold of journalists’ nose for stories. Many series seem to exist only to present topics in ready-to-debate form; they are built to give rise to “think pieces,” which have become the dominant, if easily parodied, critical mode.
The experience that the watching and the critique of new serial television resemble above all is the college experience. Binge-watching is cramming, and the discussions that are sparked reproduce academic habits: What It Says About, What It Gets Right About, What It Gets Wrong About. There is a lot of aboutness but very little being; lots of puzzle-like assembling of information to pose particular kinds of questions (posing questions—sounds like a final exam), to explore particular issues (sounds like a term paper). For these reasons, television’s actual competition isn’t movies or museums or novels but nonfiction books, documentary films, journalism, radio discussions, and general online clicking. Serial television is designed to gratify the craving for facts to piece together and analyze. The medium seems created for the media buzz that’s generated by the media people who are its natural audience, and to whom the shows owe their acclaim, their prestige, and their success.
Even now, the way that Raftery underlines the importance of new television shows is with the assertion that “they certainly won the impossible to quantify—yet equally hard to deny—metrics of online chatter, where they spawned countless essays and arguments for weeks and months on end.” Just as the numbers matter for the TV business, the quantity of chatter matters for the culture business, because it’s what happens when the work of art extends beyond itself into other fields and makes its influence apparent. That’s why so much of the discourse generated by television is political—and why, in this moment that’s so rich in cultural discourse, the dominant way of discussing art is political.
Raftery displays the skewed results of this trend when he cites three recent movies that strike him as “culturally crucial”: “Straight Outta Compton,” a good movie; “Inside Out,” a mediocre one; and “The Wolf of Wall Street,” a great one. What makes them important, in his eyes, is that “they spurred uncomfortable but essential conversations.” Here, he’s practicing the echo-chamber mode of criticism: the movies are crucial because they spark “conversations,” they spark conversations because they address issues that are deemed crucial. He considers these movies—unlike those he’s seen this year—to be important, and his criterion for their importance is that they’re politically relevant, not that they’re of aesthetic value. What’s more, he measures political relevance by counting clicks.
Ultimately, democratic politics are a numbers game. Politics are what concern everyone, which is why “everyone” (i.e., those who create the “online chatter” and the “countless essays and arguments” by which Raftery measures importance) talks about politics. Art, by contrast, is what concerns one person, intimately. Culture is a matter of power; art is a matter of beauty. It’s also a matter of freedom—of spiritual freedom, of free-spiritedness—and so it’s also political, though not in any immediately recognizable way and, above all, not in any way that lends itself to the think-piece brand of discourse. The power of beauty, the impact of beauty on a single person, eludes discussion and invites silence, even as it incites something radically different from analysis: ecstasy. That’s the force behind the side of criticism that, if it’s any good at all, converges with the work of art by being itself a literary, poetic, philosophical inspiration.
This is why much of the best art has always been a niche phenomenon, and why, when great art is popular, it’s often due to a fortuitous accident, and the artist is often punished the next time around (as happened when Terrence Malick followed “The Tree of Life” with “To the Wonder” and “Knight of Cups,” and as I hope won’t happen with Scorsese’s next movie, “Silence”). That’s all the truer now with movies, because the role of the studios and of wide releases has diminished. The possibility of making films independently and on a low budget is greater than ever, at exactly the moment that studios, following the lead of television, have turned their movies mainly into political allegories and statements precisely calculated to leap to the front pages and the op-ed section.
At the same time, the democratization of criticism online has had a crucial and positive effect on cinematic events. Today, there’s both more and better film criticism than ever; as a result, it’s less likely than ever that an extraordinary movie will go utterly unnoticed or be dismissed. But the breadth of a film’s distribution and its box-office take are no more measures of its merit than is the quantity of online discussion that it inspires. It’s common knowledge that, for “Lemonade,” Beyoncé derived inspiration from, and made reference to, Julie Dash’s great 1991 feature “Daughters of the Dust,” which, despite its generally favorable reception at the time of its release, is the only theatrical feature that Dash has made. “Lemonade” also alludes to Khalik Allah’s bold and inventive documentary “Field Niggas.” Allah is also one of the cinematographers on “Lemonade,” yet his feature film was hardly released at all; in New York, it only played for one week at the IFP Media Center, in Brooklyn. “Daughters of the Dust” has taken in only 1.6 million dollars at the box office during the past quarter century. (It will have a welcome and long-overdue rerelease in November.) Beyoncé’s allusions to “Daughters of the Dust” and “Field Niggas” don’t make them better or more important films—those of us who have seen and love those movies don’t need external confirmation of the experience. Rather, the references make “Lemonade” better and more important. Beyoncé didn’t need voluminous online chatter to be moved and inspired by Dash’s and Allah’s work; she had an experience of her own, and the intensity of that experience comes through in her own work.
Is this year in movies, as Raftery asserts, the “Worst. Year. Ever.”? I think it’s been a terrific year so far, with a long list of remarkable new movies already released. With the New York Film Festival coming up, along with the packed fall season and year-end releases, the list is likely to get much longer very soon. A year as a measure of film releases is an odd artifice—production and distribution are cyclical, and this is a year featuring no new releases by some of the best Hollywood or off-Hollywood directors, such as Wes Anderson, Sofia Coppola, Spike Lee, David Fincher, and Paul Thomas Anderson. But other luminaries, including Martin Scorsese and James Gray, have movies coming up; so do notable independent filmmakers, including Barry Jenkins and Matías Piñeiro. When, a quarter century from now, a pop-music visionary refers to “Men Go to Battle” or “For the Plasma” or “Krisha” or “Viktoria” or “Kate Plays Christine” or another under-the-radar low-budget film of imagination and ingenuity, woe unto the critics who were here at the time and didn’t pay attention.