Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Bloggers and cloggers: Cinematic discourse in an age of digital reproduction

As a blogger, I think it's important to maintain a fair amount of reflexivity toward what I do and why I do it. There are times I look back on this experiment of mine and see nothing but good things; I've gotten lots of feedback on my blog, decent readership and comments, and I have seen other blogs from which I learned quite a bit about other areas of cinema studies and criticism. Nevertheless, I am sometimes dogged by the more negative side of what I do. When comparing the levels of discourse here in the online film community versus that of academia, I sometimes get depressed when I think of myself as a "blogger". It is true that perhaps online writing on any subject is viewed negatively as not amounting to anything substantive. And it doesn't help that many online writers (including myself) are easily offended by individuals who claim that the work online writers amounts to little more than message board banter, text messages, and geek/fan dialogue.

I would never try to reduce all online writing about cinema to a simplified plain, suffice to say that I often wonder where this digital discourse is really going and if it can advance film criticism and scholarship. Are we all just cloggers? Are we duped by ourselves into thinking that what we do can compliment and contribute to "real" film criticism. Certainly, essays such as Andy Horbal's termite criticism piece are encouraging and my daily visits to the blogs of David Bordwell, Jim Emerson, Girish Shambu, David Hudson, Henry Jenkins, Steven Shaviro, and others compel me to take this medium seriously. Most of these writers are established forces on either the journalistic or academic end of film writing and can therefore use the digital medium effectively; but I still sometimes wonder if such a small group of serious, reflexive, and informed film writers on the web can really add something when they use the same means of writing as the millions of people individuals who blog because "they have something to say". Some may come down on the due processes and checks and balances of peer-review publishing, but we cannot deny that it is a system that requires a certain amount of credibility. On the contrary, anyone and everyone can blog about their favorite films and try to convince readers that they're more than just a blogger.

The recently released Online Film Community Top 100 (which I participated in) is being cited as one of the most predictable Top 100 Film lists ever constructed. I have been outspoken in the past about lists by committee and I participated in this project because I believe in the advancement of online film writing and thought this would be a step in the right direction, if not for the list itself but because it represents a group of writers organizing for something. Now, seeing the list, it's just as arbitrary and homogeneous as the AFI's, which so many film writers were disparaging. It's funny that with so much vocal online buzz about how horrible the AFI list is, the online list turned out to be not so different. As Edward Copeland observes in the discussion over his post on the list, this list's similarity to the AFI list upholds the influence of canon in film assessment. One should note that the term "Online Film Community" is deceiving and that the list of contributors are by no means representative of the online film community. Nevertheless, the list mostly consists of AFI "safe" choices and films selected by individuals who have taken a film class or two in college and think they understand film history and style, making this list somewhere between the AFI Top 100 and the IMDb Top 250. It's basically a rehash of the AFI list with the inclusion of fan favorites like The Matrix, The Shawshank Redemption, The Big Lebowski, Fight Club, The Usual Suspects, and Reservoir Dogs to be great cinema. Here is the "Online Film Community" list:

1. Godfather, The (Coppola, 1972)
2. Citizen Kane (Welles, 1941)
3. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Kubrick, 1964)
4. Raiders of the Lost Ark (Spielberg, 1981)
5. Casablanca (Curtiz, 1942)
6. Blade Runner (R. Scott, 1982)
7. Jaws (Spielberg, 1975)
8. Godfather Part II, The (Coppola, 1974)
9. Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (Kershner, 1980)
10. Alien (R. Scott, 1979)
11. Pulp Fiction (Tarantino, 1994)
12. Chinatown (Polanski, 1974)
13. Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (Lucas, 1977)
14. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, 1968)
15. Taxi Driver (Scorsese, 1976)
16. Shawshank Redemption, The (Darabont, 1994)
17. Rear Window (Hitchcock, 1954)
18. Psycho (Hitchcock, 1960)
19. Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1958)
20. Seven Samurai (Kurosawa, 1954)
21. Apocalypse Now (Coppola, 1979)
22. It’s a Wonderful Life (Capra, 1946)
23. Fargo (Joel and Ethan Coen, 1996)
24. Lawrence of Arabia (Lean, 1962)
25. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Gondry, 2004)
26. Schindler’s List (Spielberg, 1993)
27. Wizard of Oz, The (Fleming, 1939)
28. Matrix, The (Wachowski/Wachowski, 1999)
29. Third Man, The (Reed, 1949)
30. Die Hard (McTiernan, 1988)
31. Back to the Future (Zemeckis, 1985
32. Annie Hall (W. Allen, 1977)
33. Brazil (Gilliam, 1985)
34. Fight Club (Fincher, 1999)
35. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Gilliam/Jones, 1975)
36. Usual Suspects, The (Singer, 1995)
37. Princess Bride, The (Reiner, 1987)
38. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Forman, 1975)
39. Once Upon a Time in the West (Leone, 1968)
40. Raging Bull (Scorsese, 1980)
41. Good, the Bad and the Ugly, The (Leone, 1966)
42. Searchers, The (Ford, 1956)
43. Singin’ in the Rain (Donen/Kelly, 1952)
44. E.T. (Spielberg, 1982)
45. Goodfellas (Scorsese, 1990)
46. Run Lola Run (Tykwer, 1998)
47. This is Spinal Tap (Reiner, 1984)
48. Sunset Blvd. (Wilder, 1950)
49. Big Lebowski, The (J. Coen, 1998)
50. Double Indemnity (Wilder, 1944)
51. Bridge on River Kwai, The (Lean, 1957)
52. Memento (Nolan, 2000)
53. M (Lang, 1931)
54. Shining, The (Kubrick, 1980)
55. 12 Angry Men (Lumet, 1957)
56. L.A. Confidential (Hanson, 1997)
57. Unforgiven (Eastwood, 1992)
58. Passion of Joan of Arc, The (Dreyer, 1928)
59. General, The (Keaton/Bruckman, 1927)
60. Apartment, The (Wilder, 1960)
61. A Clockwork Orange (Kubrick, 1971)
62. Incredibles, The (Bird, 2004)
63. Silence of the Lambs, The (Demme, 1991)
64. Aliens (Cameron, 1986)
65. Lord of the Rings, The: The Fellowship of the Ring (Jackson, 2001)
66. Heat (Mann, 1995)
67. Do the Right Thing (S. Lee, 1989)
68. Rules of the Game, The (Renoir, 1939)
69. Halloween (Carpenter, 1978)
70. Network (Lumet, 1976)
71. Graduate, The (Nichols, 1967)
72. Bicycle Thief, The (De Sica, 1948)
73. Conversation, The (Coppola, 1974)
74. Groundhog Day (Ramis, 1993)
75. Maltese Falcon, The (Huston, 1941)
76. American History X (Kaye, 1998)
77. Ed Wood (Burton, 1994)
78. Manhattan (Allen, 1979)
79. King Kong (Cooper/Shoedsack, 1933)
80. North by Northwest (Hitchcock, 1959)
81. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (Cameron, 1992)
82. Manchurian Candidate, The (Frankenheimer, 1962)
83. To Kill a Mockingbird (Mulligan, 1962)
84. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Capra, 1939)
85. Modern Times (Chaplin, 1936)
86. Touch of Evil (Welles, 1958)
87. Leon (Besson, 1994)
88. Aguirre, the Wrath of God (Herzog, 1972)
89. 8 ½ (Fellini, 1963)
90. Ghostbusters (Reitman, 1984)
91. 400 Blows, The (Truffaut, 1959)
92. Notorious (Hitchcock, 1946)
93. Toy Story (Lasseter, 1995)
94. Lord of the Rings, The: The Return of the King (Jackson, 2003)
95. His Girl Friday (Hawks, 1940)
96. Reservoir Dogs (Tarantino, 1992)
97. Blue Velvet (Lynch, 1986)
98. On the Waterfront (Kazan, 1954)
99. Cinema Paradiso (Tornatore, 1988)
100. Nosferatu (Murnau, 1922)

I am in full support of people sharing their opinions and sticking to their guns. But I am skeptical to take some of these opinions seriously, however; especially when they lack the knowledge of cinema history and scholarship. I'm not trying to be an elitist here, and I am in no form the authority on film history (especially international cinema, of which I have seen relatively little), but I openly acknowledge this and constantly challenge myself and my views with different kinds of films so that I may advance my knowledge and call myself informed. Yes, I make bold choices in my list of top movies and I acknowledge that my list consists of a large number of safe choices. But if I were to compile a list of a Top 100 films most important works of cinema, in which my opinions were backed up by my growing knowledge of film history and scholarship, it would look nothing like the AFI list, the Online Film Community List, or my own Favorite(st) 149 movies list.

I point this out because I am always trying to find my place in the blogging world. I'm not sure that I have one, really. Certainly, if I were writing for a newspaper, magazine, or scholarly publication, I would not be able to write in the varying styles that I do or write about a variety of topic on the film world. The Blog enables an individual to write however short or long they like, about any topic or issue, satirically, academically, journalistically... the list goes on forever. How could this medium not be worthwhile? It embodies the cultural democracy we so often desire, right? Certainly, some film bloggers take advantage of these freedoms. But perhaps these are only true "freedoms" to those versed in the world of publishing (scholarly or journalistic). Plain and simple, the digital does not exist without acknowledging the analog. Without the basis in knowledge and information, most of which can be honestly and responsibly acquired via analogic means, then digital information is pointless.

These issues interest me for a number of reasons. As someone straddling many world (film blogging, medical journalism, and scholarly writing), I have been exposed to and participating in a number of writing styles and topics. Therefore, I try to meld styles and experiment with how I write and what I write about. But I would undoubtedly benefit from peer review. All of these long entries I wrote, however good or bad, organizationally sound or not, amount to little more than rough sketches of ideas that would require more research, review, and drafting in order to make a solid contribution to the greater spectrum of film writing. I fully believe that established film writers and theorists who have taken to the blogging realm are engaging in a discourse that is important in the digital age of information, consumption, and reproduction. But with the rising number of film blogs out there, it's tough to draw lines on what's important, what's worthwhile, and what's pointless. We all need to ask ourselves sometimes (those of us who blog, that is) why we do what we do and whether we are contributing to it or perpetuating the overall inconsequentiality of online discourse and so-called information.

These issues are central to film criticism and media studies, and I am happy to report that I will have the opportunity to contribute something small to this larger dialogue. I was recently approached by Scott Balcerzak and Jason Sperb of Dr. Mabuse's Kaleidoscope to fill a seat on their workshop panel on cinephilia and digital reproduction for the Society of Cinema and Media Studies' Annual Conference, held next year in Philadelphia, my home town. I graciously accepted the invitation and, now that I'm finished my summer course, will be knee deep in research over the next three weeks as I prepare to put together an abstract by August 15. My portion of the workshop, of course, will focus on the issues I voiced in this post. My observations here in this post represent the beginning of a larger research project which will consider the implications of online discourse and convergence in digital media.

I think I'd like to come at it from a number of perspectives, though, particularly the interactional and immediate nature of posting on a blog and the implications of its use on the institutional frameworks mostly informed by the practices of peer-review and publishing. How the medium of blogging functions with respect to sustaining a "worthy" dialogue about cinema and its possible contribution to the overall spectrum of film criticism are things I would like to consider.

One last point I'd like to mention is that in light of all this conjecture questioning the legitimacy of blogging, I should note that I will be presenting in an academic setting because I started a blog seven months ago. This fact alone is in oddly reflexive entry point into this inquiry I'll be launching, even if there are a considerable number of other factors which have led me here. Nevertheless, the fact remains that I would not be doing pursuing this scholarly task had it not been because I started this experiment of mine back in January. It's quite ironic, really, and it provides me with equal shares of encouragement and discouragement as I move ahead with this. As a blogger and a (hopeful) scholar, I take on this endeavor.


Piper said...


As always an excellent and thoughtful post. I wrote about something similar just yesterday about the Online Film Communities Top 100 Movies.

I too am about 7 months into this and am trying to find my place. I often waver between the pointless and then more pointed pieces. It is afterall an entertainment business that we write about, and an often ridiculous one at that, which is why I sometimes choose sarcasm as a way to approach some subjects.

But I am one that if I take on a project such as a blog, then I do it 100%. I am conscious of what I involve myself in and what I write about. And I often find myself second-guessing some posts and some involvement. When I read the comments by bloggers who I admire regarding the OFC Top 100, I thought to myself "that's not who I want to be in the whole scheme of things and more importantly, that's not who I am." I don't want to be known as a Fanboy or someone who doesn't have a vast knowledge of film and the chops to back it up. When I saw the final list, I couldn't defend it anymore because I didn't agree with it. And that bothered me a lot. And it made me think that I shouldn't be involved in such a thing because I'm not ready to be involved.

And I wonder if other took at the list and had second thoughts afterwards as I did. They should because if you're going to do something such as that, you can't just dismiss it as a list later. It should mean something.

Anyways, it's the bloggers such as yourself that are constantly evaluating and re-evaluating themselves that will elevate this medium to something more. So keep it up.

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