Criticism After Authority: The Dissolve at the Milwaukee Film Festival

By Kalling Heck
john travolta

As part of their “Tributes” series, the Milwaukee Film Festival invited the staff of Chicago based film criticism website The Dissolve for a statement and subsequent conversation on the state of cinema. This conversation was followed by a screening of Brian De Palma’s 1981 Blowout, a film selected by the panel as one of their favorites. The Dissolve Staff present included: Keith Phipps (Editorial Director), Scott Tobias (Editor), Tasha Robinson (Senior Editor), Nathan Rabin (Staff Writer) and Genevieve Koski (Senior Editor). The conversation was moderated by Steven Hyden and was co-presented by UWM’s Center for 21st Century Studies.

The thrust of the conversation with The Dissolve circulated around their position in the larger world of film criticism. In the past, according to The Dissolve, seminal film critics like Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris commanded an authority that is no longer available due to the leveling of opinion provided by the Internet—which, to them, flattens perspectives due to qualities like comments and the simple breadth of opinions available. The Dissolve posited that the originary function of film criticism—what is something like a consumer guide—has, well, dissolved. Instead, the goal of the site seems to be the presentation and curation of a virtual space where discussions can be broached and in some sense guided. The Dissolve’s writers stressed that one of their primary goals was to add “context,” to help generate perspectives and condition the emergent discussion based on what they find to be cogent pieces of information about the film in discussion. Of course, there is a bit of an authoritative position remaining in this site’s functioning—the contextual information is of course selected at the expense of other relevant info—but the reins have been loosened, so to speak, in the name of community and the generation of a mutually satisfying (and participatory) discussion.

The development of this model was, for The Dissolve, a response to the contemporary technological climate that seems to have aided in the development of a new kind of consumption, and obviously is deeply connected with the supposed “democratization” that so often colors discussions of the Internet. Whereas readers turned to Kael’s reviews in order to find out what to see in theatres at the moment of reading (or perhaps in the near future), The Dissolve sees their position rather differently. Features like “Movie of the Week” encourage repeat visitations to the site by asking readers to watch a film in advance and then to return to the ensuing conversation over a series of days in order to read articles released each day (and to take part in the discussions that follow these posts). Theirs is, then, a remarkably different business model from that of Kale, instead of turning to the paper to learn what has been authorized for consumption, The Dissolve’s writers provide context to the act of consumption itself, presenting their information as an invaluable accompaniment but never as an authorization to watch. In fact, the movies selected for the “Movies of the Week” feature range from cult films (Repo Man) to under-loved auteurist gems (Targets), and even from under discussed Hollywood musicals (It’s Always Fair Weather) to lauded, influential and rather brutal art house classics (The Celebration), presenting a range of styles of filmmaking without concern for release date (availability, though, does seem a concern here, as all these films are relatively easy to find).

Prescient was the selection of Brian De Palma’s Blowout given the talk. A classic primarily for its ability to showcase the narrative and aesthetic flourishes that de Palma specializes in, the film seems to rhyme with the discussion at hand. Its status as cinephillic indulgence and auteurist centerpiece demands exactly the kinds of contextualization provided by The Dissolve. But the auteurist qualities of the film speak to a kind of authority all its own; the cult of strong, demanding figures with unflinching dedication to their vision that de Palma so clearly suggests seems to be the crystallization of Kael’s approach to criticism in cinematic form, and it left me wondering what a cinema in the style of The Dissolve might look like?

I’m reminded here of André Bazin’s appraisal of the unbroken, deep-focus tracking shot. For Bazin, these kinds of shots were unique in their ability to generate a kind of freedom where the viewer is encouraged, even required, to take part in the film. To Bazin, the extended takes of a filmmaker like Jean Renoir engender “a more active mental attitude on the part of the spectator and a more positive contribution on his part to the action in progress” (35-36). What Bazin posits, then, is a cinema that allows for something like a democratic relationship to the image. The viewer here is engaged as an active participant, encouraged to take part in a film by virtue of their ability to select and configure the material without the film supplying a particular reading. The Dissolve’s model also suggests this kind of examination and subsequent participation—indeed in much more literal terms—and the dream too remains the same. What both the Dissolve and Bazin seem to long for is a kind of freedom that is traditionally unavailable in the interpretation of a film. What this inevitably causes, however, is a fragmentation that renders any particular reading always already partial, and halts the possibility of action (political or otherwise) by rendering any message partial and easily dismissible. One wonders, ultimately, whether this “democratization”—what is without a doubt a valuable and truly useful project—doesn’t also always make it impossible for any figure, or film, to speak; that is, to provide a meaning, message or interpretation and to universalize what it might demand.

Bazin, André. What Is Cinema? Volume 1. Trans. Hugh Gray. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967. Print.

[Kalling Heck is a PhD student at the University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee. His research is focused on cinema in moments of political transition, in particular the changeover from Authoritarianism to Democracy.]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *