JANUARY 7, 2020
BEFORE THEY BECAME filmmakers themselves, the film critics of the Paris-based journal Cahiers du Cinéma in the late 1950s — writers with famous names such as François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, and Éric Rohmer — perfected the art of the movie marathon. Binge-watching wasn’t a thing yet, but these critics would spend entire days at the Cinémathèque Française, watching the films of these American masters over and over. They would soon put the knowledge they accrued during these marathon sessions into their own films, which would collectively be known as the French New Wave, considered by many scholars to be the birth of modern cinema. In the process, they may have inadvertently created modern film criticism as well.
Since the advent of home video, critics have honed their craft by rewatching their favorite films over and over again, picking up fresh details and learning new techniques with each viewing. It could be considered a democratization of the form. For those who cannot attend film school or a graduate journalism program, they can still achieve a scholarly level of knowledge through sheer repetition. Binge-watching and movie marathons have now become commonplace, not just the terrain of scholars and professional critics but any amateur with a Netflix subscription.
Some film critics now differentiate themselves from amateurs through the practice of Extreme Film Criticism. In it, critics subject themselves to physical, film-related challenges that bear little resemblance to long-form criticism of decades past but would nonetheless intimidate most amateurs. Then they write about it. Landing somewhere between product placement and a fraternity hazing ritual, these pieces constitute a response to major shifts in the landscape of both the news media and the film industry, with serious implications for the life expectancy of criticism as a form, and perhaps for the individual critics themselves.
For example, in April 2018, AMC theaters offered a promotion in which they screened 12 Marvel movies in succession leading up to the release of the latest entry, Avengers: Infinity War. Who would willingly undergo such punishment? Hundreds of super-fans, and at least two esteemed film critics. IndieWire critic David Ehrlich and The New York Times’s Jason Bailey both attended the marathon in Times Square, where they joined Marvel fans in a 31-hour test of focus, sleep deprivation, intestinal fortitude, and nasal courage. Bailey wrote that many viewers chose to eat their breakfast in the lobby because, after 18 hours, the theater smelled like “day-old body odor, stale popcorn and old socks.”
Their published diaries, each rippling with gallows humor, read like letters from soldiers at war. Ehrlich says that the main theater looked like a scene from Lord of the Flies, later referring to the venue as a “boiling cauldron of farts.” Stuck somewhere between reporting and criticism, these are delightful reads with slippery purposes. Ehrlich sneaks in some thoughtful insights about the films, and Bailey makes an admirable attempt to understand the super-fan mindset, interviewing several of the attendees. Ultimately, it produces an effect similar to reality television. We read them gasping at what a critic must do to earn a living these days.
Then again, while withstanding a movie marathon may sound extreme, it might be the only honest way to cover the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a creative, emotional, and physical grind of a franchise unparalleled in the history of film criticism. Consider this timeline: critics began writing about Avengers: Endgame when the trailer was released in December 2018, speculating about what the images that flickered across the screen could indicate about the larger story to come. Three months later, they reviewed Captain Marvel, with an eye toward how the events depicted in that film would impact Endgame. Then they actually review Endgame. In June, Spider-Man: Far From Home hit theaters and dealt with the fallout from the plot of Endgame. By August, it was almost awards season, which provoked discussions of whether it would be taken seriously as an Oscar contender, a question that won’t be answered until February 2020. That’s 14 months of solid discourse about a single film, and the pattern renews with every Marvel release, no matter how similar it is to the one that came before it.
Even the method of coverage has changed. There was a time when filmmakers would be rather coy about what their films meant. It was the job of the critic to decipher and analyze, to tell us what the films meant and how. Franchise films and interconnected cinematic universes make this type of work irrelevant. Looking through Avengers: Endgame for subtext is a meaningless experience. Instead, superfans and bloggers hunt for Easter eggs — empty callbacks to previous films and hidden references to potential future plot lines — to show off their discoveries on Twitter. It puts the power with the fans, and the critics are forced to follow suit with hastily written blog posts with titles like “31 Details You Might Have Missed in ‘Avengers: Endgame’.” This endless cycle of speculation and circumscribed analysis makes the experience of being trapped in a room with comic book fans for 31 hours feel like a distillation of the job rather than an aberration.
Extreme film criticism approaches self-flagellation in the case of Matt Singer. Managing editor of ScreenCrush and member of the prestigious New York Film Critics Circle, Singer is perhaps best known for his gastronomic feats. Whenever a chain restaurant offers a movie tie-in menu, Singer is there. Most recently, he ate everything on the Addams Family menu at IHOP, including the “Wednesday Web Cakes” and the “Morticia’s Haunted Hot Chocolate,” common menu items made special by adding purple frosting and a few more dozen grams of sugar. Singer has previously eaten the IHOP The Grinch, Denny’s Fantastic Four, Johnny Rockets Divergent, and White Castle X-Men: Apocalypse menus, the latter of which was composed of 30 (!) hamburger sliders served in a cardboard briefcase. Singer ate them in a single sitting and added a side order of “Mutant Loaded Fries” just for kicks.
He executes each outing as a live diary, so that readers can follow along, waiting with bated breath for the exact moment he slips into a diabetic coma. There are winking notes of the serious risk to his health, with a stated goal on one expedition to Denny’s to “eat as much of this food as [he] can without dying.” Singer sees the absurdity of it all, but he makes only a minuscule effort to connect these outings to the films themselves. Of this Addams Family meal, he writes, “[T]he things happening to my colon right now are very mysterious and spooky.” In some cases, he admits he has not even seen the movie in question. Occasionally and briefly, Singer is able to pull back and put his work in proper context. “[T]here really is no better expression of Hollywood’s storytelling priorities these days,” he writes in one piece, “than these bizarre, extravagant, excessive foods, and the way they emphasize spectacle over everything else.” Still, the occasional nugget of wisdom buried inside a sugar binge should not be confused for long-form critique.
Film criticism’s move to the extreme can best be understood as a response to an extreme threat. The monopolization of movie studios — in recent years, Disney has acquired Marvel, Pixar, and 20th Century Fox — is infringing on our ability to choose our own movie experience. Disney has already begun to wield its power by making 20th Century Fox titles unavailable for repertory screenings, with a predicted crippling effect on independent theaters. Without consumer choice, film criticism will lose one of its primary purposes. The strain on critics, however, has been long in the making. The popularity of review-aggregate sites Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic has devalued the long-form review, as has the “pivot-to-video” strategy adopted by so many mainstream media companies. That said, film critics are a stubborn bunch, so their commitment to promoting a thriving film culture through serious criticism will not end soon. Ehrlich, for example, unveiled in December his annual video essay of the best films of the year, a skillful application of the formal techniques of filmmaking that evokes a giddy appreciation of cinema. He does this for free, but critics have to eat, too (normal food, not just cine-confections), and, as studio filmmaking becomes more and more averse to risk, the critics themselves may end up taking even bigger ones.
Is such a trade-off necessary? Outlets assign articles of extreme film criticism because they need the clicks, and if a film critic has to put his body into brief jeopardy to make economically feasible the reviews and essays they actually want to write, it could be justified as the new cost of doing business. If film actors can operate according to the “one for Hollywood, one for me” logic, why not critics? But studios make this same argument to justify annual slates increasingly dominated by those very same movie franchises. If Disney’s ownership of the Marvel, and the subsequent profits they would garner, allowed them the financial flexibility to take risks on edgier material or mid-budgeted dramas for adults — a studio genre seemingly relegated to the past — it would be a worthy trade. So far, this has proved to be wishful thinking, major studios having made few overtures toward a return to adult-oriented filmmaking. Instead, spectacle-driven franchises have become the new normal, and movies, as Martin Scorsese recently put it, have become more like theme parks.
Similarly, critics may find their dalliances with extreme film criticism a slippery slope. Singer has written that he never intended his eating challenges to be a regular thing. The first piece was pitched as a joke. Singer was having trouble getting access to a Comic-Con, so he promised his editor that, if the issues were not resolved, he would eat everything on the Denny’s Fantastic Four menu. His editor salivated, assigned the piece to him, and Singer’s gastronomic life was changed forever. If there is one thing the American media should have learned in these last few years, it’s that a seemingly harmless, transgressive joke — like a former reality TV star becoming president — can turn into a tragic new normal in the blink of an eye.
Extreme film criticism seems a long way from the values of Cahiers, a journal that promoted the view that art — and criticism — expresses a singular point of view. “The film of tomorrow,” Truffaut wrote, “appears to me as even more personal than an […] autobiographical novel, like a confession, or a diary.” The work of extreme film critics often appears in diary form, but it hardly reflects film culture as a personal vision. It is a frantic reaction to a changing status quo, dictated not by the idiosyncrasies of the critic but the oppressive sameness of our film culture, which bullies us all into submission, betraying the subversive spirit of criticism exemplified by the Cahiers gang. Then again, some have argued that the legacy of the Cahiers critics has outlived its usefulness. Over the course of their movie marathons, they developed what would become known as “auteur theory,” which argued that the director was the true author of each film, as opposed to it being a collaboration. The theory has come under attack in recent years, especially by women who argue that it inherently excludes female directors who were never given the chance to build their oeuvres.
To ascribe to the philosophies of the Cahiers critics — which, in practice, include extreme criticism — is to perpetuate male dominance in film, a consequence that Truffaut and Godard probably never considered. Nonetheless, others did. Pauline Kael, in her 1963 essay “Circles and Squares,” writes that auteur critics were caught up in their own “narcissistic male fantasies […] [and] schoolboy notions of human experience.” Indeed, almost every case of extreme film criticism is perpetrated by a male critic. It’s hard to imagine a more schoolboy notion than eating your weight in junk food or engaging in competitive non-showering in a movie theater.
Extreme film criticism shows no signs of being a short-term trend. The film critics of Vulture recently ranked all 5,279 movies of the 2010s as part of their decade-end coverage. Charles Bramesco, also for Vulture, is locked into a lifelong effort to review and rank every single Netflix original film; at the first publication of his piece, he reviewed around 60 movies, but now he is up to 319. The choice of these individual critics to binge and purge their movies can certainly be justified as an economic exigency, but it remains a troubling trend for the future of the form. In that same essay, Kael defined the purpose of the critic as “perceiving what is original and important in new work and helping others to see.” Embedded in the rise of extreme film criticism is a comment that, in the most prominent blockbusters, there is little original or important. If there were, critics would be writing about it, instead of eating and sitting their way toward a slow death. It’s easy to blame the critics for lowering the standards of their form, but at this point, what choice do they have?