21 August 2014

The Twitic - Social Media & Film Culture

Since graduating a month ago, I've spent more time on social media than at any other juncture of my life. Whether it be to examine the web presence of prospective employers, researching further study options or simply digesting my daily dosage of current affairs (general, entertainment and personal) I've probably been traversing Twitter, Facebook & LinkedIn for in excess of an hour a day. Doesn't sound like a lot, but when you consider intervals spent on these sites tend to range from 1-10 minute chunks, that's quite a few visits. I'm also unashamed to say that these websites have enhanced my perspective and understanding of some of the summer's testiest subjects, including the terror unfolding in the Middle-East, the disconcerting hubbub surrounding Ferguson and even the “Yes” vote débâcle engulfing Scotland. It may seem remiss to say that the 160 character communications I've absorbed render me anything close to an expert, but the impassioned, controversial yet often intelligent musings of friends, peers and personal heroes have certainly engaged me beyond my usual level. Through social networking I've seen how intensely people regard these issues, and thus have been forced – and thankfully so – to try and understand the world as more than the basis for journalistic narratives. Horror deserves to be identified as horror, not a portrait of the emotion to be consumed through the prism of a website or broadsheet. So simply on those lines, I think it's obvious social-networking has worth. Of course there are people who will choose to abuse it, to manipulate its potential for good in order to achieve gross ends, but that's a subject for another post, by a more informed writer.

I write this not to try and lend false import to the rest of the piece, but rather to demonstrate I am thankful for some of the power social-networking exercises. I think it's left me a more educated, thoughtful person. Its detractors will say that it encourages an ADD response to news that demands more thorough engagement, but to them I ask, would those with minimal attention or interest connect with current affairs at all? By reading and analysing a tweet, those previously doomed to ignorance might, if only for a second, spare a thought for events unfolding outside their living rooms, possibly sharing the information online or conversationally with another soul willing to take action and affect change. It's a romantic, idealised viewpoint for sure, but heck, if it works just once, isn't it worth it?

So yeah, long story short, I'm down with social-networking. Generally. As a film enthusiast and wannabe writer/journalist/critic/hack, I do take issue with one area surrounding social-networking. Its relationship with culture, and more specifically the effect it has on both cinema and the health of criticism. The evaluation offered in a tweet may now be reaching the same standing as an elegant, clever review from an experienced critic. That's not to say we can expect compendiums of bitesize musings to begin filling libraries, or that @CheezeTang from Reading's opinions surrounding the latest Malick will grace scholarly essays any-time soon. No, obviously that Mike Judge-esque vision is a nightmare. However the rise of the “Twitic” has definitely impacted how the public and even the industry choose to value the trained professional, which is to say the stock of a seasoned critic is seemingly in decline. More and more, studios place emphasis on the reactions gauged and accumulated through social-networks, ascertaining tracking information and marketing strategies using crude intel suggested by Twitter. That probably sounds a little naïve, and I am aware there are tonnes of people who slave hard behind the scenes to accrue and analyse other crucial data, but the fact remains, Twitics are growing increasingly influential.

Just look at this article from /Film. I quite like /Film as a source of news and puppy-dog enthusiasm, and their excellent podcast is a regular on my own iTunes feed. So please, don't take this as an assault on them, they're just an identifiable, high-profile example. The article explores early responses to James Gunn's now universally appreciated “Guardians of the Galaxy”, which in itself is no bad thing (it's a cool movie), but all of the material highlighted comes in tweet form. /Film cleverly indicate that they are aware all the content is condensed, but they also make the crucial misstep (in my opinion) of labelling the short reactions as “reviews”. The article is as much a celebration of the Twitic as it is of Gunn's movie, revelling in the freedom that tweeting about cinema allows in the face of embargo and careful consideration. All of the tweets appear to be impassioned first reactions, and by default can't exceed 160 characters in length. That's not film criticism, yet, it's being propagated at the expense of write-ups from trained viewers who take the time to consider work, to place it in the history of cinema (both classic and modern) and to let it gestate within their own being, creating an organic and truthful interpretation. It all sounds very hoity-toity, but the measured and intelligent thoughts required for inspiring criticism insist upon it. Heck, readers both devoted and casual deserve it. It's a process that sits at odds with the quick-fire nerdgasms which tend to define a tweet, and it's something that certainly demands more than 2 minutes and a wi-fi connection. I can't find an article on /Film celebrating the reactions and work of critics offering full reviews, which is a little disturbing. It indicates a growing dedication to twitics over critics, prioritising shallow immediacy at the expense of patience. I would much rather read a 2000 word discussion of “Guardians of the Galaxy” than a tweet with one too many capitalised letters, but I'm aware that could just be me. What I feel we should all take more issue with (at least those who care sufficiently about art/culture & worthwhile journalism) is the aggrandizing of twitical thinking /Film enables here.

In his refreshingly accessible and typically entertaining book “Hatchet Job”, the UK's most trusted critic, Mark Kermode, also presents some opinions on film twiticism. He's not a fan. I won't belabour you with quotes or specific details (read the book, it's very good), but like me, Kermode sees strong criticism as an art itself, and refuses to give social-networking the same credence as a fleshed out review. The notorious Armond White takes it even further, believing that a certain level of training and even ageing is essential to produce anything of value. I'm less inclined to agree directly with Mr. White (although I am myself a definite fan of his), but that's perhaps because I represent part of the blogging culture he openly denounces. However both of these figures are obviously aware of the Twitic's growing reach. Kermode even turns to 2012's largely reviled “Project X” as an example. Before critics were even allowed to see the party-flick, it was exhibited for (presumably inebriated) college audiences, who were encouraged to then tweet their impressions. This led to the film using a teaser trailer  underpinned by these 160-character raves, hailing the work as “Funny as hell”. With a 28% rating on Rotten Tomatoes (just about low enough to class the movie as roundly panned) very few recognised critics seemed to agree. More detestable are tweets that simply proclaim it “a parent's worst nightmare”. These were also very evident in the marketing, and yet they don't even approach the film from a critical angle. Never-mind the tweets that broadly complimented the feature as “the best party movie ever” (have they seen any other teen movies?) , at least they're shaped on the notion “Project X” is a piece of cinema requiring evaluation. The other sort of tweet is just a brash statement, and not even a considered one. Yet, it was this content used to promote the film, helping to eradicate the necessity of film critics in the industry. There used to be time that film-makers hung on Roger Ebert's opinions, hoping beyond hope he would like their movie. Ebert's reviews (both televised and printed) had a substantial impact on culture, and in the case of smaller productions, could even help determine how wide their release would go. That state of being now faces extinction. If “The Matrix” was released today, the poster might read “that steak looked delicious!”. That's a sad thought.

Now comes the tricky part. I've gone over some of my concerns with social-networking and film culture, addressed how distributors are offering it grown preference, phasing out esteemed thinkers in the process. What gives me the right to discuss the issue? Not much, honestly. I've been writing about film for over 5-years, been involved with numerous editors and publications and obtained a credible degree from a reputable institution in the subject. I'm the first to admit that's not nearly enough. One must see more films than I've seen (which is a lot, but not nearly wide enough to suggest even mild expertise), read more than I've read (on all manner of subject) and write more than I've written. I'm also guilty of using twitter to share opinions on cinema, which might be my grandest folly. But if you can forgive my hypocrisy, tolerate my wanting knowledge and appreciate my earnest intentions, then perhaps you'll agree some of what I've written here is true. Social-networking offers us a wave of possibilities and allows us to connect and express ourselves in ever evolving ways. But in regards to film, it shouldn't be seen as a viable substitute for acute, perceptive and quick-witted penmanship. Next time you're content to have a tweet consisting of one sentence instruct your cinema-going habits, I implore you to instead take 10 extra minutes and read through a fuller critical analysis. It's unlikely you'll emerge anything other than more informed and engaged with the cultural opportunities awaiting you. “A parent's worst nightmare” doesn't really offer the same level of insight. Critics hold artists to a certain standard, and often seek to protect the interests of a consumer. As such they're important. Not only might your wallet be saved the ignoble fate of lightening its weight in the name of seeing “Transformers 5: Tits & Asphalt”, but it ensures the art future generation's remember us by is dutifully investigated, and called out when it fails to achieve a certain standard. To me, that's a tradition worth preserving, and one hardly honoured by the otherwise optimistic possibilities offered by social-networking.

An article by Daniel Kelly, 2014 

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