For every article written signaling the death knell of film criticism, the form seems determined to find a way, Jurassic Park-style. And if the entertaining and enlightening panel featuring the staff of the new film criticism website The Dissolve is any indication, smart and erudite coverage of film is still a possibility in this era of Buzzfeedification (10 Citizen Kane Plot Holes, Told in Cat Gifs) Bemoaning what they deemed “film attention deficit disorder” and “drive-by writing” that have permeated the online film discussion, with the focus being placed on movies yet to be released that then immediately fade from discussion after we tally their opening week box office like some sort of demented fantasy sports model, The Dissolve's staff (founder Keith Phipps, senior editors Tasha Robinson and Genevieve Koski, editor Scott Tobias and staff writer Nathan Rabin) were excited for their new venture, seeing it as “an oasis for people who care about film writing.”
It's no surprise the MFF chose to highlight the entire crew of this new enterprise this year instead of what had become their standard single film critic spotlight (J. Hoberman having taken the reins last year), as this new film consideration (brought forward by Pitchfork with almost the entirety of the staff being comprised of former Onion AV Club staffers) seemingly sprouted up from nowhere earlier this year. With a focus on past and present cinema (ignoring that film prognostication cotton industry, saying they “never thought of film criticism as consumer guided”), The Dissolve allows for long-form writing that assumes an audience that is both a) intelligent, b) as head over heels in love with cinema as they are, c) willing to read a two-thousand word appraisal of the merits of the mutant-apes-gone-wild picture Congo and d) happy to see that such a thing can coexist alongside fantastic film writing about films both classic and recent. If any of that speaks to you, you're probably already amongst their readership – The Dissolve's comments section is amongst the least eye-gougingly terrible on the internet and is a huge part of their idea that films and the people discussing them should be engaged in active conversation.
Moderated by former AV Club colleague Steve Hyden, the discussion was free-flowing and entertaining, even when pitted against the bustling atmosphere of Collectivo's back room. Besides the impending death of their field of expertise, other topics included the new ways that we ingest our cinema (VOD, Netflix streaming, and a way that would make David Lynch very unhappy), the art of negative reviews (anger is generally saved for “deliberate mediocrities”), the possibility of the Hollywood blockbuster system imploding (although all members of the panel agreed they love blockbusters as well, specifically “distinct voices” such as Christopher Nolan or Guillermo Del Toro) and the pros and cons of being a film website not based out of a cultural epicenter.
But what came through most strongly throughout the discussion was both their sense of humor (describing the Katherine Heigl rom-com atrocity 27 Dresses as the cinematic 300 Sandwiches equivalent as well as a brief exchange described themselves as having a definite “Midwestern sensibility,” “very polite,” “repressed!”) along with a great love of cinema. In addition to trumpeting multiple screenings taking place at the festival (amongst them Ain't Them Bodies Saints, Upstream Color, The Act of Killing and Earth), they also took time to shout out the greatest director of all time Ernst Lubitsch and attempt to explain the counter-intuitive pleasures to be gleaned from cinematic crapsterpiece The Happening. Far from feeling like a eulogy for a dying form in support of another dying form, it instead felt like a celebration of an art form still in its infancy (evolutionarily speaking cinema is still amoebic, a bit of muck floating about) and the critics devoted to covering it as it evolves and expands.
Which makes Blow Out (their joint choice for a festival screening) such a wonderfully emblematic pick. Not so much in need of critical rescue (the film did recently merit a Criterion Blu-Ray release, after all), but a film that definitely benefits from both the historical contextualization and powerful cinema presentation (one of the few festival films that we were lucky enough to be given a gorgeous 35mm presentation of) that The Dissolve aims to champion. Brian DePalma's classic John Travolta-led thriller looks gorgeous projected on the big screen, and even though the format is sadly going extinct, the communal experience of sitting in dark theater together is still thriving, as this fantastic festival continually showcases. As Tasha Robinson stated, theater-going is a great “reminder that people don't have the same reaction to art” and a festival is one of the best places to continue these conversations vital to film's continuing importance.