A stupid thing happened last Sunday night. It’s a stupid thing that has happened every year since 1984, but I don’t believe that I have watched as it was broadcast since Krist Novoselic dropped his stupid bass on his stupid head almost twenty years ago.
I “missed” the MTV Video Music Awards because I was on a flight from Los Angeles to New York which, entirely coincidentally, I shared with scholar and fellow critic Genevieve Yue. I dutifully made a Final Destination joke before we boarded, though the in-flight movie was actually Ramin Bahrani’s At Any Price. On my flight out I’d watched Iron Man 3—well, sort of. I saw the first hour-and-a-half out of the corner of my eye, occasionally pausing to ask myself, “Weren’t Don Cheadle and Iron Man enemies in the last one?” (I have, factoring in The Avengers, spent nearly six-and-a-half hours with the Iron Man franchise, and I can recall practically no details about any of the films.) The unchained, swooping camerawork in IM 3 looked quite graceful, though, and I finally popped on my headphones for the finale, which turned out to be a mistake.
I didn’t need a soundtrack to be utterly repulsed by Dennis Quaid’s obscene mugging in Bahrani’s movie, though did feel a chill of clairvoyance upon noting that a movie theater marquee visible in At Any Price was advertising Final Destination 5. I saw the series’ fifth and last installment on its opening weekend, and would watch another hundred if they would make them. I don’t know if Genevieve’s up on the franchise, being more of an avant-garde specialist herself. She has, incidentally, an excellent interview with the Spanish-American experimental filmmaker Laida Lertxundi in the latest Film Quarterly (Vol. 66, No.2). Of Lertxundi’s works, I’ve only seen 2010’s Cry When It Happens/ Llora Cuando Te Pase, which I found a lovely and intensely emotional experience. “Their stillness,” Genevieve writes of Lertxundi’s films, “signals the kind of viewing we’re meant to do: listen more closely, watch more carefully.”
This is, of course, what we should be doing, though it by no means corresponds with how we actually interface with media. To wit: Once I’d gotten back from LaGuardia and installed myself in my apartment, the stupid thing that happened last Sunday—which no persuasive account suggests was of any interest whatsoever from a strictly aesthetic viewpoint—was over, and the Internet had begun batting the shuttlecock around. There were Smith family reaction shot .gifs and trending hashtags and the work of some enterprising Photoshop artist who’d picked up on the resemblance of the suit worn by Robin Thicke to that worn by Michael Keaton as the character Beetlejuice. I’d been tracking the events of the evening via Twitter feed and in-flight wifi, and was pretty well caught up the next day when The Onion ran a piece under the byline of “Meredith Artley, Managing Editor Of CNN.Com” titled ‘Let Me Explain Why Miley Cyrus’ VMA Performance Was Our Top Story This Morning.’ “It was an attempt to get you to click on CNN.com so that we could drive up our web traffic,” explains “Meredith Artley, “which in turn would allow us to increase our advertising revenue.”
The Onion’s line—that spinning nothing into news is an enormous waste of resources and intellectual energy—would seem to be indisputable, but of course this is the Internet and, as if to prove the point of the Onion piece, the rush to ride the updraft of the moment’s non-event event continued unabated. A Tumblr self-explanatorily called ‘Miley Twerking On Things We Should Talk About’ appeared and, the following day, Andrew Wallenstein, Editor-in-chief: Digital of Variety magazine, posted his own two cents under the title ‘Why the Onion is Wrong About CNN and Miley Cyrus.’ In a stark example of speaking power to truth, Wallenstein, explains that, because “[i]t’s difficult to subsist on substantive journalism without some help from more crowd-pleasing content” and “maximizing advertising revenues is dependent on maximizing traffic,” Miley beating out the escalating situation in Syria as top news was a natural and defensible choice. In a Web 2.0 world where the pressure for writers to perform in groveling, crowd-pleasing fashion has been “accentuated by the analytics that give publishing companies detailed feedback of how content performs in a way the print world couldn’t,” Wallenstein sees that news organizations have three options open to them:
1) You can remain in denial that quality alone will prevail despite all evidence of the contrary.
2) You can do whatever it takes to drive traffic and lose any sense of distinct brand identity.
3) You can coordinate a balanced attack between the quality that supports the brand but not traffic with more broadly appealing content that does more for traffic than it does the brand.”
Like all shining mediocrities, Wallenstein makes his modest proposal in favor of triangulation, the best bet to preserve at least something of that all-valuable “sense of distinct brand identity”—which I suppose is meant to be a synonym for integrity. You can’t beat ‘em! Join ‘em!
Part of the “analytics” that Wallenstein refers to are the bars at the top and bottom of every CNN.com story denoting “Total Shares,” which add up the number of Tweets and Facebook Likes, as well as Google Plus and LinkedIn whatevers, garnered by any given piece. Something not wholly unlike this interface can be found at the bottom of this page. And the reason I am discussing this in a space dedicated to movie chat is because the same analytics that made Miley-as-a-top-story a foregone conclusion have been and will increasingly be dictating how we talk about movies—at least in paying venues. While a filmmaker’s “use of space” is a favorite vague term among pud cinephiles, right now the only use of space that I want to talk about pertains to web real estate.
The race to perfect the art of quantifying and selling attention is a race to the bottom. In these dark times—and make no mistake, they are pitch black—the meaning of “professional” and “amateur” has become increasingly confused. Whereas “professional” should ideally imply a certain basic level of authority and competent draftsmanship, the emerging model favors a breed of insta-expert hacks adept at nothing but producing a few mangled grafs of Provocative Opinion on deadline and chumming the Internet with keywords.
Producing think-piece responses timed to the trending item of the day, regardless of how damning or dismissive that response may be, only reinforces the system of priority that has already been put in place. And when whatever the monied interests want people to be talking about is given priority over what the cultural gatekeeper, writer or editor, thinks that people should be talking about, journalism (or its relation, criticism) has in effect become an arm of marketing. The fact is that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, and every dollar of the budget put towards a tie-in listicle timed to a tentpole release that no-one with a bit of sense thinks for a second is going to be worth a shit, is a dollar that doesn’t go somewhere else.
By expending verbiage on ‘Achy-Breaky Heart’ performer Billy Ray Cyrus’s daughter having rubbed her bottom onto the crotch of Growing Pains star Alan Thicke’s son rather than on, say, Laida Lertxundi, I am, in fact, participating in and reinforcing this system right now. Nary a week goes by, it seems, that I don’t find myself forced to contemplate the “Attack of the 50-Foot Eyesores” episode from the sixth “Treehouse of Horror” Halloween special on The Simpsons. Should one of the dozen living people who haven’t seen it be reading, the premise is that that the monumental advertisements of Springfield’s “Miracle Mile” have been brought to life by a freak storm. Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox, Mr. Peanut, the Zip (Pep) Boys, and Lard Lad (an amalgam of the Big Boy and Randy’s Donuts fiberglass sculptures) all go rampaging through the city like roaring kaiju. There seems to be no end in sight, until Lisa has the idea to consult the ad agency who invented these iconic characters to begin with. “Advertising is a funny thing,” the veteran adman tells her, “if people stop paying attention to it, pretty soon it goes away… If you stop paying attention to the monsters, they’ll lose their power.”
Is there no way to participate in the cultural dialogue without further empowering the monsters—and hopelessly compromising ourselves? Is the only ethical solution to abjure the Internet entirely? To retire to one of those closed communities relatively impervious to the forces of the market, such as the avant-garde or the ivory tower? To run a William McKinley-style front-porch campaign where you invite any parties interested in your opinions to visit your home and watch you hold court? To head for the mountains loaded for bear? To record and distribute one’s criticism exclusively on analog cassette tapes, a format adopted by a certain subset of musicians looking to keep themselves and their communities uncorrupted by the digital machine?
One hopes there are still avenues available. There are certainly working critics who’ve figured out how to negotiate the system without ceding all credibility. In music, Claire Boucher, the 25-year-old Canadian musician who records for 4AD and performs under the name Grimes, is at least one public figure who has passed through the industry gauntlet while carrying herself with self-respect and due wariness. With designer Rachel Antonoff, Grimes was in fact on-hand at the stupid thing last Sunday, co-hosting MTV Style’s Red Carpet Report, “highlights” of which may be viewed here.
Certainly the most uncomfortable of a smorgasboard of uncomfortable moments comes when Jared Leto, the 41-year-old frontman of Thirty Seconds to Mars, louchely slings his arm around Grimes, while some non-Leto member of the band who nobody cares about is prattling on about his dong. Leto has always given off a borderline-analphabetic vibe—and that’s not just because of the “Why can’t Jordan read?” plotline of My So-Called Life—but had he been keeping up with the music media, he would know that Grimes has a significant other, one James Brooks, who himself records music as Elite Gymnastics and Dead Girlfriends. The latter project was recently in the spotlight because of a track called ‘On Fraternity,’ which was widely construed to be a man’s approximation of a woman’s anxiety at the constant, simmering possibility of being sexually harassed or worse. Now, Brooks is a self-proclaimed feminist ally, but it happened to be a slow week at the content mills in the dog days of summer, and so ‘On Fraternity’ was the occasion of think-pieces on the subject of “mansplaining,” the most prominent of which was posted on Stereogum, all of which culminated in a SPIN roundtable earlier this month. Nothing of particular interest was said in the abovementioned filler, though Grimes’s response to the Stereogum article on Tumblr is worth quoting:
James doesn’t have a publicist or a label or money or an agenda. He’s making art and he’s releasing it. I’m so tired of people jumping on every possible controversy they can conjure because they need web traffic. We don’t make art because we want to be in tabloids, you probably didn’t start an indie music blog beccause [sic] you wanted to make tabloids.
On the latter point I’m not so confident; if we look closely at the Dead Girlfriends “debate,” we can descry a 1/25th scale model of MileyGate. Whenever the unscrupulous suck-up angling and grasping opportunism of film criticism gets me down, I just take a look at the “I Can Haz Content?” state of music journalism for perspective. It’s not a relief exactly, because what I’m seeing is the shape of things to come in film chat.
“But people can’t help looking at them,” Lisa Simpson says of the “50 Ft. Eyesores,” “they’re wrecking the town!” And make no mistake, the Internet metrics game is just as surely wrecking our culture—film culture not exempted. Variety’s Andrew Wallenstein, for one, doesn’t see it as such. “Syria can even benefit from a little Cyrus time”—he means Syria the story, not the nation—“there’s something to be said for any kind of content triggering a mass influx of users, which increases the chance they will move on to other content on the site. Come for Cyrus, stay for Syria.” George Lucas, quoted in Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, makes a similar argument with regards to the rise of the multiplex: More screens just mean more potential venues, some of which will duly be given to worthy independent films, as the profit-generating blockbusters nourish smaller, riskier fare.
This is a familiar line, that if there’s a sufficiently robust trade going on in the culture business, the overall prosperity will in due course trickle down. This view persists in light of every indication that mediocrity, in fact, only begets further mediocrity, and when the editorial imperative—the ability to assert to a readership that this is important, that is not—is ceded to go whoring for pageviews, only the admen are winning.
Nick Pinkerton is a regular contributor to Sight & Sound magazine and sundry other publications. He lives in Brooklyn, NY. Follow Nick on Twitter @NickPinkerton.