Essays · Movies

This Was the Summer When Cultural Criticism Swallowed Film Criticism Whole

By  · Published on September 2nd, 2016

Or, What We Talk About When We Don’t Talk About Movies.

Earlier this week, Birth.Movies.Death published an article by Film Crit Hulk outlining the author’s problems with the first season of Stranger Things. With an eye towards the television screenwriting process, Hulk explained his issues with the show’s structure and plotting before coming to the conclusion that the Duffer Brothers had produced a show that will not withstand the test of time. As luck would have it, Hulk’s piece also hit the internet on the same day that Netflix announced the renewal of Stranger Things for a second season. It wasn’t long before the conversation turned toxic, with Film Twitter fighting over what they viewed as an intentional contrarianism by the Alamo Drafthouse’s flagship publication.

This wasn’t the first time that people butted heads on the internet over Stranger Things – somewhere along the line, we managed to turn a delightful secondary character into a topic as divisive as the sexual politics of Game of Thrones – but this controversy was the cherry on the top of a summer that saw film criticism regularly take a back seat to culture criticism. More often than not these past few months, our conversations about a movie or television show have shifted to be about the audiences and not about the work of art itself. There were times it seemed that culture criticism had swallowed film and television theory whole.

How do we define cultural criticism? Cultural criticism (or cultural studies) speaks to the way that journalists and academics try to contextualize news and art within society and politics. The website for the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at NYU, for example, frames the need for cultural criticism as follows:

Journalism is not just about reporting on individual “news events.” More and more, it’s about getting a handle on the complicated reality that frames those events – the ever-shifting patterns of culture that determine how we live and what we make of our lives. As the mainstream media expand their cultural coverage and alternative publications and websites proliferate, there has never been more need for engaging, knowledgeable cultural reporting and analysis.

You need only look back at some of the most controversial movies of the summer to see this practice at work. Owing to the heated responses by fans of the original Ghostbusters movies, many writers focused on the audience receptions in their reviews of and subsequent articles about the remake and linked the responses to the new Ghostbusters to the controversial Gamer Gate movement. Similarly, the responses to Suicide Squad were almost universally framed within the context of the ongoing Marvel/DC debate and the broader implications of each crowd. Since so many detractors of the former and fans of the latter were quick to levy personal attacks against film critics and actors alike, we found it very easy to ignore them when they accused writers of focusing too much on the context and too little on the movies themselves. And it feels to me we missed a kernel of truth in that.

It’s absolutely necessary to fit Ghostbusters and Suicide Squad into the broader trends of feminism and fandom, but there is also a great deal of work to do in discussing each as an individual work of art. And while I won’t go so far as to say that most writing overlooked the movies themselves on their way to broader points about masculinity, I did make note of how many review and essays seemed overly preoccupied with the context rather than the text-text. This kind of behavior does place limits on our ability to dive into the specifics of the works themselves. There needs to be a balance between culture and text, and at times these past few months, the scales have tipped a little too far in the wrong direction.

Stranger Things Shows The Power of Inspiration Over Adaptation

You can agree or disagree with the piece by Film Crit Hulk – and I tend to think that a lot of what Hulk identifies as poor writing is rather intentional, fleshing out the confusion and contradictions that exist at the threshold of childhood and adulthood – but what you cannot deny is that he wrote about the television show itself. For the most part, Hulk resisted the urge to talk about our cultural obsession with nostalgia or the contrarian attitude that causes people to elevate a figure like Barb (whom I love, and that’s a whole other piece for another time). His problems with Stranger Things were confined to Stranger Things; he did not use them as an opportunity to draw lines in the sand and place audiences on either side. And in doing so, he provided a much more valuable argument against the show than your typical “What we talk about when we talk about Barb” pieces.

I’m certainly not suggesting that culture criticism has no place in film criticism today, but it is important to remember that criticizing a thing and criticizing where the thing currently fits into society aren’t quite one and the same. There are plenty of people out there who dislike Strangers Things for all of the reasons that Film Crit Hulk outlines, and that’s not only okay, it’s pretty much essential to our appreciation of the show. Having to defend movies and television that we love is the best way to really crystallize how we feel about them. What isn’t always the most productive thing is when we stop talking about the art and start talking only about the art’s relationship to its audience. Stranger Things is an annoying show because fans talk too much about Barb? That has very little to do with the show itself.

In other words, don’t be afraid to get up close and personal and focus on the art itself. There will always be time to go wide later once we make our case.

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Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)