The Dissolve Dissolved!?

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This piece was originally published on the 13th of July 2015 by The 405. So, for a few months I wrote a weekly film news round-up column for The 405. It was fun for a while, but I soon became tired of both trawling through trade publications and translating glorified press releases into entertaining copy. It was good experience and I didn’t do a terrible job by any means, but  regurgitating casting news and commenting on future major studio follies became a bit of a grind, especially as I was not remunerated for my work in any way. One week, however, I got to go long on The Dissolve’s closure and all the concomitant anxieties for those invested in film criticism, and it resulted in what was by some distance the best thing I wrote for that column. It’s also the only one of those columns that’s worth republishing here, seeing as this crisis in film criticism, and online publishing writ large, never seems to go away.

In what can only be described as a heart-breaking loss for film culture, Pitchfork‘s speciality film website The Dissolve unexpectedly published its final article on Wednesday, two years after it was initially launched. In that article, former editorial director Keith Phipps cited “the various challenges inherent in launching a freestanding website in a crowded publishing environment, financial and otherwise,” as the reason for the site’s closure. But it’s fair to say that he was being diplomatic. Those who pay attention to and care about film criticism – and digital publishing writ large, I suppose – are fully of aware of why The Dissolve could not be sustained, and the reasons hurt.

From the outset, The Dissolve represented a beacon of hope in the increasingly cynical world of film coverage. Founded by Phipps and a number of brilliant writers from pop culture website The A.V. Club (Tasha Robinson, Scott Tobias, Nathan Rabin, and Genevieve Koski) who wanted to focus on cinema, the site’s remit was to provide a “playground for movie-lovers,” and for two years it did exactly that. The editors’ approach to publishing was uniquely pluralistic, balancing high-traffic coverage of the latest blockbuster films with decidedly unprofitable articles that explored contemporary independent cinema, film history, and the downright esoteric. I mean, they were just as likely to devote significant feature space to Buster Keaton collaborator Clyde Bruckman as they were Kurtzman and Orci, the writing partnership behind Star Trek (2009), Transformers (2007), and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014). In this way, The Dissolve encouraged a righteous, omnivorous kind of cinephilia, where value can be found in anything and even the most outrageous dreck could encourage a deeper understanding of the medium. It may have been a niche publication in the sense that cinema was its only focus, but, within that niche, The Dissolve gave everything a chance.

More importantly, this balanced approach extended beyond the subjects and to the writing itself. Though welcoming of many critical approaches, The Dissolve always advocated for a kind of criticism that was passionate, analytic, and predicated on a formidable awareness of film form and history. But its writers were never highfalutin in their expression, never intimidating or burdened by academic stuffiness; no, they clearly knew their shit but were personable, entertaining and enthusiastic rather than snotty. Theirs was a perfectly measured tone, approaching every discussion – even those about sensitive social justice issues – with a graceful and informed critical distance rather than the strident language of think-piece/hot-take culture. And this tone pervaded the site’s various wings: the reviews, the news aggregation (which wasn’t at all cynical), the features, the interviews, the lists, and even the podcasts. In other words, they’d worked out a way to do everything fucking brilliantly. (Well, apart from make money). But when digital publishing so desperately undervalues well-researched, well-judged specialist writing, we needed The Dissolve, a site that ran articles other publications would baulk at and actually paid the writers for the privilege. They aimed high and shone brightly, gave us hope that maybe, just maybe, they had discovered an elusive, sustainable model that allowed brilliant specialist writing to be offered to readers for free.

Turns out they hadn’t (a side note, but I would have paid a subscription fee for The Dissolve). So here we are, with a team of great writers out of a job, wondering whether serious film criticism has any kind of future as a sustainable vocation. Sure, film criticism is well acquainted with the throes of existential terror, debates surrounding its fortitude have been waged since the thirties and every year brings a new apocalypse, but this one feels more substantial than most. The Dissolve was not a small operation, and served a unique purpose when a large portion of popular online film writing now resembles a race to the bottom, one in which publications vie to regurgitate the same inconsequential news stories about mainstream cinema in the most vapid manner imaginable. Or they blatantly try and provoke their readers with stridently written topical articles (“Five Things Magic Mike XXL Gets Wrong About Wizardry!”) that attract lucrative traffic from social media because of our compulsive need to hate-share. While you can’t begrudge publications favouring the methods that allow them to stay afloat and pay their writers, it’s still incredibly disheartening to see that the writing that thrives is the writing that either demands little attention or is intended to piss you off. The Dissolve was refreshing because it steadfastly ignored these prevalent trends, it was a significant publication that was dedicated to both intelligent writing and encompassing cinema’s broad spectrum.

Which is not to say that intelligent writing about film has suddenly died with The Dissolve, far from it. The internet provides a platform for many brilliant, well-versed writers to ply their trade and it would be ludicrous to suggest otherwise. And there are still some brave souls fighting the good fight in print media. But the worry in the wake of this news is whether those writers, and the idiots like me who wish to enter into professional film criticism in the future, will actually see it viable option going forward. Because, to put it bluntly, it’s fucking terrifying that a group of respected, experienced professionals with decades of experience between them couldn’t make it without strictly adhering the industry’s new norms, even with the financial backing of Pitchfork. It appears to be an increasingly frivolous endeavour to delve into film history, to learn cinematic language, to acquaint oneself with the theory, and approach each topic with grace and nuance – to become a skilled worker in the field, essentially. That shit doesn’t sell, it doesn’t drive traffic. It appears that serious film criticism is being seen as increasingly pointless, as a hobby rather than a profession. Or it’s left in the exclusive realms of academia, which is equally disheartening to see.

And maybe it is all pointless. Maybe most people don’t give a flying fuck about the film Tangerine (2015) and transgender actors when Disney is making a live-action Prince Charming film that’ll probably be sexist. But I believe, to clumsily paraphrase Roger Ebert, that film criticism will be important as long as film remains important. The reason I love cinema is that it’s truly everything; it’s photography, it’s writing, it’s theatre, it’s performance, it’s painting, it’s design, it’s fashion, it’s dance, it’s history, it’s social, it’s political, it’s emotional, it’s entertainment, it’s– well, you get the picture. Everything. And we need people who understand cinema’s alchemy of these component parts, who can decode the medium’s unique language, recognise what a given film is trying to elicit and the means by which it attempts to accomplish that, and place it within the context of film history. We need writers who encourage in their readers a better, analytical understanding of the medium and how we consume it, especially when everything around us becomes increasingly expressed visually and through cinematic language. We need writers who can use cinema to reflect cogently and passionately about the world, as cinema is ultimately a reflection of the world. We need people with the skill and knowledge to devote their time to cinema, because it’s inextricably tied to so many facets of modern life. It’s hardly the selfless work of doctors or activists, but it still matters.

And yet its status as a profession is being gradually eroded, with writers struggling to make a living from their craft despite taking countless freelance gigs. So the lesson from all this seems to be go broad or go home, to become a jack-of-all-trades cultural critic rather than a film critic, to invite as many readers possible by being okay in several fields rather than limit your readership by being excellent in just one. Or maybe the lesson is to stop hate-reading the shameless, ephemeral flimflam, to stop sharing it and justifying its existence with communal disdain. Instead, share the writing you love, enthuse about it and let the bankrollers know that good, hard work is actually appreciated and commercially viable. Ted 2 (2015) is released this week, read Wesley Morris’ outstanding takedown of the film. Magic Mike XXL (2015) is one of the best films in cinemas right now (no, really), read FilmCrit Hulk elucidating on why. Now The Dissolve is gone, Reverse Shot is probably the best film site around. Tony Zhou’s video essays taught me more about film form than a twelve-week university course. I could say the same about the writing of Matt Zoller Seitz, Calum Marsh, and Peter Labuza. Academic David Bordwell also does great things on his blog. The new issue of Sight & Sound is in shops now, and issue sixty of Little White Lies, the most beautiful magazine around, is out on July 18th. And, and, if you’ve never come across it before today, The Dissolve is being archived and is well worth exploring.

As I said before, there’s no shortage of great film writing, but we have to make sure it doesn’t go the way of The Dissolve, that these writers aren’t deterred and their talents lured away in the coming years. The Dissolve tried to do this, and gloriously succeeded in carving out a space of wonder and unadulterated love for all things cinema for two years. But while we’ll always have their excellent work (someone should totally compile a book of it), they were only allowed to do it for two years, and that’s desperately sad for people who care about film criticism.

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