The New Frankfurt School?: The Myopia of Contemporary Film Critics

A recent piece in The Atlantic by Derek Thompson regarding the recent spate of “boring superhero movies” is interesting not so much for its claim about the ubiquity of the superhero genre as for what it reveals about the contemporary intelligentsia’s views on film and the nebulous issue of aesthetics.  Much like the Frankfurt School before them, many of today’s film critics seem to believe quite fervently that contemporary Hollywood is a mere shadow of its former self, producing nothing more than average fair for average consumers, rather than the piece of art that it once did.

Such arguments have themselves become ubiquitous within much film criticism and the broader review culture and can be seen in the recent critical response to Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit films as well as the lukewarm reception given to The Amazing Spider-Man 2.  To paraphrase Thompson’s article, films have become average, and we as filmgoers have become accustomed to both asking for and receiving more and more average films.  While this may be true to an extent, it is important to both historicize this phenomenon and to point out some of the complexities that get left out of the equation in the rush to claim that today’s blockbuster Hollywood is in some ways a betrayal or corruption of some earlier era of filmmaking in which artistry and craft were somehow held up as the pinnacle of achievement.

On one level, these critiques are quite blind to the history of Hollywood film as an industry, which has consistently attempted to appeal to the widest market as it can, since that makes sense from a business standpoint.  Even the most vaunted of Hollywood directors, many of whom are known for producing films that qualify as that most prized of monikers “art,” came out of a system that was easily as profit-driven as it is today.  Names like Hitchcock, Ford, and von Sternberg were just as much a product of a profit-driven industry as Spielberg, Lucas, and Jackson are today, though of course the industrial structures they worked within were in many ways quite different from today’s conglomerate Hollywood.  And yet, for all of the valorizing of these important figures in film history, it is important to remember that there were other equally successful filmmakers (Cecil B. DeMille being a notable example), who were criticized in terms remarkably similar to those used to criticize today’s blockbuster directors.

The current trend in bemoaning the downward spiral of blockbuster Hollywood also shows how dismissive most film critics are of average moviegoers.  Much as the Frankfurt School felt that the entertainment industry as a whole (including music) was slowly and inexorably eroding the ability of the masses to think for themselves (thus rendering them more easily manipulated), so too do the film critics of today seem to think that filmgoers are at least partially to blame for the spate of mindless entertainment.  Again, my point is not that this is not at least partially true, only that we need to historicize this issue and recognize that this is not some new phenomenon that is strictly the result of corporate Hollywood.  Just as importantly, we need to resist the urge to valorize classical Hollywood as a bygone age and recognize that, though it did produce some truly magnificent and entertaining films, the system was as much a profit-driven capitalist enterprise as it is today.

However, all of this is not to suggest that there aren’t some terrible films being made, because of course the opposite is true.  However, we should also not lose sight of the fact that even the most artistically impoverished of films (whatever vaguely-defined set of criteria we use to define “artistically impoverished) can often offer up a number of pleasures that we should take seriously rather than simply dismissing as bad art.  Many of these superhero films are actually part of a very complexly woven universe with its own mythology.  The superhero films produced by Marvel, for example, are all linked in the same timeline, as is the television series Agents of S.H.I.E.LD.  And, as I have noted in an earlier blog post, even a seemingly simple film like Captain America:  The Winter Soldier can often carry a series of complex meanings and messages about history and 20th/21st Century politics.  And then, of course, there are the numerous fan cultures that proliferate around superhero film franchises, all of which engage with these films, some of them in very complex and imaginative ways.

All of this suggests that, far from simply average entertainment, these films actually speak eloquently about our contemporary moment.  If we continue to dismiss them as just so much average entertainment, with little or no awareness of the either the varied history that underlies these critiques (or the film industry) or the ways in which fans engage with these texts, then we deprive ourselves of a full understanding of the many roles these “average’ films play in the early part of the 21st Century.

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