Gatekeeper Anguish

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The NYT's A.O. Scott complains that there are just too many worthy movies around for a critic to pronounce on.

So many were screened recently at Toronto's film festival, writes Scott, that it produced "a free-floating anxiety verging on panic. To commit oneself to seeing a movie was also, of mathematical necessity, to skip about six others, a ratio that left a residue of nagging worry. What if, nestled somewhere in that neglected half-dozen, there was a life-changing masterpiece, or the kind of performance that heralds the arrival of a new star? Through bad judgment, inattention or sheer caprice, you could blow off your whole year-end top-10 list in a single morning …."

This problem isn't limited to festivals; it has flooded the world. "[M]any worthy films are lost in the shuffle," worries Scott, "failing not just to cross over to a mass audience, but even to find the self-selecting, appreciative cult they deserve."

Scott realizes that there are now many ways to keep movies visible longer, but that's no good either, because "their continued availability also contributes to the general cultural glut, as the DVD's and TiVo memory banks fill up with more and more stuff to watch."

What's a pair of eyes to do? Well, nothing. If you're not trying to play world gatekeeper, there's no problem to deal with. Cults, for example, are self-organizing and can take care of their own tastes. Furthermore, there's one "glut" that Scott overlooks: a plenitude of independent critical voices not associated with gatekeeper institutions, especially on the Internet. If there are too many movies to pronounce on, there are also more people pronouncing on them in many more places. Anyway, there are a lot fewer people waiting for the NYT's pronouncements. The NYT matters, but not like it used to. High-end critics and their audiences may not be a cult, but they're looking more like a subculture.

"The cultural glut is hardly limited to movies," observes Scott. "The response to growing markets (like those for film and for video games) and to shrinking markets (like those for books and for recorded music) seems to be the same: make more. But what are we supposed to do with it?" Ah, the anguish of gatekeeping.

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  1. How can it be that there is at once a cultural shortage brought on by rampant piracy denying cultural producers’ their livelihoods and demanding stronger and stronger corporatist restrictions on citizens, and at the same time a cultural glut imposing far too much good stuff on our unready eyeballs and eardrums?

  2. If there’s such a glut of good movies, why is it that all I see are 10,000 reviews of crap like Supersize Me and Garden State?

  3. The explosion in the number of films produced every year is partially driven by technology which has driven down some of the key costs of production. Those costs aren’t likely to go up again any time soon, so it’s a shift we’re looking at here, party people.

    Party people like Scott may need to specialize in order to survive. Of course, theoretically, they could innovate.

    Festivals are doing part of the job that people like Scott were doing, but rather than doing it for us, they’re doing it for people like Scott.

    Maybe Scott or the New York Times should buy out or sponsor a festival and demand a cut of any subsequent distribution deal. Other than festival ticket money, does Redford get anything tangible for Sundance?

  4. A recent article pointed out that sales of television series on DVD is really taking off. This seems to be counter to the theory posited by the RIAA that P2P networks are stealing money from legitimate sources. Commercial television is free and anybody can record their favorite TV series at any time. Why would anybody spend money for something they can get for free? Obviously, the RIAA’s arguments need to be revisited.

    I agree that there is a glut of entertainment options, but I see that as a positive. Digital cameras have lowered the bar for entry into the Independent Film world. Broadcast and cable channels produce so many programs that even quality programs struggle to attract a sizeable audience. The competition, however, produces a better overall product.

    That is probably one of the reasons why TV shows are becoming popular on DVD. The quality is good enough to compete with theatrical releases for our entertainment dollar.

  5. Garden State is not crap, it’s a damn good movie!

  6. James Berardinelli has your back. He apparently does nothing with his free time other than watch movies, he’s a great writer, he was doing online movie reviews way, way, way before it was cool (his first few were probably Gopher’d), and he’s the only reviewer I’ve ever found who shares something like my taste.

    And he didn’t seem to have any problems with the TIFF

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