Last week, the website (it preferred to call itself an online magazine) The Dissolve suddenly announced that it was closing down. Founded just two years ago by some of the most interesting and serious young critics – many of whom had previously been associated with the Onion’s sister site The A.V. Club — and funded by established online media player Pitchfork Media, The Dissolve was devoted exclusively to film criticism. It quickly developed a reputation among film fans and film critics as one of the most important places online for the discussion of motion pictures. The Dissolve reviewed the latest mainstream Hollywood movies, but it also discussed older films and indie and foreign cinema. And it did so in a voice that was serious and fun and always inviting, whatever ones level of film knowledge. And the site quickly developed an engaged, intelligent, and interesting commentariat. This was one of those rare sites in which you always wanted to read the comments. In its podcast and movie-of-the-week forums, it created spaces for the websites regular contributors – and occasional guests – to share ideas about films, past and present. And every day it presented a curated list of the best film writing around the web. Though there were some indications that the site was in trouble – most notably its letting co-founder Nathan Rabin go earlier this year – its closure came as a shock to most of us.
I have often said – on this blog and elsewhere – that I think we’re in the middle of an incredible renaissance of the public humanities. Criticism has become a central part of the consumption of films, television, books, video games and other media among the general public. Digital technology has altered both the way we consume these media (in the case of video games, it has created a medium) and the opportunity to discuss and analyze them. And the discussions in turn have altered the media themselves. The simplest and most ubiquitous version of this phenomenon is recap culture. But The Dissolve exemplified a more sophisticated aspect of the same general trend. Film criticism, even serious film criticism, has always been even more at home in the public realm than in the academy. But while the conversations that took place in journals like Cahiers du Cinema or Film Comment tended to take place among a fairly small set of cineastes and critics, The Dissolve’s reach – or at least potential reach – was much wider and more immediate. It was free. It could both respond quickly to film news and discuss longer-standing issues in cinema. And, thanks to the internet, it could often link to films and critics with which it engaged. Since it had a serious commentariat with which its writers actively engaged, it could also function as a kind of salon. Of course, none of these things are very remarkable. Indeed, we take this kind of new critical space for granted. What made The Dissolve special was its quality. And that, in a sense, was the source of its problems.
The closure of The Dissolve itself became the subject of a lot of critical commentary. The site was nearly universally praised by those noting its demise. But nearly as frequently, commentators suggested that The Dissolve’s failure suggests the impossibility of such a site succeeding in the current media environment. Despite many unusual advantages, The Dissolve was simply incapable of generating enough views to make money. As co-founder Scott Tobias noted in an interview shortly after the site went under, “The economics of digital publishing are not encouraging. We had so many advantages going into this: A core group of writers and editors who had great chemistry and had proven themselves as a team at The A.V. Club; a lean and truly independent company that had only published on the Internet and been successful doing so; and a great deal of support from the media world. We executed the site more or less exactly how we drew it up, and we fell short. Probably way short. Draw your own lessons from that.” Clicks are attracted by clickbait – hot takes and the Hollywood scandal of the moment. Focusing on things helped make The Dissolve better than other sites devoted to film. But perhaps, Tobias and others have noted, the only way to survive online is to be just like everyone else in this regard.
And therein likes the paradox of the public humanities in 2015. The internet and other digital technologies have involved millions of people around the world in an often sophisticated, critical conversation that, in turn, has improved the quality of many of the popular arts. And yet the economics of those very technologies makes this conversation a financial deadweight. And this is not simply an issue for unusual sites like The Dissolve. Never has it been more difficult to make a living as a film critic.
I’m not sure how to resolve this paradox in a way that encourages, rather than kills off, the renaissance in the public humanities. But I think that we academic humanists have a real interest in the outcome. We are constantly told that there is a crisis in the humanities. And one of the origins of this crisis is said to be the fact that the skills that we humanists cultivate are not the skills that our economy needs. Certainly the paradoxical state of the public humanities reflects this fact. But it also reflects something that is almost never mentioned when people describe the supposed crisis in the humanities: there is an enormous public interest in and engagement with criticism, broadly understood. I remain convinced that cultivating that interest and engaging with critics outside the academy is one of the ways in which academic humanists can again make our social importance clear to the broader public.