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New Film Term Alert! "The Snark Ages"

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by Matt Singer
June 13, 2012 4:50 PM
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"Paul Blart: Mall Cop."
"Paul Blart: Mall Cop."

Is there too much snarky humor in criticism these days? At The Telegraph's film blog, Scott Jordan Harris says he's fed up with reviews that use movies as the raw material for stand-up comedy routines. He's ready to declare "open season on open-mike-night criticism." "We're living," he says, "in the snark ages":

"An entire generation of film critics -- or at least of those who would like to be film critics -- seems to believe that the highest aim of film criticism is to crack wise about a movie that isn’t worth anyone’s attention... Especially online, many critics can write largely about whatever they choose. So those critics, or critics-in-the-making, who opt to produce snark-ridden 'takedowns' of 'Paul Blart: Mall Cop' are actively choosing to write unamusing drivel about unamusing drivel."

"The Snark Ages" is such a clever term, and it applies not just to the state of film criticism, but really to the state of most discourse on the Internet. There are whole blogs -- we're talking wildly popular ones, too -- whose entire content stream is just a string of videos or essays or songs other people thought were funny or clever and weren't, repurposed to make fun of their original authors. When someone famous dies -- as Henry Hill, the mobster turned government witness whose life served as the inspiration for "Goodfellas," did yesterday -- snarky tweets outnumber sincere obituaries 500 to 1 ("Henry Hill, RIP. Egg noodles & ketchup to be served at wake," quipped comedian Patton Oswalt). With so many hundreds -- if not thousands -- of films being made around the world each year, Harris says, "earnest critical guidance" has never been more necessary. He wants critics to stop honing their zingers and start helping their readers.

I admire Harris' devotion to our shared profession -- and I obviously agree that the world needs film critics -- but can't we have it both ways? Roger Ebert, the man Harris calls "the greatest and hardest-working film critic" has published three collections of his snarkiest reviews; their titles -- "I Hated, Hated Hated This Movie," "A Horrible Experience of Unbearable Length," and the deliciously blunt "Your Movie Sucks" make it clear these are not necessarily published for "earnest critical guidance." They're published because negative reviews are fun to read. They're fun to watch too, as any old school fan of "Siskel & Ebert" -- or new school fan of the snark compilations "Fun Times With Siskel & Ebert & Roeper" -- will tell you.

Harris says it is different when Ebert or a working newspaper critic snarks. They're doing so as a defense mechanism. Ebert and company don't want to see "Paul Blart: Mall Cop" -- an editor assigned it to them, and they had to review it, good or bad. When someone with their own random blog chooses to go see "Paul Blart: Mall Cop," they do so expressly for the purpose of using it as joke fodder. At this point, we could return to this morning's conversation about movies and expectations, but let's not get too far off track.

There's nothing worse than a badly written, unfunny, snark review of a badly written, unfunny movie. I'm not going to sit here, though, and tell you I don't enjoy a well-written, funny snark review. The fact of the matter is I do. "I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie" was one of the first books of film criticism I ever owned; at this point, my copy is yellowed and dog-eared and falling apart from more than a decade of reading and rereading. I enjoy Paul Scheer's "How Did This Get Made?" podcast -- a show designed expressly for stand-up comedians to make fun of stupid, nonsensical movies. I suspect Harris would call "How Did This Get Made?" the most explicit and most egregious manifestation of The Snark Ages. But what can I tell you? It cracks me up.

In my mind, then, snark is sort of like professional wrestling: it looks so easy when you're watching it on television, that people think they can do it too. But really it should be left in the hands of the professionals. Don't try this at home.

Read more of "Let's Drag Film Criticism Out of the Snark Ages."

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