So the June 1896 issue of The Chap Book launched the phenomenon of film criticism. Reviewing the 20-second depiction of the first-ever screen kiss, Herbert Stone's pioneering rant created a moral stir more than a critique of Vitascope's footage. Reviews ever since have suffered a media identity crisis.
Are they promotional propaganda for box-office and ancillary sales? Can their legitimacy only be measured by their semiotic depth and technological deconstruction?
Or can they themselves provide entertainment? The recent launch of Four Word Film Reviews, the book of the popular website - www.fwfr.com - proves humour can be tickled from even the deepest themes using just four words.
"A Farewell to Farms" wittily summarises The Grapes of Wrath. "Inflation causes housing crisis" evokes current economics as well as the poignant charm of Up, while "Eat ship and die" even sharpens the teeth of Jaws.
Fwfr.com, launched in 1999 by film buff and programmer Benj Clews, now boasts over 315,000 descriptions of 38,000+ films. Most contributors are not professional critics, though some are media-savvy. They know more than merely what they like, which makes the best a joy to read.
Even at this ad absurdum distillation, writing quality is what hooks readers. Early film-goers had little such choice, until 1903 when the Dramatic Mirror paid Frank Woods $20 a week for his take on the movies for a growing fan base.
By that time audiences demanded far more than random Nickelodeon images taken out of context. They wanted stories, characters, ideas. And film companies wanted box-office receipts.
As cinemas became entertainment destinations of choice, early studios created publicity departments to help shape the very raison d'etre of capitalist film criticism.
Many regional newspapers linked to national media chains which enjoyed a cosy quid-pro-advertising-quo. Since film critics were not only thin on the ground, but not to be trusted, studios wrote their own hyped reviews of their films, tailored to fit the standard column sizes of every newspaper template.
What makes cinema unique among the arts is the conflation of film and business. Bastard children of academia and pop culture, critics seek the unconverted.
Dziga Vertov's Soviet theories helped develop Cinéma vérité. Lionel Rogosin's 1960s Film Culture created critics with hands-on filmmaking careers in editing and design, as well as philosophy.
Cahiers du Cinema's Godard and Truffaut honed their largely leftist social analyses into the philosophical constructs that would politicise their screenplays, while beckoning audiences with popular images of guns, sex and the rebellion of youth.
While recognizing director Humphrey Jennings's remarkable screen-craft of A Defeated People, The Daily Worker demanded "a wider, deeper approach" from the Crown Film Unit. And Caroline Lejeune and Dilys Powell helped smash male domination of the genre with equally trenchant critiques.
Today's mainstream critics, competing with amateurs, consistently choose to focus on film rather than socio-political consequences. And though books like Four Word Film Reviews whet the appetite for watching, it's still the studios' PR power that assures sales above cinema.
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