Accounting for taste: Film criticism, canons, and cultural authority 1996–2006
This dissertation examines the space of U.S. film criticism between 1996 and 2006 and the effects of shifting taste hierarchies and diffusion of cultural authority of critics during this time. I argue that the taste hierarchies which marked much of U.S. culture in the twentieth century - such as highbrow, middlebrow, and lowbrow - are increasingly amorphous due to transformations in art, society, and cultural evaluation since the 1960s. Film, which has always straddled high/low categories, continues to be at the center of these alterations. In the 1960s and onwards, understandings of art and mass culture became more pluralistic and views of criticism as a respected social utility declined. These changes in attitude were coupled with an increased reliance by the public on more communal and consumer-oriented forms of authority, such as box-office figures and polls. As notions of art (and film as art) were democratized, film criticism was decentralized, which contributed to the erosion in the cultural authority of film critics. I trace these permutations between 1996-2006, a time which was marked by continually renegotiated ideas of taste and an industrial increase in niche marketing and subcultural appropriation. In addition, U.S. film culture began to feel the effects of a long-simmering splintering into three distinct, often insular, and sometimes antagonistic discourses: the film industry, journalistic film reviewers, and academic critics.
First, the project assesses film criticism's shifting role in the increasingly mutable bounds of cultural taste hierarchies, then details changes in the how the industry dealt with critics, and the perceived gap between the tastes of the public and that of critics. The study then examines examined how the internet engendered a democratization of film criticism by fostering a new generation of non-professional fan-critics who challenged professional critical hierarchies, while also opening up new avenues of distribution to and communication with readers for professional critics. Finally, the dissertation discusses issues of contemporary canon-making in popular and academic fields, and their impact on the idea of a collective film history.