Decline and Fall

April 14, 2008

Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall is probably one of the best first novels of the twentieth century, brilliantly mixing biting social satire with bittersweet pathos. Pennyfeather’s foibles are as affecting as they are entertaining, and themes, and hints of themes, that will preoccupy Waugh throughout his career are subtly (and not so subtly) dropped into the novel. This post will not be about that book. Instead, I’m troubled by the constant use of the decline and fall narrative. It seems that just about every single article that I read these days is constructed on this most basic of organizing principles, in fields as far flung as Religious history, econometrics, and in media as diverse as journals, blogs, zines, and finger paint collages. But most of all, this malady afflicts the newspaper who, with their own demise a-hand, have decided to make almost everything about loss.

The immediate impetus for this post, which could have been written any time, was A.O. Scott’s article in the Sunday Times praising the return of Roger Ebert. Ebert is one of the best film critics of his generation, and I agree whole-heartedly with Scott, that much of the reason Ebert has not been recognized as such is his extraordinary easy-going television personality which masked his literary flair. Plus there are the movies he co-wrote with that titan of tits Russ Meyer. Though no James Agee, or Raymond Chandler (see his article on the Academy Awards for the Atlantic) for that matter, Ebert is nothing if not a master stylist. His return to film criticism is indeed something to praise, especially given his health struggles.

But the article brings with it a darker decline narrative. It seems that we are at a stage when film criticism is endangered. Film has always existed at the intersection of “popular” and “elite” cultures, and its legibility is one of its greatest strengths. It can be praised both on aintitcool and Cahiers du Cinema. Somewhere in the middle lay the newspaper/newsmagazine critic whose writing was expected to be accessible yet literate all at the same time. It was a difficult balancing act and the true masters, like Ebert or Vincent Camby or David Edelstein or Kenneth Turan, are few and far between. Scott doesn’t see too much hope for the breed. Newspapers left and right are cutting reviewer positions and the future is uncertain. Scott points to the proliferation of movie blogs, but wonders if they’re really capable of supplementing the critical voice and role of a print critic. Can they have any effect? It’s really quite uncertain.

As someone who’s tried to write literate film reviews, I can tell you that the blog medium is uniquely unsuited to it. The blogosphere is a world of hyperbole, not nuanced arguments. Hyperbole leads to google traffic; more reasoned discourse, fewer. The greatest thing that the internet offers is unrestricted access and voice; real criticism requires restraint.