I just got home from attending a two-week criticism institute, wherein I was one of 14 working arts journalists, aged twentysomething to fiftysomething, to benefit from the instruction of critics for The Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, The Guardian, and other influential publications. That’s where I was on Wednesday morning when I got a mass e-mail from Scott Tobias indicating that The Dissolve was shutting down, effective immediately. In its two years of life, that site had firmly established itself as the best place on the web to find smart, enthusiastic, formally inventive writing about movies new and old, famous and obscure. I’d declined a review assignment from Scott only days before, citing my wall-to-wall schedule during the institute.
Scott’s e-mail came just as I was heading into a session on restaurant reviewing conducted by Sam Sifton, the Times’ food editor. I’ve always had a chip on my shoulder about food coverage. I don’t usually read it, and I often find it precious and/or pretentious when I do. To me at least, it’s obvious that food is not art. Yes, it’s an important component of culture. Yes, cooking is an admirable skill. But a meal cannot express emotion. An entree cannot communicate an idea. There are sad songs and sad paintings, but there are no sad foods, unless you’re buying your dinner at a 7-Eleven.
Most importantly, food works on you immediately or not at all. Many times I’ve seen a play or a film, or read a novel, where I was able to decide only in hindsight that the experience had been worthwhile. Food tastes good or bad for as long as it takes you to ingest, and then it’s over — unless you get sick. You don’t figure out later what impression or message the chef was trying to convey. For all those reasons, I regard food as a craft. (For what it’s worth, I asked Robert Simonson, the Times’ cocktails expert, if a drink could be art. No, he said. Cocktails are a craft. I liked that guy.)
But food writing is the only part of culture coverage that’s expanding. It’s the only part that’s making money. That I was to hear from a tremendously successful and influential food writer mere minutes after learning The Dissolve could not survive in the tawdry online world of hot takes and TV recaps and listicles and #longreads felt cruelly ironic. (Criticwire editor Sam Adams’ interview with Tobias and Keith Phipps, published one day after the site ceased publication, is an essential, heartbreaking read if you care at all about whether the Internet can sustain smart film coverage.)
Anyway, that’s more of a rant than I meant to get into here. I simply wanted to compile some of my favorites among the reviews and essays I wrote for The Dissolve in the 18 months I had the privilege of contributing to the site. Most of these are pieces that simply wouldn’t be published anywhere else. They’re too specific — that is, narrow — in their appeal, or not timely enough, or not argumentative enough. They’re too long.
Goodbye, The Dissolve. You were too good for this Internet. You were also the home to a few pieces of writing of which I remain proud.
My April 2014 review of the laughably inept horror movie Jinn was fun to write. Not many places would’ve let me get away with doing it this way. But The Dissolve allowed writers to write. Other reviews I’m pleased with: Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues — Super-Sized, R-Rated Edition, The Outsider, The Human Race, Reach Me, Jupiter Ascending. Basically, The Dissolve was a really fun place to write about bad movies…
…and about great movies. When Terminator 2: Judgment Day was Movie of the Week in July 2014, I published this essay about how much writer/director James Cameron‘s decision to dress his villain in an LAPD patrolman’s uniform contributed to the movie’s power. Bystander George Holliday‘s infamous video of black motorist Rodney King’s near-lethal beating by five white LAPD officers in March 1991 was preceded on the same videotape by footage Holliday had shot of T2’s location shoot near the site of the beating just weeks earlier.
In December 2014 I wrote a piece about the origins of the PG-13 rating and how it has become, 30 years after its creation, Hollywood’s de facto rating for all commercial pictures above a certain budget level. In other words, it’s failed to “solve” the problem for which it was intended as a remedy. The Dissolve even adapted this piece into a beautifully animated short film a few months later.
Finally, last March, when 20th Century Fox announced that it had signed District 9 writer/director Neill Blomkamp to make an Alien movie that would be set after Aliens, retconning away the events of the later sequels, I wrote a long, nerdy piece defending this unconventional move — the partial reboot. Where else but The Dissolve could something like this have run? Nowhere, probably. But it was written with deep knowledge and deep enthusiasm for its subject matter, like everything The Dissolve published. The Internet was supposed to make it easier for stuff like this to exist as a form of paying work, not harder.