The Dissolve was one of the best places on the internet for intelligent, funny, in-depth, and insightful film criticism and features. This morning, editor-in-chief Keith Phipps announced that The Dissolve would be shutting down effective immediately. The primary reasons were “the various challenges inherent in launching a freestanding website in a crowded publishing environment, financial and otherwise.”
In other words, even Pitchfork money wasn’t enough to keep this ship afloat for long. What a cruel and wretched sea.
It’s a major bummer. Not just for the staff of The Dissolve and its readers, but for all people who appreciate the craft of good cultural criticism. We’re living in a time when stupid trolling (see The New York Post‘s Kyle Smith), hyperbolic outrage, and loads of idiotic contrarianism (see the usual MO at Slate) are what pass for cultural criticism, but The Dissolve seemed beyond all that clickbait nonsense. The demise of The Dissolve, at least at this moment, is a reminder to writers of all kinds about the difficulties of doing the kind of writing that matters, but also maybe why it’s worthwhile in spite of it all.
In Matt Zoller Seitz’s eulogy for The Dissolve at RogerEbert.com, he identifies both what made The Dissolve so great and why The Dissolve wasn’t long for this world:
[The Dissolve] was an example of the kind of big-tent criticism that some of the most enduring American movie critics, including Roger Ebert, Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris and James Agee, practiced… The writing was mostly analytical and paid a lot of attention to form, which is still unusual at a time when too much pop culture writing relies on versions of “What X gets wrong about Y” and “Why A owes B an apology” and “What so-and-so doesn’t get about such-and-such.” Day after day, The Dissolve writers were not content merely to talk about what films said; they took the trouble to discuss how they said it. They talked about framing. They talked about editing. They talked about sound and color. They talked about what movies actually are.
Rather than a stream of lists, provocations, fits, and trifling, The Dissolve dealt in a daily output of in-depth, high-quality criticism and reportage. The Dissolve was a film lover’s site, though for a specific subset of analytical and literate film lovers. It was a passionate but small group of devotees; in other words, The Dissolve had a cult following. The intelligence and passion of this cult following thrived in the comments section, where witty jokes and smart discussions were common, and where a genuine sense of community–which can be rare in the Disqus wild–flourished. (I was glad to have been part of that Island of Misfit Toys.)
Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra once said “cult followings are made up of more intelligent people who had to hunt to find you, and that meant they are more interested in finding something good and they’ll stick with you longer.” I’ve followed the core group of Dissolvers since their AV Club days: Keith Phipps, Scott Tobias, Tasha Robinson, Nathan Rabin, and Genevieve Koski. I’ll keep following them, and ditto Matt Singer and Rachel Handler, and the talented freelancers who made me come back to the site everyday. (In some ways, Rabin’s departure from The Dissolve two-and-a-half months ago was a harbinger of doom.)
Cult followings only go so far, unfortunately. That oddball passion doesn’t pay a talented staff or keep the lights on, and cult works often go ignored only to be recognized much later for the fingerprints visible in other works. Hopefully Pitchfork keeps the site around a while as an archive to be re-read and appreciated, and to influence a new group of writers and critics who have something substantive to contribute to an evolving conversation about culture. It would be a shame if The Dissolve were to fade away completely.
The Dissolve should be remembered for the grace of its writing and the tremendous passion shown for intelligent cultural discussion, but maybe more than anything, I’ll remember The Dissolve–its writers and its community–for being so wholly and wonderfully itself. Pauline Kael had a great line about being a film critic. She said that writing film criticism had no formulas, and that in fashioning a review, a critic “must use everything you are and everything you know.” At The Dissolve, they all knew so much, and they were such wonderful people.
In retrospect, The Dissolve was a fitting name for something beautiful and brief.