Last September, at the Toronto International Film Festival, a couple of critics I’d talked to on Twitter but never met in person encouraged me to come to a screening with them. The film in question, “The Duke of Burgundy,” about two lesbian lepidopterists negotiating their sexual relationship and their scientific work, probably wasn’t one I would have picked out for myself. But the critics, Scott Tobias and Noel Murray, talked me through giallo, the genre of Italian film that “The Duke of Burgundy” was riffing on, while we waited for the screening to start. And by the time the credits rolled, I was (almost) as excited as Murray, who was seeing the film for the second time.
That screening was everything I loved best about the Dissolve, the marvelous film site both Tobias and Murray worked for at the time and which regular readers of this column will have noticed that I link to near-constantly. (I also wrote a couple of pieces for the Dissolve back in the day.) No longer: The Dissolve announced this morning that it was closing its doors, effective immediately. The Dissolve was enthusiastic, and it was deeply informed. And, speaking as someone concerned with the politics of culture, I thought the Dissolve did something particularly valuable in grounding its discussions of politics in the history and technique of film, rather than simply applying ideological litmus tests to movies.
One of the best parts of the Dissolve was its willingness to inform, to treat readers as if they were smart without requiring them to pass some sort of entrance exam to participate. When the site ran its week-long explorations of classic films such as “White Men Can’t Jump” or “Aliens,” these reassessments weren’t just an opportunity for writers to just about what they loved best; each piece fleshed out some aspect of the film or filmmaker in question, whether it was Sofia Coppola’s use of music, the way “Aliens” approached building a supporting cast, or Ron Shelton’s fondness for hustlers. When the site ran an inventory or a ranking, the lists were less an opportunity to feel the satisfaction of seeing our favorites acknowledged and more watch lists that made me want to further my film education. And the site encouraged readers to explore and acknowledge the technical and craft aspects of filmmaking, rather than simply reading the results as straight dispatches form directors’ brains.
The Dissolve treated issues of representation in film as natural subject material for a general-interest film site, rather than leaving it to sites like Women and Hollywood to take up the beat.
Another one of the delights of the Dissolve was the way the editors found new angles into subjects that often prompt the same takes and the same stories across very different publications. Take Andreas Stoehr’s piece on transgender actors, which combined film history and a sharp read of the iPhone film “Tangerine” into a strong argument in favor of greater variety in storytelling, rather than a more didactic demand for blandly positive images of transgender people. While “Mad Max: Fury Road” was the action movie that launched a thousand think-pieces, the one I still think about is Genevieve Valentine’s exploration of the desert as a feminine space in film. And the Dissolve avoided some of the canards of our present diversity debate, like the idea that the best thing that could happen to up-and-coming filmmakers of color is for them to get absorbed into giant entertainment conglomerates.
These aren’t necessarily inherently viral things to do. But the Dissolve did vital work in demonstrating every day that sophisticated film writing, thoughtful political analysis and substantive knowledge of craft weren’t in competition with one another. I hate that I won’t get to learn from the Dissolve every day — the site has done an enormous amount to further my ongoing film education. But it’s the rare site that leaves the Internet better than the Dissolve’s creators found it. And hopefully, the arc of criticism will bend toward the Dissolve’s example.