Requiem for The Dissolve
I remember when The Dissolve first launched just under two years ago. I heard something from somewhere about Pitchfork spinning off a boutique-y, content first film website. It had a strong layout (though one that was not particularly window-snapping friendly) and Scott Tobias was on board. I had always liked what I heard from Scott whenever he guested on Filmspotting, so I bookmarked it as the sort of site I might take a look at every now and then, perhaps when I had run out of interesting Grantland articles for the day.
One year later, it was the first website I visited every day.
Two years later, it was gone.
For me, the site took its hold on August 5, 2013. This was the date Tasha Robinson posted her keynote for the site’s fourth installment of their Movie of the Week feature, Brazil. When you see as many movies as I do and as the people who wrote for The Dissolve do, it eventually reaches the point where singling out a single film as your favorite is the very definition of a fool’s errand. Tastes change and evolve as you discover films both new and old; the more you understand the technique behind filmmaking, the more you appreciate new and different aspects of it. You might not know what your favorite movie of all time is simply because you have yet to see it. Considering all of that, Brazil is my favorite movie of all time. It’s been this way since I first saw it in High School, and while its fifteen year reign may have been threatened by the Citizen Kanes and the Ms and the Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Minds of this world, its place at the top of my personal pantheon was never truly in doubt. And here was The Dissolve, this fledgling website looking for a foothold in a crowded market full of easily digestible listicles about how you’ll never believe which costars actually hated each other on set, taking the time for three days of deep dives into the film that has defined how I know and love film. To say I was hooked would be an insult to hooks.
The Movie of the Week feature was one of the litany of reasons The Dissolve was so great. It covered the gamut, from Days of Heaven to City of God, from The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai to Clueless, from The Cabin in the Woods to A Fish Called Wanda to Videodrome. No movie was too big or too small, too important or too marginal. The conversation was what mattered. These writers, most of them Chicago-based and formerly of the AV Club, had the sort of passion for cinema that leapt off the screen and demanded your attention. They revisited big releases a year later, devoid of the hype and prejudices of the day, to see how they hold up by themselves. Keith Phipps wrote thousands and thousands of words about the history of science fiction. All of it is still there, and as Mr. Tobias noted on Twitter this morning during the aftermath of the announcement, it sounds like it’s staying there. For now, at least. Losing these last two years of vital criticism into the ether would be tragic.
Of course, the primary function of The Dissolve, like any film criticism website, really, is the reviews, and between the core team and their extended family (your Mike D’Angelos, your David Ehrliches, etc.), they remained on the forefront of easily digestible yet incisive looks at the releases of both the present and past. Whenever a new review was posted with their Essential Viewing stamp of approval, I knew it was something I would have to see. The exhilaration when Keith Phipps posted his five star review of Mad Max: Fury Road (one of only three new releases to receive the coveted five stars alongside Her and Inside Out), one of the earliest indications that it would be one of the film events of the summer, was palpable. The Dissolve, through their Essential Viewing reviews and through Scott Tobias’ massive Big Checklists each year, thrust so many films I otherwise would never even heard of, let alone had any interest in, into my consciousness. Would I have even seen Under the Skin, my favorite movie of last year, or It Follows or The Duke of Burgundy, two of my favorite films of this year, without The Dissolve pushing me in their directions? This website took away so much of my free time and sacrificed it to the altar of cinema, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Assuredly, the site’s most famous article of all is Tobias’ searing, take-no-prisoners evisceration of last year’s eventual Best Picture winner, Birdman, and while the shock value of such a review was likely what brought those who read it to the site in the first place (certainly egged on by Scott’s incendiary opening, “Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu is a pretentious fraud, but it’s taken some time to understand the precise nature of his fraudulence”), those who did not stop there found a wonderful encapsulation of what made The Dissolve what it was: passion. Look no further than the recent point-counterpoint over Sundance darling (and equally disemboweled by Scott Tobias) Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, with Scott’s 1.5 star review put up against an ardent and emotionally trenchant rebuttal from David Ehrlich on the very same site just a day or two later. They didn’t care if such a feature seemed to be in direct conflict with Scott’s review. What mattered was the conversation, what mattered was caring people with a gift with words discussing what they loved.
Only a few months after The Dissolve opened its doors, I picked up my pen again. I had written on and off, sometimes about movies, sometimes about other things, but had taken a break from the whole enterprise of writing anything not related to Bioshock Infinite for some time. But The Dissolve reignited that spark, lying dormant through pithy summaries on Letterboxd reviews, and when I saw Blue is the Warmest Color at the Coolidge Corner Theater in Brookline, Massachusetts that November, it all just came bursting out of me. 1,300 words later, I was back. I’ve written something about every single film I’ve seen in the theater since then, and many I watched at home. This website, this website that is my passion, that literally fives of people actually read from time to time, could not exist without The Dissolve and the work of Scott and Keith and Tasha and Genevieve and Nathan Rabin and Matt Singer and Rachel Handler and everyone who had ever been involved. I, like many of the other people who visited their site daily and participated in lively (and shockingly respectful, this is the internet, after all) comment sections and met other film lovers through the site either in real life or not, owe these people a debt of gratitude.
I have a few 27x40 frames hanging on my wall by my bed that I bought to be a sort of rotating mini gallery of movies I love. The one sheets for Blue is the Warmest Color and Before Sunset and I Heart Huckabees and Under the Skin have been displayed there. One day soon, I would have to imagine Mad Max: Fury Road will make its way up there as well. But there is one poster currently hanging on my wall that I don’t think is going anywhere any time soon. Earlier this year, I saw and fell in love with David Robert Mitchell’s indie horror film It Follows. It remains one of my favorite films of the year. When the opportunity arose to get a one sheet for a good price, I jumped all over it. It’s a great poster, with some excellent graphic design and font choices. And right in the top center is a pull quote: “One of the most striking American horror films in years. - The Dissolve” That poster on my wall was, prior to today, my own little private tribute to a film that caught my eye and wriggled its way into my brain to dominate my thoughts for days on end. To be sure, it still is that, and always will be that, but from now on, it also stands in tribute of the website that made it all possible as well.
In the aftermath of The Dissolve’s cruel and unusual punishment, it is likely that more people than ever had will read its articles. It has been trending on Twitter all morning, with a wealth of tributes like this one coming from people who are far more qualified than me, and far better writers than I ever will be. Perhaps that could be considered some sort of silver lining to be found in this morning of cinematic, cultural and critical despair. Perhaps The Dissolve will become most revered after its death like so many artists who toiled in relative obscurity, only for their true genius to be discovered after it was too late. That is barely a balm for the searing wound so much of us feel right now, but the creators and contributors that made the site so special should know now more than ever that their little two year journey meant the world to a lot of us out there.
Rest in Peace, The Dissolve. You were one of the greats.