TECHNOFILE 4

Criticism, like judgement, tends to be a conservative art. There have been few advances in the genre since rock journalism discovered invective in the late 1970s. So here's a pleasant surprise: out of the heady ferment of the Net comes a simple new idea that has nothing to do with hypertext or computers, and is actually of some use. Slate, the grown- ups' webzine, has decided that it's time to take a stand against movie- plots that don't make sense.

The problem of "plot holes" has become so acute that Slate has commissioned a screenwriter to write a column entirely devoted to the narrative logic of films, or their lack thereof. "Aesthetic judgments will continue to be rendered by our regular film critic," they reassure us. The division of labour is an intriguing one. Is narrative analysis merely a sort of public sub-editing? Or is it that contemporary film critics are thought to have altogether lost the plot?

The final straw seems to have been The Fifth Element, whose reported incoherence almost turned into a selling point. Its directorial foibles prompted Suck, Slate's fellow e-zine, to diagnose "Luc Besson's Disease", the symptoms of which included "persistent, yet mostly meaningless, intertextual commentary and a strong penchant for random pastiche".

We're all stricken, Suck claims, by an obsession with "connectedness" for its own sake. But perhaps it's closer to the truth to say that people have drifted away from narrative. They channel-hop on television, and from site to site on the Web. The idea of "connectedness" may be little more than a token substitute for the old idea that narrative makes experiences make sense.

If readers are so easily distracted, though, it seems like a gross strategic error to present your argument in the form of a hypertext, with opportunities to click off into a different site every few lines. The link from the word "semiotics" to a page called "Semiotics for Beginners" is one thing. But another one, leading to "What's Expected Of Seinfeld: The Aesthetic Reception Of A Situation Comedy" is something else. It fails to answer the big questions about the show: why the supporting cast demanded $1m per episode for the next series, why the actress who plays Elaine doesn't get her wages docked for gratuitous hand-gestures, and why it isn't called Kramer or Costanza. One is tempted to follow the trail of links to less theoretical Seinfeld sites.

Back at the text, there's an obvious booby-trap in the form of a photo of naked women. Sure enough, it leads to an art site inspired by the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. "Meaningless, intertextual commentary" links to another art project called "Placing". This features a catalogue of consumer items, and claims to be about how people "make meaning and significance of the multiple interdependencies between themselves, others, and name-brand products".

Web-writing doesn't usually lose itself in such follies, but it does often fall victim to the temptation of linking texts instead of discussing them. It's a lot quicker to put in a link to somebody else's site than to precis their views, and it saves space on one's own pages. But that can be a false economy, if it induces the readers to make digressions of their own. Slate and Suck both have genuine cultural bones to pick. Unfortunately, only one of them realises that the way forward is a straight line.

Technofile now has its own Web site: http://www.poptel.org.uk/technofile/

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