Critics are often subjected to ideas forced on them from editors or the particular organisation they work for. Bloggers are often people who have a good knowledge of cinema but the fact that they are faceless does leave room for them to be overly callous or overly enthusiastic about a film. The aspect I find interesting about film criticism is the debates and questions it raises, not necessarily there opinion. Opinions are like assholes everyones got them. Film criticism is about a relationship between the professional film theorist and the filmmaker that asks questions about the nature of cinema in a wide variety of discourses.
You’re kind of veering into Adison Dewitt territory again. How does a critic know what makes a film ‘good’? A critic knows a lot about cinema, can tell what the film is trying to do and can discuss how well it achieves this. A critic can categorize who will like and who will dislike a film based on experience. How can a critic make definitive statements about quality without being super-prescriptive?
Any attempt by a critic to tell people why to like something will result in the opposite reaction. If a critic wants to turn somebody on to great cinema, they’re best off explaining why they think it worked and helping people decide if they want to see it.
To those of you who do not read,
attend the Theater, listen to
uncensored radio programs or know
anything of the world in which we
live – it is perhaps necessary to
introduce myself. My name is
My native habitat is the Theater -
in it I toil not, neither do I
spin. I am a critic and
commentator. I am essential to the
Theater – as ants are to a picnic,
as the ball weevil to a cotton
Is this the man you want as the authority on good taste?
But not one sentence in this entire thread addresses how a particular critic writes about film.
We have threads discussing the way critics write, but I wanted to take a different angle and look at the nature of their viewing experience makes them ill-suited for some readers. For a big part of the last eight years, I spent a lot of time watching films from several all-time great lists, and when I would read top ten lists of the year by critics, I would often scratch my head at some of the choices. I’m wondering if part of the disconnect stems from the nature of movie watching experience. I’ve been mostly watching all time great films throughout history; critics, on the other hand, spend more of their time watchign recent films—many of them average or worse. I would expect that the experiences would lead to different senses of “good” and “bad.” It’s like a professional photographer who takes pictures of lingerie models all day and a bank teller who just sees the average schmoe. They would probably have different ideas about physical attractiveness.
I think you’re getting the wrong impression about this thread. (See my comment to Jerry.) But I’ll respond to one of your comments—Any attempt by a critic to tell people why to like something will result in the opposite reaction. If a critic wants to turn somebody on to great cinema, they’re best off explaining why they think it worked and helping people decide if they want to see it.
I don’t see much difference between telling people why to like something versus explaining why a film worked. They go hand in hand, imo.
Actually, I think Jerry has a point, and it’s one that I find some sympathy with as I too often feel like these sorts of vague general discussions, while they may attract more response, aren’t always that helpful as we all are carrying different ideas of what we mean or what we are referencing around. This means we are all talking about slightly different things or ideas without allowing for any chance of moving towards any more meaningful agreement or frame of reference. To do that we would need to be much more specific, which I’m always happy to do, but doing so will likely limit the conversation as speaking of specifics requires more investment from those participating. In any case, I would be all to happy to have more threads devoted to specific critics or criticism. Some creep up from time to time, like the Titantic and Raid:Redmeption ones currently, but those that do often seem to be chosen not as representative of either the best of criticism or a diverse body of it, they are usually mass market reviews, which tend to lend themselves towards a particular set of responses as the board here isn’t who those reviews are aimed at.
But it doesn’t always make sense to start with particulars. Sometimes it’s more reasonable to start with a hypothesis and then go back and test it with specifics.
Well, yes, that’s almost undeniably true, but I would add that one need emphasize the word start in your sentence as all too often it seems that the general is both the start and end of the discussion rather than a prelude to something more in depth.
I think part of the problem here is the use of the label film critic rather then then film reviewer in the title of the original post. I think Jazz’s problems are specifically with film reviewers. The kinds that primarily focus on recent films and some re-releases. There are some good and many bad reviewers. Some reviewers are also film critics (for example, Dave Kehr, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Wesley Morris, Roger Ebert, Pauline Kael) but not all critics are reviewers. Critics who aren’t employed by media outlets often write about whatever they want to write about. There soul purpose is to open up ideas about film. They might write about older films or newer films based on their interests. I would distinguish the two by saying that a reviewer is primarily concerned with advocacy and assessment. At the most simple level they are attempting to allow a reader to understand if s/he should spend money to view a particular film. A critic, on the other hand, even if s/he is a reviewer is primarily concerned with opening up discourse around a particular film. They might chose to open up this discourse for aesthetic, political, sociological, or other analytical reasons. However, it isn’t necessarily a discussion about the quality/worth of the film under discussion. For this reasons I think critics can serve many types of people very well- but not as consumer guides.
“I would add that one need emphasize the word start in your sentence as all too often it seems that the general is both the start and end of the discussion rather than a prelude to something more in depth.”
Agreed. But sometimes it’s a few pages of work to get the OP question fully articulated so that it’s, well, answerable.
“like the Titantic and Raid:Redmeption ones currently, but those that do often seem to be chosen not as representative of either the best of criticism or a diverse body of it, they are usually mass market reviews, which tend to lend themselves towards a particular set of responses as the board here isn’t who those reviews are aimed at.”
Right, that’s sort of the nature of forum discussion, I think. Those particular reviews are brought up specifically as examples of “not getting it” so to speak. And of course we’ve done the Kael thing and the Ebert thing enough. I tried to get something a little more open-concept and wider in scope going about a year ago with the THE HISTORY OF CINEPHILIA: A PROPOSED ARCHEOLOGY (and have revisited it a time or to, but that didn’t work at all.
O, and of course there was also the Dan Kois-“Cultural Vegatables” discussion.
And, of course, one can’t leave out the little bit of conversation that has gone around Ray Carney, at least if one considers the academic writer as critic thing.
The problem with the history of cinephelia thread as it pertains to this question was that it seemed to be more date and fact oriented which limits what will be brought up there, especially given the somewhat vague nature of cinephilia history and what that might entail. I wouldn’t mind another go at that where it is more oriented towards significant writings on film, but then again that too might lead towards the thread becoming unwieldy and thereby limiting participation. It might be better to just start threads on the individual writings as has been the case with the other threads just mentioned. The issue then would be whether one can find the writing online, and whether you can get anyone to read it.
Yeah, I think ultimately to have these sort of conversations, we’re just going to have to throw a bunch of stuff against the wall and see what sticks. What I had in mind with that one was “how did people start watching films,” and for me a logical progression would be to “how did people start writing about film” (as this seems to me the next level up in terms of connection among people who like movies in that it’s a least, theoretically, less localized than film societies and such). I’m all for talking about writing about films, but I worry that this might be too second level for many, as I’m not sure that too many other than you and I and Jerry and a couple of others who have posted in this thread and some others like it have a particular interest in criticism in general. Are the Carneyites likely to venture outside of his vision of Carney, or the Kael people hers . . . ?
Hard to say, but I suspect not readily or with some sense of defense of their own favorites in mind, not that such a thing would be bad necessarily as that might provide some spark to the conversation. But it doesn’t help matters that many of those who might have been interested seem to have largely abandoned the site
I feel that the film critic/reviewer/whatever has a place in the lives of cinephiles and the casual moviegoer. However, it is up to the individual moviegoer to determine the importance of that place. Any given film reviewer has a particular taste which may or may not reflect that of the reader/listener. We do this with our friends all the time. I, for one, have friends that I take recommendations from at face value. I also have friends whose recommendations are not to be trusted (although I’m not so mean as to let them know that). Film reviewers should be treated the same way. I read reviews from people who share my tastes. Of course, there will be some occasional contradictions, but they serve as a good guide. Even folks I know who don’t think of films as anything more than fleeting entertainment read reviews. Here in Wyoming, we mostly get Ebert in the newspaper. But folks know whether they mostly agree or disagree with him and they spend their money accordingly.
There’s a huge difference between the two approaches. The former lectures, the latter explains. One exists in the critic’s intellectual world, and the other exists in the audience’s intellectual world. One gives the critic control over taste, one gives it to the audience.
“it doesn’t help matters that many of those who might have been interested seem to have largely abandoned the site”
Yeah . . . at any rate, I’m reading Durgnat right now if anyone has interest in heading in that direction.
Since Jazz has phrased this in terms of “service,” does anyone have any thoughts as to whether or not cinephiles as “better served” by so-called slow criticism . . . or at least a combination of it and the traditional “film review” model?
Film criticism (as it was practiced up to the 1990s) no longer exists, what we have now is film journals for specialists and mainstream film reviewers. No middle ground. The Village Voice recent firing of Rosenbaum is part of the trend.
^You mean Hoberman?
Yeah, I’m sure he did. I would disagree with Francisco and say that Film Comment manages to stay (at least in part) fairly mainstream, don’t you think so, Santino?
Then there’s something like Cinema Scope, which is not really academic, but has a somewhat higher degree of snob appeal.
So it was Hoberman that got fired. My bad.
Have to meet anyone who reads Film Comment or CinemaScope who is not either a cinema studies proffessor or student. But that may just be true in my neck of the woods.
Rosenbaum retired (from the Chicago Reader) in 2008.
For me, Film Comment is about as academic as I can handle. I think it does do a good job of strandling the line between head-scratchingly obtuse and pop mainstream. I enjoy the magazine and think it has stuff for everyone. A mainstream audience member could easily find articles to enjoy as would snobby elitists who never leave the upper West Side.
I didn’t read the thread past the OP and I don’t intend to but I’ll just say:
I think you’re using “critic” where you should be using “reviewer.” The purpose of a reviewer, as I see it, is to see a given week’s crop of new releases and say Yea or Nay to each of them, and from this a consensus grows (e.g. Rotten Tomatoes), which isn’t entirely useless but is kind of shallow and obviously hype-driven.
The purpose of a critic is to present a CRITICAL FRAMEWORK through which one can view media. For instance I do not read Christgau’s music reviews to see if I agree or disagree with him (he’s into a lot of stuff I can’t stand, and he dismisses a lot of stuff I love). But he showed me a NEW WAY TO LOOK AT MUSIC. Pauline Kael and Armond White have done the same for me in film. I disagree passionately with them at LEAST half the time I’d say, but both of them gave me a new lens through which to view movies. Therefore they are critics who are useful to me, a cinephile.
Edit: In skimming the thread it seems like what I’ve said has already been touched on but oh well lol
Critics are often subjected to ideas forced on them from editors or the particular organisation they work for.
Film reviewers aside (those who have to write about the week’s opening films for a general audience), this isn’t true. And I don’t think it’s films reviewers that this thread is about. As a former film writer, I had editors tell me I was crazy, but not once was I told, “You can’t say that.”
In the good old days, film writers had to be either reviewers or professors-who-wrote-books-approved-by-universities. Subjugation was frequent. But then with the rise of of the cinema magazine and alternative weekly in the late 50s, an outlet was opened for film writers to write pretty much what they wanted to. Today, of course, we have the internet where anybody can “publish” any kind of shit, because it costs nothing.
I’m all for a new rule that requires film criticism be accompanied by moving images. The greatest film criticism I’ve encountered in the past five years or so has not been written, but visual-essayed: the dvd extras by Tag Gallagher, Jean-Pierre Gorin, etc.
I have offered to be Greg X’s arrow man, should he ever decide to take up film criticism seriously.
I haven’t read anything by him/her.
The link doesn’t really say much slow criticism, but, from the little it says, it sounds good.
And I don’t think it’s films reviewers that this thread is about.
Actually, that’s probably the group I was mostly thinking about.
Heh, thanks Jerry. I’ll hold you to that should such a thing ever come up.
To be more specific about my criticism of criticism, I was in some ways thinking of magazines like Film Comment, at least as it was up until a couple of years ago when I could regularly purchase issues, no one in my town sells it anymore so I’m a little behind the times, relaters to the Titanic thread in some ways as I’ve developed a sensitivity to the sort of ideological content of much criticism. I have some mixed feeling about this aspect as I was a big fan of critics like Robin Wood and John Berger, who helped push this sort of ideological examination to the fore. Magazines like Film Comment have or had a decided ideological leaning, one which I share in some ways, but one which I am feeling more and more as being in some ways working against criticism as it speaks to direct perception and translation of what is happening on screen instead moving too far towards telling us how we should “feel” about it by some prescriptive view of how culture should be. It’s a type of criticism which seems more concerned with how others might respond to a film rather than what the critic sees.
I say I’m conflicted about this because my desires for the culture as a whole are often in concert with these views, and I am genuinely perplexed over what is the best way to deal with these sorts of issues. On the one hand, I can see it as certainly being sensible and even desirable to call out films one is offended by, but on the other, I would suggest that art isn’t society, and that fighting the battle of what society should be so strongly through representations is, in many ways, the wrong way to go about it. To try and put it more clearly, when I see a film that offends me, my response to the film shows that what caused the offense in “readable” within it, if it is readable it is legible, which means if I look at the movie purely in terms of my own reaction, what gives offense is a part of the film in a way which can suggest that I could choose to appreciate that the movie brings this issue to the fore rather than claiming it as a fault since anyone who felt as I would take offense in the same way as me. What tends to happen though is that I separate my own response from either what I take to be the “intent” of the film or from how I fear others will understand it. This is especially confusing when convention would seem to dictate that we should identify with the narrative in a specific way such as root for the protagonist, even if the attitudes of the protagonist are what is felt to be at fault. Of course we don’t have to root for the protagonist, and we can see the film as embodying its own critique if that is how we “felt” it.
To take an easy specific classic example we can look to The Searchers where there is a lot of conflict over how we are to respond to the character of Ethan and what the actions of the films suggest in ideological terms. Now, The Searchers has a large body of criticism behind it which tries to work around these problems, and has been largely, though not uncontroversially, accepted as resolving them, but for many movies this isn’t the case, and that is where the trouble lies. A while ago I linked to a piece on Casino Royale where the author claimed ot make a reading of it which showed how it fed into post 9/11 imperialistic attitudes. The argument was convincing, as long as one accepted that when watching the film we “need” to identify with James Bond. The thing is, the writer of the article clearly didn’t as that is how he was able to write his critique, andd my response to the movie was much the same, so the question then is how do critics or viewers coem to terms with two different ways of responding to the movie and what exactly is the role of the movie as it pertains to the larger culture. There is an attitude that seems to suggest that movies should somehow “better” the culture in which they are made, that we should demand that they have an acceptable ideology rather than represent whatever it is their “id” might suggest. This attitude is troubling, in part because it is reasonable when it comes to larger society and in part because what it suggests about art isn’t. I’m not sure how to resolve this issue, but I feel most criticism isn’t addressing the issue much at all and that is a loss for all of us.
Then you don’t need a thread; you just need a link:
Half the world’s best film critics post there on a frequent basis. Dive into a thread and live film criticism live.
I agree, David Kehr, and his site, are great. A good example of criticism done well as he has a grasp of film history that is hard to match as well as a gift for perception and making a telling observation. So, don’t take what I’ve said before to suggest that there aren’t good critics out there, there are, it’s just that the field as a whole is hampered by certain conventions and that the amount of really good criticism is still far too small for the amount of writing in the field.
There is an attitude that seems to suggest that movies should somehow “better” the culture in which they are made, that we should demand that they have an acceptable ideology rather than represent whatever it is their “id” might suggest.
Have to read the rest of this thread, but was brought over by your recent remark on the Titanic thread referring to this one…
I really don’t think it’s the job of art to “save humanity.” And the minute you start to throw a heroic cast on it is the minute you start to make propaganda instead of art. That critics might be backing something like this up, whether it’s the intent of the artist to “save humanity” through their work or some other equally heroic reason, or whether it’s just the aim of a critic, is indeed troubling.
Hopefully critics, if they are trending this way, will learn to look at art for what it should be — an expression of the human condition, whether that’s good or bad, inspiring or boring, offensive or uplifting, etc. etc. And promote above all, the freedom of artists to express their views of these conditions without the burden feeling the need to “teach people a lesson” in morality or whatever.
Magazines like Film Comment have or had a decided ideological leaning, one which I share in some ways, but one which I am feeling more and more as being in some ways working against criticism as it speaks to direct perception and translation of what is happening on screen instead moving too far towards telling us how we should “feel” about it by some prescriptive view of how culture should be. It’s a type of criticism which seems more concerned with how others might respond to a film rather than what the critic sees.
I’m still not clear on the two different approaches to evaluating a film. In the quote above, you seem to be saying there is a descriptive approach and a moral one. But then later, I get the sense that you’re talking about immersing one’s self in the film and appreciating it for what it is versus taking an arm’s-length approach in order to evaluate the film in relation to society and provide a moral assessment. Am I totally off base? Can you clarify some of this?