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5 Critical Fallacies

by Mike Spence
Every film deserves a fair critique – Food critics don’t run out to review every new fast food chain when it opens so why does Disaster movie need to be reviewed opening day or at all? Critics say this because they get paid by the word and because their newspapers or publishers are working hand in hand with studios to constantly sell you something you don’t need. Movies need only be reviewed when they are important. If we only got a film review every few months or so the world would be a better place. This idea only seems crazy because we are so used to being force-fed this product based approach to movie reviewing. If we opened up the New… Read more

Every film deserves a fair critique – Food critics don’t run out to review every new fast food chain when it opens so why does Disaster movie need to be reviewed opening day or at all? Critics say this because they get paid by the word and because their newspapers or publishers are working hand in hand with studios to constantly sell you something you don’t need. Movies need only be reviewed when they are important. If we only got a film review every few months or so the world would be a better place. This idea only seems crazy because we are so used to being force-fed this product based approach to movie reviewing. If we opened up the New York Times and saw a review of every Harlequin Romance we would scratch our heads in bewilderment but we don’t blink an eye when we see the times review ’He’s Just Not That Into You’ because the movie money machine is so much more powerful than the book publishing one that they have successfully convinced us that all their garbage deserves a fair and equal evaluation. Remember the expression “I’m not going to dignify that with a response?” That phrase is viewed as pretentious only because those who have nothing interesting to say but have the clout to sell it anyway have clouded our heads. Try not reading any reviews or keeping up with trailers for a few months while you watch old films and read and see how much clearer your mind gets. The fog of war or the fog of the constant bad movies is actually just another facet of the fog of the media machine.

Films must be multicultural and gender friendly – Criticism isn’t social studies. A work of art does not need to contain all the colors of the rainbow or show women in a positive way. Art should open our eyes to what people do and not simply attempt to appease old or current injustices. Mabel in A Woman Under the Influence or Ophelia in Hamlet are not symbols of womanhood but rather specific, powerful portrayals of humanity in all it’s multivalent strengths and weaknesses. Charles Burnett’s character’s are not interesting because they are black but because they are human. When i read a review by Lisa Schwarzbaum or Bell Hooks that only examines film from one gender-based or racial angle, I know it isn’t the film that’s limited, but the reviewer.

Films must tell strong narrative stories – The best films generally touch greatness in the small asides that have nothing to do with strong narrative but are simply reminders of how life flows against our best plans and goals. Films in which “nothing happens” are often those in which everything that matters happens. We are so used to being led by the hand into understanding everything a character is thinking or feeling by Hollywood hack that we miss the most important small moments in films and in life. Cassavetes Faces is a great reminder of this. The “boring bits” of life, which Hitchcock eschewed, are actually the most dangerously thrilling parts of life and film, they disturb us because they leave us in limbo, not in the way Scottie is for the split second at the beginning of Vertigo before Hitch removes the boring part, but after that, and after that when he is still up there, and all the way down when people are asking him questions, when he sees Midge for the first time after. Time and space are what Hitch avoids because he know we want to avoid them. We want to avoid them because they are scarier in their randomness than any Norman Bates or Michael Myers ever could be.

“Most directors feel complimented when viewers say they are not aware of passing time: ‘But with me, you see the time pass. And you feel it pass. You sense that this is time that leads towards death… I’ve taken two hours of [your] life.” – Chantal Akerman on From the East

Films should be dominated by powerful performances by dominating actors – The best acting is that which comes from an ensemble. Close-ups designed to show us how powerfully Tom Hanks or DeNiro can dominate a scene are based in ego more than art. Christoph Waltz’s commanding screen presence is as meaningless as Tarantino’s commanding camera work. The performer should interact, not dominate. The camera should work against it’s subject if the subject gets too dominant. Artists like Leigh, Cassavetes and Noonan get great performances out of their actors by ensuring that they cut away from anyone who might dominate a scene with a monologue and remind the audience that as much as we think we are the center of the universe what goes on around us constantly reminds us that we are not.

Film is the greatest medium of expression – Again, they try to sell you this notion that we live in a visual world and that film is the greatest because that notion sells shitty films and shitty reviews about them. You would probably be better of picking up a book at random in a bookstore than seeing whatever is playing at the multiplex. This is what leads people to moan and groan about the lack of new masterpieces in the current year. There is this need to constantly see every ‘important" new film that comes out so you can say you have a cinephile licence. Unless you’ve read and reread the complete works of Proust, Shakespeare, James, Elliot, Balzac and many others, or studied Rembrandt, Cezanne and Eakins, or understand every note of Bach, Mozart and Haydn, you should probably spend less time worrying about the lack of new and exciting films and start looking to other arts to provide you with soul enriching experiences. If you only see 2 or 3 new films a year you’ll be okay. Only the finest film approaches the greatest expression.

Addendum – The following are excerpts from the idiot critics of the past who, in their negative criticisms of John Cassavetes work ironically describe much of what is great about it. The worst part is that the same idiot criticisms are still being levied against genius filmmakers from Kiarostami to Bujalski.

The film generally has many errors of continuity, tone, and nuance. Ofter the crescendo of feelings seem disrupted… The network of friendships arising in the band as a community, and the creative theme, are assumed rather then explored… The band’s finale reconciliation… is phoney in conception and weakened by the director’s attempt to restore authenticity by a laconic, sombre style. The “shaped” story and the discursive scene sometimes gell dissatisfyingly […]
R.E. Durgnat, Too Late Blues, Films and Filming, vol 8, n.3, nov/1961

Its flaw is merely the familiar one of the artist too close to his own work to judge best where a sequence might be curtailed to advantage: thus, in portraying boredom for example, Cassavetes is now and then in danger of being just a bit of a bore […]
Gordon Gow, Faces, Films and Filming, vol 15, n.3, dec/1968

Husbands, directed by Cassavetes, extends the faults of his last film, Faces; one might even say that Husbands takes those faults into a new dimension. […] We don’t know what to react to: we can’t sort out what we’re meant to see from what we see. We know that the people around the table in the bar wouldn’t sit there while these clowns bully them unless they were paid for it, but we also know that the sequence is supposed to reveal something that “ordinary” movies don’t. But what does it reveal except the paralysis and humiliation of the bit players? […]
Pauline Kael, Magalomaniacs, The New Yorker, vol XLVI, n.46, 2/jan/1971

Minnie & Moskowitz is by far John Cassavetes’ worst film, with none of the good touches of Faces, without even any of the pseudo inquiry of Husbands. guess what the theme is. Two lonely people! Misfits! Who find each other!! Even Chayefsky gave up this facile honestry twenty years ago […]
Stanley Kauffmann, From a Star to a Czar, The New Republic, vol66, n.4, 22/jan/1972

He still prolongs shots to the point of embarrassment (and beyond). He does it deliberately, all right, but to what purpose? Acute discomfort sets in, and though some in audience will once again accept what is going on as raw, anguishing truth, most people will – rightly, I think – take their embarrassment as evidence of Cassavetes’ self-righteous ineptitude […]
Pauline Kael, Dames, The New Yorker, vol L, n.43, 9/dec/1974

But, admittedly, the film isn’t really “about” anything… to me this film is utterly without interest or merit. It tries to establish its bona fides simply by existing: it’s up there on the screen and is therefore to some degree incontrovertible. This might be argued for a documentary, where the film would be a mediacl record. Not here […]
Stanley Kauffmann, A Woman Under the Influence, The New Republic, vol 171, n.26

The films of John Cassavetes are, by and large, sterile actors’ excercises. […] They are doggedly pretentious and often of enormous duration; unless you are an actor, or a friend or relative of the director, you should find them quintessentially trivial and borong. […] if Cassavetes is telling the truth, and he really writes this trash that postures as plot, characterization, and dialogue, he would be an even bigger simpleton that I take him to be […] When not very bright or clever try to convey to the movie audience that someone or something is supposed to be dumb, they sink to levels of stupidity and ineptitude that strike people of normal intelligence as positively feeble-minded […]
John Simon, Technical Exercise-Exercise in Futility, New York Magazine, vol 9, n.9, 1/mar/1976

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is a mess, as sloppy in concept as it is in execution, as pointless in thesis as it is in concept […]
Judith Crist, To Each His Everyman, Saturday Review, vol 3, n.13, 3/apr/1976

They go on too long, they’re often too private and self-indulgent, they never semm to come to the point, they’re loosely plotted – certainly leagues away from the intricately constructed Hollywood formula film – they don’t seem to show much care for roduction values, and they tend to be repetitive […]
James Monaco, Who’s Talking? Cassavetes, Altman and Coppola, American Film Now, Oxford Universisty Press, 1979, pp. 295-312

Unfortunately Phil has been saddled with such irritating baby-mucho lines as (to Gloria) “I’m the man! Im the man!” (He sounds like a tiny Cassavetes blowhard – he’ll grow up to be Ben Gazzara) […]
David Denby, Gloria, New York Magazine, vol 13, n.40, 13/oct/1980

The following five films have eluded many critics understanding.

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