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Common Sense + Film Theory = Common-Sense Film Theory?

Mad Detective: Doubling Down

The Classical Hollywood Cinema Twenty-Five Years Along

Nordisk and the Tableau Aesthetic

William Cameron Menzies: One Forceful, Impressive Idea

Another Shaw Production: Anamorphic Adventures in Hong Kong

Paolo Gioli’s Vertical Cinema

(Re)Discovering Charles Dekeukeleire

Doing Film History

The Hook: Scene Transitions in Classical Cinema

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In critical condition

Wednesday | May 14, 2008   open printable version open printable version

DB here:

A Web-prowling cinephile couldn’t escape all the talk about the decline of film criticism. First, several daily and weekly reviewers left their print publications, as Anne Thompson points out. Then one of our brightest critics, Matt Zoller Seitz, suspended writing in order to return to film production. This and the departure of another web critic, Raymond Young of Flickhead, has prompted Tim Lucas to ponder, at length and in depth, why one would maintain a film blog. Go to Moviezzz for a summing up.

I’ve been teaching film history and aesthetics since the early 1970s, but before that I wrote criticism for my college newspaper, the Albany Student Press, and then for Film Comment. When I set out for graduate school, film criticism was virtually the only sort of film writing I thought existed. Auteurism was my faith, and Andrew Sarris its true apostle (for reasons explained in an essay in Poetics of Cinema). In grad school, I learned that there were other ways of thinking about cinema. Since then, I’ve tried to steer a course among film criticism, film history, and film theory—sometimes doing one, sometimes mixing them. But criticism has remained central to my interest in cinema.

What, though, does the concept mean? I think that some of the current discussions about the souring state of movie criticism would benefit from some thoughts about what criticism is and does.

Watch your language

Consider criticism as a language-based activity. What do critics do with their words and sentences? Long ago, the philosopher Monroe Beardsley laid out four activities that constitute criticism in any art form, and his distinctions still seem accurate to me. (1) We use them in Chapter 2 of Film Art.

*Critics describe artworks. Film critics summarize plots, describe scenes, characterize performances or music or visual style. These descriptions are seldom simply neutral summaries. They’re usually perspective-driven, aiding a larger point that the critic wants to make. A description can be coldly objective or warmly partisan.

*Critics analyze artworks. For Beardsley, this means showing how parts go together to make up wholes. If you simply listed all the shots of a scene in order, that would be a description. But if you go on to show the functions that each shot performs, in relation to the others or some broader effect, you’re doing analysis. Analysis need not concentrate only on visual style. You can analyze plot construction. You can analyze an actor’s performance; how does she express an arc of emotion across a scene? You can analyze the film’s score; how do motifs recur when certain characters appear? Because films have so many different kinds of “parts,” you can analyze patterns at many levels.

*Critics interpret artworks. This activity involves making claims about the abstract or general meanings of a film. The word “interpret” is used in lots of ways, but in the sense meant here, figuring out the chronological order of scenes in Pulp Fiction wouldn’t count. If, though, you claim that Pulp Fiction is about redemption, both failed (Vincent) and successful (Jules’ decision to quit the hitman trade), you’re launching an interpretation. If I say that Cloverfield is a symbolic replay of 9/11, that counts as an interpretation too.

*Critics evaluate artworks. This seems pretty straightforward. If you declare that There Will Be Blood is a good film, you’re evaluating it. For many critics, evaluation is the core critical activity; after all, the word critic in its Greek origins means judge. Like all the other activities, however, evaluation turns out to be more complicated than it looks.

Why break the process of criticism into these activities? I think they help us clarify what we’re doing at any moment. They also offer a rough way to understand the critical formats that we usually encounter.

In paper media, on TV, or on the internet, we can distinguish three main platforms for critical discussion. A review is a brief characterization of the film, aimed at a broad audience who hasn’t seen the film. Reviews come out at fixed intervals—daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly. They track current releases, and so have a sort of news value. For this reason, they’re a type of journalism.

An academic article or book of criticism offers in-depth research into one or more films, and it presupposes that the reader has seen the film (or doesn’t mind spoilers). It isn’t tied to any fixed rhythm of publication.

A critical essay falls in between these types. It’s longer than a review, but it’s usually more opinionated and personal than an academic article. It’s often a “think piece,” drawing back from the daily rhythm of reviewing to suggest more general conclusions about a career or trend. Some examples are Pauline Kael’s “On the Future of Movies” and Philip Lopate’s “The Last Taboo: The Dumbing Down of American Movies.” (2) Critical essays can be found in highbrow magazines like The New Yorker and Artforum, in literary quarterlies, and in film journals like Film Comment, CinemaScope, and Cahiers du Cinéma.

Any critic can write on all three platforms. Roger Ebert is known chiefly for his reviews, but his Great Movies books consist of essays. (3) J. Hoberman usually writes reviews, but he has also published essays and academic books. And the lines between these formats aren’t absolutely rigid, as I’ll try to show later.

Reviewing reviewers

How do these forums relate to the different critical activities? It seems clear that academic criticism, the sort published in research articles or books, emphasizes description, analysis, and interpretation. Evaluation isn’t absent, but it takes a back seat. Usually the academic critic is concerned to answer a question about the films. How, for instance, is the theme of gender identity represented in Rebecca, and what ambiguities and contradictions arise from that process? In order to pursue this question, the critic needn’t declare Rebecca a great film or a failure.

Of course, the academic piece could also make a value judgment, either at the outset (I think Rebecca is excellent and want to scrutinize it) or at the end (I’m forced to conclude that Rebecca is a narrow, oppressive film). But I don’t have to pass judgment. I have written about a lot of ordinary films in my life. They became interesting because of the questions I brought to them, not because they had a lot going for them intrinsically.

The academic article has a lot of space to examine its question—several thousand words, usually—and of course a book offers still more real estate. By contrast, a review is pinched by its format. It must be brief, often a couple of hundred words. Unlike the academic critique, the review’s purpose is usually to act as a recommendation or warning. Most readers seek out reviews to get a sense of whether a movie is worth seeing or even whether they would like it.

Because evaluation is central to their task, reviewers tend to focus their descriptions on certain aspects of the film. A reviewer is expected to describe the plot situation, but without giving away too much—major twists in the action, and of course the ending. The writer also typically describes the performances, perhaps also the look and feel of the film, and chiefly its tone or tenor. Descriptions of shots, cutting patterns, music, and the like are usually neglected. And what is described will often be colored by the critic’s evaluation. You can, for instance, retell the plot in a way that makes your opinion of the film’s value pretty clear.

Reviews seldom indulge in analysis, which typically consumes a lot of space and might give away too much. Nor do reviewers usually float interpretations, but when they do, the most common tactic is reflectionism. A current film is read in relation to the mood of the moment, a current political controversy, or a broader Zeitgeist. A cynic might say that this is a handy way to make a film seem important and relevant, while offering a ready-made way to fill a column. Reviewers don’t have a monopoly on reflectionism, though. It’s present in the essayistic think-piece and in academic criticism too. (4)

The centrality of evaluation, then, dictates certain conventions of film reviewing. Those conventions obviously work well enough. But we can learn things about cinema through wide-ranging descriptions and detailed analyses and interpretations, as well. We just ought to recognize that we’re unlikely to get them in the review format.

The good, the bad, and the tasty

Let’s look at evaluation a little more closely. If I say that I think that Les Demoiselles de Rochefort is a good film, I might just be saying that I like it. But not necessarily. I can like films I don’t think are particularly good. I enjoy mid-level Hong Kong movies because I can see their ties to local history and film history, because I take delight in certain actors, because I try to spot familiar locations. But I wouldn’t argue that because I like them, they’re good. We all have guilty pleasures—a label that was coined exactly to designate films which give us enjoyment, even if by any wide criteria they aren’t especially good.

They needn’t be disastrously bad, of course. I do like Les Demoiselles de Rochefort, inordinately. It’s my favorite Demy film and a film I will watch any time, anywhere. It always lifts my spirits. I would take it to a desert island. But I’m also aware that it has its problems. It is very simple and schematic and predictable, and it probably tries too hard to be both naive and knowing. Artistically, it’s not as perfect as Play Time or as daring as Citizen Kane or as….well, you go on. It’s just that somehow, this movie speaks to me.

The point is that evaluation encompasses both judgment and taste. Taste is what gives you a buzz. There’s no accounting for it, we’re told, and a person’s tastes can be wholly unsystematic and logically inconsistent. Among my favorite movies are The Hunt for Red October, How Green Was My Valley, Choose Me, Back to the Future, Song of the South, Passing Fancy, Advise and Consent, Zorns Lemma, and Sanshiro Sugata. I’ll also watch June Allyson, Sandra Bullock, Henry Fonda, and Chishu Ryu in almost anything. I’m hard-pressed to find a logical principle here.

Taste is distinctive, part of what makes you you, but you also share some tastes with others. We teachers often say we’re trying to educate students’ tastes. True, but we should admit that we’re trying to broaden their tastes, not necessarily replace them with better ones. Elsewhere on this site I argue that tastes formed in adolescence are, fortunately, almost impossible to erase. But we shouldn’t keep our tastes locked down. The more different kinds of things we can like, the better life becomes.

The difference between taste and judgment emerges in this way: You can recognize that some films are good even if you don’t like them. You can declare Birth of a Nation or Citizen Kane or Persona an excellent film without finding it to your liking.

Why? Most people recognize some general criteria of excellence, such as originality, or thematic significance, or subtlety, or technical skill, or formal complexity, or intensity of emotional effect. There are also moral and social criteria, as when we find films full of stereotypes objectionable. All of these criteria and others can help us pick out films worthy of admiration. These aren’t fully “objective” standards, but they are intersubjective—lots of people with widely varying tastes accept them.

So critics not only have tastes; they judge. The term judgment aims to capture the comparatively impersonal quality of this sort of evaluation. A judge’s verdict is supposed to answer to principles going beyond his or her own preferences. Judges at a gymnastic contest provide scores on the basis of their expertise and in recognition of technical criteria, and we expect them to back their judgment with detailed reasons.

One more twist and I’m done with distinctions. At a higher level, your tastes may make you weigh certain criteria more heavily than others. If you most enjoy movies that wrestle with philosophical problems, you may favor the thematic-significance criterion. So you’ll love Bergman and think he’s a great director. In other words, you can have tastes in films that you also consider excellent. Presumably this is what we teachers are trying to cultivate as well: to teach people, as Plato urged, to love the good.

Of course we can disagree about relevant criteria, particularly about what criteria to apply to a particular movie. I’d argue that profundity of theme isn’t a very plausible criterion for judging Cloverfield; but formal originality, technical skill, and intensity of emotional appeal are plausible criteria to apply. Many of the best Hong Kong films don’t apply rank high on subtlety of theme or character psychology, but they do well on technical originality and intensity of visceral and emotional response. You may disagree, but now we’re arguing not about tastes but about what criteria are appropriate to a given film. To get anywhere, our conversation will appeal to both intersubjective standards and discernible things going on in the movie–not to whether you got a buzz from it and I didn’t.

There’s a reason they call that DVD series Criterion

Now back to film reviewing. Judgment certainly comes into play in a film review, because the critic may invoke criteria in evaluating a movie. Such criteria are widely accepted as picking out “good-making” features. For instance:

The plot makes no sense. Criterion: Narrative coherence helps make a film, or at least a film of this sort, good.

The acting is over the top. Criterion: Moderate performance helps make a film, or at least a film of this sort, good.

The action scenes are cut so fast that you can’t tell what’s going on. Criterion: Intelligibility of presentation helps make a film, or at least a film of this sort, good.

Most reviewers, though, can’t resist exposing their tastes as well as their judgments. This is a convention of reviewing, at least in the most high-profile venues. Readers return to reviewers with strongly expressed tastes. Some readers want to have their own tastes reinforced. If you think Hollywood pumps out shoddy product, Joe Queenan will articulate that view with a gonzo relish that gives you pleasure. Other readers want to have their tastes educated, so they seek out a strong personality with clear-cut tastes to guide them. Still other readers want to have their tastes tested, so they read critics whose tastes vary widely from theirs. I’m told that many people read Armond White for this reason. Tastes come in all flavors.

Celebrity critics—the reviewers who attract attention and controversy—are usually vigorous writers who have pushed their tastes to the forefront. Top critics like Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael are famous partly because they flaunted their tastes and championed films that they liked. (Of course they also thought that the films were good, according to widely held criteria.) It isn’t only a matter of praise, either. Every so often critics launch all-out attacks on films, directors, or other critics, and some are permanently cranky. Movie reviewer Jay Sherman (above) ranks films by analogy to diseases. Hatchet jobs assure a critic notoriety, but they also prove Valéry’s maxim that “Taste is made of a thousand distastes.”

At a certain point, celebrity critics may even give up justifying their evaluations altogether, simply asserting their preferences. They trust that their track record, their brand name, and their forceful rhetoric will continue to engage their readers. It seems to me that after decades of stressing the individuality of their tastes, many of the most influential reviewers are emitting two main messages: You see it or you don’t and Differ if you dare. I’d like to see more argument and less strutting. But then, that’s my taste.

Stuck in the middle, with us

There’s much more to say about the distinctions I’ve floated. They are rough and need refining. But they’ll do for my purpose today, which is to indicate that everything I’ve said can apply to Web writing.

For instance, it seems likely that one cause of critical burnout is that reviews dominate the Net. They’re typically highly evaluative, mixing taste and judgment. Many people will find a bombardment of such items eventually too much to take. I could imagine somebody abandoning Net criticism simply because of the cacophony of shrieking one-liners. We’re all interested in somebody else’s opinions, but we can’t be interested in everybody else’s opinions.

In addition, the distinguishing feature among these thousands of reviews won’t necessarily be wit or profundity or expertise, but style. I think that, years ago, the urge toward self-conscious critical style arose from the drudgery of daily reviewing. Faced with a dreadful new movie, you could make your task interesting only by finding a fresh way to slam it. In addition, magazines that wanted to appear smart encouraged writers to elevate attitude above ideas. In the overabundance of critical talk on the Net, saying “It’s great” or “It stinks” in a clever way will draw more attention than plainer speaking, but even that novelty will wear off eventually.

Fortunately, there are other formats available to cybercriticism. At first glance, the Web seems to favor the snack size, the 150-word sally that’s all about taste and attitude. In fact, the Net is just as hospitable to the long piece. There are in principle no space limitations, so one can launch arguments at length. (It’s too long to read scrolling down? Print it out. Maybe you have to do that with this essay.) Thanks to the indefinitely large acreage available, one of the heartening developments of Web criticism is the growth of the mid-range format I’ve mentioned: the critical essay.

Historically, that form has always been closer to the review than to the academic piece. It relies more on evaluation. That’s centrally true of the Kael and Lopate essays I mentioned above, both of which warn about disastrous changes in Hollywood moviemaking. But the tone can be positive too, most often seen in the appreciative essay, which celebrates the accomplishment of a film or filmmaker. Dwight Macdonald’s admiring piece on 8 ½ and Susan Sontag’s 1968 essay on Godard, despite their differences, seem to me milestones in this genre. (5)

The critical essay is, I think, the real showcase for a critic’s abilities. We say that good critics have to be good writers, usually meaning that their style must be engaging, but it doesn’t have to explode at the end of every paragraph. More generally, in a long essay, you are forced to use language differently than in a snippet. You need to build and delay expectations, find new ways to repeat and modify your case, and seek out synonyms.

Just as important, the long piece separates the sheep from the goats because it shows a critic’s ability to sustain a case. The short form lets you pirouette, but the extended essay—unless it’s simply a rant—obliges you to show all your stuff. In the long form, your ideas need to have heft. Stepping outside film for a moment, consider Gary Giddins on Jack Benny, or Geoffrey O’Brien on Burt Bacharach, or Robert Hughes on Goya, and in each you will see a sprightly, probing, deeply informed mind develop an argument in surprising ways. (6) Strikingly, all these writers venture into subtleties of analysis and interpretation, putting them close to the academic model. So who needs footnotes?

Above all, the critical essay can develop new depth on the Web. Given more space, the Web can ask critics to lay out their assumptions and evidence more fully. After years of “writing short,” of firing off invectives, put-downs, and passing paeans to great filmmakers unknown to most readers, critics now have an opportunity—not to rant at greater length but to go deeper. If you think a movie is interesting or important, please show us. Don’t simply assert your opinion with lots of hand-waving, but back it up with some analysis or interpretation. The Web allows analysis and interpretation, which take a lot of effort, to come into their own.

Need an example? Jim Emerson, time and again. There are plenty of other instances hosted by journals like Rouge and the extraordinary Senses of Cinema, and many solo efforts, such as a recent one from Benjamin Wright.

Some will object that this is a pretty unprofitable undertaking. Who’ll pay people to write in-depth critical studies on the movies they find compelling? Well, who’s paying for all those 100-word zingers? And who has paid those programmers who continue to help Linus Torvalds develop Linux? People do all kinds of things for love of the doing and for the benefit of strangers. Besides, no one should expect that writing Web criticism will pay the bills. If Disney can’t collect from people who have downloaded Pirates of the Caribbean 3 for free, why should you or I expect to be paid for talking about it? Maybe only idlers, hobbyists, obsessives, and retirees (count me among all four) have the leisure to write long for the Web.

I envision another way to be in the middle. If most critical essays have been akin to reviews, what about essays that lie closer to the other extreme, the academic one? I’d like to see more of what might be called “research essays.” If the critical essay of haut journalism tips toward reviewing while being more argument-driven, the research essay leans toward academic writing, while not shrinking from judgment, and even parading tastes. I’ve tried my hand at several research essays, in books as well as in pieces you’ll find on the left side of this page; and occasionally one of our blog entries moves in this direction.

This isn’t to discourage people from jotting down ideas about movies and triggering a conversation with readers. The review, professional or amateur, shouldn’t go extinct. But we also benefit from ambitious critical essays, pieces that illuminate movies through analysis and interpretation. Web critics could write less often, but longer. In an era of slow food, let’s try slow film blogging. It might encourage slow reading.

(1) Monroe K. Beardsley, Aesthetics: Problem in the Philosophy of Art Criticism (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1958), 75-78.

(2) Pauline Kael, “On the Future of Movies,” in Reeling (New York: Warner Books, 1977), 415-444; Philip Lopate, “The Last Taboo: The Dumbing Down of American Movies,” in Totally Tenderly Tragically: Essays and Criticism from a Lifelong Love Affair with the Movies (New York: Anchor, 1998), 259-279.

(3) In addition, Ebert often manages to build his daily pieces around a general idea, not necessarily involving cinema, so he can be read with enjoyment by people not particularly interested in film. I talk about this a little in my introduction to his collection Awake in the Dark.

(4) Reflectionist interpretation usually seems to me unpersuasive, for reasons I’ve discussed in Poetics of Cinema, pp. 30-32. I realize that I’m tilting at windmills. Reflectionism will be with us forever.

(5) Dwight Macdonald, “8 ½: Fellini’s Obvious Masterpiece,” in On Movies (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1969), 15-31; Susan Sontag, “Godard,” in Styles of Radical Will (New York: Delta, 1969), 147-189.

(6) Gary Giddins, “’This Guy Wouldn’t Give You the Parsley off His Fish,’” in Faces in the Crowd: Musicians, Writers, Actors, and Filmmakers (New York: Da Capo Press, 1996), 3-13; Geoffrey O’Brien, “The Return of Burt Bacharach,” in Sonata for Jukebox: Pop Music, Memory, and the Imagined Life (New York: Counterpoint, 2004), 5-28; and Robert Hughes, “Goya,” in Nothing If Not Critical: Selected Essays on Art and Artists (New York: Penguin, 1992), 50-64. I pay tribute to Giddins as a critic elsewhere on this site. Hughes later wrote a fine monograph on Goya.

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David Bordwell
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