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Tag Archives: criticism
I should apologise for the paucity of posts, and film-related posts in particular, of late. The irony is that a big part of the reason is film-related thesis work (it will be a shame when I lose that all-purpose, reasonable-sounding excuse for not writing more often.)
I did want to briefly break my silence, however, to highlight the slew of good writing that has been appearing online about Pauline Kael. The publication this week of a new anthology of Kael’s work (The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael) as well as a new biography (Brian Kellow’s A Life in the Dark) has lead to a flood of re-evaluatiuons of the critic. The first I saw was this one by Nathan Heller at the New Yorker, but then followed Camille Paglia and Jim Emerson and Frank Rich and Dan Callahan and Armond White and “The Siren” and Andrew O’Hehir and Matt Soller Zeits.
It’s an embarassment of riches, and the there is, predictably, a lot of overlap in these pieces. Nevertheless, I urge you to have a look at them if you are at all interested in film criticism. I wrote my own piece on Kael a few years ago – here – and not having read the two new books don’t have much to add to what I wrote back then. And most of what I would add has been said better somewhere else by one or other of these writers. (It is hard, however, to imagine that the new anthology is better than the incredible For Keeps, published back in 1996).
Just a quick heads-up for Australian writers on film that AFCA’s film writing awards are on again. Submissions are invited until 31 December. Click the graphic below or here for more detail.
As I argued in more detail last year (here), when these were in their first year, I think this is a really important initiative in encouraging better writing on film.
A few years ago I wrote a long appreciation of the film critic Pauline Kael (you can find it here). The discussion of Kael herself was bracketed by some thoughts about the state of the practice of film criticism. I started with the following thoughts:
…criticism isn’t held in high esteem because it is seen as a by-product of art, rather than an expressive pursuit in itself. There is some justice in this, as even the best critics are there to serve the appreciation of the medium they are talking about, making it difficult to justify the consideration of their criticism as a piece of creative work with its own worth. As a result, critics are held in contempt by many, and writing about or discussing the quality of a critic’s work in any depth can be seen as a self-defeating exercise. What could be more of a redundant exercise than criticising critics, and thus putting yourself a level even further down in the hierarchy? To the extent they are thought about at all, then, critics tend to be seen as the bottom feeders of the artistic establishment. The general quality of film criticism has done little to change this perception: many media outlets take the view that basically anyone can review a movie, meaning that even the professional film reviewing sector has a very poor base standard. While the public’s interest in cinema ensures an audience for film criticism, most readers undoubtedly feel that if they were given the job they could write as good or better reviews themselves, and frequently they would be right.
I finished with this:
It’s perhaps easier to appreciate Kael now that she’s gone, and fifteen years have passed since her retirement with nobody of her stature emerging in the field since. Critics have only become more devalued in the interim. Kael’s 1963 suggestion that there were “so few critics, so many poets” seems a little quaint now: in the age of the internet, anyone can be a critic, and there sometimes seem to be more people offering reviews than there are readers for them. And while some of this writing is very good – the internet allows long-form and niche writing that for the most part can’t be achieved in traditional media – the landscape of criticism is so fractured that no voice can gain the kind of cultural purchase Kael achieved. Such diversity of opinion is generally a good thing, but what film criticism as a field has lost in this process is a universally recognised beacon of excellence. The defining critic of the last decade is probably Harry Knowles, from the website Ain’t It Cool, who became the heavy hitter of a generation of self-taught internet critics and whose style (a combination of incoherency and sheer geekish mania) has unfortunately become the defining model for internet criticism. Voices such as Knowles have their place, but if criticism is to be seen as playing a vital role in film culture, both critics and their readers need to demand a higher standard: “real bursting creativity” rather than mediocrity. This requires an appreciation for the defining figures in the field, and Kael – for all her infuriating flaws – remains the gold standard against whom other critics should be judged.
Generally little has changed since those comments (although Knowles seems to have faded into the background as a critical voice on his own site; this is actually a change for the better since many of Ain’t It Cool’s other contributors are substantially better writers than Knowles). With occasional rare exceptions – one notable example being a long feature Erin Free did in FilmInk back in December 2007 – critics remain reluctant to publicly examine what they do or to praise good work in their field. There is basically no recognition of excellence for critics. When a society of actors give out awards, they give out awards for acting; when a society of directors give out awards, they recognise directing; but critics’ associations give awards to those in other professions. This is all well and good – obviously film critics’ main game should be to recognise excellence in filmmaking – but along the way critics have forgotten to recognise achievements in their own field. This doesn’t help to foster a rise in standards of film criticism.
This says a lot about me: the deaths of Michaelangelo Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman last week sent me scrambling for an episode of The Goodies. Specifically, I wanted to check if either had received a mention in Tim Brooke-Taylor’s dressing down of the mid-seventies art-film industry in the episode “Movies,” from 1975. Turned out neither had (I guess because they peaked earlier), but it’s still a great clip:
One of my happy discoveries of the last few months has been that David Bordwell has his own website (with longtime writing partner Kristin Thompson); Bordwell is one of the best film academics around, and his writing is always stimulating. (I also have his latest book The Way Hollywood Tells It on my shelf waiting to be read – only the fact that it arrived with Michael Barriers’ The Animated Man and J.W. Rinzler’s The Making of Star Wars has kept me from it).
One thing I enjoy about his writing is that he avoids the same complacent narratives you hear all the time. He knows his film history and film art better than anybody – he’s co-author of Film Art and Film History: An Introduction, the books from which just about everybody else learnt what they know – and he doesn’t just settle for the simple familiar story we always hear. So, for example he and some similarly minded colleagues have responded in this article here to the common refrain that sequels are the ultimate creative cop-out, that Hollywood just wants to sell us the same idea over and over again, blah blah blah. (Bordwell is too polite to put it quite this way, but for my own money the way the film press tediously recycles this basic premise every American summer is as good an example of autopilot as the summer sequel season itself).
I regard criticism as an art, and if in this country and in this age it is practiced with honesty, it is no more remunerative than the work of an avant-garde film artist. My dear anonymous letter writers, if you think it is so easy to be a critic, so difficult to be a poet or a painter or a film experimenter, may I suggest you try both? You may discover why there are so few critics, so many poets.
Pauline Kael, KPFA Broadcast, 1963
There aren’t many critics who could get away with a statement like that. They generally lack the cachet: criticism isn’t held in high esteem because it is seen as a by-product of art, rather than an expressive pursuit in itself. There is some justice in this, as even the best critics are there to serve the appreciation of the medium they are talking about, making it difficult to justify the consideration of their criticism as a piece of creative work with its own worth. As a result, critics are held in contempt by many, and writing about or discussing the quality of a critic’s work in any depth can be seen as a self-defeating exercise. What could be more of a redundant exercise than criticising critics, and thus putting yourself a level even further down in the hierarchy? To the extent they are thought about at all, then, critics tend to be seen as the bottom feeders of the artistic establishment. The general quality of film criticism has done little to change this perception: many media outlets take the view that basically anyone can review a movie, meaning that even the professional film reviewing sector has a very poor base standard. While the public’s interest in cinema ensures an audience for film criticism, most readers undoubtedly feel that if they were given the job they could write as good or better reviews themselves, and frequently they would be right. Against such a background, only a very assured and confident film critic could try to argue that criticism is an art in itself, rather than a subsidary pursuit. Yet if anyone could ever make such a claim, it was Pauline Kael.
This article was originally published in the January-March 2006 issue of Senses of Cinema (here).
“You’re on to a much safer bet liking someone like Martin Scorsese, whose genius shows up in all the fully approved forms – plowing a lonely course outside the studio system, obsessively burrowing down into an identifiable subset of obsessions, tearing films from his breast like chunks of his own flesh – than you are liking someone like Spielberg: devoid of visible self-destructive impulses, alighting on film after film as if giving his imagination an aerobic workout, athletically slam-dunking one box office record after another… if that guy also turns out to have been the most talented filmmaker of his generation, then what, frankly, was the point? What was the point of all those hours passed in the dark confines of the art house, boning up on Ukrainian cinema, watching the unwatchable? But there you go. What can you do. If you have to point to any one director of the last twenty-five years in whose work the medium of film was most fully itself – where we found out what it does best when left to its own devices, it has to be that guy.”
Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer (Tom Shone, Simon & Shuster, 2004)
Tom Shone’s Blockbuster, which charts the rise of blockbuster filmmaking in Hollywood over nearly three decades (starting from the wild success of Jaws in 1975), echoes Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls in a number of ways. Just picking it up, you can tell the publishers must be hoping it can replicate the runaway success of Biskind’s book. It even replicates the insert of photos, each captioned with the snappiest, most appealing quotes that can be found in the text.
The most important link, however, is subject matter. Biskind’s book concluded with Steven Spielberg and George Lucas drawing an end to the “New Hollywood” era of the seventies, and Shone picks the story up at that point. Yet Blockbuster is also a reply to Biskind. For Biskind, the coming of the blockbuster was the triumph of barbarism over art: the death of good filmmaking, but Shone’s take is much more receptive to the way in which Spielberg and Lucas did things than Biskind. The beauty of his approach, however, is that he can embrace the pleasures of the blockbuster without giving up his critical faculties. Regular readers will know I’m sympathetic to the point of view Shone espouses here, but it is always a struggle to articulate a critical framework that allows appreciation of such films on their own terms, while still maintaining a distinction between art and trash.
Jim Schembri, the film critic for the EG section in The Age, published an interesting piece in that paper on Friday about Hollywood films. After apparently having an exceptionally unpleasant time with Mr & Mrs Smith – a movie I chose not to inflict on myself – he was moved to write a long piece on how Hollywood films really suck these days. (For the next few days it will be available here, although registration may be required.) The basic argument is that big “event” movies like Mr & Mrs Smith don’t actually need to be good: they open to enormous business based upon saturation marketing, and turn a profit before word gets out that they suck. The marketing media machine is, essentially, making quality irrelevant and thus making both Hollywood movies and their audiences dumber:
The intent is to blitz the eyes, rattle the ears and provide plenty of close-ups of those big, expensive stars. Pummel the audience with the package. Overwhelm them with starpower and firepower.
That’s what audiences are being sold now – not films, but deals.
This dumbing down of movies – it’s still very hard to believe that Miss Congeniality 2 actually does exist – has been accompanied by a dumbing down of audiences.