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What ever happened to the film critic?

“I may not be Ebert, but at least kids used to know who Ebert was!”

The late Gilberto Perez, in his book on film, The Material Ghost, eloquently remarked:

…if all that interested me about art, about film, were what is wrong with it, I would not be spending much time with film or with art.
It is because I like film…that I have written this book. (19–20).

These remarks may sound obvious.

But I believe that we are all too often distracted with the task of figuring out “what is wrong with film”, as we move farther and farther away from the view that well-written criticism is an art unto itself.


Over forty years ago, Andrew Sarris argued for the importance of film critics.

Sarris distinguishes between the “forest” critic and the “tree” critic.

The forest critic, he says, attacks Hollywood but embraces foreign “art” cinema, the documentary and the avant-garde (all of the so-called reactionary genres).

The tree critic, then, is concerned with the more “ordinary” movies.

The tree critic speaks to the masses.

The forest critic,

writes Sarris,

knows full well that the masses he wants to save are more enthralled by ordinary movies than by lofty cinema.
Sarris, seeing the forest for the trees?

And what happens when the forest-critic clings even more tightly to Theory-driven scholarship, leaving the rest of the world to their “ordinary movies”?

Nothing, you might say, and what difference does it make anyway?

Maybe we can just ignore the Theory-driven (or forest) film critics. For now.

But we will never be able to suppress others that will arise in their place.

I would not necessarily give the forest critic even as much credit as Sarris does.

Lofty film critics may well understand that the masses prefer “ordinary movies”.

But understanding that this is so does not always motivate them to write for those masses.

Meanwhile, a new, steady stream of writers, scholars, critics and film bloggers already exists; their contributions are mostly beneficial to the ongoing discourse.

Some contributions, however, are less than beneficial — harmful even — because they contain nearly imperceptible regressive elements.


In a recent article for The New Inquiry, contributor Willie Osterweil calls for a “new” type of film criticism.

Now, he argues, in addition to its actual content, any given film will need to be evaluated in terms of:

Its methods of production,
Its place within current film trends, and
Its similarities to concurrently released films.

This “new” type of film criticism, Osterweil suggests, will allow us to:

understand the multiplex’s true ideological effect,

and simultaneously

reveal new avenues of cinematic pleasure.

With this “new” type of film criticism, Osterweil claims, there will be no need for the mediating “expert”.

This continues.

Osterweil calls on film critics to dismiss the concept of the auteur altogether. Instead, we are to understand film as a mass-produced object.

Once all of that useless “creative vision” stuff is erased from the equation, a film’s ideological agenda will appear to us more clearly.

Osterweil’s suggestions do not end there, unfortunately.

Again, he continues:

Entertainment (as opposed to art) placates a pseudo-desire manufactured precisely to be placated…

And apparently, because we aren’t supposed to desire placating our desires:

Entertainment answers questions, provides catharsis, resolves the absurdity of capitalist experience and affirms the reality of alienated everyday life…

which, suggests Osterweil, is antithetical to artistic experience.

Well, my everyday life may be alienating, but unlike Osterweil, I prefer alienating reality to, well, no reality.

I like it when my existence is affirmed.

Or, to put it another way: I’ll take what I can get.

If I were to wake up tomorrow in a world without desires to be placated (yes, even pseudo-desires), without entertainment, answers to questions, catharsis, or affirmations of reality, I think I might not like that world so much.

Osterweil seems to forget that even “film artists” are fans of conventional cinema. Most artistic filmmakers are inspired by “conventional” movies.

French New Wave director and Cahiers du cinema critic Eric Rohmer once wrote:

The modern character of the cinema is its capacity to represent the physical world as it is, in its ‘stupid’ banality.

In other words, cinema not only reflects contemporary reality, it transforms that reality into art — precisely because it relies on classical conventions of storytelling.

Zizek has a lot to deconstruct about Hollywood. Hollywood doesn’t deconstruct Zizek because he isn’t famous enough and they don’t give a shit about him anyway.

This theme arises in the writing of many other critics and scholars beyond Osterweil (who I have picked on a bit too much here, I’m afraid).

For example, in his 2011 essay, “Academics Versus Critics”, written for Film Comment, David Bordwell points to a number of influential “non Theory-driven” film scholars.

These scholars, according to Bordwell, are both cinephiles and critics.

They:

form precise aesthetic questions

in order to propose responses to those questions.

They write with lucid prose about films that they love.

Bordwell’s list includes a number of film scholars with training in analytic philosophy.

In sum,

Bordwell concludes,

there are research programs that complement cinephile criticism.
Like Uncle Scrooge with his money bags.

To anyone familiar with these influential “research programs” — programs that extend as far back as the early 1980s — Bordwell’s essay is hardly a revelation — nor is it a rallying cry for change.

Bordwell is correct to place the type of scholarship embodied in Osterweil’s essay (Grand Theory) in contrast with the scholarship of cinephiles.

But, as he himself notes, the distinction may be more hurtful than helpful:

Grand Theory drove a wedge between scholars and cinephiliac intellectuals.

Notably, Bordwell does not offer his own view on the matter. He simply reports.

He half-heartedly defends film criticism, but it is too little too late.

Academics should recognize how cinephile criticism can alert us to the movie’s unique identity. Perceptive appreciation and analytical explanation can enhance one another.

Bordwell’s observations and suggestions are safe.

Though he states several times throughout the article that he does not mean to “toot his own horn” (in so many words), this is, in fact, exactly what he does.

Bordwell offers little hope for his readers — and I can only assume that he imagines his readers as current or future film scholars.

We can choose either extreme, says Bordwell in so many words. The academic’s side or the critic’s side.

But Bordwell seems to reject both extremes, granting only that both approaches “can enhance each other” in some far off future, perhaps, of which he will have no part.

In the meantime, he suggests, we can all read his books and consider his thoughts on the matter.

Of course, Bordwell isn’t to blame for his observations. And we can’t expect him to save film criticism single-handedly.

But one can’t help but wonder how a blasé attitude could possibly help matters.

Sadly, this sort of attitude makes sense.

Why would a well-known, prolific film scholar do more than point one group of film scholars to a second group, remaining on the sidelines all the while?

If the system works for those who are already “at the helm”, so to speak, why change course?

From the perspective of someone sitting on the sidelines, the major battles have already been fought. The original warriors are a dying breed.

Gee, this sure looks comfortable right about now. Leave the kids to their battles outside.

Later in the essay, Bordwell does grants that there is another option beyond the two unappealing extremes:

“Middle-level research.”

Here the [critic] tries to provide answers to questions

posing them less abstractly,

[without the] ruminations and interpretations encouraged by Grand Theory.

This statement certainly sounds plausible.

Though it might have helped if Bordwell had cited an example of so-called “middle-level” research …one scholar, perhaps, that he respects and would suggest?

He leaves the term “middle-level” undefined.

But from the sound of it, Bordwell means either:

Not well-known,

Not of the highest caliber,

Some combination of these two, or

Something else entirely which he does not define.

It is the undercurrent of this essay that is a bit disturbing, pushed down and hidden beneath its ho-hum writing style.

It is as if Bordwell passively observes, and then jots down his observations from an overstuffed Lazyboy in the background.

He defines and categorizes scholarship — on one side, the ridiculous gibberish of charlatans, on another side, the “middle-level” research…

All the while Bordwell sites and watches as the rest of the academics, critics and other fools duke it out.

It’s not that defining and classifying different “schools of Theory” or approaches is problematic.

It’s that Bordwell’s brand of armchair theorizing could do more harm than good.

It encourages — by modeling — a very passive “what does it matter” attitude for his readership.

One can only hope that film critics in the future won’t be so depressingly jaded.

Film critic Gilberto Perez knew how to write about movies, precisely because he loved movies.

Fundamentally, it is not the terminology that is particularly important or interesting to film criticism. Neither is categorizing and labelling.

What is interesting about film criticism?

The movies themselves.

It is easy to forget, when writing about cinema, that one’s appreciation for movies as works of art can (and often should) be separated from the theoretical analyses that go along with it.

We seem to forget sometimes that filmmakers are cinephiles themselves, and with a much larger fan-base to please.

All cinema highlights convergences, cross-overs and influences, reincarnates the “ghosts” of cinemas past, and weaves it all into something entirely new.


Note.

Sadly, Gilberto passed away unexpectedly a few years ago.

Though this turn of events was disheartening at the time — to myself and to the many, many others who were inspired by him — my sadness further propelled me into action.

The caliber of the criticism found in Perez’s writing is rare. It often “fall through the cracks” and disappears.

I hope that this essay does something to ebb the flow of this disappearance.

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