Tag Archives: film criticism

Thumbing Down

Continuing to track the critics who continually track the decline of film criticism, I thought I’d say a word or two about A.O. Scott’s ineffectual apologia, “A Critic’s Place, Thumb and All,” which appeared in this week’s New York Times.

First, a bit about A.O. Scott. I like him. He backs up his assertions, doesn’t let his taste impair his judgment, and he’s pleasant to read. Yes, in my book, that makes A.O. Scott a fair critic. But I don’t think he’s a forceful one. Years from now, I suspect we’ll look on Scott as we do Bosley Crowther, the New York Times’ upper middle-brow status-quo critic of the forties, fifties, and part of the sixties, a man who is remembered less for his voice than his bland, unshakable standards. He was the gold standard of standard criticism.

Now that the whole damn everything about professional film criticism is under siege, Scott has thrown down in favor of (what else?) the critic. He maintains film criticism will be just fine because, as he goes on to explain, criticism is an essential part of the human impulse to debate. He writes,

It is not a profession and does not stand or fall with any particular business model. Criticism is a habit of mind, a discipline of writing, a way of life — a commitment to the independent, open-ended exploration of works of art in relation to one another and the world around them.

Fair enough in theory, but dead wrong in fact. If criticism weren’t a profession, then A.O. Scott would not be paid for the piece I’ve drawn from. And as one of the chief film critics for The New York Times, I think it’s safe to assume he was.

So why diminish his arrangement? Why make a play for the other side? It can only be that Scott is trying to ingratiate himself to the winning team, and to do so, he believes – wrongly, I might add – that he has to deny his own qualifications to leap aboard the blogwagon. For all of his “Everything’s going to be fine” etc., that sounds a lot like surrender to me.

He’s not alone. It has become intensely unfashionable, and even a tad offensive, to assert evidence of one’s own expertise. Long before blogging, when I was in the Liberal Arts racket, students were encouraged to “teach” their teachers in small discussion sections used in adjunct to the main lectures. The underlying idea, that the very notion of “knowledge” (or, to use the term of the day, “hegemony”) was extended to all people, no matter what their background, accomplishments, or IQ, was meant to be a very uplifting thing indeed. All are welcome! All are right! But the fallout is now upon us. A.O. Scott, who I would count among the lecturers, has abdicated to the discussion group. I wish he would go back to the podium.

Because the world of learned criticism is not a democracy. It’s a savage oligarchy.

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Not My Opinion

Last weekend I was at UCLA’s Billy Wilder theater for a screening of Gerald Peary’s documentary, For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism, a story which – spoiler alert – does not end happily.

True, Peary closes the film with a misty-eyed snapshot of Andrew Sarris and Molly Haskell, arm-in-arm, leaving a cozy, small town movie theater, but it’s put there to help us look back, not forward. Looking forward is a much scarier prospect. Thomas Doherty, in his piece, “The Death of Film Criticism,” explains why:

The transfer of film criticism from its print-based platforms (newspapers, magazines, and academic journals) to ectoplasmic Web-page billboards has rocked the lit-crit screen trade. Whether from the world of journalism (where the pink slips are landing with hurricane force) or academe (which itself is experiencing the worst job market since the Middle Ages), serious writers on film feel under siege, underappreciated, and underemployed.

Why buy the cow, in other words, when you can get the kvetch for free? So says the younger generation to the old. “But the kids don’t know the first thing about movies,” replies the golden age. (Or as Richard Schickel said, “What I see of Internet reviewing is people of just surpassing ignorance about the medium expressing themselves on the medium.”) You can see where it goes from here. It’s On Golden Pond meets The Paper Chase. (Charles Laughton plays Schickel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays “The Kid.”)

The septuagenarians are out of touch, says the youth. The youth is under-educated, says the septuas. Of course, these statements are meaningless reductions.

The real problem is the new generation’s misreading of film criticism’s purpose. The new technology is innocent, as is the general drift of the reading-population towards the cheapest-possible (i.e. free) format. That technology is here to stay, so the fogeys should get used to it (Roger Ebert has, and he done beautifully.) What’s torn asunder serious film criticism is the erroneous belief, held by many of the new generation, that critics are there to offer an opinion. And – to follow the logic – because everyone has an opinion, there’s no reason why this arbitrary group should be elevated to the level of special elite.

As a member of the new generation, I have a sense of why this is. Growing up post-modern products of a deconstructionist age, wherein our liberal arts colleges taught us the death of the author has rendered analysis a free-for-all, and each of our $40,000 a year opinions, which can be voiced in break-out study sections, is as uniquely perfect as a snowflake, it’s no wonder that my people are irked by the idea of intellectual authority, especially with respect to pop culture and media, our favorite pastime.

I was there when Academia became est.

Now everything is valid if you “feel” it. Now we “feel” Kubrick’s intention. We “feel” Barry Lyndon was too long. We don’t “think” it’s too long. No, not any more. The democratization of intellectual authority has done away with all that. (How do you feel about that last statement?)

But film critics aren’t there to offer their feelings. They’re there to offer insight. And while every one of us, no matter what our training, can bring thoughtfulness to the understanding of a motion picture, only a select group, who knows their history, their theory, and has a basic understanding of the realities of production, can bring serious, comprehensive intelligence. Feelings are for book groups.

I’m not getting Ayn Rand on you, so let’s be clear. Everyone’s invited. Whether you’re young or old, a blogger or a print journalist, come join the serious conversation. Just leave your opinions in the lobby. Serious film criticism is begging you.

The American Critic

Last night, The New York Film Critics Circle presented Andrew Sarris with their lifetime achievement award for his contribution to film criticism.

If Sarris were to read what I’m about to write, he’d probably chastise me for my excess of enthusiasm (unlike Kael, Sarris was the most sober of critics), and my liberal use of superlatives (unlike John Simon, Sarris never made ostentatious proclamations), but in this case I’m sure there’s no other way to express the tremendous, even overwhelming value of Sarris’ work on those of us who try to think seriously about the movies.

Andrew Sarris is the greatest living film critic. Not only is he the most insightful, the most historically versed, and the strongest writer around, Sarris is singlehandedly responsible for positing the dominant ideology behind American film criticism as it is practiced today. Whether you know it or not, without Sarris – as strange as this sounds – we wouldn’t think of films in terms of directors and writers. We’d think of them as stories performed by glamorous people. And in this case, the “we” applies as much to casual viewers as it does to scholars. Since delivering The Auteur Theory to America – in short, the notion that films, like books, do have authors with unique voices and visions – his book, The American Cinema, has done more than any other to bring this massive, perplexing, frustrating, joyful medium down to size. It’s to interested moviegoers what the OED is to linguists.

When I get up in the morning, I make a cup of coffee, look at my email, and open The American Cinema to a random page and read. Others stretch or do yoga, but to get the day going, I review chance passages of Sarris just to make sure the cinematic thermometer in my mind is properly calibrated. Of course, there’s always more work to be done, always more films to see and reconsider, and never enough to say about The Shop Around the Corner, which is why these morning sessions are rarely easygoing. With The American Cinema in hand, I imagine Sarris sitting atop one of those tall chairs that preside over tennis courts. As I hit the ball over the net and run around to the other side to return it to myself, Sarris is yelling at me to go faster, and hit sharper; he’s urging me not to give up on John Ford, and not to be unduly generous to Billy Wilder. And sometimes his wife, the great critic Molly Haskell, appears beside him, reminding the both of us not to forget things like historical context, the continually changing tide of culture that shapes pictures like oceans shape rocks. That’s when I really start to sweat. Molly reminds me that pictures aren’t made in a vacuum – that even Orson Welles, the most careful and controlling of directors, was subject to his zeitgeist. Surely, that needles Sarris (though he’s heard it many times), and he has to step down from his tall chair to have a few words with Molly in the corner. Lucky for me, their conference gives me time to catch my breath, which I so deeply need because it’s only 9:00 and I haven’t had my coffee. I’ve only read this, by Sarris:

The art of cinema is the art of an attitude, the style of a gesture. It is not so much what as how. The what is some aspect of reality rendered mechanically by the camera. The how is what the French critics designate somewhat mystically as mise-en-scene. Auteur criticism is a reaction against sociological criticism that enthroned the what against the how. However, it would be equally fallacious to enthrone the how against the what. The whole point of meaningful style is that it unifies the what and the how into a personal statement.

Thank you, Andrew (and Molly) for keeping the phonies in their place and making the great ones even better.