Reading David Bordwell’s series of posts on criticism in the 1940s made me want to dive back into reading criticism, so I’ve pulled my copy of American Movie Critics back out (I’d previously made it into the middle of the Ferguson section) and started over, because I don’t remember any of it anyway. I figured I’d chronicle my way through it, starting with the introduction and going section by section.
First up, the introduction by the anthology’s editor Phillip Lopate. He gives a broad historical overview of film criticism in general – the historical flow of it from enthusiasts talking about a medium that got no respect, to the golden age of the 1960s and to the modern era, when many claim film criticism is dead. It’s also a good intro to what criticism is, from the perspective of weekly reviewing and the kinds of broader insight that really great weekly critics like Agee, Farber, Kael, Ebert, and Dargis are able to draw within a context that can easily devolve into cursory consumer reports. I’m on record as not particularly liking reviews (or reading them unless I’ve seen the film, a prejudice I’ll have to put aside to read this book), but what critics like these do transcends reviews. That said, I’m still looking more forward to the excerpts that are wider-ranging, like Kael’s famous treatise on Trash Cinema.
Here are some passages from the introduction I found particularly thought-provoking.
On film criticism as a field
This anthology attempts to uncover the narrative by which the field [of film criticism] groped its way from the province of hobbyists and amateurs to become a legitimate profession.
Is there a follow-up anthology that uncovers the narrative by which it returned to the realm of hobbyists and amateurs, because that’s where we are now. No, but seriously, he’s referring to the fact that many of the earliest people writing about film (aside from studio publicists and arts critics bemoaning it) were people in other fields who simply loved films or found them culturally intriguing and wrote about them on the side. The first few selections are like this, from poet Vachel Lindsay to playwright Robert Sherwood to psychologist Hugo Munsterberg. But now I wonder if we aren’t falling into that realm again, as finding paying work as a film critic is more and more improbable, and most people writing about film on the internet are enthusiasts rather than professionals. That’s not to say there isn’t great writing out there from enthusiasts, but let’s face it, film criticism as a day job is fading fast.
On Otis Ferguson and classic Hollywood
The first working film critic who put it all together, it seems to me, was Otis Ferguson of The New Republic. What Ferguson “got,” while so many other critics of his day were busy lamenting the low level of American movies, was the genius of the Hollywood system, the almost invisible craft and creativity of the average studio movie. He singled out the eccentric artistry of a Jimmy Cagney, Fred Astaire, Mae West, Walt Disney, Alfred Hitchcock, Humphrey Bogart, as well as the quiet virtues of foreign films. Then unfortunately he died, torpedoed while in the Navy in World War II.
What struck me about this is that our current narrative of film history is incredibly shaped by the development of the auteur theory in 1950s France, which we see as rescuing what was previously thought mediocre Hollywood studio product through the lionization of certain directors – Hawks, Ford, etc. I haven’t read the Ferguson section yet, but it sounds like a rediscovery of his criticism in mainstream film culture would uncover a much earlier appreciation for Hollywood product centered on the stars. To be honest, this is how a lot of classic film lovers operate today (and probably have always operated). I try to kind of combine appreciation for stars AND directors, and I certainly agree that the studio system at the time had a certain kind of genius – though there were bad movies to be sure, I personally find bad movies from the studio era much more watchable than bad movies of today.
On Manny Farber and evaluation
Manny Farber once told an interviewer that as a critic he found the role of evaluation “practically worthless. The last thing I want to know is whether you like it or not; the problems of writing are after that. I don’t thing it has any importance; it’s one of those derelict appendages of criticism. Criticism has nothing to do with hierarchies.” For Farber, it would seem, the job of the film critic was not necessarily to render a judgement, but to stage in print a processing of his complicated thoughts about a movie, in the attempt to understand better what he made of it. [xxii]
Farber’s quote is astoundingly close to my evolving view on criticism and evaluation. More on that in a later post, I PROMISE (I know, I’ve been promising it for a while now – I haven’t had a solid block of time to work on it yet, which I need). I was actually originally drawn to studying film (and literature, since that’s what my degree is in) partially as a means to gain the vocabulary to articulate what I felt and thought seeing a film – a way to understand my own reactions to filmed and written work. I’m not sure that’s entirely it anymore, but I am much more interested in honing in on the specific things about a film that I find interesting rather than be beholden to evaluating the whole. I once would’ve considered description of what’s in a film to be a lower goal than critical evaluation of it, but I’m not sure that’s true anymore – capturing the vitality of what it’s like to watch a film, and the far-reaching implications of what’s on screen now seem far more important than rendering judgement.
On the critic as reviewer
In his essay ‘A Critical Credo,’ John Simon asks: “What constitutes good criticism? Perhaps it is easier to begin by defining the commonest kind of bad criticism, which is not criticism at all, but reviewing. Reviewing is something that newspaper editors have created: it stems from the notion that the critic is someone who must see with the eyes of the Average Man or Typical Reader (whoever that is) and predict for his fellows what their reaction will be. To this end, the newspapers carefully screen their reviewers to be representative common men, say, former obituary writers or mail room clerks, anything but trained specialists.” [xxiii]
Heh, and here’s a rather more polemical attack on reviewing, which I’m also on the record as not liking. This quote is from 1967, which is interesting, as the 1960s were the heydey of film criticism and a lot of the leading critics were also weekly reviewers. I’d say the view that critics should be Everyman is even more pervasive today, as the Internet has given a voice to plenty of Average Moviegoers (aka Rotten Tomatoes commenters) who lash out angrily every time a critic dislikes a populist film. Over and over we hear that critics are out of touch with audiences, that they don’t deserve their jobs if they can’t enjoy a mindless blockbuster, that the best critics are those that match the tastes of the overall moviegoing population. Sorry, but John Simon is right. Good criticism, real criticism, isn’t about predicting what you as an individual will like or even what the masses will like. Good criticism is about placing a film within a context of actual and cinematic history, understanding what it’s doing (and how it’s doing it, and how well it’s doing it) and its cinematic, historical, social, and political contexts, and doing all that in a readable and interesting way. But ultimately, it’s an experienced moviegoer relating their personal experiences with a film in written form.
On the critic as a human being
Third, the film critic is also a human being, who brings to the job all sorts of autobiographical quirks. Some critics willingly insert personal details in the midst of analyzing a movie, and we come to form an intimate picture of them. […] Renata Adler, preparing herself to become the New York Times critic, commented: “The best criticism I read was still by writers who simply felt moved by film to say something about it – without reverent or consistent strategies, putting films idiosyncratically alongside things they cared about in other ways.” Paradoxically, the really good film critic has to show an interest in something else besides movies; a well-stocked mind remains the mark of the true essayist. [xxiv]
That personal experience is the lynchpin in this last quote. Every critic brings his or her own baggage, and no good one will claim pure objectivity. A purely objective critic would be pretty boring to read, anyway. I like the observation that the best critics relate film to other things they enjoy – nothing exists in a vacuum. Films conjure up thoughts of other films, of music, of literature, of memories, of life. Those things belong in film criticism. They’re part of how we experience a film.