Tag Archives: criticism

No More The Book Is Better


I‘m going to make a vow right now to never again say in print or in conversation the words: “The book is better.”

Not because the book isn’t better, not because I don’t think the book is better in many cases, and not because I don’t think it’s ever valuable to compare a film adaptation with its literary original. But because the statement “The book is better” is too easy a gut reaction, too simplistic a critical statement, and too cliched a response. It doubles as an elitist phrase, both revealing that you’ve read the book in question and that you, being literary, prefer it to its pop-art cousin the cinema. Now, of course not everyone who uses the phrase intends those elitist connotations and I don’t mean to suggest that they do.

Instead, when dealing with a film adaptation of a book, I will seek to compare how they differ, what specific things the book did better, and what specific things the film did better. Sometimes I can’t be that specific, because the difference is more ephemeral than that, but I will be specific about that, too, as specific as I can.

I already try to do this, recognizing that the film, though based on an existing work, is also its own work of art and ought to be treated as such rather than merely a copy/shadow of the original. But I will make it explicit. Hold me to this. If any time after today, you hear me say the words “The book is better” or see me write them, call me on it. Remind me to think more carefully about the relationship between the two works, and tell me to rewrite or expand what I wrote.

Film Criticism – Emotional or Analytical?

Jim Emerson has an intriguing post up on his scaners::blog about whether film criticism can be or even should be objective. I’m somewhere in the middle on the issue; like many of the commenters (read the comments, too; a lot of the good discussions is down there), I usually find Roger Ebert’s reviews too high on emotional response, and I have the same problem with Pauline Kael. (The analytical side is apparently covered by J. Hoberman, who I haven’t read enough to comment on myself; and to be fair to Ebert, his essays on criticism itself and on older films are quite good–it’s only the reviews of new films that tend to bother me.) On the other hand, the more I write about film the more I realize that what’s really important to me is the experience of watching the film, often even more than what the film made me think about. The experiential nature of film is largely what Emerson points out in his original post.

I’ve had a couple of people in the last few months mention that they watched a film because I praised it and they didn’t care for it the way I did. I’m sorry about that, but I think it comes down again to the experience. Quoting one of Emerson’s footnotes: “The best reviewers (who may or may not also be critics) share their insights and perspectives on a film so that the reader gets an idea of what they experienced — which is not the same as saying the reader should expect to have an identical one.” I would hardly put myself into the category of “best reviewers,” and I know that those particular reviews were written hurriedly, but this strikes me as exactly right. The best that I can do as a reviewer/critic is tell the experience I had watching the film, acknowledge that it was my experience (colored by my background and personality, as well as perhaps the conditions surrounding my watching of the film)–I can’t guarantee that anyone else would have the same experience, and wouldn’t necessarily want them to. Though I don’t think criticism should be reduced to “this is how the film made me feel,” because some standards of quality DO exist and some analysis of how the film achieves its experiential power is helpful, you can never take the personal out of it. That’s why I dislike critics who try to pretend they aren’t personally involved and thus biased to some degree.

I don’t have much more to say, other than it’s a good post and discussion and you should read it, and then you should add Emerson’s blog to your feedreader, because his blog is uniformly excellent.

Time’s Richard Corliss on Critic’s Awards

The major film critic awards have been trickling out over the past few weeks, most of them honoring the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men and other semi-indie, art-house end of the year releases, prompting Time’s Richard Corliss to wonder “Do Film Critics Know Anything?”. Basically, he likes all the films that won, but thinks perhaps the film critics awards are an exercise in mutual affirmation of the type of films that film critics like, but that average moviegoers haven’t seen and don’t care about. And he’s afraid that the Golden Globes and Oscars are going to follow the film critics’ lead and nominate a bunch of stuff most people haven’t seen. (The Globe nominations came out last week, and he’s mostly right.)

But the Golden Globes and the Oscars, if they follow the critics’ lead, will have V.D.D. — viewer deficit disorder. Large numbers of people won’t watch shows paying tribute to movies they haven’t seen. In the old Golden Age days, most contenders for the top Oscars were popular movies that had a little art. Now they’re art films that have a little, very little, popularity. The serious movies Hollywood gives awards to in January and February are precisely the kind it avoids making for most of the year. The Oscars are largely an affirmative action program, where the industry scratches its niche. The show is a conscience soother, but not a crowd pleaser.

I guess my question is, first, so what? And second, um, so what? The Oscars have been accurate tests of cinematic quality since never; they used to be more populist, as he says, perhaps, but they’re always political. They’re always calculated. He does allow that the film critic groups should pick whatever they want to pick, but then bemoans the fact that *shocker* the rest of the awards might actually listen to critics? We might have fewer craptastic movies coming out of Hollywood if *shocker* the average moviegoer listened to critics. And if we had fewer craptastic movies coming out of Hollywood, maybe then they’d get more awards come award season. Just a thought. (He does mention critically-acclaimed popular films like Knocked Up and how they’ve gotten passed by so far this year…personally I disliked Knocked Up, so…)

Plus, I figure the more small, indie, artsy films that get honored at awards time, the more visibility they have, the more people will go see them, and then more people will learn what sort of cinematic treasures lurk outside the multiplex. (I’m being elitist. I’m sorry, I have to to counter Corliss’s rather odd populism…I like blockbusters too, but they don’t need awards–they get plenty of viewership without them.) It’s the small films that NEED critics to promote them, to bring them to a public consciousness that they won’t get from television and radio ads. And October-January (aka awards-preparation season) is the only time they get highlighted.

I don’t really understand why the Oscar show needs to be a crowd-pleaser. Is Corliss working for the network that’s airing them, trying to figure out how to get them more viewers? If people are only interested in watching the summer blockbusters they loved get awards, there are the People’s Choice Awards, the Blockbuster Awards, the Kid’s Choice Awards, and probably others. Let them watch those telecasts, and leave the Globes and the Oscars for those of us who WANT Julie Christie to win an award for so brilliantly portraying an Alzheimer’s patient (Away from Her), and who WANT the Coen brothers to finally win an Oscar for one of the most cinematically perfect films of the year (No Country for Old Men), and who WANT the innovative French animators who worked on Persepolis to win an Oscar over Pixar (who are awesome, don’t get me wrong, but they already have a bunch of little naked gold men), and who WANT festival fare to do well enough in awards season to get screentime in the areas where we live, since going to festivals isn’t what you might call feasible for a lot of us.

If you ask me, the problem isn’t that art-house films get too much attention at the end of the year awards, but that they don’t get enough attention during the rest of the year. It’s not that the awards aren’t populist enough, but that there’s such an unfortunate audience split between popular and art-house.

Literary Criticism (rant warning)

Literary criticism ruins books. It tears them apart and glues them together again with the critic’s pet theory. It reduces character to symbol and narrative to trope. It increases cynicism and decreases enjoyment. It makes every book about something else. It creates a divide between “critical readers” and ordinary ones and dismisses the latter as naive and therefore worthless. It overanalyzes and deconstructs until there’s nothing left. You would expect literary critics to like literature. But they don’t seem to. They seem to hate it so much that they destroy it and put their theoretical/political agenda in its place.

Clearly I’m not a literary critic. I love literature, and the goal of all of my writing is to encourage people to read more, watch more, understand more, and enjoy more. This doesn’t mean I encourage reading without discretion, but you can read discerningly without reading cynically. I do like understanding, but sometimes I wonder if Claude Monet doesn’t have a point: “People discuss my art and pretend to understand, when it’s simply necessary to love.”

My film criticism hero is Andrew Sarris, who championed the auteur theory in American in the 1960s, getting into a much-publicized critical war with more populist film critic Pauline Kael. He still writes for the Observer, I believe, though he’s no longer the vanguard of film criticism. In 1990, there was a less-publicized critical spat in Film Comment between Richard Corliss (now of Time) and Roger Ebert (of the Chicago Sun-Times and Ebert and Roeper), in which Corliss denounced the reduction of film criticism to thumbs up-thumbs down and watered down reviews and Ebert largely agreed with him, but denied that film criticism was in as bad a state as Corliss thought, or that his television program (then Siskel and Ebert) was such a huge part of the problem. (Interestingly, the same general debate about the state of film criticism is still going on now.) Both Corliss and Ebert mentioned the halcyon days of the film criticism in the 1960s, when the Sarris-Kael debate was Important in a way that neither Corliss nor Ebert saw film criticism being important in the 1990s. So Sarris jumped into the fray in his well-mannered and thoughtful way. That’s all probably unimportant background for the quote I’m about to give, which applies directly to film criticism, but more broadly to criticism in general. (All of this can be found in Alone in the Dark, a collection of Ebert’s writings–he includes the Corliss and Sarris portions of the debate as well as his own.)

The fact that I have always been too much of a journalist for the academics, and too much of an academic for the journalists, makes me especially sensitive to the deplorable noncommunication among various critical camps now on the scene. In this context, Kael and I at our most contentious at least spoke the same language. Nowadays many film departments dominated by semioticians have virtually excommunicated all mainstream film critics from the sacraments of ‘discourses’ and ‘texts.’

What I want to be is a 1960s film critic, straddling academia and journalism…bringing a knowledge of film/literary history and technique to a discipline which is largely meant to inform ordinary people, not other academic people. You can read Sarris and understand him without knowing a lot of technical language–and you’ll appreciate the films you’re watching more if you do. I don’t know if this form of criticism exists anymore, or if anyone wants to either do it or read it except for me. I don’t fit into the world of theoretically-based criticism (even if I do enjoy learning about the history of theory, which I do), because I ultimately care more about the story than about a work’s endorsement or subversion of gender roles. Or racial identity. Or whatever. I ultimately care more about trying to get more people to read literature than about dissecting literature under a microscope. I accept that other people may feel differently, and may enjoy the dissection process. But I hate that my preferred way of approaching literature is considered naive, and that naive is considered lowly and unworthy. Because I refuse to believe that it is. The goal of criticism for me is to promote reading and appreciation, not to advance an agenda, which is what I see so much criticism doing.

This rant has been brought to you by a frustrating day of trying to read the relevant criticism on Zora Neale Hurston’s Seraph on the Suwanee before writing on it myself and being unable to get away from readings which depend entirely on the critic’s race-and-gender-centric agenda. (And I’m not talking fringe critics here, I’m talking the ones who are considered must-read authorities on Hurston’s work.) Literary critics are trying their damnedest to make me hate literature, and today, they’re doing an exceptional job of it. It has prompted several pages of writing in my notebook, but they’re pretty much all about how I hate criticism rather than actual productive work on the paper. (Disclaimer – I am frustrated right now, and I do believe pretty much everything I’ve said in this post, but I know that it’s reactionary and extremist. I don’t hate all criticism, and I think that theory does sometimes serve a useful purpose. It’s just not serving one for me at this moment.)

The Films that Need Critics

I mentioned this several months ago, following…I think , but here is another reminder from the Guardian. The films that get the most coverage by critics are the big Hollywood blockbusters, which would get coverage ANYWAY because of the studio publicity machines. I mean, nobody really needs critics to tell them that Spider-Man 3 is coming out this summer, right? And is a review really going to influence your decision to see it, whether the review is positive or negative? For some fence-sitters, yeah, maybe, but most everyone already knows whether or not they’re the sort of person that’s going to like the third installment of a superhero franchise. Critics would be put to better use highlighting smaller films that might otherwise be missed in the mainstream rush. Not that I’m saying this would make an overnight difference in the audience split between mainstream and indie/foreign film, but even increasing awareness for alternative films would be a help. Plus, wouldn’t it make the critics a lot happier to get to lead with films they actually like and want to see do well than yet another big Hollywood blockbuster? (I’m not against Hollywood blockbusters, but I do get bored with their ubiquity.)

One of the commenters on the Guardian piece does bring up an interesting point, though, that critics get SO excited about the little films sometimes (because they’re different or innovative in a way that Hollywood usually isn’t) that they overhype them too much and thus audiences who do seek out these films are disappointed. I’ve been there, too. It’s a balancing act.