What's the point of movie criticism?by Malcolm Thorndike Nicholson / March 4, 2014 / Leave a comment
Why do critics insist on interpreting even masterpieces like Rear Window as if they were little different to plays that simply happen to be screened in cinemas?
Popular film criticism, a stalwart of newspapers and weekly magazines for nearly a century, is a difficult art. Stray too far into film theory and one risks losing all but a niche audience. Err too closely towards the predictable and the critic begins to sound like any other opinionated member of the audience. We want reviews which tell us something smart and surprising, but we also want to be amused and untaxed.
The internet has made the critic’s job all the more difficult. The variety of online writing on film is almost limitless, with every taste catered for: from disposable fan-kitsch posts about Star Wars and Disney Princesses, to long and insightful blog posts about the actor George Sanders, or the strained production of John Carpenter’s sci-fi classic The Thing. Given this abundance of writing, what audience is left for weekly film critics? What purpose do they still serve?
It is to these questions that Mark Kermode addresses his latest book Hatchet Job (Picador, £16.99). Kermode is a one-man movie-criticism factory. Whether you prefer to read, watch or listen to movie criticism, he has all the bases covered. His blog “Kermode Uncut” provides Youtube-length videos with a distinctively film-nerd sensibility, his BBC Radio 5 show Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review offers a two-hour slice of light-hearted movie chat each week, he is chief film critic for The Observer and he occasionally writes more pensive pieces for Sight and Sound. Such breadth of experience suggests that Kermode would be able to grasp all the gauzy threads that link film, journalism and the internet, and pull together a discernable judgement. Regrettably Hatchet Job falls short.
Kermode vacillates between worrying about being an “elitist” and asserting that film-criticism provides something worthwhile to the public. As a result, he infuses Hatchet Job with a tone that says “don’t mind me, I’m just a regular bloke here who likes movies.” When Kermode comes close to making a claim about the beauty or significance of a film—exactly what we expect from a critic—he often relapses into what is either mock-humility or a genuine paroxysm of self-doubt. After listing his ten favourite films he states, in typical fashion, “either…I’m an excitingly singular voice or (more likely) that I don’t know what I am talking about.”
In case the reader still harboured suspicions that Kermode was some kind of pretentious snob (I didn’t) he makes sure to scatter his prose with what can only be described as hokey Britishisms: “bloody”, “taking the piss”, “snottily mooing”, “thanks very much”, “thank you very much” and “gobshiteness.” He accents these with a few American imports like “hooey”, “baloney” and “doozey.” Perhaps worried that this might be excessive, Kermode makes sure to sneak in a few literary references to remind us that he did indeed go to university. (Indeed, he has a PhD in horror fiction from Manchester University.) He is also fond of asking rhetorical questions: “Or were they?” “Who’s to know?” “What, in brief, is the bloody point?”
These gimmicks add little to his inquiries into the value of criticism and its changing role in the digital age, topics which are already interesting enough. Kermode is reasonably good on this latter theme. He describes the ways in which blogs, which can be constantly updated, drive a culture that is always demanding new news about films and forming judgements about them long before they are even finished. Kermode is particularly sharp on the role Amazon plays in reviewing culture: how pedestrian reviews can be accumulated en masse, how these reviews can affect sales, and how producers mine these reviews and social networks to decide what to finance next. Nowadays movie posters, such as the one for The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, are just as likely to contain glowing reviews from a fan on Twitter as they are respected critics.
So what then is left for the thoughtful film critic to supply? The answers Kermode suggests are otiose. He argues that “the problem with many social media reviews is that they carry no weight because the people who write them have no track record, and therefore have nothing of value invested in their accuracy or honesty.” Surely out of all the qualities possessed by a good critic—knowledge, experience, intelligence, humour, passion—the fact that he or she has a reputation is the least compelling reason to elevate them above the average movie-goer.
There was a storied time when people really did take movies—and movie reviews—seriously, when the internecine struggles between Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris, Stanley Kauffmann, and John Simon spilled out into arguments at countless bars and dinner parties. Not coincidentally, this relentless chattering, applauding and bickering coincided with a particularly brilliant period for American movies. (In 1975 the Oscar nominees for best picture were: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Barry Lyndon, Dog Day Afternoon, Jaws, and Nashville.) Today, passionate debates about culture are more likely to revolve around the sexual politics of Girls or the power struggles in Game of Thrones than the movies. The heat has correspondingly disappeared from writing about film. If there are any burning points of difference between Anthony Lane of the New Yorker and David Edelstein of New York Magazine, they are not readily apparent.
The review blueprint was drawn many years ago. But these days, fewer and fewer people read reviews to find out what a film is about or whether they should go see it—they have Wikipedia and Rotten Tomatoes for that. If critics want to avoid irrelevance, they might relinquish their duties made redundant by the internet, and focus on reviewing film in terms that draw from their deep knowledge of film as a unique artform. Almost every review—whether in newspapers, magazines or websites—currently follows a similar blueprint: plot synopsis, recap of director’s work, brief appraisal of the acting and/or writing, cursory sentence about the camera work and/or score, and then a long dissection of the narrative and themes. Take out a few details and one may as well be reading a theatre or book review.
AO Scott’s recent New York Times review of Hannah Arendt left me with an impression of what the movie was about, how it squared with the real-life philosopher, and how well various themes were developed. It left no clue whatsoever of what it was like as a movie. Scott made no mention of the film’s camera work (which often pulls slowly to a close up in a strained attempt at seriousness and intimacy) or the score (which cudgels the viewer into emotional submission with a few violins and a piano) or the editing (which makes gratuitous use of fading in and out). These coarsely manipulative elements—which made the film seem like a soap opera for people who idly dabble in mid-century philosophy—were just as important to the viewer’s experience of the film as any of the elements Scott discussed. (If you don’t believe me the trailer is a useful microcosm of the film.)
Scott is typical of most “big name” critics in giving too little space to analysing films as films. Take James Wolcott’s witty essay on Hitchcock, which appears in his recent collection Critical Mass. Here he describes Rear Window—which operates on little else than camera angles, framing, distance, panning shots and careful editing to create suspense—as “a big Broadway production transplanted onto a studio set.” Or how about the review of Blue Jasmine by David Edelstein (who is rare among living critics in that he does occasionally write and think in film-related terms). Edelstein adroitly summarises every performance, and film’s connection to Streetcar Named Desire. He might have mentioned the marked absence of many Allen trademarks—his languid tracking shots and swivelling room-capturing pans (Annie Hall, Hannah and her Sisters), elegant composure (Manhattan, Interiors) and rapid-fire virtuoso editing (Sleeper, Love and Death).
I do not mean to suggest that the critics above are not thoughtful or knowledgeable enough about film as an art. Yet the aspects of filmmaking these critics are ignoring are hardly peripheral. They are as crucial to the effect of a movie as brushstrokes and pigment are to a painting. And remembering the question we began with—in the digital age what is left for a critic to supply?—it makes their absence all the more relevant.
It doesn’t follow that critics should suddenly ignore narrative and character development and spend 500 words analysing camera technique; that would be fatally boring, as well as alienating. But reviewing films as if they are stories that merely happen to be told using a camera can often miss the point. Most importantly, the sort of writing we currently lack can, and has, been done successfully before.
Part of what made a writer like Andrew Sarris (he of the “auteur theory”), whose prose is generally drab, a truly memorable critic was his ability to connect some minor play of images to the film as a whole. Here he is, on the great economy with which director John Ford tells a story:
“There is a fantastic sequence in The Searchers involving a brash frontier character played by Ward Bond. Bond is drinking some coffee in a standing-up position before going out to hunt some Comanches. He glances toward one of the bedrooms, and notices the women of the house tenderly caressing the army uniform of her husband’s brother. Ford cuts back to a full-faced shot of Bond drinking his coffee, his eyes tactfully averted from the intimate scene… the delicacy of emotion expressed here in three quick shots, perfectly cut, framed, and distanced, would completely escape the dulled perception of our more literary-minded film critics.”
Similarly Roger Ebert—who matched the brilliance, wit, and lucidity of Kael with Sarris’s eye for editing and camerawork—is at his best when he explains precisely how something as simple as the height of the camera shapes our experience of a film. In his review of Yasujiro Ozu’s 1959 film Floating Weeds:
“Ozu doesn’t dart from one plot point to another. He uses his famous visual style to allow us to contemplate and inhabit the action. The camera is always a little lower than the characters; when they are seated on tatami mats, it is only a few feet from the floor. This brings a kind of stature to their ordinariness. Between scenes, he often cuts to “pillow shots”—two or three quiet compositions, showing an architectural detail, a banner in the wind, a tree or the sky. His camera never moves. No pans. No tracking shots. There are not even any dissolves; just cuts between one composition and the next. This is very contemplative. We are prompted to look and involve ourselves, instead of simply reacting.”
David Thomson—who may well be the Dr Johnson of film—in his monumental and expansive The Biographical Dictionary of Film is at his best when he pauses on an image and exposes its poetry. If you’ll excuse one more extended quotation, about Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu (1953):
“[it] ends with Mizoguchi’s serene camera craning up from a shot of Genjuro’s son at his mother’s grave to a view of fields beyond being tilled. It is one of the most moving shots in all cinema: the rise of the camera expressing subdued hope and human transience: death and life in one image show the harmony of tragedy and happiness.”
What Sarris, Ebert, and Thomson demonstrate is that it is possible to connect a knowledge of the art of filmmaking—lighting, camera movement, framing, editing, sound, all those elements that a casual movie-goer is not likely to consciously register—with the overall effectiveness of a movie. And it is this very trait which makes their writing still worth revisiting, even after seeing the movie. Mainstream critics will never have the same kind of audience they had 30 years ago: they no longer serve the once-vital role of reportage and summary. This is a blessing. They can now do what critics do best; which Kael captured better than I could when she wrote: “He is a good critic if he helps someone understand more about the work than they could see for themselves; he is a great critic, if by his understanding and feeling for the work, by his passion, he can excite people so that they want to experience more of the art that is there, waiting to be seized.”