It was a big day for first times: Friday marked the first day of the first annual First Time Fest, a festival exclusively focused on debut features (including those from newcomers in the festival’s competition and older ones from established filmmakers like honorees Darren Aronofsky and Martin Scorsese). The event kicked off this morning with a panel titled “The Critical Eye” moderated by Time Out New York’s Joshua Rothkopf and featuring Indiewire’s Eric Kohn, Slate’s Dana Stevens, and Scott Foundas, who recently left his position as the associate programmer of the Film Society of Lincoln Center to become the chief film critic at the Village Voice. The discussion focused on the relationship between critics and first-time filmmakers, with particular emphasis on the role of the critic as an advocate to give the film to an audience, but it also touched on larger issues within the critical world. A few highlights follow.
For these critics, stumbling upon a great debut is one of more exciting experiences they’ve had. If you are at a festival, instead of going to a big-name film, critics often try their luck with something new. When Kohn did that recently at Sundance, he wound up being the first critic to review “Escape From Tomorrow,” which went on to generate controversy and questions of legality in the New York Times and many other publications. A debut naturally comes with less expectations than a film by an acclaimed director, the critics agreed, and that makes them all the more worth seeking out.
The critic’s responsibility is to the art and the audience, not to the director. Critics aren’t responsible for protecting the feelings of a director, but they’re similarly not required to be bullies, as Kohn said; in his case, he rarely goes out of his way to give a film a negative review if the prospective audience is hardly there in the first place. Similarly, Stevens, who was not a fan of “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” nevertheless considered the film a noble attempt and encouraged viewers to see it in order to be part of the conversation. Foundas pointed out that the first-feature context shouldn’t necessarily have a bearing on a critic’s reaction. “That’s a terrible excuse,” he said. “[The fact that] it’s low-budget isn’t much better.” Still, the panelists agreed that there are plenty of great low budget films and plenty of great first films, much more than there are great second films, or great third films, or great last films. In fact, Rothkopf noted that when Time Out New York has reviewed films that are four-walled (that is, rented out by the filmmakers), he has received emails thanking him for legitimizing their time and effort, even when the reviews are mixed. But that’s not why TONY reviews the films; the magazine attempts to cover all New York films in new release.
To cultivate an audience, it’s important to write about different kind of movies. If you write exclusively about independent films, foreign films, studio tentpoles, or other specific categories, it can feed the notion that nobody is able to appreciate all of them. It also suggests extreme tendencies among viewers — that arthouse movies only appeal to “intellectuals” while studio films are geared toward “the masses.” Stevens advocated a “one for you, one for me” approach in choosing what she reviews. In other words, if you write about “Jack The Giant Slayer” and “Leviathan” right next to each other, Foundas said, it implies that these films can co-exist: Putting a big release next to a small one legitimizes both efforts and encourages readers to seek out different types of films.
Similarly, critics attempt to make connections as a means of “smuggling” films to readers’ attention. Kohn said that when “Skyfall” and “Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning” were released the same weekend — one in theaters, the other on VOD — this review introduced the latter film to many people who would not have seen it otherwise. “Skyfall” had the brand name recognition, but it also became an access point for certain readers to an entirely different film. Likewise, critical readings of Pablo Larrain’s earlier films pointed out that they were parables about Augusto Pinochet’s regime, which helped pique interest in the movies and pave the way for the director’s Oscar-nominated “No.“
Many successful directors have disowned their first films. Foundas pointed out that this issue was brought to light recently with Stephen Chbosky’s Best First Feature Spirit Award win for “Perks of Being A Wallflower.” Chbosky actually directed “The Four Corners Of Nowhere” about 17 years earlier but had since disowned the film, starting anew once more. You might call that cheating, but he isn’t the first. For Stanley Kubrick, it was “Fear and Desire”; for Todd Solondz, it was “Fear, Anxiety & Depression.”