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Sight & Sound Praises 25 Great Female Film Critics

Sight & Sound Praises 25 Great Female Film Critics

In honor of International Women’s Day, Sight & Sound has put together a list of 25 important female film critics from the silent era to the present, with an excerpt from one of each writer’s best pieces included. The list was put together by a number of notable film critics, journalists and programmers like Ginette Vincendeau, Jonathan Romney, Pamela Hutchinson, and Jonathan Rosenbaum. The full list includes:

1. Djuna Barnes
2. Iris Barry
3. Marjorie Bilbow
4. Anne Billson
5. Bryher
6. Carol J. Clover
7. Pam Cook
8. Penelope Gilliatt
9. Molly Haskell
10. bell hooks
11. Penelope Houston
12. Fannie Hurst
13. Dina Iordanova
14. Pauline Kael
15. CA Lejuene
16. Hilary Mantel
17. Kathleen Mason
18. Laura Mulvey
19. Dilys Powell
20. B. Ruby Rich
21. Nerina Shute
22. Susan Sontag
23. Amy Taubin
24. Claude-Marie Tremois
25. Judith Williamson

The most recognizable name on the list, Pauline Kael, is still one of the two or three most influential film critics in the history of the medium. Nick Pinkerton writes:

Like most people who only find professional success in middle-age, Kael took nothing for granted, and she left everything on a mat—like Norman Mailer, she gave her every dispatch the character of heroic performance. She didn’t stop with a movie until she’d wrung everything that she could out of it, and such excess made her a duck-in-a-barrel target for a more skeletal stylist like Renata Adler, author of the most prominent of the innumerable demolition jobs that have been launched against the Unsinkable Kael.

Rather than picking one of Pinkerton’s most famous reviews, like her raves for “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Last Tango in Paris,” he chose her review of Marguerite Duras’ “The Trucl.”

“Small and bundled up, her throat covered, her unlined moon face serene, half-smiling, Duras reads aloud the script of a film… Hers is the only performance, and there has never been anything like it: controlling the whole movie visibly, from her position on the screen as creator-star, she is so assured that there is no skittish need for makeup, no nerves, quick gestures, tics. The self-image she presents is that of a woman past deception; she has the grandly simple manner of a sage. Unhurriedly, with the trained patience of authority, she tells the story of her movie-to-be about the woman hitchhiker… [The Truck] is spiritual autobiography, a life’s-journey, end-of-the-world road movie; it’s a summing up, an endgame.

Molly Haskell is another luminary, her book “From Reverence to Raple” standing as one of the finest feminist books about film (she was also married to Andrew Sarris, and what cinephile wouldn’t want to sit at that dinner table?). Miriam Bale writes:

But Haskell’s work outside of that is just as strong. She’s one of the greatest living critics and stylists, with a wide-ranging curiosity and a lyrical depth to her prose. One particular collection of her work to single out is “Holding My Own in No Man’s Land, which includes her Ms. magazine article on “rape fantasy” and an article on women’s comedy in the 90s (covering the TV series “Roseanne” and “Absolutely Fabulous”) that includes this memorable line: ”Women’s comedy is the continuation of consciousness-raising by other means.”

Bale includes an excerpt from Haskell’s book “Love and Other Infectious Diseases,” about a life-threatening illness Sarris went through and how movies worked as “the glue to their relationship.” On “The Searchers”:

When I looked over at Andrew, barely watching, I felt an added frisson as I watched that ending. Heretofore, I had always identified with Wayne, the aggressor-hero, but this time I felt, like the Natalie Wood character, that unconscious pull toward surrender and annexation. In this duet, I was suddenly the reclaimed daughter, embraced and forgiven by a father whom she had “dishonored.” Andrew and I had long defended Wayne against the derisive oversimplification of the Left: he was a quintessential movie actor, his career full of subtleties and tensions, quiet brushstrokes, that contradicted the flag-waving jingoistic image ascribed to him, but I know too that on the instinctual level, I was drawn to him because of his resemblance to my father, with whom he shared that mix, not as contradictory as we would like it to be, of masculine arch-conservatism and an almost feminine gentleness.

Of course, women were a vital force in film criticism from the earliest days of cinema. Pamela Hutchinson writes about CA Lejeune, one of the first newspaper film critics (for the Manchester Guardian).

For four decades, Lejeune addressed the public, in witty, sharp weekly despatches first for the Guardian and then the Observer. She loved European art films, and embraced her sentimental side, but was resistant to slapstick and wary of films that tried to exploit the audience. Her passion was expressed both in her joy at a well-crafted picture and her scolding of film-makers who fell below her expectations. She was an early champion of Hitchcock, and his friend too, but she reprimanded him in newsprint whenever she felt he promoted his cleverness at the expense of his humanity.

One of Lejeune’s best pieces was an open letter to herself addressing her own weaknesses as a critic:

You are not altogether without discrimination; you can distinguish as well as any of us the good films from the bad. But with you judgment and enjoyment seem not to go necessarily hand in hand, and I have caught you many times whispering to my readers to leave the clever stuff alone, to come round the corner with you and have some fun. You agree with me that Hitchcock is the best director in England, and L’Herbier the best director in France, and Wiene one of the best directors in Germany, but you have never displayed, to my knowledge, any intimate pleasure in their films.

There are too few black women represented in criticism, and Sophie Mayer draws attention to the work of Gloria Jean Watkins, better known by the lower-cased pen name bell hooks.

Alongside her critique of liberal American cinema’s blindspots, most famously of Tarantino’s ‘white cool’, hooks has developed a unique conversational critical practice highlighting and contextualizing experimental and alternative black cinema. Revisiting her exchange with Julie Dash, two decades after Dash’s film Daughters of the Dust became the first fiction feature by an African American woman to receive US distribution, it’s poignant to realize that their shared vision of black mythic memory is still struggling to make its way into the mainstream – but thrilling to listen in on their shared passion for that vision.

hooks speaks to filmmaker Julie Dash about “Daughters of the Dust,” the first film directed by an African-American woman that was distributed in the U.S.:

It’s interesting that whenever an artist takes a kind of mythic universe and infuses it with aspects of everyday reality, like the images of women cooking, often the cinema audience in this society just isn’t prepared. So few of the articles that I’ve read about “Daughters of the Dust” talk about the mythic element in the film, because, in fact, there is this desire to reduce the film to some kind of historical accuracy. It is relevant for moviegoers to realize that you did ten years of research for this film – but the point was not to create some kind of documentary of Gullah, but to take that factual information and infuse it with an imaginative construction…

Finally, it is worth noting that Sight & Sound admits that this only works as a sample, not as a comprehensive list. With that in mind, here are some noteworthy pieces from a few great contemporary female critics:

-Miriam Bale on “Maps to the Stars”

-Zeba Blay on her podcast “Two Brown Girls,” talking “Empire,” Anthony Mackie and More

-Teo Bugbee on “Obvious Child” and Hollywood’s backward stance on abortion

-Manohla Dargis on women in Hollywood

-Marya E. Gates on a year of watching films by and about women

-Tina Hassannia on “Nightcrawler’s” depiction of capitalism

-Inkoo Kang on Hollywood making movies to appeal to the Chinese

-Genevieve Koski on Hollywood’s “female stuff” problem

-Karina Longworth’s “You Must Remember This” podcast on Madonna and Sean Penn

-Kim Morgan on John Garfield

-Farran Nehme on Charles Laughton

-Sheilla O’Malley on Marion Cotillard in “Two Days, One Night”

-Kiva Reardon interviews Julie Taymor

-Tasha Robinson on there being no right age for “Aliens”

-Dana Stevens on watching movies with her daughter

-Alison Willmore on the Oscars substituting self-awareness for change

-Stephanie Zacharek on “John Wick” restoring her faith in violent movies

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Comments

terry

Penelope Gilliatt is the best among them. Her criticism goes to the marrow. See her reviews of Godard, Antonioni’s The Passenger, Ingmar Bergman, Felliini, Robert Altman, etc. She wrote probative, serious, and often very, very witty criticism. Kael stabbed her through the back repeatedly, and Kael’s lies are now the stuff of legend. She was disloyal, a liar, and she hid that Cary Grant was bisexual, even as Brendan Gill, a New Yorker writer and editor, called out for it in the pages of the magazine. Gill and his wife proved Grant a bedroom in their apartment to have sex. He knew Kael lied through omission and said she had lied and distorted the historical record of film. Kael couldn’t have cared less. AS William Shawn said of Kael,"She’s completely corrupted." Kakel’s hyperbolic, superficial and shallow writing is already being judged lower with each passing year. Gilliatt was her superior in every possible way.

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