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Film Critics in Focus, Again: New Theories, No Consensus

Photo of Bryce J. Renninger By Bryce J. Renninger | feelingsoblahg.blogspot.com April 2, 2010 at 5:43AM

At the arrival of art criticism into a new medium, the sirens inevitably sound. And as the preferred mode for reading film criticism continues to move online and full-time critics for reputable print publications head into the freelancing world, many people, full-time critics and freelancers, who get paid for the criticism are meditating on their craft. Detailing the landscape for the debate is A.O. Scott in his new New York Times piece A Critic’s Place, Thumb and All.
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At the arrival of art criticism into a new medium, the sirens inevitably sound. And as the preferred mode for reading film criticism continues to move online and full-time critics for reputable print publications head into the freelancing world, many people, full-time critics and freelancers, who get paid for the criticism are meditating on their craft. Detailing the landscape for the debate is A.O. Scott in his new New York Times piece A Critic’s Place, Thumb and All.

"Maybe criticism mattered once, but the conventional wisdom insists that it doesn’t any more," A.O. Scott writes this week, in a piece to be published in print this weekend but that was released online the other day. "There used to be James Agee, and now there is Rotten Tomatoes. Rotten movies routinely make huge sums of money in spite of the demurral of critics. Where once reasoned debate and knowledgeable evaluation flourished, there are now social networking and marketing algorithms and a nattering gaggle of bloggers." But ever so fair and balanced, Scott continues to muse, "Or — to turn the picture on its head — a remnant of over-entitled old-media graybeards are fighting a rear-guard action against the democratic forces of the Internet, clinging to threadbare cultural authority in the face of their own obsolescence. Everyone’s a critic! Or maybe no one is."

In his piece for The Chronicle of Higher Education, Thomas Doherty cited a quote from Agee to make his point that he fears losing a particular brand of film criticism, the thoughtful kind, the kind that might even involve giving a film a second look or critical take. Starting with the quote from Agee, Doherty argued, "'The Italian made 'Shoeshine' is about as beautiful, moving, and heartening a film as you are ever likely to see,' he confided to his readers in 1947, in full swoon over Italian neo-Realism. 'I will review it when I am capable of getting more than that into coherent language and feasible space.' Coherent language within feasible space—words to write by, even when the prose is no longer bound by linear rhetoric and finite column inches. The demise of that tradition of film criticism would really suck."

David Bordwell, a superstar in film history and theory, aimed to push the discussion away from just talking about the most popular film criticism, what he called "rapid-response reviewing." He noted that film criticism "includes what we might call haute journalism, as practiced in literary quarterlies, film magazines like Cineaste and Cinema Scope, and even occasionally in the New York Review of Books (which just got around to noticing Sokurov’s 2005 'The Sun'). There’s also reseach-based criticism, published in specialized venues like Cinema Journal and in semi-specialized journals like Film Quarterly (which seems to be moving toward haute journalism). And of course academics have written whole volumes of film criticism—through-composed books, not collections of published reviews."

Bordwell offered a few suggestions to push the conversation in new directions: "Insofar as we think of criticism as evaluation, we need to distinguish between taste (preferences, educated or not) and criteria for excellence." Responding to the assumption that film criticism should foster a love of films, he said, "Enough with the love, already." And finally, "Opinions need balancing with information and ideas."

It's this last point that frequent indieWIRE contributor Eric Kohn focused on in his view of film criticism published recently in Moving Pictures. He argued for the importance of publications' full-time critics, saying, "A professional film critic knows movies and understands the world they inhabit. A professional film critic believes that movies exist in a constant struggle between art and commerce; he must take note of this and defy it. If he can do that, a professional critic is also unrelentingly honest. Therefore, a financial investment in a professional film critic symbolizes dedication to the perseverance of truth."

Framing his discussion of film criticism around the recent cancellation of his "At the Movies" television show, A.O. Scott mused about the show's sparring and how it showed off his strength in diplomacy: "'One minute for the cross-talk, guys,' the producer would say, using the show’s term of art for the back-and-forth that follows the scripted reviews. How can you do a movie justice in 60 seconds? You can’t, of course — or in 800 words of print or in a blog post — but you can start a conversation, advance or rebut an argument, and give people who share your interest something to talk about. And that kind of provocation, that spur to further discourse, is all criticism has ever been. It is not a profession and does not stand or fall with any particular business model. Criticism is a habit of mind, a discipline of writing, a way of life — a commitment to the independent, open-ended exploration of works of art in relation to one another and the world around them. As such, it is always apt to be misunderstood, undervalued and at odds with itself. Artists will complain, fans will tune out, but the arguments will never end."

The debates over relevance sprout up all the time, motivated by various (and perhaps unlikely) figures in culture. For instance, Kevin Smith recently decided that his new film "Red State" will not be screened for free in advance for critics. This in response to the critical bashing of Smith's latest film "Cop Out." While admitting she liked "Cop Out," LA Weekly's Karina Longworth juxtaposed Smith's outlook with those of critics.

In the end, we get a few more views on the relevance of the craft. As Smith says those that pay for tickets have the only relevant opinion, critics wonder if he's afraid of criticism, if he realizes the financial status of a critic, and if he values the act of talking critically about art at all. In this new turn of events, we have a few new theories on relevance but no consensus.





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