Friday, August 26, 2011

Film Criticism, Inspiration, Trash and Art: 2011 Summer Films, Part 3

"While the goal of all movies is to entertain, the kind of film in which I believe goes one step further. It compels the spectator to examine one facet or another of his own conscience. It stimulates thought and sets the mental juices flowing."--the late Sidney Lumet
Do Film Critics still matter?  In spite of a growing number of films that rake in millions in spite of critics' misgivings; in spite of large segments of the moviegoing public who were raised on mindless cinema, and have fallen prey to the artless and cynical machinations of a film industry that seems intent (at least all summer) on removing the last vestiges of human sensitivity from our movie screens---

Yes!  I do believe film criticism matters.  Good film critics are the stewards of the best that cinema can give us.  They stand defiant against the willful infantilizing of movies, and are a voice of reason in the preservation of a popular art form that thinks it must devolve into a crude, ignorant amusement park to survive.  The words of Sidney Lumet above speak to the universal pleasures of moviegoing.  Good movie critics, deep down, believe Lumet's words in their own way, create their own philosophy, and apply it to their view of what's on the screen.

Here is a final reflection on the state of popular film, and the role of film criticism, in view of an overall lackluster 2011 Summer movie season.

Of course there were a few bright spots, if you were lucky enough to live near a large city, and  able to fight traffic, and ante up the premium ticket prices, for the privilege of watching movies that aimed higher and honored the emotions and intellect of its audience. 

My bright spots: Terrrence Malick's ethereal history of the universe by way of a small-town family; a Korean poet overcoming Alzheimer's disease; a difficult, challenging parable of twins who must honor their Mothers' dying wish; Danish schoolboys learning life's lessons about loyalty and revenge; a dreamy, meditative wonder from Thailand; and of course, a fairy tale by Woody Allen.  Most recently, something crazy, stupid and lovable (a review in an upcoming post).

It is my privilege, also, to have found writers in the blogosphere who not only embrace contemporary trends, and from whom I learn quite a bit; but who also care about great film, and regardless of the era,  find relevance and universal themes and emotional resonance in "classics" (these days, anything older than, say five years). Many novice filmgoers and bloggers dismiss these movies that "appeal to older people" as insignificant, clinging to an immature belief that only technology and noise are cool. 

Mature film critics contribute to the humanities, and struggle to achieve an understanding of the human condition or gain an elevated sense of beauty in all its possibilities. They seek that in all arts, even as they are entertained, and require nothing less from film.  Great critics can appreciate and sometimes enjoy inept or shallow work that is otherwise harmless, but will not stand for portrayals of degradation for their own sake.

The bloggers I follow regularly are true critics in fact and spirit. They have matured in their outlook on film, and its relation to the world in which we live.  Many of these same bloggers express dismay in their inability to find new films that truly interest them.

We all love to go to the movies, especially in the summer. I long for summer days when I am excited every week by one or two films that will stoke my passion for movies that feeds on itself all year.  It saddens me to see writers and movie-lovers with such promise feel depressed about an art form that should be immensely pleasurable.

Good film critics understand their own unique point of view and infuse their reviews with it proudly.  Good critics often stand alone in their observation that, in spite of the disagreeing roar of the masses , the Emperor has no clothes.  Sometimes great critics feel isolated when speaking their truth about films that have everyone else abuzz. First and foremost should be the work itself. Things like awards and cult-followings are snapshots of cultural history, and window-dressing. Critics with integrity know this.

A good, fair critic makes reasonable criticisms and can support them with examples from the work, or an effective rationale for one's feelings based on experience.  Bitchy critics can be fun, but it's too easy to go for the insult, especially as an anonymous reviewer on-line.

Good film critics also champion for films that aspire to show humanity in its highest evolution and give us something beautiful.  Or, if films portray the world's sororow and ugliness, good gritics will praise those that don't simply leave us to wallow, or exploit our baser instincts, but provide the catharsis that cleanses our cluttered life-paths. 

Good film critics try to understand film and its relation to culture, pop or otherwise. They are good students of other arts, and know how to apply that knowledge for a deeper understanding of those films that deserve the comparisons.  They are also are astute vessels of film history, and understand  the differences between homage, update, re-imagining, and rip-off. 

Good critics have fun at the movies. They are able to look deeply into a film and extract elements for discussion, and reflect them back onto the work, apply them to the movement of culture, or take away a life lesson or new point of view.  Great film critics can have a "running conversation" with the film and the filmmakers.

They refuse to fall victim to the exploitations of the Industry, and often can recognize the elements of a film that will not appeal to them (like reading ingredients on a food label and avoiding what one dislikes, or is even sickened by.) 

That's why many of us have had that lonely, left-out feeling during the 2011 Summer Season.

A great critic writes well.  He or she can use words to do what is often only possible in sound and image: describe their unique experience of the film, and make the reader "see" the movie as though for the first time.  Whether you agree or disagree with a film critic, you will always come away with vivid images and feelings from the movie.

Those mature film essayists that are able to rise above the babel that on-line movie-writing has become, can influence the kinds of films that eventually get made or distributed. Or, at least, can convince reasonable moviegoers to think differently about the films they see, and the moviegoing choices they make.

Great film critics enhance one's enjoyment of being a movie-lover.  They help us see differently. They can also confirm our own views, and articulate them almost better than we can.  They also help us give voice to our disagreements with them, and thus strengthen our points of view.

Sometimes a great work of art hangs on a gallery wall, available for all to see, and does not always get noticed, or understood by a common viewer. But one who is touched and moved by that work has experienced an aesthetic pleasure for a lifetime.  Film criticism can create its own aesthetic.  It is an art form unto itself.  Good critics matter. They must keep on, and elevate movie making and moviegoing to the highest levels of honesty, entertainment, and enlightenment.

I want to close with another tribute to my all-time favorite critic, Pauline Kael. In 1968, she wrote a 40+-page essay called "Trash, Art, and the Movies", which influenced professional critics and amateur moviegoers for decades. 

When I  despair of ever becoming an influential critic, or give up on all hope of movies ever being great, I am inspired by some of Kael's words here. Of course, I violently disagreed with a lot of the essay.  But she made such a good case that I was able to create my own manifesto, which evolves regularly. I will come back to this essay in the future, as I struggle with the art of film criticism. For now, I leave you with these words from Kael:

"A good movie can take you out of your dull funk and the hopelessness that so often goes with slipping into a theater; a good movie can make you feel alive again, in contact... Good movies make you care, make you believe in possibilities again.  If somewhere in the Hollywood-entertainment world someone has managed to break through with something that speaks to you, then it isn't all corruption.  The movie doesn't have to be great; it can be stupid and empty and still you can have the joy of a good performance, or the joy of just a good line... Sitting there alone or painfully alone because those with you do not react as you do, you know there must be others perhaps in this very theater...or surely in other theaters in this city, now, in the past or future, who react as you do.  And because movies are the most total and encompassing art form we have, these reactions can seem the most personal and, maybe the most important, imaginable...

"If we've grown up at the movies, we know that good work is continuous not with the academic, respectable tradition but with the glimpses of something good in trash, but we want the subversive gesture carried to the domain of discovery. Trash has given us an appetite for art."
~from "Going Steady: Film Writings 1968-1969", Pauline Kael


  1. Hi Tom,

    I'm loving your posts on the summer of 2011, however I think you're overstating the influence of critics to the general public either now or in the past.

    Ultimately audiences will go to see the film that is sold the best. Whether that happens to be one that critics think is good (lets say Inception) or one that critics think is bad (um, Transformers) is largely irrelevant. The audience make their decisions based on the trailers, the marketing (volume as well as quality) and what everyone agrees to watching.

    Of course the trouble is that mediocre films are sold extremely well, especially during the heights of summer, and the studios are so used to putting all their award friendly options out in the last couple of months of the year that they afraid to use them to counter-programme.

    Of course I do agree about everything you have to say about how to distinguish great critics.

    I think, based on your recent posts, that I can recommend the latest book by British critic Mark Kermode ( which looks precisely at the issue you're discussing.



  2. Ben, thank you for your thoughtful comments! I will be sure to look at Kermode's book, which you kindly recommended.

    Film Critics at one time did have a noticable influence. At least, Kael greatly influenced me! (grin)

    Seriously though, Kael's now-famous review of "Bonnie and Clyde" helped to save it from obscurity (leading to an American movie renaissance) and lead to the resignation of another long-time New York film critic, Bosley Crowther.

    Her brilliant notoriety also drew the public's attention to difficult, challenging films like "Nashville" and "Last Tango in Paris". I hope you can find her books some day, and read her reviews.

    The French New Wave, and their Cahiers du Cinema (Truffaut, Godard, etc.), were well-known among that era's Film Generation and were highly influential, actually shaping a style of moviemaking for decades.

    Roger Ebert's Pulitzer-winning commentary and authority around the industry has been arguably credited with influencing the outcome of some Oscar contests.

    I miss that vibrancy in today's critical community.

    I agree with you about the influence of marketing over that of today's critics. Ironically, at least half of the cinemas in Chicagoland (scores of them) no longer advertise in newspapers. With many theaters now opting for web-based advertising, a whole segment of the moviegoing public has been effectively ignored.

    Full-page or half-page ads for new films are almost nonexistant in local print media. These ads traditionally relied on quoted from critics' reviews to make them popular hits. Now, some studios pay critics to use pre-written "quotes".

    We should have a long chat about this after your play completes its run.

  3. "Good critics have fun at the movies."

    Word! I am so tired of people for whom going to the movies is an elitist experience. As I always say, you recognize a true film lover because he's an omnivore. He eats it all!
    Without the bad you simply can not appreciate the good. Loved this piece, very insightful and inspiring. Reminds us that criticism isn't a lost art just yet.

  4. Thank you Jose... I hope film critics, and this art of ours, are here to stay!