Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Even More About Film Critics

After reading this post on Peter Suderman's blog and thinking back to some of the things that Jim Emerson has been writing about recently, I'm tempted to say that we're in the middle of a crisis of faith among film critics. Except that I'm not sure that this is anything new: film critics seem to have been in a crisis of faith for the last few years.

My take:

Peter is right: writing for a mass audience (i.e., in a daily paper) about the latest big budget comedy/action movie/chick flick does not require all that much knowledge about film history. Writing for an "educated" audience (i.e., in something like The New Yorker) requires a good deal more knowledge about film history, if only because your readers will expect you to put things in a larger context. Writing for an audience of film buffs (i.e., in something like Film Comment) requires a great deal of knowledge of film history, because fitting movies into that larger context is one of the major reasons magazines like that exist.

One of Peter's commenters wants to make the distinction between "reviewer" and "critic", and, though I don't think I've said this before, I think this is a bogus distinction. What matters is: who are you writing for? Who are you trying to engage with?

The problem with trying to separate "reviewer" from "critic" is that a lot of people who are writing about movies end up simultaneously reviewing (giving their opinion on the movie and suggesting what kind of audiences might find it appealing or otherwise) and doing criticism (giving their take on the movie and trying to place it into some kind of larger context).

With regard to Ronald Bergan's essay, I'd suggest that it's probably more important for film critics to put some work into learning about history in general and the history of other art forms (especially: visual arts, the novel, and the theater). Picking up film history is (comparatively) easy: the movies haven't been around that long and a couple of weekends of watching Criterion DVDs can get you up to speed pretty nicely.


Steve said...

Great blog -- just stumbled onto it.

I agree with you about the distinction between reviewer and critic. I use the terms interchangably.

All your points are good ones. But with regard to the crisis of faith in film criticism: there's a larger crisis of faith in paid, professional commentary in general. Commentary as a paid profession is suffering mightily in the face of the internet, and its army of free, unpaid critics.

I can point to a half-dozen political blogs that give me better, more informed, livelier political commentary than I can get from any op-ed page or TV chatfest. And so too with film and arts commentary.

The paid, professional critics know it, too. They surf the web, and they know their position is threatened.

I don't say this with any sort of glee. I wish it were possible for people to still make a living doing nothing but writing criticism. Being able to devote 100% of your energy to something is a great thing. But it's getting harder and harder to argue, hey, *I* should paid for writing about something that 500 other people are writing about for free -- and a large handful of those are frankly doing it better than me.

Jon Hastings said...


Thanks for the compliment!

And - good point about the larger context for all of this. I have the same mixed feelings. I'm just hoping that more "professional" film critics will start actively acknowledging these issues, instead of trying to pretend they don't exist.

Steve said...

Certainly I think the era in which the typical newspaper critic is expected to review anything and everything that opens in town is drawing to a close. It was always kind of pointless, but doubly so now. For those 4 people out there who are really craving a review of Wild Hogs, there's the internet.

But then, does that leave enough interesting movies opening each week to justify the salary of a typical newspaper movie critic? Maybe you'll be seeing more all-around critics, covering different arts?