Friday, January 23, 2009

Links: Movie Critics

I had never seen Jonathan Rosenbaum's review of Midnight Run until I followed a link from The House Next Door the other day, but reading it was like discovering the ur-text of the kind of criticism I've been trying to do/promote here for the last two years (or so). More and more I'm seeing my "big theme" as: "In criticism, appeals to principles may work rhetorically, but they obscure a necessarily contingent process." What I like so much about Rosenbaum's criticism is that it's always self-reflexive and aware of its own contingencies. (Incidentally, Jim Henley linked to this post and described it as me laying out my "standards", but they aren't really standards: just five different, not-necessarily-compatible things I enjoy from movie acting).

After poking around on Dan Sallitt's home page I ended up reading David Edelstein's Slate Book Club take on David Thomson from a few years ago. This is one of the best written examples of how not to read/judge a critic that I've ever come across. Edelstein's underlying problem with Thomson is that he disagrees with him on the relative worth of specific movies. The Altman paragraph Edelstein quotes seems to me like a very strong piece of criticism: it's evocative and challenging and, most importantly, offers a new angle on how some of Altman's major movies work. That it gives short shrift to this-or-that late Altman movie is besides the point. I think I've mentioned this before here, but I don't value a critic like, say, Michael Sicinski (my fave) because his opinions/tastes line up with my own. I like him because (a) he has interesting observations about movies, (b) he expresses these observations in an interesting and/or appealing manner, and (c) I wouldn't necessarily have made the same observations or expressed them in the same way. Any idea that even smells a little bit like "Good critics are the ones who agree with me" deserves to be held up to ridicule.

Speaking of ridicule: lots of it on Jim Emerson's blog directed at Armond White's latest obnoxious "Better Than" list. Pairing and comparing movies can be a revealing and interesting tactic, but, as Jim and his commenters point out, when White does it it confuses rather than clarifies. Still: I thought about White's lists while watching It's a Free World... last weekend. I couldn't help comparing it, favorably, to The Visitor. The Visitor obscures the issues its dealing with by abstracting them from their real world context, while It's a Free World... not brings these issues to light within their larger context. The Visitor is the more artfully made film - it's coherent, where It's a Free World... is choppy and threatens to go off its rails in a few places - but, at least in this case, a little less art may have been a good thing. And it helped me to get a handle on what Free World did well when I looked at it in terms of what The Visitor does well.

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