Thursday, 2 June 2011

What is Film Criticism For?

I don't really know what film criticism is "for" - other than the obvious, if facetious, response: "good movies". Though I was thinking about it (it was troubling me actually) and fancied throwing around some ideas here in the hope of coming to terms with the question.

One thought is that criticism is supposed to function as objective, empirical analysis which hopes to distinguish the worthwhile from the rest in the name of history. Is this critic in service of what might be termed "the canon", keeping it in order like some kind of cultural clerk? I don't know if true "objectivity" is possible, let alone desirable, in a critic, though, judging by the number of people who angrily rail against reviewer "bias" on internet message boards, it may be that many see dedication to such an emotionless approach as a critic's solemn duty.

Akin to that definition, but slightly different, is the popular assumption that art criticism exists as nothing more than a form of consumer advice: a way of sorting which novels, CDs of theatre tickets are worth paying for - and which are not. Film criticism may even be thought of as an extension of advertising. A bad critic might be one who gets it "wrong" too often, advising people to see things they then consistently fail to enjoy and who dislikes all the things that prove most popular.

It doesn't suit my voice, as becomes clear when I find myself ending reviews in a way that suggests a direct dialogue with a concerned investor, writing closing statements along the lines of: "if you like [insert genre] then it's certainly worth seeing" or "it's got plenty to find fault with, but it's the best on offer at the multiplex right now". At least when I do it, these types of endings highlight a failure of the imagination, providing me with a convenient way of summarising what has gone before without too much effort or skill. However, the best of these types of critics - who can do this with charm and authority - are by far the most popular, recognisable and beloved.

Generally (and conveniently) I prefer to see criticism as an end in itself. And, far from having a duty of care towards an imagined readership, perhaps reviewing should be about inciting a discussion amongst those who have already chosen to engage with a novel/CD/film? It could be that the best criticism is about providing a strong viewpoint which causes others to consider their own position on a given work and transform previously vague feelings into fully formed ideas.

Indeed, it might be termed an act of pomposity to aim to tell readers what to do, as if they were aimless sheep looking for a shepherd. I often feel embarrassed to hear that I've persuaded anybody to see or not see a movie. I immediately worry that I've prevented them from doing something they might otherwise have enjoyed, or that I have tricked them into sitting through something terribly dull. (Though I'm aware that this reaction is potentially quite patronising.)

One thing I am certain of is that I don't enjoy disliking anything very much. I've written lots of negative reviews over the last year and, at their worst, they are predictable demolitions of known turkeys, such as 'Sex & the City 2'. They never fill me with joy to write, especially as I consider the possible bursting impact I could have on somebody else's hard-earned happiness bubble.

I've come to admire the principle of the great Cahiers Du Cinema editor André Bazin, who preferred his writers to review only those films they enjoyed - calling it "appreciative criticism". For one thing, I like the way this approach is tacitly an even worse rebuke for a bad movie than an explicitly bad review - suggesting that an ignored movie is beneath discussion. But mainly I like how good-natured it seems and how good it must feel, as a writer, to concentrate on the positive.

If you are expressing your love of something, you are bulletproof. Even if everyone else thinks the film in question is naff, nobody reasonable is likely to shove a metaphorical turd through your letterbox. In contrast, when you criticise a film's score, you might get an e-mail from the crestfallen composer, and when you tear apart a small movie, you might find an angry letter from the director awaits you. Both these things have happened to me and they aren't pleasant to say the least. Not because I don't stand by what I write, or because I am allergic to criticism of my own work, but because you really don't set out to hurt a person's feelings. I assume that everyone is basically probably quite nice, so I never want to think I'm making a personal attack - though it must seem that way to someone who has poured considerable time and effort into their art. I have some sympathy with that point of view.

I'd follow Mr. Bazin's noble example and stop writing negative reviews tomorrow, only it would be much harder to fill the "pages" of this blog if I took that high road. As with any art form, the vast majority of movies are, by definition, average and many of them are very bad. To ignore these is a luxury I can ill afford.

If I have learnt anything from thinking about this as I write, it is that I want to resist the impulse to imply that I'm sorting films into two great piles marked "ones to watch" and "ones to avoid". There is undeniably a place for that critic, but it wouldn't make sense for that to me be, as I'm not a reliable populist. I didn't enjoy any of the three biggest current releases ('Pirates 4', 'Hangover 2' or 'X-Men: First Class'), though they are doubtless to prove highly popular with audiences and I would never dream of telling you to avoid seeing them.

I'd certainly be vain and out of touch to suggest a family of four forgo the thrills and spills of 'Pirates' and opt instead for 'The Great White Silence', just because I found it to be of greater interest. Someone who watches up to thirty films a month (usually for free) has next to no business telling anyone who sees one or two (for upwards of £7 a go) how and where to spend their money. A critic who sees thirty films a month may well develop different tastes to those with less cinema literacy and may lose sight of the fact that most people see film less as art and more as something to pass the time. My say on what you go to see is of no discernible value. It is only hopefully of some interest.

I haven't even mentioned people like Charles Gant or Nikki Finke, who talk about movies as part of an industry, let alone journalists who come to cinema from the perspective of satisfying the public hunger for celebrity gossip or fashion advice. There is also the film historian, like David Thompson or Ian Christie, to consider - but this'll have to do for now.

What are critics for? Damned if I know. But I'm certain there is a place for all the types I've described above and I know that, for whatever reason, I like to read what the best of them has to say.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent article.

    You forgot to mention the critic’s role in shaping art. He the critic’s work forms a dialog with the artist. Many artists have had long standing relationships with critics whose view they respected. In this spirit many artists have published their own criticism. Both George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde wrote critical essays and essays on criticism, such as Wilde’s The Critic as Artist. Several of the French new wave film makers started as critics and their criticisms helped inform the work of their peers.

    There seems to be a modern belief that critical opinion is necessarily negative and as such critics are the enemy of the artist, they are cast as kill joys. This is allied to the belief that art must come from within the artist and not be affected by the opinions of others – to the extent that an artist must be seen to be pleasing himself alone or answering only to his muse. This is nonsense unless we ignore the influence of other works upon an artist, and if we want to perpetuate the view of art as masturbation.

    Without discussion nothing moves forward. Without discussion art is rendered meaningless, if everybody kept their views to themselves then art as an expression of a point view should also be silent. Enjoying art is a solitary experience unless we share how we feel about things that have moved us. Good criticism not only moves art forward but keeps the discussion alive.

    To be useful good criticism should be subjective and passionate. To claim objectivity is a vanity as it suggests a perfect standard against which everything can be judge and must tend towards.

    Anyone who comments on film, or even just quotes a review, is often told by others that they don't see the point in such discussions. Regularly people will proudly say that they "don't listen to critics" in order to show that they are capable of making their own choices. This is odd because if you’re cable of making your own choices, surely you can choose to disagree with a critic rather than disregard them all together.

    Isn't it better in general to make informed choices? Isn’t simply fun to learn what others saw in something we’ve enjoyed? In life if somebody said they’re weren’t interested in anyone else’s opinion we would think it an ignorant position. Yet matters of taste are treated like matters of faith and are not to be discussed a polite dinner parties. Yet these are precisely the things we should discuss at dinner parties - because it deepens our understanding of each other and ourselves.

    As a watcher of films (once avid, now infrequent) and an occasional reader of film criticism I’m happy to take critic’s opinions for all of the reasons you stated. I’m interested in the criticism as its own entertainment, and if there’s a critic whose opinions often coincide with mine I might take their advice and wait to a film when it’s more freely available. After all we all have limited time and money and sometimes we need a way to filter what we spend it on. Mostly I find, reading or talking to others (particularly those with insight) is the best way to grow. Otherwise you run the risk of believing your own conclusions to be truth.

    Film as a medium is often criticised for being passive. The claim being that little is asked of the viewer. That is never truer then when we watch alone or surrounded in the dark by friends and strangers and then say little about the experience afterwards. Sometimes the only ones keeping the discussion going are the critics.