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July 10, 2007

Some thoughts on writing about film

Manny Farber.jpg

Manny Farber

These are new times, and they call for a new criticism; I believe that we are entering the age of the "termite critic." It is no longer necessary, desirable, or even possible for film critics to be "movie experts," to be King of the Mountain, Arbiter of Good Taste. Instead, the critics of tomorrow will devote themselves to some small part of the Cinema and nibble away at it until sated, at which point they will move onto another.

- Andy Horbal

It's now clear that movie history is as mysterious as any iceberg. Some of the major movies are currently visible; some exist in archives but to see them all would be a major research project involving university funds which are rarely made available for the insigficant mass media; many others were dismissed when they appeared, and have never been revalued since.

- Raymond Durgnat

Thirty years ago, I attempted to get a job as a professional film critic here in Denver. I was turned down by the Rocky Mountain News because the editor who interviewed got it in him mind that I was not the type to honor deadlines. I also tried to write for a new Village Voice wannabe that had was just starting to get organized called Westword. I bring this up because during the week I returned here, I read an article in Westword that noted that the long-time Rocky Mountain News film critic, Robert Denerstein, accepted a buyout on his contract as part of a cost-cutting move by the paper. The Westword article also noted that as part of the trend of newspaper to publish syndicated film criticism, local contributor Bill Gallo also got the ax. It should be pointed out that the company that now owns Westword also owns the Village Voice, and the one upside of Westword is that when I bother to read it, I can now read J. Hoberman's reviews. What this all means for me though is that it may not have mattered what direction my life would have taken professionally, I would still probably end up writing about film online rather than in a printed publication.

Which brings me to the two quotes which I believe compliment each other. As has been pointed out by others, what the serious film bloggers do best is write about past films in the present tense. Yes, there are current films worth writing about that are often shabbily or superficially evaluated by the so-called professionals. What I think those of us within our virtual communities do best is create little chain reactions of re-looking at films, pointing out previously unoticed connections and parallel lines, and sometimes create little ripples that create other little ripples. That I found the Durgnat quote at about the same time I read Andy's piece was a result of a recent posting by Zach Campbell, who reminded me of what I missed not having read Durgnat since my NYU days. The Durgnat quote is from his book about Hollywood comedies, but constantly he reminds the reader about forgotten filmmakers such as Charley Bowers. Discussing Andrew Sarris' "Subjects for Further Research", almost forty year later James Cruze has become more obscure and virtually forgotten. Even in the most dedicated of revival houses of New York City, the only Cruze film that was ever screened was I Cover the Waterfront. More often than not, those of us writing about film online are dependent on what is availabe on DVD or tape.

I might be off in connecting these two dots, but I attribute the increasing number of older film being made available on DVD to the existence of the online film critics and their communities. If I may use the collective "we", we are the ones most interested in the older films, as well as the films that didn't play at the multiplex, or get distribution from the boutique label of the big studio. And our interest has in turn generated to one degree or another, the interest of others who might not want to write about a film but definitely want to see it. And in turn this has caused the studios to realize that there is a dedicated audience for titles languishing in their vaults, as well as some profit to be made. As incomplete as things are at this moment, with DVDs we are able to discuss a far greater range of films at any single moment than we could have even living in New York City in the early Seventies. Even with the films available to us now, there is still so much work to be done simply to acknowledge and value what we have, and to let others know of treasures they might otherwise overlook.

Posted by peter at July 10, 2007 01:11 AM

Comments

I'm still trying to sort out my own personal feelings about film criticism. I don't consider myself a critic (I've started calling myself a “film enthusiast”) and yet, I do write opinionated pieces about the movies I watch.

I also really hate about 75% of the film criticism I read online and in publications and books. So many critics seem to follow trends which is sort of sad, or act like authorities on a topic they don't seem to know a hell of a lot about like horror films for example. The recent batch of nasty reviews I read about Eli Roth's Hostel films and so-called "torture porn" was starting to make me physically ill and was easily more horrific than anything in Roth's actual movies.

Which brings me to the two quotes which I believe compliment each other. As has been pointed out by others, what the serious film bloggers do best is write about past films in the present tense.

I do agree with this, but since I'm much more interested in older films myself I don't know if my opinion counts for much. I do think modern eyes can view older films in a much different and more evenhanded light, but I'm also sometimes baffled by the lack of insight modern critics have. I just spent some time reading reviews of Hiroshi Teshigahara's The Face of Another at various respected websites for example and I was really surprised by how many critics didn't see the obvious underlying themes in the film about the occupation of Japan by America and what that did to the country. Then again, I also think western criticism of Japanese cinema is still in its infancy.

So where I am going with all this? I don't know. I'm just chatting, but topics like this have been weighing on my mind obviously and I'm glad to see so many people talking about it like yourself Pete.

I might be off in connecting these two dots, but I attribute the increasing number of older film being made available on DVD to the existence of the online film critics and their communities

I really hope you're right about this! I try to write about lessor known films as much as possible in order to shine a brighter light on films, performers and directors that I think deserve more attention.

Posted by: Kimberly at July 11, 2007 01:59 AM

"Past films in the present tense." If I might be so bold, I think you should consider renaming your site that. I realize that's what interests me, as well. Nice post, Peter. I hope you are right about us being the reason for so many DVDs coming out, but I think the hard numbers and the star-attached packaging schemes might argue otherwise. But, hell, "Ace In The Hole" comes out next week on Criterion, so these are good times, right?

Posted by: the shamus at July 11, 2007 01:06 PM

I might be off in connecting these two dots, but I attribute the increasing number of older film being made available on DVD to the existence of the online film critics and their communities.


Peter, I've been thinking about this post since you wrote it, and about this sentence in particular. I hope this is true, and I think it might be. I wonder if it might be helpful for someone to confirm it somehow, perhaps by talking to someone from Criterion or Milestone or Warner Brothers. This might help in our efforts here:


Even with the films available to us now, there is still so much work to be done simply to acknowledge and value what we have, and to let others know of treasures they might otherwise overlook.


Which is as fine a raison d'être for the film blogger as I've ever heard!

Posted by: Andy H. at July 15, 2007 10:40 AM

I read this and immediately thought of a critic's writing about the 1959 film Black Orpheus. He was horrified that the film portrayed the people of the favela enjoying themselves and not being ground down by their poverty. He also called the film racist and thought it was a travesty that it should have been made with so little thought to the social ramifications involved.

I have been to Rio several times over the past few years and one of the things I noticed was that almost all the people treat the tourists in a very friendly manner and don't seem to be politically beaten down by poverty. There are of course parts of Rio where there is a lot of crime but I was all over Copacabana, Centro, Flamingo, Ipanema and some of the other neighborhoods and saw nothing of what this critic wanted this film to show. I also remember sitting at the sidewalk coffee shops close to the beach and the young people would stroll along and play and sing and dance for the people sitting there and getting tips.

The point is that a lot of what I see in the film criticism is the critic blaming the film for not being shot the way the critic would like it to be shot and for not taking the political point of view the critic wants to see taken. In cases like that I wish the critic would just criticize politics and leave films to those who enjoy them. Large parts of the world may be poverty-stricken and the people may be politically downtrodden, but the people still find joy in living where they can. If it not for the critic to try to tell them they can't and it should not be for the critic to complain if the film makers don't film that way either.

Posted by: dick at July 15, 2007 09:44 PM