random moments in film criticism #3

I finally got my copy of When Movies Mattered: Reviews from a Transformative Decade, the first collection of Dave Kehr’s writing from his years as the head film critic at the Chicago Reader.  I couldn’t be happier, although I’m sure if someone told me that an intact print of Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons had been discovered in a steamer trunk in Peru or that the latest Dario Argento movie was actually pretty good, that would make my day as well.  But there’s something about reading great criticism that’s… well, it opens the pores and scrubs out the cobwebs of the mind.  It sharpens you up to see and think in new ways, to engage with not only movies (or books or whatever) with a fresh insight, but to deal with the world outside of the frame in a renewed manner.  It’s not simply about finding out if the critic liked or disliked a movie.  It’s about understanding how the critic engaged with it and if you as a reader and watcher can engage with the work on your own terms.  A great critic doesn’t shut down the argument; they keep it evolving and widen participation.

I know how we physically engage with movies is drastically changing, as is the very definition of what a movie is nowadays, or at least it seems to be.  Film criticism has significantly changed with it.  Note that I don’t think it’s getting worse or better necessarily.  It’s just changed and evolved into something different.  As print movie journalism has dwarfed in recent years, quite alarmingly so, movie blogs catering to all persuasions have flourished as well, like weeds sprouting in the concrete fissures of an abandoned parking lot.  I think that aspects of the change, for instance the proliferation of well-informed and well-written blogs by amateurs and pros alike, is great.  What’s not so fantastic is the disintegration of intelligent movie criticism that is aimed at a large audience that was regularly found in magazines and newspapers in the 1970s or even in the 1980s, the decade when I first started reading film criticism.  It’s all niche-driven now, like most things.  As Kehr points out in his introduction, there is academic writing on one side and mainstream writing on the other and the two rarely if ever meet in the middle.  That’s a shame.  I’m not even going to touch upon the overflow of so-called fanboy blogs, which seem from afar to be nothing more than extensions of studio marketing divisions.  But plenty of movie reviewers on mainstream sites and in print publications also seem to be uncritical minions for p.r. departments.  The ability to talk to a wide audience about complex ideas intelligently though without obfuscating meaning with distracting jargon seems like a rare talent.

Which is why Kehr’s book is worth picking up and should make anyone happy who still cares about the cinematic medium and good writing.  Reading his 1978 review for Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, a film I know well, made me want to put down the book and immediately pop the Blu-ray on.  Almost, I say, because then that would have required me to stop reading… no way was I going to do that.  Kehr’s examination of how the film utilizes Old Testament myths for its own narrative purposes is far more enlightening, but the following passage nevertheless evokes clear, resonant images in my mind.

“Days of Heaven is a uniquely palpable film: the breath of the wind, the texture of the grain, light snow melting on a woman’s hair—we see, we hear, but somehow, we touch, too.  Nester Almendros’s prickly-sharp cinematography (the film was made in 70mm, but, unfortunately, is playing Chicago in only 35mm) finds its match in the crispness and subtlety of the Dolby sound.  Crickets sing, a windmill hums, and the image is opened up.  One of the most moving moments in the film occurs as the farmer (Sam Shepard) rolls a blade of wheat between his fingers, testing its ripeness.  The chaff crinkles off, and the farmer blows it away with a light, delicate breath.  In that second, the screen dissolves: not simply sound and image, the film becomes touch, taste, and smell.”

I guess I know what I’m re-watching later this evening.  After I finish the book, of course.

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2 comments on “random moments in film criticism #3

  1. Derek,

    Very perceptive; your second paragraph pretty much sums up the state of both interacting/watching and reading about film. I have a slightly different take on it. My “formative” years for discovering film criticism — the “popular” kind, as crafted by Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris, to name only 2 — were the early to mid seventies.. My introduction to the academic side — the reading of which then as now is equivalent to trying to find sunrise on the dark side of the moon — came in my college years in the mid-seventies. To this day, I blanch at the name Kracauer — then I laugh.

    But seriously, you are right about the availability — maybe it’s more like the existence — of intelligent, readable and enlightening film criticism — which was not difficult to find in the mainstream print media of the sixties and seventies. I could hardly wait until the college library got the latest copy of Films in Review, and after graduation, I made it point to buy the Village Voice once a week for their film and music criticism. These weren’t exactly “mainstream,” but they were readily available in college towns and even medium sized city bookstores and newsstands.

    In my opinion, American film criticism began to wither by the mid-eighties, if not earlier. For me, it was seeing copies of my favorite film magazines on newsstands — the ones that still hung on, like Films in Review – and after reading the contents page, having no desire whatsoever to even stand there and peruse it, much less buy it or subscribe. (I have bought lots of old issues lately on eBay, though.)

    Film Comment still exists of course, and I still have a subscription, but I rarely read more than one or two articles, and usually go straight to the “Home Video” release/review section. Others are hit and miss, like Cineaste, which seems to let its Marxist rhetoric and its criticism of of capitalism, America and Republicans get in the way of useful, constructive, informative criticism of film.

    I don’t think film criticism today as a whole is any worse than it was in the 1920s, thru the 40’s when outside of academia and the literary intelligentsia, there wasn’t much that was useful. Check out the NYT Film Reviews from that period. Films reviews consisted of plot synopsis, and an indication of whether or not the critic liked the story and the characters, and maybe a word about the director — essentially what Siskel and Ebert brought to television in the 80s on PBS — entertaining, but not criticism.

    The point I’m trying to make is that I believe that film criticism in America developed from the late 40s into the 50s, peaked in the 60’s and early 70’s, then began a slow and at first imperceptible decline from the late seventies, to a nearly comatose state by the early 90s. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this decline paralleled that of American filmmaking, which from Star Wars and Jaws onward, became addicted to the blockbuster, in all its permutations. And I could write several pages about the half-eaten corpse of the mid-60s Hollywood film factories being first victims of their own misperception of the dollar value embodied in financing, producing and distributing a product aimed at the youth audience,, and written, acted and filmed by counterculture “icons.” And the film industry was then acquired by multinational corporations who may have known their target audience, but whose prior products were distilled spirits and refined petroleum products, not movies.

    In the aftermath of this reorganization of the industry, the best known filmmakers became those who were a hybrid of director and producer who specialized in big budget, and increasingly technologically-driven productions. I knew that the age of intelligent coverage of film in mainstream outlets was over when newspapers began to list the top ten box office draws, and a bit later, the top WEEKEND box office “winners.” probably in the late eighties to early nineties.

    Young people tend to base their decisions on such numbers, and their favorite source of information, IMDB (which I find very useful, anyway). is an outgrowth (or maybe a benign tumor) of this, with its main page a blur of statistics and graphs, the likes of which you only saw previously in the Wall St Journal or Barron’s, not Films in Review.

    I find the fragmentation has its bright spots. The internet makes it relatively easy to find intelligent film criticism of all stripes and levels of sophistication. Dave Kehr writes one of the best film blogs. But with the mainstream NYT he seems relegated to DVD reviews (not a bad thing at all, but he is at least as good as their other film review writers and deserves a forum for covering current film which he could put into proper context within the broader scope of cinema history and development). Kehr’s blog is one good example (and there are more, but time and space do not permit!) of intelligent work in the field, and that field seems a little less barren than it was at the dawn of the 21st century.

    By the way, I do a little blog myself, not dedicated to cinema per se (the concept is performing arts generally), but for the moment it is the one topic on which I feel confident enough to publicize my opinions. If you do take a peek at it, I wouldn’t mind whatever “criticism” you might offer (although please don‘t give too much weight to the top post, it was written in a weird context — a series of comments about racism, TCM ,“classic movies,” D. W. Griffith and Birth of a Nation on the Nitrateville website that caused a bit of a stir among their regulars and administrator(s) who didn‘t seem to like the way I expressed my thoughts: such is life).

    Gene.

    • derek says:

      Thank you for your comment, Gene. Like everything, the wild west of the internet has been a good and bad thing… what’s so pleasing to see, however, is the proliferation of non-commercial blogs (like your own) that continues informed writing about the medium. So I try not to get too nostalgic for a so-called golden era of film and/or criticism. I know where to look and what to read to find nourishment, so I can’t really complain. I agree with you about the the parallel between the development of film and criticism in the 40s through the 70s and its seeming slide into irrelevance outside of small clusters of appreciation. I guess I was lamenting the fact that intelligent writing about film–straddling the crevasse between academia and populism–used to be (or seemed) more pervasive. I was nine or ten when I first started watching Siskel/Ebert on PBS and they were sort of a gateway drug to thinking and talking about movies and I’m glad for that. But as I grew older and started reading more about film, I don’t think it made for a good substitute for real criticism or was necessarily any more approachable than Kael or Sarris or even Farber. Picking up Kehr’s book just clarified that and made me a bit sad that writing like that used to be available on such a wide scale. It is still out there on the web, obviously, but you have to know where to look.

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