Rip It Up: Revitalizing Film Criticism

by Nick James

From Film Quarterly Spring 2009, Vol. 62, No. 3

For the last six months or so the idea that film criticism is undergoing an identity crisis has been gaining momentum. I carry some of the blame for this, having edited a “Who Needs Critics?” special issue of Sight and Sound, and organized and participated in public debates, some of which were even entertaining.

Of course this anxiety is only a symptom of the wider recession crisis most workers face, not least the many journalists who know there’s a good chance they will lose their job this year. But film critics were canaries of the employment catastrophe. Once it became known that, over a two-year period, newspapers across the U.S. had shed more than thirty film reviewers without replacement, a chain reaction of debates and surveys about criticism spread through the cinephile global village. In film journals the huge success of Web 2.0 was identified as the main catalyst for change and yet the conclusion reached almost universally by commentators was that criticism on the Internet is mostly a positive thing, and if it is available for free, so much the better.

I have no argument with that conclusion; the second-phase Internet is here to stay, and to fret upon its disadvantages is to indulge nostalgia. I’m more interested in how the Web affects the culture of criticism, and whether or not this creeping feeling that writing about film may have become less important is justified. My involvement in debates about this has taken my thinking in two directions: toward a pragmatic reappraisal of the usefulness of film critics (and let’s make that an all-inclusive term for writers on film), and conversely back through the winding biographical route that brought me to film reviewing, perhaps to rediscover what about criticism truly matters.

To most people the primary use of a newspaper reviewer is to be a guide for the consumer as to what or what not to see. This, of course, is how most people define the critic’s role. Unfortunately, it is that narrowly defined professional function, the reviewer—once so commercially influential—whose importance has been downgraded. I don’t believe that amateur online reviewers and bloggers are mainly responsible for this downshift. It’s rather the vast quantity of all kinds of free advance information about films now available to the single individual (the punter who in the past would have had access only to some posters and a handful of reviews at most) from official and viral marketing campaigns, fan sites, festival reportage, and so forth that makes much professional consumer guidance seem dispensable. Any filmgoer can now determine whether or not most films on release will suit her or his taste without recourse to printed release-week reviews: such are the benefits of instant information and saturation marketing.

But if the professional critic’s thumb up, thumbs down gesture really is subsumed in the audio-visual noise around film releases, what remains? Surely all that time critics spend researching the cinema to gain an informed understanding has value, and not just for the moment of consumption?

In the public discussions in which I’ve taken part I’ve broken down the critic’s usefulness as follows, in no particular order: (1) saying if a film is worth seeing, (2) championing good unknown work, (3) giving a wider historical perspective, (4) offering the insights of technical knowledge, (5) conferring useful prestige and kudos upon producers of good cinema, (6) earmarking the best works for future historians, (7) counteracting marketing untruths, and (8) opposing the retrograde.

About half of these attributes are only useful to filmgoers before a screening; the rest equally engage the post-screening reader. Surely, whenever the emphasis in the film critic’s role is shifted away from being the tipster and toward after-screening rumination, its virtues shine brighter and its influence is more keenly felt? It’s worth remembering that the film reviewer who achieved the brightest fame, Pauline Kael, insisted on never seeing a film in advance of release, and while her motive was more to do with watching films with an audience of the public, she was also writing, I would argue, with the reader who had already seen the film in mind. As journals like this one demonstrate, intelligent film writing can be something against which readers test their opinion rather than something they use to bolster their confidence in choosing a film.

But such a move presents problems. Many of my best-loved colleagues now limit their use of subjective judgment in favor of pure advocacy of the neglected corners of international cinema. Indeed one of the consequences of the digital cornucopia is that there are now hundreds of cinephile champions each espousing a different variety of antidote to Hollywood. If you listen to the chorus of serious writers on film, a thousand genius flowers would seem to be blooming from Siberia to Lisbon via Newfoundland to Patagonia. My personal difficulty is that a lot of the time I find these claims to be wildly exaggerated. The wonderful golden run of great international cinema in the 1990s that brought us the best of Edward Yang, Wong Kar-wai, Takeshi Kitano, and Abbas Kiarostami, among many others, petered out several years ago. Today’s immensely generous and rather awestruck cinephilia needs marginal masterpieces to laud or it cannot function, but this is not a time of great international cinema. And there are many sacred cows at both ends of the funding scale. To pick just two of the most distinguished examples: I dissent from the near-universal hallelujah that greets every new work of Godard’s, and I think the cognoscenti cut Clint Eastwood a lot of slack. I don’t think we do international cinema a favor when, as film festivals are wont to encourage us to do, we reify minor achievements.

I wonder, though, if my fondness for such subjective sweeping judgments as the one above comes from my own history. Writing about film was never for me a conscious career move. I fell into it through accident and opportunity. I studied art at Saint Martins and Walthamstow and, having, I fear, neither the fascinated rigor and earnestness to become a structuralist Super 8 filmmaker nor the physical hardiness to endure performance-art rituals, I was stuck with painting at a time—the late 1970s—when painting was the least interesting and fashionable fine art activity. But it was a piece of criticism that helped me give up painting: Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word (1975).


A page from Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word (1975)

That book seems to me now to wear the white suit of patrician philistinism, but at the time Wolfe’s argument that any visual art that required one to read explanatory texts to “get” it was a con or a failure was sufficiently convincing to a callow someone whose reluctant painting at the time was literally bound up in tracing big words onto canvasses. Having got my degree, my one performance gesture was to leave my portfolio on a bus, never to be reclaimed. I tend to thank Wolfe rather than curse him for his help, even if I disagree with his sentiments now.

What this convinces me of is that the negative aspects of criticism can be just as energizing as the positive. Wolfe was one of the originators of the so-called “New Journalism,” but the nipple at which I had sucked in that phenomenon was that once very popular organ of the neurotic boy outsider, the New Musical Express. In retrospect I realize that it was writers like Charles Shaar Murray and Nick Kent, writing in pre-punk days about the huge variety of music of the early 1970s, who gave me my first taste of outlandish and vivid writing about an art form. They prepared me as a reader for the more literary aspects of film criticism. Alongside their myth-building reverence for the music that moved them, they were always prepared to lash out, to write what is known as “knocking copy.” Their savagery was just as thrilling to the teenage boy I was as their reverent rhetoric toward their gods.

If you listen to the chorus of serious writers on film, a thousand genius flowers would seem to be blooming from Siberia to Lisbon via Newfoundland to Patagonia.

But the writers who followed in their footsteps at the NME— the likes of Paul Morley and Ian Penman as well as the more notorious Tony Parsons and Julie Burchill—had a more direct effect on the music being made: on punk, the new wave, and eventually the new pop of the 1980s. One saw that they were like the nouvelle vague film critics in that they had helped create vibrant new forms of their chosen medium. In the 1980s the savage aspect of NME culture also took hold of the wider U.K. arts press through Burchill and Parsons. Unfortunately, in the long run, the latter’s once-breathtaking iconoclasm ended up bolstering Britain’s cultural philistinism rather than sharpening its arts coverage. My own migration from a minor career as a post-art school rock musician into film criticism via City Limits magazine happened in that cultural context. This may be why I get twitchy when, in this rather conformist era, iconoclasm is entirely missing from most critical writing.

What I mean by iconoclasm isn’t a knee-jerk disdaining of today’s equivalents of the cinéma de papa (the Oscar nomination lists, say) but rather the tearing down of all things too ordinary in order to put better, more stimulating things in their place. If, as I suggest, that vital new cinema isn’t currently burgeoning, critics of fire and energy need to help it develop. For me the current cinephile community is both too solipsistic and too forgiving in its tastes to effect such a change. If that community has seen one arm of its influence weaken—the reviewer’s power of influence—it needs to beef up its more considered, less media-instant arm. It needs to get more involved in influencing what’s being made through the rude power of polemical engagement, especially with filmmaking itself.

NICK JAMES has edited Sight and Sound since 1997.

Image detail: Tom Wolfe at the Leo Castelli gallery, circa 1970. The painting and sculpture in the background are both by Roy Lichtenstein.


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