The Critic Lady

Erika Balsom

– What happened to the critic lady?
– She’ll live.
– Yeah, she’ll live to write about it.

This exchange occurs near the end of Orson Welles’s mesmerizing film The Other Side of the Wind, released in 2018. Among its many secondary characters is a Pauline Kael-like figure; she is sharp, alone, looking for answers. She displays keen interest in the work of aging director Jake Hannaford (a Wellesian type played by John Huston), but traffics in none of the adulation that oozes from the gaggle of boy critics also present at the scene of the filmmaker’s birthday party. Hannaford and his entourage refer to her as “the critic lady.” To them, she is a nuisance, a hag, a killjoy. Questioning the old man’s sexuality, she provokes him so much that he slaps her in the face. The younger director Brooks Otterlake (Peter Bogdanovich essentially playing himself) asks what happened to her, only to then take one last dig. In this world of heroic cinephilia, the critic lady – the lady critic – is a problem.

The boys come in for none of the vitriol directed at the critic lady. The Other Side of the Wind delights in a masculinist ideal of filmic creation and community, and understands film criticism similarly. In this, it is no outlier: in The Rhapsodes: How 1940s Critics Changed American Film Culture, David Bordwell praises Otis Ferguson, James Agee, and Manny Farber for their “virility” and “bravado,” and shows how these men (as well as Parker Tyler) laid the foundation stones of film criticism as it continues to be practiced today. Bordwell celebrates Ferguson for writing as if he was trying “to disprove New Yorker editor Harold Ross’s claim that movie reviewing was for ‘women and fairies.’”[1]

Ross’s patronizing remark both succeeds in signaling the lack of intellectual seriousness he attributed to film criticism and fails to accurately describe the demographics of the activity. If only women and queers had taken over the film pages of publications everywhere beginning in the 1940s! Film history would look different. But neither then nor now have such voices enjoyed a fair presence. Not enough virility and bravado, maybe. There is, of course, the towering figure of Kael, but even she gets called a “ghastly woman” and a “dirty old broad” by men quoted in the trailer for the documentary What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael (Rob Garver, 2018). The rhetorical flourishes of “the Rhapsodes” may have waned, but something of their sensibility persists – and it convinced me for many years that I had no place in film criticism.

When critics ruminate on the health or history of their field, its exclusions are thrown into stark relief. Sight & Sound’s October 2008 feature “Who Needs Critics?” invited twenty-one reflections from twenty-one men, actually twenty-two if editor Nick James’s introduction is included. That same year, Cineaste’s critical symposium “Film Criticism in the Age of the Internet” comprised twenty-three contributions, with nineteen by men. Unsurprisingly, these examples are also marked by a blinding whiteness and a paucity of queer perspectives.

Returning to the exchange from The Other Side of the Wind, though, attentive viewers cannot miss the many hints of ambivalence and auto-critique that pepper the film. Welles indulges the priapic myths of Hollywood old and new, while also gesturing to the pathetic, swollen vanity of the male auteurs at its center. The Kael character is played as an unsympathetic virago, surely, but there is no denying that her insights into Hannaford’s practice are easily the most acute. I might not be entirely transgressing the spirit of the film, then, if I twist Otterlake’s words and see in this scene, in the Kael character, a resilient figuration of what it is to be a woman who cares, and writes, about cinema. She is pushed around, insulted, not taken seriously, on the edges of a boys’ club – yet she is still there, still writing, still living for it.

She is – we are – still here, still writing, and things are changing. Ten years on from those embarrassments at Sight & Sound and Cineaste, think-pieces and panels on the status of film criticism are more likely to consider the underrepresentation of historically marginalized groups than they are to engage in still more handwringing about the impact of the internet. To be sure, major gains remain to be made: a recent study by Dr. Martha Lauzen, executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, shows that women comprise only 34% of critics working for U.S. outlets across media, and only 22% of critics writing for general interest magazines and websites. But increasingly, finally, there is a widespread recognition that greater inclusivity is imperative. It is not merely about fulfilling quotas; it affects what gets written, which films are championed, which films are critiqued, and how.

Yet privilege is not something given up easily, and the backlash against the new visibility of writing by women and people of color is already here. In “Film Criticism’s Identity Crisis”, published in The American Conservative, readers are told that “TV and film criticism is now dominated by writers who view their role as policemen [sic] of diversity and expositors of social justice issues.”[2] Or, consider this bitter entry from the Sight & Sound year-end poll of 2017:

Imagine if films were reducible to information, untethered from aesthetics and the emotional, sensory experience of watching them? For some, of course, they are: on the whole, 2017 marked another year in which our dime-a-dozen, write-for-buttons, sing-for-supper PC pedants, barely concerned with film form and much less with film history, continued their campaign to terrorize the cinema into providing something resembling a coherent, clear-cut blueprint for a better world.[3]

This statement is brimming with contempt, boiling over with resentment, and its target is clear. The author goes on to complain about “thinkpiece[s] written with the kind of reasoning and haste characteristic of a first-semester undergraduate essay linking the allegations against Harvey Weinstein to matters of onscreen representation of fictional women,” bafflingly deeming them to be evidence of a “reverse McCarthyism” in action. Here comes the pack, on the hunt, ready to ruin your pleasure with narrow ideological readings. How dare I suggest that what you consider a work of tremendous artistry is in fact retrograde? I obviously care nothing for film form or film history; there can be no other answer for my objections than a charge of ignorance. In a time of political emergency, I must be woefully misguided to offer enthusiasm for works that offer responses, whether critical or reparative, to the catastrophe of the present.

Domination and terrorism: these are strong words. But these are not fringe views. Rather, they mark out the terms of an ongoing debate that pits critics invested in the politics of representation against critics seeking to defend art for art’s sake. This debate is not new: as Bordwell notes, it reared its head in the 1940s, in the conflict between the Rhapsodes and those whom Manny Farber derided as “plot-sociologists.”[4] Yet it is a debate that is happening again, now in relation to race and gender – often implicitly, sometimes explicitly – in books, magazine editorials, reviews, on Twitter, Facebook, and, of course, in conversation.

First, to examine the protestations against “PC pedants”: certainly, there is some weak writing out there. The era of the attention-grabbing hot take has not been kind to nuance. I thought 1970s and 1980s feminist film theory had put to rest forever the trap of “positive images,” but apparently not. The Bechdel test, the ne plus ultra of such approaches, is hardly any measure of progressiveness or quality. What art historian Hal Foster has called a “politics of the signified” has severe limitations.[5] Yet the caricature is unfair, and the logic is faulty.

Form matters, and the old Cahiers axiom is still true: a tracking shot is a moral affair. Aesthetics and politics are inseparable. Anyone looking to that venerable publication for inspiration would do better to remember this rather than continue to parrot a retrograde idea of an auteurism grounded in the uniqueness of personal expression – a mode of evaluation that, as Girish Shambu has shown in these (electronic) pages, is an “ingenious mechanism for ceaselessly multiplying discourse on a limited number of directors: a manspreading machine.”[6] Strong criticism by women and people of color does not disregard artistry, but simply refuses to allow formal virtuosity to serve as an alibi for racism and misogyny. It confronts moral issues without searching for moral purity. It knows that genius is a myth invented by white men to help themselves, and sometimes to torture themselves. This is a criticism that is intersectional and has a different sense of what counts as “niche,” what is “relatable,” and what stories matter. It recognizes that film history is, to paraphrase Walter Benjamin, an archive of civilization as much as it is an archive of barbarism.

Such positions upset a certain kind of critic, and not only because a growing concern for inclusivity might take column inches away from him. More fundamentally, the contemporary vitality of minoritarian criticism reframes his values as rather less than the only ones, the right ones, no longer to be taken for granted as valid. Every film is political, especially those that purport not to be. The same is true of film criticism. The castigation of “identity politics” is an identity politics.

The claim to appreciate a film exclusively on pure merit has always been spurious, for it disavows how thoroughly the very notions of achievement and relevance are shaped by power, generally to the detriment of those who have historically been excluded from the practices and institutions that build canons and criteria. There are only five films by women out of some 150 titles in the BFI Classics book series, but not because women have made no great films. Echoing filmmaker Lis Rhodes, who asked “Whose history?” it is now vital to query, “Whose classics?”[7] Born in Flames (Lizzie Borden, 1983), Sambizanga (Sarah Maldoror, 1972), Jeanne Dielman (Chantal Akerman, 1975), Variety (Bette Gordon, 1983), Daisies (Věra Chytilová, 1966), The Ascent (Larisa Shepitko, 1977), Beau Travail (Claire Denis, 1999), Incident at Restigouche (Alanis Obomsawin, 1984), Dance, Girl, Dance (Dorothy Arzner, 1940), Daughters of the Dust (Julie Dash, 1991): where are they? To appreciate a film’s “quality” with minimal regard for social factors, with minimal awareness of the biases inherent in such a stance – an attitude widely held, even by critics who would never speak of PC pedants – is to blithely inhabit the privilege of a false universalism. The growing prominence of writing on cinema by women and people of color heralds a reckoning with that falsity.

In The Other Side of the Wind, the lady critic is called “the critic lady” because she is the only one. This gendering marks her out from the boys, but it is also derisory. In other ways, and for different reasons, it happens often today that women’s filmmaking and writing about filmmaking is labelled as such. Qualified. Festivals, sidebars, journals, and articles redress the historic absence of women by claiming a (small) space apart. This is perhaps a necessary corrective, but it also risks continued marginalization. In March 2015, Sight & Sound atoned for its 2008 gaffe by offering “A Pantheon of One’s Own: 25 Female Film Critics Worth Celebrating.” Will these critics ever escape being condemned to the particular? I get the Woolf reference, but shouldn’t women be, not in a pantheon of their own, but in the pantheon – one radically transformed by their presence?

Radical transformation is certainly happening in contemporary film criticism, but not always in ways that are positive. The possibility of being a salaried critic has vanished for all but a handful, with freelancing, hobbyism, and precarity now the new normal. In addition to a lack of sufficient remuneration, there is the well-worn refrain that critics no longer have any power, with the PR machine and algorithmic aggregators doing the work of shaping audiences. Is it a coincidence that the field has become increasingly open to a diversity of voices precisely at the moment that its financial viability and cultural prestige have vertiginously declined? For some, it is easy to be wistful for the good old days – but it’s hard to feel that way when the good old days weren’t good for people like you.

The inability to entirely remake the present merits looking for the small openings it affords. If a certain idea of professional criticism is in crisis, perhaps a bigger space can be cleared for other forms of engagement, forms of writing and publication that push beyond snap judgments, new releases, and, yes, bravado, to expand the possibilities of what film criticism can be. Harold Ross’s remark about film criticism being for “women and fairies” wasn’t true in his time. Perhaps it can be today.

[1] David Bordwell, The Rhapsodes: How 1940s Critics Changed American Film Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016), 37.

[2] Orrin Konheim, “Film Criticism’s Identity Crisis,” The American Conservative (April 28, 2017), http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/film-criticisms-identity-crisis/.

[3] Paul McManus, Rob Philp, Nick Bradshaw and Isabel Stevens, “The best films of 2017 – all the votes,” Sight&Sound, December 2017, http://www.bfi.org.uk/features/best-films-2017-all-the-votes/#/?

[4] Bordwell, The Rhapsodes, 77.

[5] Hal Foster, quoted in: Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, Silvia Kolbowski, Miwon Kwon, and Benjamin Buchloh, “The Politics of the Signifier: A Conversation on the Whitney Biennial,” October 66 (Autumn 1993), 3.

[6] Girish Shambu, “Time’s Up for the Male Canon,” Film Quarterly: Quorum (September 21, 2018), https://filmquarterly.org/2018/09/21/times-up-for-the-male-canon/.

[7] Lis Rhodes, “Whose History?” Telling Invents Told, ed. María Palacios Cruz (London: The Visible Press, 2019), 48–54. Rhodes originally published this essay in 1979 as a response to the marginalization of women in the version of experimental film history presented in the Hayward Gallery exhibition “Film as Film: Formal Experiment in Film 1910–1975.”

This piece first appeared, in a slightly different form, in Koschke, published by Woche der Kritik (Berlin Critics’ Week) in February, 2019.

This entry was posted in: Quorum