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Office Christmas Party

Another reminder that allowing your cast to madly improvise instead of actually providing a coherent script with a scintilla of inherent logic often leads to…

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Harry Benson: Shoot First

The filmmakers are themselves too celebrity besotted to comment in a meaningful way on how Benson’s career balanced depictions of the rich and famous with…

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Ballad of Narayama

"The Ballad of Narayama" is a Japanese film of great beauty and elegant artifice, telling a story of startling cruelty. What a space it opens…

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The critic: Manohla Dargis on film criticism

I came across this interview, several years old, with New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis at senses of cinema. This was back when she was still writing for the LA Times, and I think she has some incisive things to say about the state of film criticism:

I wish there were more women –- as well as more black, Asian and other non-white male critics writing about film in this country –- not because of some "politically correct" imperative but because it makes the discussion more interesting. It's unbelievably tedious how similar in voice and thought many American film writers are, no matter what clique, school of thought or dead film critic to which they adhere.

Frankly, I am pretty bored with most of the film criticism I read, to the point that I am beginning to think we need to start re-examining what it is and what it's good for, if anything. Of course, most of what's out there isn't really criticism but a degraded form of reviewing – just thumbs up, thumbs down, with a heavy dose of plot synopsis. Even reviewers who are somewhat more ambitious than the average hack tend to write about movies as if they're reviewing books. They pay very little if any attention to the specifics of the medium, to how a film makes meaning with images -– with framing, editing, mise en scène, with the way an actor moves his body in front of the camera. To read most film critics in the United States you wouldn't know that film is a visual medium.

That pretty much nails it, right there. And that's why I had such a problem with the idiotic piece about "film criticism" in a recent New York Times Review of Books. Dargis talks about who she does read, and why:

I love Jim [Hoberman's] writing but at the same time the best thing that ever happened to my development as a critic was leaving the Voice and New York. The reason has less to do with any sort of anxiety of influence than the suffocating uniformity of thought that exists in the New York film world. Los Angeles is a far more liberating city for me –- it may be driven in part by the movie business but here I could embrace my idiosyncrasies and my mainstream proclivities. I don't read most of the New York press anymore and I find that as time goes by I'm not reading as many film critics, either. I still read The New Yorker because I envy David Denby's words and Anthony Lane's jokes. I read my smart friend John Powers, who's writing again for the [LA] Weekly, and I try to keep up with Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum from the Chicago Reader because they're two of the few American film critics from whom I consistently learn something new about movies. It's the same reason I read my friends Amy Taubin and Kent Jones, both of whom write regularly for Film Comment.

When I first started writing about avant-garde film for the Voice, I started reading Clement Greenberg to get a sense of how you write about non-representational art. One of the things that struck me about Greenberg's work – and what strikes me about John Berger – is how they're always able to keep their eye on the object while also opening the discussion further and further outward. I don't think you have to write an essay every time you review a movie but I do think you need to keep one eye on the film and one eye on the world beyond. If nothing else, reading Greenberg and Berger, along with great contemporary critics such as John Leonard and Peter Schjeldahl, also reminds me that when I think about movies I need to get beyond the stranglehold of pop culture. I think one of the problems with film criticism is that we rarely talk about art anymore –- we obsess about the grosses, we gossip about the “industry", we talk about this week's new movie in relation to last week's new movie. We have, in other words, let the movie business set the agenda for how we look at and write about film.

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