(Editor’s note: Ever since reading works by the likes of Dziga Vertov and the editors of Close Up, I’ve always wanted to write a manifesto. Not just because it’s fun to write a lot of declamatory sentences in increasingly absurd formatting, but because there’s a passion in the writings of early cinema theorists that I generally find lacking in contemporary criticism. Critical appreciation of film belongs not just to the academic and the paid critic, but to casual theater-goers and amateur aficionados as well; to water-cooler talk and Internet forums as much as the pages of the New Yorker and Cahiers du Cinema. I believe it is time to put energy and spontaneity back into film criticism, and thus follows not only the form but the content of the following essay.
The basic tenets of this piece were formed in my mind while traveling back and forth, by bus and train, through the rolling green country of Fife during my month in Scotland this past summer. Hence, the decision to name my work the St. Andrews Manifesto. Please enjoy.)
AN OPENING SALVO
THE PROBLEM: The public perception of film critics.
THE PROBLEM: The wayward purpose of film criticism.
THE PROBLEM: A perceived divide between “entertaining” and “serious” film.
THE PROBLEM: Whining, sniping, feuding, name-calling, squabbling, quarreling, jibing, slurring, disputing, and other indignities generally lacking productivity.
IN OTHER WORDS: A right mess.
Film criticism is still finding its place in the digital age. In the days of blogging and comment sections and Twitter, everyone can have an opinion about a movie. Some of these opinions are pieces of legitimate criticism – others are not. But either way, the Internet provided a platform for a barrage of amateur thinking. In the face of this great new wave of perspective, professional film critics (both those who worked for antediluvian media like TV and newspapers, and paid bloggers) automatically took up the defensive, digging themselves in for a fight to justify their very existence.
This essay is NOT intended to defend film criticism, professional or otherwise. The need for informed, dedicated cultural writers and their right to earn a living on their intellectual property should and shall be taken as a given. We are here (HERE!) instead to rectify (FIX!) the need to take up a defensive (NEGATIVE!) attitude towards one’s own profession/field/area of interest.
NEGATIVITY breeds CONTEMPT
CONTEMPT breeds INSINCERITY
INSINCERITY breeds DISTRUST
Too many film critics, striving to prove the worth of their writing, are reduced to being glib and clever. They revel in tearing down easy targets with exceptionally eloquent insults. Criticism involves being critical; but “critical” thinking has become synonymous with “disapproving,” rather than “analytical.” The targets of these objections have also become all too predictable – any critic who claims to go into every film without prejudice is LYING, and while it is not to be blamed for box office disappointment (I SEE YOU JOHNNY DEPP), critical bias exists. Too often, one reads a movie review, and just wants to shake the writer and ask:
Do you even like movies?
If this is ever in doubt; if critics have been saddled with the stereotype of being vicious, petty, and snobby, it is at least partly of our own doing. It is easy (too easy) (as we have seen) to blame and criticize others. If we are to move forward to a more positive kind of film criticism, we cannot make demands of our readers, no matter how much we may want to – no matter how much they deserve it. There is a way, not to remove critical bias (IMPOSSIBLE), but to contain it. But it requires signing on to a new definition of the fundamental purpose of criticism.
THE SOLUTION: Fix ourselves.
WHAT IS TO BE DONE?
A SMALL TASK: Redefine criticism.
The point of criticism is NOT:
- to predict the opinion of other viewers/audiences
- to point out every flaw in a film
- to pass judgment
If it is difficult to agree with that last point, consider: how many movies, critically reviled upon their initial release, have become part of the cinematic canon over time? Is there any critic who would claim to know exactly which contemporary films will still be watched and re-watched and discussed 50 years from now? Yet that should not de-legitimize a piece of writing that goes against posterity. Therefore, passing lasting judgment can’t be a legitimate purpose of criticism.
The point of criticism SHOULD BE:
- to honestly reflect the critic’s experience of a film, based on his/her viewing(s) of that film up to the time of writing
- to place works in a context
- to find cinematic work of value AND point out that value
To put things another way (PLEASE DO).
Let us stop the top-down approach of modern film criticism and establish a system of bottom-up. In a top-down world, every new film is treated, in a vacuum, as a masterpiece, a piece of perfection. It is assumed that the film will not only be worth our time, but enhance it. Once exposed, the movie is then picked at, torn apart, brought down, until it supposedly arrives at its “rightful” place.
INSTEAD this encourages an atmosphere of perpetual negativity. Every viewer will find their own flaws in a film, and so the cumulative effect of all the criticism is to wonder why anything gets made at all.
In a bottom-up mindset, we can begin by making no assumptions about the film’s worth. OR, failing that (because we admit that critical bias exists), we can at least admit that what we should primarily be looking for commendable content, rather than flaws. The search may be fruitless, true – but intent is not a meaningless thing.
ANECDOTAL EVIDENCE: If my personal experience is anything to be trusted, critics are overwhelmingly asked, not “What movies have you disliked recently?” but “What would you recommend?” Viewers are looking for positive cinematic experiences, and it is our duty to guide them towards works we consider edifying, entertaining, or praise-worthy.
HOW ARE WE TO DO IT?
TEAR DOWN THIS WALL: Between “serious” film (ARTISTIC, HIGH-MINDED, CHALLENGING) and “entertaining” movies (SENSUAL, IMMEDIATE, SIMPLE)
Permit me to put particular emphasis on the next statement, for it summarizes much of my point:
Film critics do not do a good enough job of conveying the ecstasy of talented filmmaking.
That is the PROBLEM of PROBLEMS. The original sin. Film critics largely stopped having fun, because they view their job as a duty, a calling, rather than a blessing (GOD BLESS YOU ROGER EBERT). It is not enough to merely describe a director or a film or a shot or a scene as “brilliant,” and objectively approve of its aesthetics, or form, or content. The best filmmaking should induce a physical, nay CHEMICAL, reaction. It does not matter which reaction, specifically, but a noninclusive list is provided.
- disgust (moral)
- warm fuzzies
- an inexplicable numbness just below the knee
The results of such films are immediate and perceptible, not just intellectual and abstract. There is a peculiar joy to be found in a movie that is made exceptionally well, no matter the subject matter or specific emotion elicited. This is what bonds the summer blockbuster to the art-house revival: transcendence in craft, form or aesthetics can be found at any time, in any place.
Understand, then, that the war being fought has been misinterpreted in the public eye. Most critics would agree with what I am about to say, but we have not made ourselves clear: the great conflict in cinema is not between “entertaining” and “serious” films, between “irreverent humor throughout” and “strong thematic content,” but between FASCINATING and DULL. Even the studio films that those oh-so-clever critics rip apart with such vigor are not actually that incompetent (usually), but they are BORING. Their sheer mediocrity is what staggers and enrages.
The danger lies in a critic’s attempt to compensate for a film’s tedium with their own writing. By using overly witty takedowns and elaborate conceits, the critic in fact makes the film LESS boring, at least in the mind of the reader. The original point – ideally, to steer attention away from the boring work to something more worthy of interest – is completely undermined.
Why talk about things that don’t interest you?
Word counts and professional obligation are not an excuse. If you are at a loss to find something of value and consideration in a film, write about something else. A funny thing that happened on the way to the theater. A re-examination or revised thoughts on a previously reviewed movie. A stream-of-consciousness commentary of the view outside your window at the moment. A grocery list.
Do not reward uninspired filmmaking with an inspired response.
A CLARIFICATION: Your WRITING should always remain as fresh and creative as possible. You may have suffered through a film, but you are not obligated to share your misery. Share worthy films (or aspects of films) with your readers; shield them from the unworthy. If you write a grocery list, may it be festooned with asparagus and macaroons and other inherently entertaining words.
A FURTHER CLARIFICATION: Be forthright. Make it clear why you are writing a grocery list. Only then will the reader understand that you are doing this, not from senility, but a genuine boredom with the banality of the film in question.
LONG LIVE THE ASPARAGUS
A STIRRING CONCLUSION
If you read this, are a film critic, and are offended, good. (IT WAS PROBABLY INTENDED FOR YOU)
If you read this, are not a film critic, carry on. (REMEMBER TO EAT YOUR VEGETABLES)
If you read this, are a film critic, or like to partake in informed, lively debate about film, just remember that passion is far more engaging than hate. (DON’T EVER POST ON YOUTUBE)
(JUST DON’T DO IT)