Friday, 11 March 2016

An essay concerning the values and meanings of criticism

I have written about films since 1997, more or less regularly, yet I have never actually considered myself a critic. In the beginning I felt I was not qualified enough to call myself a critic (which was just silly) and the last ten years or so I have, when asked, preferred to called myself a film historian (which I am), but still, for reasons unclear, hesitated to use the word critic. Partly I think because it felt belittling (which is even more silly), and that scholar sounded more serious. But I love criticism and read it more or less every day, and have done so since 1997 as well. (Yes, that was an important year for many reasons. It was also the year I moved out of my parents' house, and, incidentally, the year I first sent an email. I remember it was that year because I had sent my first piece of film criticism to the editor by fax and he suggested I send it again as an email, if I had the means to do so. I had to ask a friend of a friend who had an email account.) So since I am qualified and it is not belittling I will henceforth refer to myself as a critic. Not exactly the Edmund Wilson of our time but a critic just the same.

There are three things by which a critic can be judged: the level of command of the facts, the validity of the opinions and the style of writing. I sometimes feel that the third part, style, is what I personally value the most. But somebody who gets all their facts wrong is of course intolerably, although many seems not to be all that bothered with it for some reason. So I read criticism for the artistry of it, i.e. the style. But also because I want to learn new things and to expand my horizons, and to find new ways of looking at things I am already familiar with. Among critics that I read and re-read are Pankaj Mishra, Edmund Wilson, James Wood, Ruth Halldén, Virginia Woolf, Lionel Trilling, and they have all enriched my life, influenced me, guided me. In the introduction to his excellent book The Critic in the Modern World, James Ley writes that "[o]ne of the most evident of the various cultural anxieties that have shadowed the practice of literary criticism throughout its modern history is a nagging sense of doubt about its necessity" but I do not have that nagging sense. On the one hand it is not more unnecessary that most other things we humans do. On the other hand, if it really served no purpose it would not exist. Since people write and read criticism it has a purpose and is a necessity.

None of those mentioned above were film critics but one of the contemporary film critics I particularly like is A.O. Scott at the New York Times and his book Better Living Through Criticism, just released, is the reason for this post. I read the book last week and it was a great pleasure, not least because it was written for people such as myself, by which I mean, among other things, that it is a book about people who love Henry James, the Louvre and Howard Hawks and who have had discussions about what art is and what criticism is, and often have had to speak up in defence of both art and criticism. Scott has done it before in a filmed discussion with David Carr in 2012, which can be considered something of a dress rehearsal for this book. After having seen their debate I commented on it in an earlier post (here) which I recommend that you read if you want to know my views on film criticism. Some of the comments about, or rather against, critics that came up in their discussion are also addressed in Scott's book.

Better Living Through Criticism is not just about film criticism; it is about criticism in general. One chapter is about museums, centred on the Louvre in Paris, and another chapter is about taste. Scott analyses poems by Rilke and Keats and does a fine reading of Henry James's novel The American. He discusses the arguments for being kind or for being harsh, and about the difference of being a bad critic and being wrong. Bad is not something to be, but to be wrong is both natural and healthy Scott believes, and I agree with that. It is not an exact science, and when we change, or the context changes, we might feel differently about something we once loved or hated. But some of Scott's examples are perhaps less than obvious. In the chapter about being wrong he writes about Frank S. Nugent's review of Hawks's Bringing Up Baby (1938). Nugent did not like it whereas today it is considered a classic and one of Hawks's finest, and Scott's point is that this is an example of how tastes change over time. I would like to point out though that there are many today who feel the same way about Baby as Nugent did in 1938, whereas Otis Ferguson, also writing in 1938, thought it was an excellent film. "This film holds together by virtue of constant invention and surprise in the situations; and Howard Hawks' direction, though it could have been less heavy and more supple, is essentially that of film comedy." Ferguson wrote in his review in The New Republic. So where does this leave us in terms of the changing of tastes?

Bringing Up Baby

Among the film critics of earlier days whom Scott does not mention but that I like to read are C.A. Lejeune and Dilys Powell, but then I would like them considering their unwavering championship of John Ford. Lejeune called him "probably the finest film director now living" ("now" being 1940) and they did not just like the social dramas such as The Informer (1935) or The Grapes of Wrath (1940) but his other films too, including the Westerns. Lejeune wrote a lovely review of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) for example. When Ford's The Sun Shines Bright (1953) came out Powell used it as a test-case in her review the same year, and pointing out how different art forms require different approaches:
To explain to a sophisticated taste why The Sun Shines Bright is so good a film strikes me as nearly impossible. A sophisticated literary taste, that is. In the cinema sophistication wears strange colours, and the most austere judge will admire a piece which to a reading man may appear tearful tosh. Nothing sadder than to watch some devoted film critic trying to explain to a dramatic or a literary critic - or even an art critic, for artists outside their own field are ruled more than they think by literary ideas - that to appreciate a film you have to look at it, not just listen to it. Human desperation can go no further. (From Powell's review in The Sunday Times.)
In the end of her review she points out that the film is not realistic in the sense that it is about the real world, but it does not pretend to be. It is Ford's world, "an artist's abstract of life".

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon

It is worth emphasising this because conventional wisdom (and Scott's book is part of that convention) has it that before the critics at Cahiers du cinéma in the mid-1950s nobody took American popular cinema seriously and film directors were not considered artists. I do not know how many times I have read critics and scholars claiming that people such as Ford and Hitchcock were "discovered" by the French. But this is just not true. At best you could argue that the French critics enlarged the group of directors whom was taken seriously; they spoke favourably about, for example, Sam Fuller and Robert Aldrich in a way few had done before. But the directors of the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s and 1950s who today are generally considered the elite are pretty much the same as was considered the elite before Cahiers, such as Eisenstein, Murnau, Ford, Wilder, Lang, Welles and Hitchcock. (Ferguson frequently referred to Hitchcock as "a genius", and in his review in The New Republic of The Lady Vanishes (1938) he called him "a one-man show /.../ almost an academy".) Perhaps the only definitive addition the critics at Cahiers made to the pantheon has been Hawks, with the qualification that in the US he had already been celebrated repeatedly by Manny Farber, and several French critics, already in the 1920s, loved his films. "It is a work of Howard Hawks, auteur of A Girl in Every Port, which in itself is a recommendation." Michel Vaucaire wrote about Scarface in Le Crapouillot in 1932, although Hawks's biggest French fan back then might have been Jean George Auriol.


In High Fidelity (Stephen Frears 2000) Rob's girlfriend Laura is pushing him to start a record label and be a producer. Her argument is something like "It's that you're making something. You the critic, the professional appreciatory, are now putting something new into the world. The second one of those records are sold you're officially a part of it." The implication here is that if you are a critic you are not actually doing anything, and not contributing anything. It is not an unusual view and one of the reasons why Scott wrote his book is to argue against that point, and make the opposite claim. Criticism is creative and an art form in its own right. "That the critic is a craftsman of sorts is obvious enough; I want to insist that the critic is also a creator." (p. 17) In the second chapter he points out that many great artists, such as Jean-Luc Godard, T.S. Eliot and Édouard Manet, are critics not only because they write criticism but because in their art they are commenting on others films, books, poems and paintings. But a work of more traditional criticism, a review, an essay, can also in and of itself be a work of art. Art and criticism go hand in hand.

Scott quotes a lot of critics along the way but there is a quote by Alfred Kazin that he does not use, even though Kazin argues something else that Scott wants to put across, that criticism is "so basic a communication between men", So not only is criticism an art form, or can be, but it is also something we all do almost on a daily basis. It is part of being human. It is also an intellectual endeavour, and this is important for Scott. To think, to question, to criticise, these are things that we should do, and must do, if we are to prosper. And yet... "Anti-intellectualism is virtually our civic religion. 'Critical thinking' may be a ubiquitous educational slogan - a vaguely defined skill we hope our children pick up on the way to adulthood - but the rewards for not using your intelligence are immediate and abundant." (p. 10) So an important impetus behind the book is clearly that, to emphasise the importance of the free-thinking intellect when such a thing is not necessarily valued. But Scott does not fall into the trap of saying that there was once a golden age and now everything has gone to the dogs; he is more enlightened than that. He does also make fun of all those who have proclaimed the death of the movies and sighed about how they do not make good films any more. "Some of the most respected and shrewdly perceptive critics in the field have shared this view, at moments that would in due course be held up as pinnacles of glory: Agee in 1941, Manny Farber in 1962, Pauline Kael in 1979, David Denby in 2012." (p. 186)

But Better Living Through Criticism is not a history of criticism. It is a defence, and celebration, of criticism, and it does a very fine job of that. Now there are more new books on the subject, with a more strict focus on film criticism, such as Girish Shambu's The New Cinephilia and David Bordwell's forthcoming The Rhapsodes: How 1940s Critics Changed American Film Culture. Hopefully I will return with posts about them too.


I thought I end by mentioning some of my favourite film critics. One of the best, and for me personally most influential, is Tom Milne. Among other things he has written a great book about Rouben Mamoulian, been assistant editor of Sight & Sound, and he wrote reviews for various newspapers and in Time Out Film Guide (which he founded). He also translated French books and articles into English. My favourite of working critics today is Glenn Kenny, especially when he writes at his blog Some Came Running. Kenny, like Scott, also writes for the New York Times, as does another of the great ones, Manohla Dargis.

Awake in the Dark, edited by David Denby, is a fine collection of reviews and articles by a number of film critics, including many of those mentioned in this post.

Here, finally, is a video essay by Matt Zoller Seitz, also among the best critics today. (There is a lot more to Boetticher than the five films that are discussed in this video essay but it still captures the essence of the filmmaker.)

Scott does on one page write about Dr Mabuse's island when I suspect he means Dr Moreau's, but I will not hold it against him. In any event the astute invocation of Monty Python's The Life of Brian (1979) at another point makes up for any mistake he might have made.

For more reviews by Otis Ferguson: The Film Criticism of Otis Ferguson (1971)
For more reviews of Dilys Powell: The Golden Screen (1989) and The Dilys Powell Film Reader (1991)
For more reviews by C.A. Lejeune: The C.A. Lejeune Film Reader (1991)

Here is my homage to Andrew Sarris.
Here is my post about Robert Warshow.
Here is a post I wrote about by thoughts about art, and how I define it.
In 2012 I founded an online film journal, Frames Cinema Journal, and Catherine Grant was my guest-editor for the first issue. It has many articles on criticism in an age of open access.

Some suggested, non-film related, readings:
Irving Howe's 1969 essay about the New York Intellectuals.
Pankaj Mishra's wonderful essay Edmund Wilson in Benares.
Amit Chaudhuri's review of James Wood's latest book.
Alfred Kazin's book On Native Ground (1942).

The title of this post is of course inspired by John Locke.
The superlative act of the critic is to find in a work of art for the delight of modern temperaments some previously unsuspected implication of beauty. (Lewis E. Gates)


  1. A very interesting post, as usual :)

    I get the impression that the critics you mention are more or less scholars but that they also wrote pieces for regular newspapers -- how does this work in Sweden in your opinion? The professional critics who get their opinions read och listened to by the general public, do they also write other types of criticism like for example books? Or is there a sort of two cultures-thing going on here?

    Also, I can sort of sympathise with Rob's sentiment from High Fidelity, although a bit clichéed. Naturally, art has as well have to come from something but I feel that criticism has a more obvious beginning in the thing it criticises. Without music, no music criticism and so on.

    1. Well, that would then depend on your definition of scholar. Trilling had a PhD in literature and later became a professor in the same subject, at Columbia and Harvard. Others are critics with no university affiliations at all, and some, like Wood and Scott, have been invited to teach after becoming well-known critics.

      In Sweden there are also so many different types of critics that it is hard to say something general about them. Among both book and film critics there are some who are university professors, some who are writers, and those who are professional critics. And some who just happens to write some reviews now and then, and they may or may not get paid for it.

      About High Fidelity, I'm not sure what you are sympathising with. My point was that doing criticism is also a creative act, it contributes something, it adds something new to the world. Don't you agree with that?

      "Without music, no music criticism and so on." you say, and it is true, but is that not like saying "without water lilies or Saint Lazare station, no paintings by Monet"?

    2. I absolutely agree that criticism is also a creative act (or at least should be;)), something more than merely commenting or opinionating (is that a word?) on something. And yes, naturally many artists paint or write from some sort of human made reality but I would claim that they are a lot freer in this reality than the critic. The artist can make shit up as fast as it pleases "hen", the critic cannot.

    3. I wonder what our non-Swedish readers will make of your hen there! (For the record, it's not a fowl metaphor.)

  2. The British director Ben Wheatley recently went on a tirade against critics, essentially calling them lazy parasites on the bodies of artists, but while it's easier to write a review than make a film, it's just as hard to develop the kind of perception, insight and writing skill that make one a great critic as it is to become a good filmmaker. With the "democratization" of criticism on the Internet, this has become increasingly obvious.

    1. "As a creative person I think you should be making stuff. That’s the challenge. Talking about other people’s stuff is weird. Why aren’t you making stuff? And if you aren't, why should you really have a voice to complain about things until you’ve walked a mile in someone’s shoes? There are a lot of critics that I like and I read a lot of stuff online, but just as a personal thing I don’t get that relationship with art where you can just talk about it but not create it." is what he said. It seems though that he was more upset with negative rants on Twitter than informed criticism.

  3. Establishing a career as a filmmaker is difficult. Matt Zoller Seitz, whom you mention, has directed a feature film. So have the current lead critic of the Village Voice, Bilge Ebiri and the New Yorker's Richard Brody. For none of these men did this lead to a path out of criticism. Has Wheatley ever written a book? (I don't believe he even writes the scripts to the films he directs.) If not, where does he come off passing judgment on any of the novels he reads, going by the logic of the quote above? I don't know - he definitely seems hostile to film criticism as a practice, even if there are some critics he likes, and not just ignorant rants on Twitter.

    1. I can understand a person being upset and disappointed about their work being criticised or disliked, but the response so often consists of tiresome clichés, and instead of honestly saying that they just get upset when people dislike their work they try to pretend it is about defending a principle about standing up to "parasitic critics". If they really disliked critics they would not read them, and they would not happily tweet good reviews. But that's just being human. Whether he writes his own scripts or not is not really relevant here, is it?

  4. I meant to put a comma after "Bilge Ebiri."