Friday 27 May 2022

Another essay concerning film criticism

Since my last post there has been an unexpected development. I have been elected chairman of the Swedish Film Critics' Association. Given this honour, I thought I should write something about my views on criticism, a topic I have addressed before in connection with the publication of A.O. Scott's book Better Living Through Criticism.

Criticism of the arts is as old as art itself, and that is proof enough of its importance and relevance. It is part of human culture, a key aspect of the perennial conversations we humans have with each other, and it could not be otherwise. As soon as something exists, people will have opinions about it and want to air those opinions, and discuss it, whether a sports game, a film, a building, a politician, a food diet, a car brand, and so on. I think most people tend to feel that sharing one's thoughts about an experience, whether good or bad, is a joyful, even necessary, part of the experience, and to a large extent that is what criticism is. Another way of defining it is that it is to relate to a work of art as a whole, including its aesthetic qualities, from a personal perspective, and express that perspective to others. The criticism can be done in different media: a long essay in a print journal, a video essay, a TikTok video, a concise, well-argued Facebook post (Joe McElhaney is a master of that), or a newspaper column.

Another important role it plays is to help draw attention to what is happening within a given field of the arts, or culture at large, such as films. When I was young I read film criticism on a daily basis and this was essential for me. Reading it was educational and inspiring, it taught me what was happening in the world of film both close to where I lived and far away. This also had the added benefit of making me feel part of that larger world. I used to cut out reviews, long and short, from the newspapers I had access to, and saved them in ring binders. I still have that collection, and I will never part with it voluntarily.

There are different kinds of criticism, which serve different purposes. The brief reviews of recent releases that are mainly a plot description and a few sentences about whether the reviewer liked it or not is rarely considered prestigious, but it can be invaluable. There are more films to watch than the average viewer has time for, but if you can find a critic whose judgement you can trust and whose taste seems to be similar to yours, then choosing what to watch from the week's premieres based on the recommendations of that reviewer is practical. Some form a kind of relationship with "their" reviewer and might communicate with them in assorted ways to let them know when they were in agreement and when they were not.

But such reviews do not have much afterlife; with few exceptions they are quickly forgotten. They are reviews as consumer advice. 

A different kind is the long, deep criticism that aims to contextualise the film in question, to analyse form and content, an aesthetic and intellectual engagement with the film that ideally requires more than one viewing of it, although it is not always necessary. Noël Carroll suggests, in his recent book Philosophy and the Moving Image, that films can be judged on two premises: what is the purpose of the film and how well does the film succeed in achieving that purpose; are the style and the method that the filmmakers have chosen the most suitable for realising the purpose of the film.

The challenges for the critic are to be able to write well, to finish before deadline (which can be agonisingly tight), and, not least, to do the film justice. Is the criticism fair? Have you understood the film on its own terms? Are you seeing the film as it is and not how you imagine it to be? These can be difficult questions, and it is always worthwhile to ask yourself them from time to time. Some humility is necessary. Any interpretation of a film is just that, an interpretation. Although we often tend to treat our interpretation of a film, or of any artwork, as the truth about it, it rarely is.

Another challenge for the critic is not to be corrupted. There are different reasons for how this can happen, such as for ideological reasons or because of money. It has been interesting of late to notice how big companies like Netflix and not least Disney have learned to use and play on the forces that exist in the digital sphere today, and encourage their fans to attack and question those who criticise the companies' films and series, which has led to a situation where people voluntarily turn themselves into unpaid PR people for some of the largest media corporations of our time, partly because these corporations understand how to use representation as a marketing ploy. A lot of what passes for film criticism today is either directly produced by media corporations or made by fans eager to please. The result can often be cringeworthy.

But there is also good film criticism being done today that takes the art of cinema seriously, and engages with it with style and knowledge. As long as we have art I expect that to continue to be the case.