2016 Film Essays

Why Criticism?

Chabrol and Godard at Cahiers du cinema

Reading A.O. Scott’s Better Living Through Criticism, it seemed he was being evasive about the reason for criticism. His conversations with himself, in particular, were constantly skirting the main point, and eventually turned so deeply inward that they came out right side up again. It frustrated me that he couldn’t answer the question that he had devoted an entire book to, but maybe that’s the point. Criticism, it seems, is both parasitic and insular. It literally thrives on the work of others but also exists on an island operating under an independent governing body. Like a small island country in the Pacific Ocean, most of our work on Critical Island feels monumental but rarely echoes out into the wider world.

Criticism has changed monumentally in the past decade. The Internet has removed the power from the critic as a gatekeeper, allowing just about anyone to set up a WordPress blog to share their thoughts on the latest film. Criticism, which used to be elite and maybe even important, suddenly became diluted by the democratic power of the Internet. And, it wasn’t long before it started to eat into the staff positions at major newspapers and magazines across the world. PR companies started to go to the blog writers before the bigger critics, and to this day, it often seems that film criticism has become an extended branch of major studios’ marketing departments.

So, why write criticism? Well, the obvious misdirect would be to ask something similar to any form of art. Why paint? Why sing? With criticism, this answer never seems sufficient. Criticism has a poisonous air, which makes us want to disassociate it from other arts. Nevermind that some of the greatest films in history were extensions of critical writing. Without film criticism, I dare say we would never have films by Godard, Rohmer, Andersen or Rapaport. Without criticism, what would cinema even look like today?


Why do I write criticism? I’m not even sure. It’s something I’ve done ever since my late teens, and I’ve never wanted to stop. Eventually, I’d like to write my own movies, but for now, I feel challenged enough by the task of writing about the films I’ve seen. Lately, I’ve tasked myself with translating as closely as possible my feelings onto the page. Reaching into my heart and mind and taking images, colours, heartbeats and making sense of them with writing. That wasn’t the case a year ago, and it will likely change a year from now. Really, my ideas about my own need for criticism are so broad and ever-changing that it seems impossible to settle on a permanent answer. So, why do I feel qualified to field an entire column on the topic? Because I think writing criticism is often about asking questions.

When Quinn approached me with the idea of writing a column related to criticism, I was excited because it seemed like an impossible question. Where to begin? As unqualified as I feel to field the question, I’m hoping through interviews, questions and explorations of the past to find immense and sustained value in the art of critical discourse. With a rather flexible mandate, each week different questions and topics related to film criticism will be explored. Over time, I would also like to explore some of the resources and experiences I went through as I started to write more seriously.

As absolutely flexible as this column will be, my inbox is open to suggestions, questions and critical articles you particularly love. Don’t hesitate to email me at smith.justinea@gmail.com 

And, this week on Film Twitter:

Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.


5 replies »

  1. Your reaction to Scott’s book (which I’ve not read) reminds me of my reaction to his column on “death of adulthood” a couple years ago. It had the same hedging, self-doubting quality to it which just seemed unnecessarily inconclusive. I don’t think Scott is the only writer to strike this crisis-of-confidence tone, especially in print, and one of the things I like about (primarily) online writers is there seems to be more of a sense of adventure, less handwringing, like they’re on Appolo 11 rather than the Titanic. I look forward to your columns, and would be interested to see you cover video essays at some point (I may be doing so myself soon). They are certainly a new form of criticism which blurs the lines (or perhaps exposes the inherent overlap) between creativity & criticism in interesting ways. As someone who is probably a biased toward filmmaking as the ultimate ideal, I’m interested to see what this generation of writers ABOUT film eventually produces in terms of writers/directors OF films. The internet is certainly an ideal platform for that too.

    • Thank you for the reply, Joel! I think there is a safety in the self-doubting tone, which is sort of a safer version of the Socratic method. While under the guise of questioning your own assumptions, it is more often than not a cushion to protect you from people disliking or misreading your work. I get it, I do it too. Sometimes it’s a matter of not giving yourself enough time to settle on an opinion as well, and we don’t always have the luxury of time. But I do think it’s something that ironically emerged from the culture of think pieces and Internet feedback, when people are quick to react to everything you might pronounce, it seems like we try to protect ourselves from that blowback through uncertain prose. I think it should go without saying that whatever I’m writing is my opinion and that it’s even (gasp) possible that I change that view days, weeks, or years later. But I digress.

      I’m really interested in video essays, as someone who has produced them myself. I think it’s the future, in a way, but I don’t think writing will ever truly go away. I think there is not enough dialogue around the form or the art of video essays, or else their relationship to criticism itself.

      I’m hoping to cover a lot of different questions and aspects of criticism, especially how it is changing. As someone who’d like to make films as well, I think you’ll find that I will definitely be addressing a lot of what you’re curious about!

      Happy to have you on board for this adventure!

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