“Why Criticism” is a film criticism-themed Vague Visages column featuring various contributors.
The state of film criticism seems to be at a constant crisis point. Perhaps this is because there are fundamental changes to the way we think about cinema and the idea of a critic’s “job.” Or perhaps it’s because the industry as a whole is slowly starting to die before our eyes with conglomerates swallowing publications whole and the gig economy largely becoming the only viable way critics can even do what they do. A third option is the oft-touted idea that this is all overblown; we’re just creating these crises because we’re all stuck on Twitter, getting blasted with takes and losing our minds. I don’t think any of these concepts are outright wrong, but it’s worth pointing out that film criticism lives primarily on the internet now and how people choose to engage matters.
Over time, a film critic should be able to engage with cinema in an all-encompassing manner, acknowledging the interior and exterior forces of what makes a movie — its form, artistic choices, historical context, sociopolitical context, budget, financing and distribution. One doesn’t have to address all of these things necessarily, but these are important avenues from which to navigate the quality of a movie (what it says, how it speaks to oneself). The artistic choices made in Todd Phillips’ Joker are intrinsically tied to the 80s historical context, as well as its cinematic inspirations (Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy). Joker’s sociopolitical context, which aims to be populist, can be evaluated as adding weight or ringing hollow depending on how it is used (and most have concluded the latter).
Right now, film criticism seems to exist in a fractured state, willingly negligent of the history and art that are crucial to understanding the craft and medium. In a Chicago Reader interview, A.S. Hamrah notes that criticism “is bifurcating into people who don’t really care about film history that much and just want to talk about new things, and people who are experts in classic cinema, who are really more like buffs.” This, I consider, is a result of two major developments in the 21st century: (1) the exponential acceleration of the information age and the ever-increasing need for more relevant content; (2) a new wave of political discourse that engages with liberal media. These are also not mutually exclusive entities; they do, in many cases, feed off and into each other.
It’s not hard to imagine that, for many young film writers, relevancy is what provides the best chance of survival in this field. Why write a 1,000-word essay on Jules Dassin that only the 20 cinephile followers you have may read when you could dole out yet another take on why Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’s ending is problematic, and get enough people mad to generate clicks for higher pay? In the age of “content creation,” kickstarted by the age-old Silicon Valley tradition of throwing as many darts at a dart board as you can, writers have to keep writing and are practically encouraged to prioritize quantity over quality. You can write 30 essays a month, and if at least two of them go viral, whether for good reasons or bad, there will be money on the way (hopefully). Technology and access to information have provided opportunities for critics, but the people who made this possible are perpetuating a culture of hollow content creation for the arts that is thoroughly deprived of base knowledge.
An oft-used justification for this lack of knowledge, by younger film critics, is “gatekeeping.” It’s frustrating for young people to have to live in small towns, or in non-urban colleges with little money, and listen to older film critics ask why they can’t just “go see” a retrospective on Howard Hawks. Most publications looking for writing on classic cinema want pieces only when films receive a restoration, or when there’s a retrospective that usually exists in one of three cities. Still, avenues other than streaming exist, though many may not feel comfortable using them for either legal purposes or the risk of virus. Despite the lack of access to certain films, there are more ways to circumnavigate this issue than there have ever been in the past. Technology, for all its industrial ills, can be a huge resource if you’re willing to use it to your benefit.
While it’s easily forgivable for young film critics to write uninformed pieces of criticism (they’ll live and learn), it’s less forgivable — and much more damaging — for established culture/political critics to use film criticism as a cudgel for ideological sermonizing, especially when they do it severed from the art of cinema. Running in leftist circles online as I do, there are many instances where critique of cinema comes from what Jonathan Rosenbaum calls “an effort to separate a film’s social and political aspects from its cinematic qualities.” We lambast film critics who lecture us to “stick to cinema” and don’t talk about a movie’s politics (a strange suggestion). But we need to be extremely wary of the opposite, when the politics and culture of cinema become the primary critique over the quality.
In Matt Zoller Seitz’s RogerEbert.com essay “Please Critics — Write About the Filmmaking,” he’s unrelenting in regard to this form of criticism:
“I refuse to accept the argument that if your writing focuses on, say, issues of politics — race, class, gender, representation in general — then there’s no urgent need to comment directly on form.
That’s an evasion of the film and TV critic’s duty, and an excuse for not doing something because it’s just a little bit harder than whatever you’re used to.”
I would go further and say it’s an evasion of the culture and political critics’ duty as well. Cinema is culture, and if we agree that all cinema and art is inherently political, then all political discourse of cinema must inherently accept and engage with it as an art. A political critique about Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma cannot criticize the film’s stance without mentioning the ways in which the director films Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) or considers her placement in the frame in context to the family she works for. It cannot decipher the wealthy Cuarón’s relationship with the poor Cleo without considering the conscious decisions he makes as a filmmaker to examine her character in the house, and around the children (one of whom serves as Cuarón’s past self).
The aversion to discussing art as hand-in-hand with leftist politics is something that Jonathan Rosenbaum considers to be uniquely American. He mentions, “In Europe, where I lived for almost eight years, I found that the critics with the most sensitivity to form were almost invariably communists. In this country (America), communists and fellow travelers are more apt to be philistines about form, aesthetically if not intellectually.” It’s a strange difference, and it’s mainly informed by the fact that the American left’s idea of art is still heavily influenced by Hollywood conditioning. This conditioning suggests that mass entertainment and lowest-common denominator TV and movies are for the “working man and woman,” and assume that the working class — by way of being anti-elitist — must also be anti-intellectual (non-educated), and thus anti-art.
It’s for this reason that there is generally a pushback from leftist criticisms of movies like Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite and Roma that the examination of their artistic and cinematic forms is “besides the point.” Rather, it’s entirely the point, because whatever politics the filmmakers instilled in those movies is wholly informed by the visual cues and the artistic decisions that would best visually elicit the underlying sociopolitical meaning. The two cannot be detached. The state of film criticism, and how we engage with cinema and its political orbits, will hang and tip in the balance, based on whether we accept or reject this fact.
Soham Gadre (@SohamGadre) is a writer/filmmaker based in Washington, D.C. He has contributed to publications such as Bustle, Frameland and Film Inquiry. Soham is currently in production for his first short film. All of his film and writing work can be found at extrasensoryfilms.com.