Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Thoughts On The Need For Critics

In response to the question posed on the cover of the current issue of SIGHT & SOUND -- "Who Needs Critics?" -- VIDEO WATCHDOG publisher/art director Donna Lucas replies, "I do... to take out the garbage!"

We had a good laugh about this (hers was somewhat lustier than mine) but, in hindsight, taking out the garbage is not a bad metaphor for what a critic does. (And this is me, turning a sow's ear into a silk purse: another thing critics do.) Film critics don't work for everyone, it's true; they work for people with little time to spend at the movies, who value their time and need to have the wheat separated from the chaff; they are also for those people who see everything and like to hone their understanding of the films they've seen but not necessarily processed. Critics give the Everyman access to intensive thought and quality conversation. A good critic is someone who not only has a gift for fashioning an impressionable sentence or phrase, but also the depth and breadth of experience as a viewer to approximately assess a new film's standing by using an internal historical slide rule that runs the gamut from the sublime to the ridiculous. I really don't care how many John Ford movies a critic has seen; it tells me more if he or she knows as much about the lower registi on the keyboard. It tells me even more if their idea of the lower register is my idea of the middle register. Even Dante had to visit the many levels of his Inferno before he could lend language to his Paradiso.

I was fortunate enough to receive an e-mail from the star of the film I reviewed in this month's SIGHT & SOUND: Claudine Spiteri of Lech Majewski's marvelous THE GARDEN OF EARTHLY DELIGHTS. "The cover of this particular edition of SIGHT & SOUND really made me chuckle!!" she wrote. "‘Who Needs Critics'?!!! If there’s one person in the world who needs a critic right now, it’s me!!" Claudine gives an extraordinary performance in this film, which was made in 2004 and which I now consider one of my favorite films of all time... but it wasn't widely seen, and my review is probably one of the most conspicuous it has received in the five years since it was made. Claudine is brilliant in the film, but she has made only one other movie since, a horror film that didn't make particularly good use of her. She is presently retired from acting and working as the director of a British production company. I cherish the note of appreciation she sent to me, and I'm delighted she felt her work vindicated by my review, as this points out another important value of the critic that is completely divorced from the general public: critics can sometimes prove beneficial to careers.

Pauline Kael's famous NEW YORKER review of THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS, in which she heaped high praises on the young director Steven Spielberg, is a classic example. On the other end of the spectrum, I can remember how Lester Bangs' seminal 1970 CREEM piece "Of Pop and Pies and Fun" caused me to jump aboard the Iggy and the Stooges cult when it was still at ground level, when Iggy had yet to bottom out for the first time. John Cassavetes used to tell a story about the first public screening of his directorial debut, SHADOWS: the theater seated 600 and 400 people were turned away; during the screening, the audience began to leave until, by the end of the picture, only the cast and crew and one other person remained; that other person turned out to be Jonas Mekas, who walked over to Cassavetes and told him, "That was the most amazing film I've ever seen." Cassavetes initially wanted to punch Mekas out, thinking his high praise was sarcasm, but he learned soon enough that this is how innovative filmmaking is commonly greeted -- with mass indifference or hostility, and maybe (if the film is lucky) one influential voice shouting hosannas in the void. It's true that the Internet can create curiosity about a new film, as it did with THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT or CLOVERFIELD, but it's doubtful that it can create the same level of cultural excitement as a single well-placed review or think piece; it's too diffuse -- think of Cable TV's 900+ channels times, oh, a million.

In the time I've been writing the "No Zone" column for S&S, I haven't received much written feedback from readers, but I have received other notes of appreciation or forwarded comment from some filmmakers whose work has impressed me. I was very pleased when Brad Stevens wrote to me about showing my review of MYRA BRECKINRIDGE to its director Michael Sarne, who said in reply, "Wow, he really got it, didn't he?" (It wasn't a purely enthusiastic review, either; I simply delineated the good in it and tried to make sense of the rest.) I've also received thanks from independent filmmakers like Jonathan Weiss (THE ATROCITY EXHIBITION) and Pola Rapaport (WRITER OF O) for bringing wider attention to their marvelous work, which was immensely gratifying. After more than thirty years at this job, it still amazes me to find out that some filmmakers really do value evidence that their work was properly understood as much as they prize commercial success and recognition or, failing those, notoreity.

Back in the 1980s, when I was writing mostly about David Cronenberg's work for various magazines, it was my goal as a critic to write about Cronenberg's movies in a manner that represented him as much as they represented me, to reach a common level of clarity that would be equally illuminating for me the writer, for him the director, and also for our shared audience. In watching parts of Cameron Crowe's ALMOST FAMOUS again on television the other day, I noted the same approach present in young rock journalist William Miller's attitude toward interviewing Russell Hammond and Stillwater -- so it must have been an approach that Crowe brought to his own early work for ROLLING STONE. In the film, William (who started out in this business as young as I did) approaches his job seriously, but also as a fan and a friend -- as I did. I suppose it can be dangerous to wear your heart on your sleeve like that, but what's the worst that can happen? A broken heart is going to make you a better artist while it's healing, and the scar will always be there like a pang in your ribcage to remind you that you've lived. It's better to risk the hurt by fully embracing your subject than to hold back and produce superficial work.

Some terrific writing usually results when a critic drops his/her defenses to adopt the attitude of a fan; unfortunately, I've rarely seen the same happen when a fan has adopted the attitude of a critic.

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