By Marilyn Ferdinand
This past week at Cinema Styles, Jonathan Lapper linked to a column by controversial New York Press critic Armond White that was, frankly, a mess. I can’t really tell you what he was driving at exactly because he appeared to be tripping while resting his hands on his computer’s keyboard. But others boiled it down to this: “My opinions are right, and if you don’t agree with me, you’re an asshole.” The column appeared to be triggered by the adulatory articles about ailing film critic Roger Ebert, most notably one appearing in White’s hometown—and rival—newspaper, The New York Times. Perhaps he wasn’t tripping—he might have just been brain-addled from banging his head against the wall in frustration that the proverbial thumbs-up weren’t for him.
A lively discussion ensued during which we commenters wondered about our own styles of blogging and criticism, what we liked in films, DVD extras, and other things film buffs like to talk about. But are we really film buffs—amateurs—or have we crossed the line to become real critics? Here’s what Andrew O’Hehir said in a Salon article:
Former New York Times critic Vincent Canby observed years ago that the film critic’s pose of being an ordinary moviegoer is just that. You can’t watch 100 or 150 or 200 films a year and be an ordinary moviegoer; you become a specialist with a defined aesthetic and rarefied tastes in some direction or other. Whether that direction lies in Thai kickboxing films or Tarkovskyesque meditations on the soul is purely a question of temperament.
I think it’s interesting that Canby and O’Hehir don’t specify formal training as being the hallmark of a film critic—they emphasize the act of watching movies as the crucial factor in developing an aesthetic. Nonetheless, can any avid film enthusiast really go beyond the expressing of an opinion and into what used to be the formal discipline of criticism without multidisciplinary training in the arts, in general, and film, specifically? Here’s another quote from one of my favorite movies, Metropolitan:
Audrey Rouget: What Jane Austen novels have you read?
Tom Townsend: None. I don’t read novels. I prefer good literary criticism. That way you get both the novelists’ ideas as well as the critics’ thinking. With fiction I can never forget that none of it really happened, that it’s all just made up by the author.
Tom Townsend’s preference for nonfiction as a more real experience than actually reading a novel is an interesting one to ponder. Some of us read criticism either because we can’t get our hands on the films under consideration or because we’re more interested in the ideas found in cinema, be it of a genre, an artist, or a style/school of filmmaking. Most of us wouldn’t go as far as Tom by only reading about, not watching movies. Nonetheless, when one does see, as Canby says, 200 (or more) films a year, a certain malaise can settle in, a feeling that we’ve seen it all before, a sense like Tom’s that the tried-and-true formulas that have powered so many films in the past 100 years remind us that it’s not real, that we’ve been seduced by our addiction to storytelling and somehow are spending too much time escaping real life and not really engaging with it. Perhaps an intrinsic and valuable knowledge or philosophy worthy of formal criticism may actually have little or nothing to do with the business of moviemaking.
Are we making a mountain out of a molehill, elevating a low form through pretentious points of view and false meaning-making? I find a lot of instruction and comfort for what I am doing in the introduction to James Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson:
There are many invisible circumstances, which whether we read as enquirers after natural or moral knowledge, whether we intend to inlarge our science or increase our virtue, are more important than publick occurrences. Thus Sallust, the great master of nature, has not forgot in his account of Catiline to remark, that his walk was now quick, and again slow, as an indication of a mind revolving with violent commotion. Thus the story of Melancthon affords a striking lecture on the value of time, by informing us, that when he had made an appointment, he expected not on the hour, but the minute to be fixed, that the day might not run out in the idleness of suspense; and all the plans and enterprises of De Witt are now of less importance to the world than that part of his personal character, which represent him as careful of his health, and negligent of his life. … If a life [biography] be delayed till interest and envy are at an end, we may hope for impartiality, but must expect little intelligence; for the incidents which give excellence to biography are of a volatile and evanescent kind, such as soon escape the memory, and are rarely transmitted by tradition.
This quote reminds me that the actions of any person, whether real or fictional, can create meaning. Anyone can give an opinion, and the value of that opinion is based on the views of the person receiving it—not on the person giving it. Training to be a professional critic—as in one whose opinions are thought valuable enough to pay for—may include formal study at a university, but it also involves the expansion of one’s critical thoughts through experience. It is through the act of the inquiring mind that the miracle of insight can occur. So I feel that I am both a film buff and a real critic, and perhaps the two never can or should be divorced. In my opinion, a critic who dismisses the populist nature of film viewing and the unpaid ranks of volunteer film critics on the Internet and elsewhere who exemplify the love that is the Latin/French root of the word “amateur,” it is this type of critic who has degraded the discourse on film and who keeps it trapped in the business part of show business. l