Our Backstreets #17: A Critical Question

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

  • HarryTuttle spoke:
    27th/04/2008 to 5:08 pm

    Great post, thanks for writing about this.
    The point of fiction literature is almost entirely opposite to what Townsend makes it sound. It’s called “suspension of disbelief”. There is a storytelling pact between the writer and the reader. We are willing to ignore that it was all invented, but we want it to be well written enough to be mesmerizing. Fiction is a mental journey, and that’s what a reader goes for.
    To dismiss literature just because the events described didn’t occur in real life, totally obliterate the actual power of fiction and on the other hand suggests a voyeuristic fascination for spying on real people rather than satisfying yourself with its fictional imitation…

  • Marilyn spoke:
    27th/04/2008 to 5:35 pm

    Hi Harry. Thanks for your comments. Of course, you’re quite right; the character of Tom Townsend is meant to be a bit ridiculous, as are all the privileged characters in this comedy of manners. But his approach has been taken by many in less rarified educational settings–remember Cliff’s Notes?
    You remind me of something Errol Morris said to me. That photographs require a suspension of belief, that we tend to think photography always provides reality, which it certainly never did and is even less the case now with the invention of Photoshop.

  • Pat spoke:
    27th/04/2008 to 8:12 pm

    Great post.
    I’d read that Canby quote before, and I’ve tended to agree with him. The sheer volume of films that a critic sees has to influence his tastes and opinion.
    But I like that you address the question of whether one develops an aesthetic simply by watching films or by studying all the arts. It’s something I think about, and I know I most prefer to read criticism written by those who can knowledgeably evaluate films within a larger political, historical or artistic context.
    But I always prefer seeing a movie to reading a review.
    My blog, however, I see as the opportunity to express my personal experiences of film watching and to connect and share ideas with other film lovers.

  • Jonathan Lapper spoke:
    27th/04/2008 to 10:55 pm

    Marilyn – I foolishly came here just before I have to go to bed to get up early for a long day at work tomorrow so I don’t have time to leave a long analytical comment now but I definitely have some thoughts I want to share. I’ll be back in the morning. Great post. Inspired and thought-provoking.

  • Rick Olson spoke:
    28th/04/2008 to 9:07 am

    Marilyn, a fabulous post. I think it gets at a interesting dimension of the controversy referenced by Jonathan’s post, and generated by White’s idiotic article (which I would tend to ignore as the ravings of this guy who sees his livelihood being eaten away by the internet if they weren’t so entertainingly baroque).
    Anyway, several years ago, I decided to take my appreciation of movies a bit further and learn about what makes them tick, etc. So in my typically left-brain way, I started by reading a couple of introductory film text-books to get kind of a baseline of knowledge. Then, I started watching movies, lots of them, mainly foreign ones that I was too stupid to have seen when I was younger on the big screen. Then I started writing about them at the blog.
    The point is that for me, it worked really well to get a little technical grounding, albeit second-hand through books. Although I don’t pretend to think it’s equivalent to a film course, when I watch films now I have a foundation of basic info on technical, aesthetic and historical stuff that increases both my enjoyment and understanding of what I am seeing.
    The next step for me, writing about the films I see (some of them, anyway), serves to focus my thoughts and ideas. It’s satisfying to me to be able to see my writing in this area progress.
    Again, thanks for the meaty post!

  • Jonathan Lapper spoke:
    28th/04/2008 to 10:26 am

    I agree that it is a love of film that makes one a critic, or more generally, a love of any art fom in my opinion makes one an informed critic. I may not agree with their views but if they have a love for it that exceeds the superficial, that goes deep into the roots of the form itself, they I respect them as a critic.
    I have known many people who have majored in English. Being their discipline of formal training, so to speak, has not made them informed critics in my view. My wife however, has no formal training in literature but she has a love for it that I have found rarely matched by anyone else I have known. As such, her understanding of literature runs deeper than most literary critics I have read.
    I spent my high school years taking AP English courses and did well enough on the AP exam to exempt English in College, allowing me to take whatever literature courses I wanted to as electives. I read all the classics but had little love or understanding of them at the time. However, my wife has read those same classics on her own and her insights into them exceed anything I was taught in those classes, and anything I understood about those books. She is not paid by any literary publication but I consider her the best literary critic I know.
    If White is under the impression that to be a critic is to be paid for it then he is woefully mistaken. Is Nathan Lee no longer an informed critic of film because he has been let go? Or the other critics in the last year let go from their respective publications? If they now take up blogging as a result is their opinion or knowledge of film of any less value?
    I find a great irony in White’s writings overall in relation to blogging. I, like you and most bloggers, have perused hundreds of blogs over the years, finding a select few that stand out that I want to revisit often. In the course of my perusals I have come across blogs that belittle the art of criticism and the love of film. Without naming a one I am sure you can think of some that fit the mold: Scorched Earth policies of blasting any and all accepted classics, ridiculing opposing points of views, making their name by being arrogant loud-mouthed smart-asses. These blogs are the worst of the lot for me because they do not engage in an honest conversation about the art form but attempt to increase readership and reputation by way of phony indignant poses. These are the blogs that bring the whole question of “are bloggers critics” into the limelight. The irony for me is that if Armond White was not a paid critic, it is absolutely clear that he would be this type of blogger. Without question. The very worst of blogging, that which makes him criticize it, is exactly what he does. When I read him I think of an immature, inexperienced adolescent making his way in the world by telling everyone around him that he understands everything and no one else understands anything.
    It’s easy to recognize because, embarrassingly, most of us go through it ourselves in our teens to early twenties. But we grow out of it. We have life experiences that teach us we don’t know everything. Experiences that teach us to be more humble in our approach to opinion, more gracious.
    Sadly, White is not a teenager, indicating that like some unfortunates in this world, he has not grown with age, only gotten older. There are some people like that, some that I have known personally. They age but they do not grow. For a man of his age to still be writing like this is truly sad indeed. I can’t even imagine what it must be like to have decades of life experience under one’s belt and yet have the limited thought processes of someone with only a few. And I can’t decide which is worse: The sadness of that situation or the embarrassment of living with it.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    28th/04/2008 to 11:08 am

    Thanks all. I wasn’t sure I was really saying anything worthwhile while I was writing it. So much has been said already, and I admit it was a bit hard to understand where I was going with it at first, why I felt compelled to write. I feel reassured by your kind regard.
    Pat – I agree with you. I find so much more pleasure in a film when I can find more in it than a plot. I actually find my readings in current events, history, and art do a lot more for me than movie reviews and texts in this regard.
    Rick – Just to let you know. Film courses I’ve taken – more like movie appreciation than technical stuff – don’t do much more for a student than you do on your own. (I’m going to get pummeled for that, I know, as two of my friends are film teachers.) What I like about them is the chance for comparative study on a theme or a filmmaker, as well as the background information a teacher can bring that I wouldn’t have thought to look up. For example, I took a course called “Forgotten Films of 1933,” a fascinating year if you look into it. The teacher, my buddy Bob Keser, a full-time film teacher, brought in some great information about the movie studios. He specifically pulled in films from each major studio at that time to give us an idea of what they were making at the time. I learned Warner Bros made more than cartoons! Yes, I was very green then, but eager to learn.
    Jonathan – What a great comment! That’s a post in itself. Another point of similarity between us – I got a 5 on the AP English test, too, and tested out of three of my four required credits. I was not an English major; didn’t feel the need to be because I read so much already. I wanted to learn about other things – poli sci and history – and those have been a huge help to me in my appreciation of film. My theatre experience has given me a lot of insight into dramatic structure, stage to screen, technical aids to storytelling, etc. I always wanted to be an expert in something, but I find I’m having a bit more fun as an enthusiastic generalist.
    I agree completely about White. What’s wrong with him, and this is just armchair psychiatry, is that he’s nothing but a competitor. He wants the high honors Ebert is getting, but it’s not possible because he doesn’t have Ebert’s love and humanity. That what makes Ebert a great and beloved critic. White can never be beloved, and that kills him. He’s like a person who will never be satisfied, and that has made him bitter. He may have aged – I don’t really see him as one of those college-age know-it-alls exactly – but his aging has turned him rancid. He’s not where he wants to be at this stage in life; he thinks he’s owed more.

  • Fletch spoke:
    28th/04/2008 to 11:29 am

    I agree – great post, Marilyn. And excellent job incorporating The Critic into it; just watched an episode last night. No one realizes it, but that was Family Guy before Family Guy, what with all the pop culture references.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    28th/04/2008 to 1:20 pm

    Thanks, Fletch. The Critic was a great show. It deserved to last longer than it did.

  • Kimberly spoke:
    28th/04/2008 to 4:08 pm

    I’ve personally been trying to avoid all the recent blog posts, writing and conference chatter about film criticism because it’s really getting on my nerves frankly and after I read it I feel dirty. I really dislike White, Lee and many other modern film critics due to the way they write about film and audiences so it was no surprise that I found White’s recent piece ridiculous.
    I disagree with Ebert a lot but at least the man clearly loves movies and that passion comes through in his personality and writing.
    I’ve also been ever so slowly trying to formulate a piece on the ugly class consciousness found in a lot of modern film criticism perpetuated by guys like White (which I started months ago after discussions on Jim’s Scanners blog and Jonathan’s Cinemastyles blog encouraged me to listen and read more Pauline Kael – White’s “teacher” – and afterward I felt like sticking knives in my damn head) but it’s turning into a rather angry and cutting piece so I may never end up sharing it. Anyway, I digress…
    My first exposure to film critics who I enjoyed reading and who helped shape my own film tastes and inform my opinions about cinema were guys like Joe Bob Briggs and Tim Lucas who never went to college or countless movie zines published in the ’80s and ’90s (Asian Trash Cinema, Eurotrash Cinema, etc.) that were written by enthusiastic fans who were often high-school dropouts like myself (yes, I went back to school and studied film in collage but I learned nothing about film that I couldn’t learn in books). The unwashed masses who were writing about films that no formal critic with an expensive education would dare touch are much more interesting to read in my opinion than most of New York’s current newspaper critics with countless college degrees.
    It’s amazing to me that people take critics like Armond White and Nathan Lee so seriously but sadly they do.
    I personally have no desire to become a paid film critic who’s forced to watch every new craptastic film that’s released and write about them but I’d love to write a book someday about some area of film that I’m passionate about even if guys like White don’t think I’m “worthy” of such an endeavor. I personally think a lot of bloggers are more interesting to read than mainstream established critics because they don’t have an agenda or need to worry about advertisers, editors, popular opinion, etc. Most bloggers seem to write – just like the guys and gals who published film zines in the ’80s and ’90s with their own pennies – because just like myself, they love to write and they love film. When I start sensing that a blogger has another agenda I tend to stop reading them.
    So where am I going with this long rant? I have no damn idea!
    My apologies for clogging up your blog comments Marilyn but I figured I’d finally weigh in on this topic since it seems to be popping up all over the interwebs lately and it’s become somewhat of an itchy wound that I can’t seem to scratch.

  • Jonathan Lapper spoke:
    28th/04/2008 to 4:39 pm

    Just so it’s clear (I don’t want people thinking I was responsible for torturing Kimberly) in the posts on Scanners and my place and Dennis Cozzalio’s blog especially, I was against Kael. Now I was in the minority, along with Kimberly and a few others, and I don’t want to start a whole new fight about it but I found Kael’s writing to be more about proving her cleverness much of the time than examining the film in question so maybe that explains a lot of White right there.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    28th/04/2008 to 4:43 pm

    Your comments are always welcome, Kimberly, so no worries. I don’t think I ever took movies seriously enough to be bothered by critics and opinions–this entire firestorm seems just a bit strange to me. I agree that I never would want to be a “professional” critic because I want to choose the films I watch, not have the schedule of new releases do it for me.
    Perhaps that’s why I posted this short essay. I want people to keep enjoying movies and expressing that enjoyment in ways they find fulfilling. Getting drawn into a battle over this type of issue is painful and ultimately pointless, since most of us will keep doing it as long as we feel like it.

  • Daniel spoke:
    28th/04/2008 to 5:02 pm

    Like most people, I was part of a long conversation about this at another blog (Living in Cinema), and many of everyone’s great points were made there as well. I say this to identify that we’re all thinking on the same page. We love movies and we love reading about them, writing about them (some of us), and most importantly, discussing them. Well maybe the most important part is watching, but that goes without saying. We’re not trying to take over the world and put people out of jobs. Sometimes we look up the mountain to see what kind of intellectual insights the grand poombas take from a film, and sometimes we just sit around and talk about the soundtrack. What’s wrong with that?

  • Marilyn spoke:
    28th/04/2008 to 7:06 pm

    Not a thing! Thanks for your further words of inspiration, Daniel.

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