Thursday, December 07, 2006

Regarding Andy Horbals's Film Criticism Blog-a-Thon, much belated

by Ryland Walker Knight

I wanted to post a sprawling personal history to run parallel my contribution to Matt's call for a site-wide 5 for the Day: Life-Changing Critcism. But work, fatigue, my mom and a 7.5 hour Hungarian movie got in the way of completing the piece. It's still sitting there, waiting to be finished, but in light of my recent headaches with university beaucracies I couldn't find the motivation or emotional energy reserves to throw myself into the essay. Instead I dashed off my list for The House. It, too, seems inadequate and rushed but I'm pretty happy to be a part of such a fun project.

What the list doesn't quite convey is how new I am to this whole criticism racket and how lucky I feel to have popped up in Matt & Keith's radar. And not only that but how rewarding the criticism is to write. It's a much more pro-active process than the fiction writing I still struggle with. Fiction is fun (who doesn't dream up stories?) but the criticism feels much more relevant and useful and, well, life-affirming. Plus, with a blog, and the comments section, you don't feel like you're writing into a void, as Matt said (in a comment thanking Annie Frisbie for mentioning him in her 5/day list). Also, in the Manny Farber interview Keith cites -- and I make a passing reference to -- Farber keeps saying stuff like, "This is what I love to do so don't say I'm not contributing." Criticism is a two-way street.

As evidenced by my archives, I'm not as prolific (1) as I'd like to be or (2) as other renowned, erudite bloggers like Andy or Dennis Cozzalio or Zach Campbell. Nor do I have the background of Keith or Matt. I'm still learning quite a bit, one essay at a time. While I'm probably most proud of my MARIE ANTOINETTE critique/appraisal, I still think there's some value in my first effort on this blog (a positive, apologist take on SUPERMAN RETURNS, which has only gotten better in my brain) for the sheer excitement and enthusiasm in the writing. It's a little fanboy-silly but that's kinda what the movie did for me despite being intensely sad.

I think the fun is what's lost on a lot of readers who think critics are stuffy jerks who go into a movie looking for a way out, an angle to further propagate their singular bent on movies. Or, much worse, they think critics are shill-buffoons like Michael Medved or Richard Roeper. (It should be noted, though, that these men do, in fact, hold real journalism positions and that should be commendable on some level, however misguided I find their film criticism.) The great ones (Roger Ebert included) aren't on a mission, for the most part. For the most part they're wrestling with the picture, too, trying to make some sense from the movie. My first hero, Mick LaSalle, will often have a wildly different take on a picture that baffles me but his reviews are always intriguing because (1) they're usually funny (2) they're well-reasoned (3) it's clear he spends time thinking about the piece and its place in the world not only of criticism but general discourse. In his blog bio he says, "From the beginning, he has been interested in the place where culture, sociology and the movies meet." Not every critic I adore has this kind of take on the movies but given this nugget, it illuminates his entire career and how he can think CLICK is one of the best movies of 2006 and not sound like an idiot. Granted, as I get older I find myself agreeing less with him but I'll still cherish reading his work because even if we disagree, I can understand his take on the film at hand. And he hated CACHE, too.

So what's the value of a critic? A recurring question in 2006, it seems. The simple answer, as far as I can tell, is that we critics are here not merely to guide the public to the best movies (we know that can't happen in a world where PIRATES 2 rakes in such egregious, outlandish sums) but guide our readers through our wholly subjective take on each film. There are aesthetical values to uphold and stand by but in the end we should remember that what we say isn't the end-all: it's the beginning. At least, I hope it is.

[For the blogathon's full table of contents click here.]


  1. I will always value critics, to a degree ... I read each one with the presupposition that each reviewer has his or her own agenda, but I still like to read people's impressions of movies, pros and fans alike

  2. I can't imagine what a world without criticism would look like. Criticism, in some form or another, is essential to the way human beings interact with the world around them. Not just with art, but everything. We are both social and evaluative beings, and those two facets of our nature complement and strengthen each other and are essentially inseparable. Every conversation is an act of criticism.

    A critic, then, is simply enough, is someone with whom you have a conversation about a subject. A professional critic is someone who has one-sided conversations about a subject with a whole lot of people they never physically meet or interact with.

    What you consider to be a good critic then, depends on what you want out of the conversation. I, for example, like to hear and read from people who know more about a subject than me, or see the same things I see in a totally different way. I like to learn and I liked to be challenged, preferably by an engaging writer. Examples of this kind of critic, for me, include Jonathan Rosenbaum and Pauline Kael (to take two sides of a critical spectrum).

    But that isn't for everyone. Some people don't want to have complex conversations about anything, they just want to have what they already know confirmed for them. Or they just want someone to tell them what to do. There are critics for that kind of person too: Michael Medved or Rush Limbaugh or Morgan Spurlock or someone like that.

    There's no difference between the criticism I write (if I may indulgently call it that) and the conversations I have with people about film. I don't see how there possible could be. I guess that make the blog (or the Not A Blog) the ideal vehicle for film criticism.

    Of course, that's just my opinion. . . .

    By the way, Ryland, Miami Vice got delivered today, I'll bring it tomorrow.

  3. Sean, thanks for the opinion. See, you do got what it takes. And I can't wait to see this director's cut to contrast/compare. I think I can get it back to you by Monday.

  4. I think the best audience for critics is filmmakers. I really hope that my work contributes to better films and a more thoughtful filmmaking culture.

    The critics I love have influenced my (pretty modest) filmmaking ambitions and intentions. I suspect filmmakers have much more closet respect for critics than do, say, musicians for music critics.

    Almost invariably, an artist who just shows blanket disregard/contempt for critics turns out to be a cheap, superficial careerist. These are the same types who say they don't read/view/listen to other artists' work.