Film Criticism: The Next Generation (Web Exclusive)
by Simon Abrams, Adam Cook, Leo Goldsmith, Calum Marsh, Boris Nelepo, and Vadim Rizov
Where have all the film critics gone? The simplistic assumption is that most of the more insightful critics, in both this country and abroad, have been downsized, retired, or forced to migrate to the Web. Yet, what becomes clear in our survey of film critics under thirty-five is that a certain number of talented young writers still work either exclusively in print or alternate between print publications and the many intelligent Websites devoted to online criticism. For twenty- and thirty-somethings, sites such as Reverse Shot and Slant are, in many respects, their generation’s equivalents of Film Comment and Sight & Sound. In addition, since 1998, the International Film Festival Rotterdam’s Trainee Project for Young Critics has nurtured talented writers under thirty (in 2013, five critics were selected from eighty applicants). Dennis Lim, Mark Peranson, Gavin Smith, and Adam Nayman are graduates of the IFFR program; Canadian critic Kiva Reardon, whose response appears in the print edition of our spring issue, was chosen for the class of 2013. The trainees take on assignments for the festival “daily” and often also file festival reports for their own local outlets. In 2012, “critics’ academies” at the Locarno and New York Film Festivals offered an ambitious roster of seminars and writing gigs for a similarly high-powered contingent of young writers.
This feature was spawned by a Cineaste editor’s suggestion to devote a Critical Symposium to the vexing subject of contemporary cinephilia. After pondering the idea for a while, we concluded that, instead of polling the usual, albeit distinguished, suspects on the still-evolving nature of contemporary cinephilia, it might be more enlightening, and perhaps even more entertaining, to survey young critics who take many of the developments we graybeards grouse about (e.g., blogging, streaming video, the dearth of print outlets for serious criticism) for granted. In this respect, aspects of Film Criticism: The Next Generation continue the line of inquiry begun in our previous investigation of Film Criticism in the Age of the Internet (Cineaste, Volume XXXIII, No. 4, Fall 2008, also available online at http://www.cineaste.com/articles/film-criticism-in-the-age-of-the-internet.htm)
In another, earlier Critical Symposium of critics (Film Criticism in America Today, Cineaste, Vol. XXVI, No. 1, Winter 2000), all of the participants were staff writers at magazines or newspapers. The contributors to the current symposium assume that staff positions are few and far between—the vast majority of our respondents are freelancers who supplement their writing with teaching or programming gigs. Many of the entries also reflect this generation’s predilection for the confessional mode; whether this penchant for autobiography is a product of the culture of blogging, the ongoing popularity of memoirs, or other extraneous factors, is an open question.
As in the past, we invited an eclectic assortment of working critics to structure their essays around several questions concerning both the art of criticism and the state of contemporary film culture. While most of the contributors hew closely to the questions, several writers chose to take them as departure points for essays exploring their personal or aesthetic agendas. To familiarize our readers with the work of these critics, we’ve asked them to select links to reviews they consider their best, or most representative, work. Since our outreach yielded many more compelling essays than we can wedge into one issue, part two of this symposium will appear in our summer issue, while another quotient of responses will appear as an online exclusive in the summer edition of our Website.
Thanks to Eric Kohn, Adam Nayman, Mark Peranson, and Bert-Jan Zoet for help in the preparation of this feature.—Richard Porton
We posed the following questions to our contributors, whose responses appear below and in an the print edition of our spring issue.
1) What does being a film critic mean to you? (More specifically, why do you write film criticism? Whom do you hope to reach and what do you hope to communicate to them?)
2) What qualities make for a memorable film critique? (Do you think such critiques tend to be positive or negative in tone? Is discussing a film’s social or political aspects as important to you as its cinematic qualities and value as art and entertainment?)
3) What was your impetus for becoming a cinephile? ? How has the digital era redefined cinephilia for your generation?
4) It is often assumed that younger audiences and critics are unduly consumerist and are rarely interested in the nuances of film history. If you believe this is a stereotypical view, how does your own critical practice combat such assumptions?
5) Are there critics, whether still working or from a previous generation, who you regard as models or mentors? How have they influenced your approach to film criticism?
1) I don’t worry too much about who my intended audience is, as I’m not sure I know who they are myself. Writing and being a film critic is more of a process than that part of the question implies. I think a film critic’s job is to be authoritative, and to apply their unique perspective to a film. Speaking only for myself, I’ve learned a lot about the movies by writing about them. As you write, your thoughts on a film necessarily become clearer, because you’re turning your opinions into a cogent argument. And the more you write, the more writing, films, books, music, theater, etc., you want to seek out. One truism I often find myself returning to is: context is key. And the more you write, the more capable you are of understanding the context of a film, filmmaker, style, movement, etc. I learn as I work, and I’m very grateful I’m paid to learn.
2) Before moving to Great Neck when I was thirteen, I spent a lot of time in the library across the street. I had trouble making friends since I changed school systems four times before going to college (I wasn’t a bad kid, my parents just always wanted me to go to better schools). Eventually, I exhausted my small library’s movie collection. I watched a lot of junk—Police Academy4: Citizens on Patrol, Back to the Future III, The Bodyguard, Without a Clue. But once I moved to Great Neck, I knew I wanted to watch as many movies as I could. Comedies (Bananas, Victor/Victoria, and Young Frankenstein) and science-fiction films (Blade Runner, Star Trek: Generations, and Brazil) led me to Kurosawa (Dreams, Throne of Blood), Besson (Leon: The Professional), Fellini (81/2), the Coen brothers (The Big Lebowski), Coppola (Apocalypse Now), Godard (Alphaville). Brazil was particularly revelatory: I loved the director’s cuts (thanks to the Criterion Collection!) shocking violence, and bleak sense of humor. So throughout middle and high school, I watched a lot of movies, but to no explicit end. I just wanted to see more movies.
I didn’t have access to the Internet until I was in middle school, however, and I didn’t download or watch movies on my computer until college. The library and local movie theaters in Douglaston, Roslyn, and Port Washington were where I saw movies (my grandparents watched a lot of them with me and my sister, everything from The Mighty Ducks to Rushmore). I didn’t even start going to movies in Manhattan until high school (I’ve lived in New York all my life).
3) It’s a stereotype for many reasons but I only feel comfortable speaking for myself. I’ve indulged my innate interest in movies whenever I’ve been lucky/smart enough to become more disciplined about seeing, writing, and reading (usually in that order) more about movies. I didn’t know much about Pedro Almódóvar when I saw Bad Education at the Landmark Sunshine (after the written portion of my driver’s test!). The same is true of Kurosawa when I saw Rashomon on VHS in middle school. But I did know Almódóvar directed Talk to Her and that Kurosawa made Dreams, so I was compelled to see more by those artists. Then in college, after I started religiously attending the New York Asian Film Festival and Lincoln Center’s Film Comment Selects program, I started to read more, and even keep a Unabomber-like journal of all the films I saw. Now I use my writing as an excuse to read and watch more.
4) I prefer print mainly because there’s more of a chance that your writing will get better as you edit/rewrite it for print. Online outlets are a great sandbox to figure out what your interests are, and what you want to say. And it’s harder to find print outlets where editors have both the budget and the interest to encourage young writers to become better critics and writers. But, in either medium, young writers are mostly on their own when it comes to defining themselves. But to return to my original point: I prefer print because the writing is better inasmuch as there’s usually a greater discipline required of print critics/journalists. There are some great examples to the contrary though, like Slant Magazine and Press Play, two outlets that regularly produce smart, idiosyncratic, and well-written criticism.
5) I’ve been lucky enough to befriend a couple of my role models, like Glenn Kenny and Matt Zoller Seitz. And I’ve made role models of the editors that made my writing better, like Ed Gonzalez (Slant), Michael Dean (formerly of The Comics Journal), and Mark Asch (formerly of The L Magazine). But there are three critics who have had an enormous influence on my writing. All three of these writers made me realize I didn’t know as much as I thought, and encouraged me to learn more:
1) Elvis Mitchell made me want to be a film critic. I remember reading his New York Times review of 8 Mile and thinking that his writing was so good that I wanted to see a movie that I had no interest in seeing before reading Mitchell’s piece.
2) Harlan Ellison’s film criticism isn’t that great, but his typical smart-ass bravado made him a big role model for me.
3) J. Hoberman’s idiosyncratic, historical/analytical writing gave me an ideal to strive for in criticism.
Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance film critic. He regularly contributes to outlets including The Village Voice and Esquire.
1) I’m not actually sure—for me being a “critic” is a natural extension of being a viewer. There’s a fine line between watching movies and thinking about them— and writing criticism. I don’t know exactly how or why I crossed it. I write because I’m compelled to, but whom do I hope to reach? That’s something I often ask myself, and it’s a difficult question. Part of me wants to reach those who aren’t so cinephillic, to try and spread enthusiasm for movies that may not otherwise get their deserved attention, but part of me wants to be able to write in such a way that formal and historical discourse don’t have to be sidelined for “readability”. I know this goes against what many think, but maybe it’s best to not concern yourself too much with reaching a demographic and just focus on making sure the writing is good, interesting, informed, perceptive—with luck, the rest falls into place.
2) Another question with no definitive answer. Perhaps I was always a cinephile, and I just had to catch up with myself. I always consumed movies in a way that distinguished myself but it wasn’t until after high school that this matured into a desire to watch and know absolutely everything. The digital era has made it a lot easier to rather quickly educate oneself. With the right motivation, someone who has seen only mainstream American films can become familiar with world cinema in a matter of months. Not just because of downloading, which makes virtually ploughing through Godard’s filmography “no big deal,” but because of all the information that’s out there. I work for MUBI.com, so this may seem like a plug, but back when the site was known as The Auteurs, I was an avid user. It’s where I discovered the auteur theory and found myself exposed to the entire spectrum of cinephilia. Through exchanging ideas, I discovered more movies, more filmmakers, and more ways of looking at them. Without that sort of accessibility, I don’t know where I’d be now. If indeed I was a cinephile in waiting, it was the Internet that played the most pivotal role in realizing that.
3) It’s true and it’s not true. There’s the mass of IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes consumers, who, unfortunately, probably do fulfill that stereotype—and it perpetuates ignorance both among audiences and critics. There’s a lot of awful film criticism out there. I don’t think that’s entirely limited to the young, however. Film history, form, theory, etc. is not just peripheral information that leaves the writer with the option to ignore or to not ignore it: it’s precisely what film criticism is about. I’d hardly consider something that doesn’t integrate, to a certain degree, history and theory, as criticism. It becomes something else, something far less valuable. The ideal, and my ambition when I write (hopefully), is to always be thinking about everything: no tunnel vision allowed. A piece’s focus on film history and theory can vary, but it should always have a place. Essentially, to interpret movies we have a lot of different directions we could take, either by placing a film into an auteur’s body of work, or into the context of a genre or movement, but no matter which direction, it always seems to be a contrastive exercise with the new and the old. Looking back to what came before in order to help understand what we’re watching is the core of criticism, really.
4) Reaching more people? Maybe. But it’s about reaching the right readers. People who won’t skim your opening and closing sentence or simply search for a star rating. For a young critic, with all of the online outlets out there, a level of pickiness is necessary. I’ve noticed a lot of magazines (even the good ones) that marginalize their online content. That’s not fair, and I wouldn’t want to write for them, but sometimes that’s the way into the print version and, yes, print is still far more desirable. Establishing oneself is difficult because you have to distinguish yourself in this vast, highly populated landscape. It’s about finding your footing in the right places. At the same time, though, a piece online can spread rapidly, especially with Twitter, and the network of critics and cinephiles on the Internet.
5) I’m a film-criticism junkie, myself. I read every issue of Cinema Scope and Film Comment, and intermittently read several others. My main influences from currently working critics are Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, Kent Jones, and Jonathan Rosenbaum (though with Rosenbaum, it’s mainly his early work, like the seminal Moving Places, that inspires me). There are many I enjoy reading though: David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, Tag Gallagher, Nicole Brenez, Dennis Lim, Daniel Kasman, Adam Nayman, Mark Peranson, Dave Kehr, J. Hoberman, Richard Brody, Chris Fujiwara, Chuck Stephens, Robert Koehler, Andrew Tracy, Phil Coldiron, R. Emmet Sweeney—I could go on way past my word count with this list, so please note many are left off of it. From the past, it’s Serge Daney, who seems to tower over everyone else with just how deeply affecting and illuminating his writing can be. Of course there’s the Cahiers du cinéma crew at the dawn of auteurism and onward, and a rich history of criticism within America that I’m still catching up with: Sarris, Farber, Agee. All of the aforementioned writers and many others unlisted provide me with a diversity of views, styles, and approaches that can either act as friction or affirm my own views.
Adam Cook is an aspiring programmer and freelance film critic, with bylines in Cinema Scope, Filmmaker, and La Furia Umana, among others, as well as being an editor and regular contributor for MUBI. He has been part of the International Screening Committee for the Vancouver International Film Festival since 2010.
1) Typically, criticism is understood as a means of description, interpretation, and evaluation—what a film is, what it means, and whether it is worth it.
These have their use, but I have come to find them the least important ends of criticism. Synopses are tedious if one has seen the film, and insufficient if one hasn’t. Interpretation is, if not the revenge of the intellectual upon art, at least a somewhat flailing gesture. Evaluations are difficult to avoid, but ultimately ephemeral and, frequently, mercurial. (One of the strangest compliments I’ve received about my own writing was for a negative review that apparently, encouraged the reader to want to see the movie.)
I think of criticism in the same realm as all other writing, as an act of production, of creation—in reaction to another work, to be sure (and therefore something like a translation or a remake), but nonetheless as something that advances a position of its own, that delineates a space that includes the writer, the filmmaker, and the viewer-reader. (Philippe Grandrieux’s film about Masao Adachi, It May Be That Beauty Has Strengthened Our Resolve, in this sense, is an ideal work of film criticism.) In the best cases, which are admittedly few, this is something more than the mere beginning of a dialogue; it is philosophy and politics.
2) Cinephilia—for my generation and those before and after—is inseparable from the material, technological experience of reception: on VHS (repeated back-to-back viewings of a rented copy of Robocop were an important originary moment in my own cinephilic experience), on DVD, and now, well, everywhere. Digital technology has brought about a culture of participation, control, and immediacy, echoed in criticism’s obsession for the still, the animated GIF, the video essays, the YouTube appropriation. This speaks to a spectatorial versatility with the image and its formats that’s more extensive now than it has ever been, and which, it seems to me, is both the cause and the counterargument for claims about cinema’s death.
3)There are audiences and critics of all ages that conform to this stereotype.
I watch and enjoy all kinds of films, but I began writing about old, marginal, cult, and experimental cinema, and I have been fortunate enough to sustain this emphasis. As an editor and a critic, I am very suspicious of the practice of publishing comprehensive coverage of major new releases. Justified either by the (probably cynical) assumption that this is what readers are interested in or out of a sense of duty to weigh in on apparent cinematic Zeitgeists, it is wholly unnecessary. Criticism should be a form of advocacy, not a gesture of reinforcement (even of the negative variety) of already amply funded publicity campaigns.
4) I’m in a somewhat odd position. I’ve been writing about film for about a decade, and the vast majority of this work has appeared online, in outlets like Not Coming to a Theater Near You (notcoming.com), Reverse Shot, and Moving Image Source. This work began amid a culture of deep insecurity about the future of criticism, of journalism, of print media as a whole. As a result, I have never believed film criticism to be a viable career for any but a narrow coterie; for others, a labor of love or a roundabout and elaborate form of media piracy. The tumult over the firings of critics, of the dwindling print circulation numbers, of the syndication of content—all of this was roughly contemporaneous with my beginnings as an online film critic. (I avoid the word “blogger,” both because of its connotations of avid and almost daily labor, and because of snobbery.)
Now, along with Rachael Rakes, I edit the film section of a monthly newspaper, The Brooklyn Rail. Of course, I still contribute to the aforementioned Websites, but the value of writing and editing for print—and, I might even say, the novelty—is undeniable. What results often seems like a détente between the usual clichés of electronic and print media: on the one hand, it has always seemed to me that criticism should find a natural home online, to join an open space of discussion, often immediate, anecdotal, or even a bit hasty; on the other hand, I’m old enough to retain hope that readers might return to print (or at least reserve the option) as a medium that in some ways gestures, however superficially, toward posterity.
Of course, as in all things, the distinction between the physical and virtual realms of criticism is increasingly inconsequential. Everything that I write and edit for print appears online—the only major difference is exponentially longer lead time (one month vs. several seconds).
5) In lieu of flattery or naming names, I will respond with a boring, writerly response: I have learned the most about writing through the process of editing and being edited. Or better yet, by being edited by incisive, sympathetic editors (three in particular) and editing thoughtful, elegant writers (more than I can readily count). All writing (or all of my writing, anyway) comes from a place of insecurity, and the formation of this partnership between the writer and a critical, probing, challenging, stroking first-responder is the first moment in which the process becomes actually rewarding.
Leo Goldsmith co-edits the film section of The Brooklyn Rail and is a PhD. candidate in cinema studies at New York University.
An odd thing about the practice of film criticism in general is that it doesn’t necessarily proceed from a shared or accepted understanding of its intended purpose. A consequence of this fact is that one’s goals may in and of themselves be hurdles for would-be readers: if a critic hopes, for instance, to help her readers better understand a film after they’ve seen it, their writing won’t have much to offer readers who only look to critics for recommendations for something to see over the weekend, and the same goes for broadsheet journalists whose capsule blurbs amount to little more than dressed-up plot synopses. Film criticism is broad, especially now: there are professional critics filling the pages of Film Comment and Cinema Scope with world-class reviews, profiles, and festival reportage, and there are professional film critics in less esteemed venues whose job is to offer simplistic yes/no judgments without much in the way of deep critical engagement week after week. There are unpaid bloggers whose free time is dedicated to hammering out heady four-thousand word readings on everything from the latest Hong Sang-soo to the films of Tony Scott, and there are unpaid bloggers regurgitating link-bait and typo-laden hyperbole. We call the lot of them “film critics.”
All of which is to say that I don’t really know what being a film critic means to me personally, and I don’t really how, if at all, I fit into the mix—something of a cop-out answer, I suppose, but also perhaps an honest reflection of the confusion beget by the industry. I do know that, because I’ve rarely been compensated for my writing, I don’t generally think of film criticism as something I’m entitled to be paid for (though I would naturally prefer to be). It’s been my experience that writing film criticism on the Internet is sort of like distributing music with it: you accept that free dissemination is valuable for the audience it might earn you over time. And while I know that there are smart, thoughtful, and maybe even young critics earning a living by writing about the cinema, for me landing a full-time writing gig seems tantamount to signing to a major record label with a million-dollar contract—that there continues to be new music on the radio suggests such a dream is coming true for somebody, but to presume it might happen to me can only be naive. And so I ply my trade like a basement hobbyist, grateful to gain the negligible traction of readers. (One time I was paid thirty dollars for a piece about a TV show. I bought a bottle of wine.)
Mind you, we younger critics—I’m twenty-six, by the way—have it easier than some of the older critics still struggling to find or keep paid work; we don’t have to accept the sad reality that we’ll never find steady writing work because that proposition always seemed vaguely ludicrous. And I for one never considered the implications of “transitioning” my practice to the Internet because for me that was where writing sort of naturally occurred: it was where I heard about and fell in love with great films, where I downloaded them, where I learned more, where I found people who shared my niche interest. I suppose, in a sense, finding movies online and conversing about them on message boards is less glamorous or romantic than chatting with budding cinephiles at the local video store or rep theater, but at this point it’s so long been second nature that the loss doesn’t need to be deeply considered. I take it for granted that I can find any Jacques Rivette movie I want online, and I take it for granted that I can find fifty people online who’d like to toss opinions and readings of Out 1 back and forth with me. That’s what defines cinephilia now.
Twitter, it probably goes without saying, has made online cinephilia vastly more entertaining, at least insofar as it allows for near-constant communication—or at least near-constant arguments, which can be just as good. It’s like carrying instant access to a worldwide cineclub in my pocket: that little glowing screen offers hundreds of opinions about everything from rare rep screenings to year-end lists to the woes of HFR and DCP, there and ready to be engaged with at my leisure. And it’s been utterly naturalized: it no longer seems strange to me that some of my closest film-loving friends live in Alabama and London and Poland, and that I can talk to them about, say, torture endorsement in Zero Dark Thirty (or whatever topic of the day you’d like) from miles away. As a networking tool it’s unparalleled, and I think more or less necessary for aspiring critics; I couldn’t have scraped together a quarter of the writing opportunities I’ve been lucky enough to have without it, and just the sense it confers on you of being a part—insufferably winsome though this may sound—of some broader cultural conversation is invaluable.
Looking over the participants in Cineaste’s symposium on “Film Criticism in the Age of the Internet,” it’s amazing to see how many seem like veritable elder statesmen of the field—not because of their age so much as their experience, talent, and repute—despite themselves representing that nebulous “next generation” of nontraditional, online-centric voices. Naturally, long-established critics like J. Hoberman, Kent Jones, and Jonathan Rosenbaum are the canonical greats, but even younger writers like Adam Nayman, Andrew Tracy, and the Self-Styled Siren seem like masters of some wiser, far-off cohort—there’s is a caliber of criticism to which I aspire but to which I’m frankly nowhere close. When you’re laboring over blog posts in the shadow of critics this great, it’s hard not to feel like one of those pasty-faced teens that arrive with the advent of video in BoogieNights, presumptuous and green. Film criticism is broad, but how dare we call ourselves critics? To paraphrase a greater critic than myself, the best part about online criticism is that anybody can be critic, but the worst part about online criticism is that anybody can be a critic. I guess I’m a critic.
Calum Marsh is a freelance critic and contributor to Cinema Scope, Slant Magazine, and Reverse Shot. He resides in Toronto.
1) To watch movies is to try and comprehend the world around us. Criticizing what you see involves imposing a structure upon chaos, explaining the reason behind all those endless moving images, both celluloid and real. Hence, writing about cinema becomes a necessity for me, but when I do so it is mostly for my own benefit, all the more so because film criticism is basically an autistic occupation; in addition, my memory often fails me. If other people, however, get interested in my reflections, it makes me even happier. I’ve never contemplated lecturing anyone on cinema, since publishing one’s own texts essentially amounts to conversing on equal terms with the reader. If such a conversation brings me to identify an unexpected angle to a film that I like, or helps to explain it from a different perspective, I consider it a piece of luck.
Fassbinder once observed of Werner Schroeter that “his films [were rendered] in a flash as beautiful, but nonetheless exotic plants, blossoming in such a strange manner that ultimately one couldn’t really deal with them.” To deal with strange and beautiful plants is an essential part of this work. A contemporary critic can avoid treating films as products requiring some sort of evaluation and concentrate on finding out what others might have missed. He should acknowledge that, since all films are born equal, it is not mandatory to limit oneself to those that enjoy widespread media coverage. To me, film criticism brings the joy of abandoning the beaten tracks for the infinite secret passageways and revealing hidden treasures to the world.
Texts written by two different people with different mind sets won’t resemble each other; there are differences in literary backgrounds and personal experiences that deeply influence one’s perception of art. Therefore, the delight of film criticism consists in being subjective, following one’s own taste and constructing private, but coherent, frames of reference.
2) I saw Bergman’s Autumn Sonata when I was eleven and it transformed my world. Before that moment, I wasn’t aware of great cinema. Sergey Solovyov, Philippe Garrel, and Raúl Ruiz convinced me that my future lay with cinema.
The arrival of the digital era was in some way a defining moment for me. Moscow used to have a beautiful cinema museum, but the moment I really felt a need for it, it was shut down to make room for a casino. Since independent films have a very limited distribution in my country, the Internet became my only resource. Luckily, it allowed me to see the things that I wanted to see and I was no longer dependent upon the tastes of mediocre distributors. It is very painful to acknowledge, however, that my encounters with most of the classics did not take place in the cinema. So I snatched opportunities to watch films on cellulloid as soon as I found them, only to realize that, quite tragically, film projection is becoming a thing of the past, and although gatherings devoted to screening films still insist on calling themselves film festivals, they have become
file festivals. While I’m far from a Luddite, I don’t understand why A-level festivals commit the grave sin of screening DCP copies of works shot on film.
Hence, this new and terrifying sensation of watching every film as if it was the last one. If you skip a retrospective, there is a chance you will never get to see that classic again. The situation is analogous to Bertrand Bonello’s dreamlike L’Apollonide, a film where the girls spend all of their time making champagne goblets sing, failing to notice that they have plain glass in their hands instead of crystal and almost no wine left.
3) To watch as many classics as possible and to write about them, it is as simple as that. At festivals, I attend retrospectives as well as premieres of new films, the same strategy employed by my good friend Daniel Kasman, who provides excellent festival coverage at MUBI. Moreover, the experience of synthesizing the old and the new promotes a new appreciation of both current and classical films. Here is a list of retrospectives that meant a lot for me this year: the Temenos screening of Gregory J. Markopoulos’s ENIAIOS VI, VII and VIII curated by Robert Beavers; Rotterdam’s Peter von Bagh retrospective, curated by Olaf Möller; Rotterdam’s Boca do Lixo retrospective of Brazilian films curated by Gabe Klinger; the Manuel Mozos retrospective in Vienna curated by Miguel Gomes; United We Stand, Divided We Fall, a retrospective of films dealing with political collectives, curated by Federico Rossin; the GoEast Symposium on Soviet cinema, curated by Barbara Wurm and Olaf Möller; the Otto Preminger retrospective in Locarno curated by Carlo Chatrian; a miniretrospective of Yuzo Kawashima in Berlin; The Red Dream Factory— a retrospective devoted to Mezhrabpom, the German-Russian film studio, also at the Berlinale; the Mavericks, Movements, Manifestos program in Oberhausen.
On the other hand, new editions of DVDs continue to rewrite and complete the history of cinema before our very own eyes. The context is constantly expanding, and we acquire new insights as the process goes on. A representative example is Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, a film that is of interest not just because of its own merit, but also because of its aesthetic dialogue with Tarr, Akerman, and Garrel. The advent of the digital era offered limitless possibilities for self-education.
4) The most obvious challenge is that, although one can churn out hundreds of words reviewing a film, what does this mean to a reader that has no opportunity to see it? This is why film criticism is progressively blending with curatorial activities. I find that the situation we find ourselves in is most accurately described by the French director Pierre Léon: “So the critics become more and more like the dark lantern-bearers of Robert Louis Stevenson, those vacationing Scottish schoolboys who meet in some remote cove to reveal, as a password, the lit lanterns beneath their coats. The beauty still shines, but only from inside. And the boy who joyfully walks in the dark, knowing he has a lantern within him, now writes about movies no one sees.”
Peak cinematic experiences in 2012 included such masterpieces as Rita Azevedo Gomes’s A Vingança de Uma Mulher, Christine Laurent’s Demain?, Lav Diaz’s Florentina Hubaldo CTE and, Raúl Ruiz’s Night Across the Street. Of course, in addition to trying to write about these films with some flair, I’m also obliged, as a programmer, to familiarize the public with the work. Because of obvious conflicts of interest, this can be an unsavory task. Such practices often prove unwholesome due to the evident conflict of interests. Consequently, the less socialized is the critic, the easier it is for him to keep his objectivity. It must be acknowledged that such a position is next to impossible to achieve in the world we live in today, but Olaf Möller and the Ferroni Brigade prove that curatorial work can turn into a veritable art form, an art of criticism.
The triumph of online criticism is undisputable (at least in Russia); the Internet offers the valuable opportunity to send links to friends and colleagues in faraway countries. The universe of film criticism has become less atomized— you find likeminded people throughout the world, a phenomenon exemplified by the online magazine, La Furia Umana. That said, I cherish the possibility of working in print—just like in the good old times, rearranging layouts and matching pictures through the night, since such thoughtful engagement never fails to contribute to the quality of the text. This handicraft, sadly, is on its way to oblivion, and yet I still hope to be able to work in print cinema publications.
5) First and foremost, I have to name Serge Daney and Jean-Claude Biette. I know only a handful of their texts, but those I read had a huge impact on both my taste and the way I perceive films. Jonathan Rosenbaum is a model of combining stylistic precision with critical excellence and depth of analysis. I’m very interested in Nicole Brenez’s tastes. Among the younger generation, Mark Peranson, Olaf Möller, and Pierre Léon should be mentioned. I now am honored to count them among my friends, but not too long ago they were mainly writers I admired from afar. And of course I must name my two Russian “mentors” who really taught me a lot—Inna Kushnaryova and Dmitry Martov. All of these authors never seek to limit their perspective to a couple of familiar names. They are permanently open to all things new, as searchers truly should be, contriving miraculously to keep their clear vision and to watch every film anew, as if they had never wasted thousands of exhausting hours on bad cinema. Somehow they manage to perceive the beauty and the depth in the most contradictory productions while being constantly on the lookout for young and talented directors.
I consider Cinema Scope a model publication, along with MUBI, Independencia, Lumière, and Cahiers du cinéma. The example of the Capricci editions, under the aegis of Emmanuel Burdeau, a label that fuses magazine publication with a book series, DVD releases and film distribution, suggests some fruitful new avenues for cinephilia.
Boris Nelepo is Editor-in-Chief of Kinote, an online film journal, as well as Contributing Editor to the film magazine Séance. He publishes articles in international publications such as Cinema Scope, Trafic, MUBI, and Lumière. He is also works for the Locarno Film Festival as a consultant specializing in Russian films.
1) The goal of film criticism is to articulate my thoughts and record them before my memory fades. Watching films is an active process; criticism records that silent conversation and hopefully arrives at some kind of conclusion. There’s no set list of specific goals for every piece I write. Priorities might include identifying historical context for a movie (cinephilic or otherwise), identifying auteurist preoccupations, extrapolating thematic goals: whatever works to fix the film in my memory a bit. I’m not hoping to reach anyone in particular, just people who (hopefully) have either seen the film already and want to read about it more.
To indulge in negativity for a second here: I’m also not a big fan of throwing a bunch of adjectives (lyrical, elliptical, hypnotic, rapturous, etc.) at a movie and hoping that does the analytical work. I’m similarly not thrilled by setting agendas by implying that certain films are more of the moment and boundary pushing than others which are milquetoast middlebrowisms.
2) My impetus for becoming a cinephile was not having any friends as a child, for various reasons. I’d rather leave it at that.
The digital era has had a number of interesting (“interesting”) consequences. Some cinephile friends of mine have embraced torrents and their ability to deliver long-coveted obscurities. I need the bullying, attention-demanding qualities of a screen bigger than myself, so as long as possible I’m sticking to 35mm repertory cinema (still an option in New York City). But that form of cinephilia is definitely threatened by ongoing digitization, which is objectionable both on fetishized principle and simply because many of these transfers are actively bad.
The digital era’s effect on cinephilia in terms of criticism has been rather dazzling. Maybe bad for anyone trying to make a living, but the sheer amount of information available has increased exponentially. We’re only at the start of this, obviously: certain films I see remain mysteries even after online research. But certainly it’s easier than ever to gain not just criticism but raw information. We may not have an indexical grasp of film history in all its aspects, but we’re much, much closer than ever before.
3) This is an interesting question because its phrasing (including “stereotypical”) prods me to vigorously cry “Not true!” I wouldn’t say that the “younger audiences and critics” I know fit into that mold, but they’re a self-selecting crowd. But cinephilia itself is a varied avocation; there are cranks and cretins both young and old. I’m not very interested in drawing on that generational divide. My criticism tries to ignore this and simply get on with the work.
4) Online certainly makes it easier to reach people; print makes it easier to ensure you’ve got the self-selecting, “right” audience. Some specific challenges of working today are no different for young or old critics, I believe: finding outlets, making a decent living. Serious criticism (feels like there should be scare quotes there, but I’ll let it lie) doesn’t pay well in general. Sometimes I feel like packing it in and going into academia. I may yet.
5) My immersion into film criticism coincided pretty much directly with getting 56K Internet and learning that, outside my hometown of Austin, there was serious cinephilia to be found in many places. I’m inspired by the too-little-known Cypriot critic Theo Panayides, who disdains synopsis in the capsules he does for himself, packing meaty thematic analysis into dense paragraphs written in lucid, knowingly witty prose. I’m also very influenced (not enough yet, honestly) by J. Hoberman’s determination to treat many films as cultural objects first and foremost.
Vadim Rizov is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer whose work is currently published in Sight & Sound and The L Magazine, among other publications. He can be found online at Letterboxd.
For additional contributions to this Critical Symposium from Ben Kenigsberg, Gabe Klinger, Michael Koresky, Kiva Reardon, and Andrew Tracy, purchase a copy of our spring 2013 issue here