Film Criticism: The Next Generation, Part II (Web Exclusive)
by Aaron Cutler, Evgeny Gusyatinskiy, Eric Kohn, Violeta Kovacsics, Adam Nayman, Michal Oleszczyk, Nick Pinkerton, John Semley, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, and Genevieve Yue
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 this, the second installment of 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. In the first installment of this Critical Symposium, which appeared both in print and on the Web edition of our spring issue, most of the featured critics refuted accusations that the under-thirty-five generation is less invested in film history and cinephilic pursuits than their older brethren. As the editors observed in the previous issue’s Editorial, younger critics are, by all appearances, “as immersed in film culture as any of their distinguished elders; most became committed film addicts in their preteen years and retain voracious appetites for both classic cinema and innovative new films.” Part II endeavors to widen the Critical Symposium’s geographical horizons by including critical voices from Spain, Poland, and Russia. And perhaps most daringly, two of our contributors—Nick Pinkerton and Genevieve Yue—overturn received notions and spurn the concept of cinephilia itself—heaping scorn, in Pinkerton’s words, on “the sort of monomaniacal dusk-to-dawn submergence in movies, movies, movies, which forestalls involvement in other things.”
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
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) For as long as I can remember, I have considered myself a writer. I began writing frequently because I was lonely and wanted to share myself with people beyond those immediately in front of me; I began watching films frequently because they gave the impression of people that I loved and understood sharing themselves with me. I wrote film criticism in particular as a way of introducing myself to the movies I was covering, and of introducing those films to readers who might love them—which, as far as I was concerned, also meant loving me.
I still do this. In fact, my most treasured films are consistently love stories, and both my favorite new feature film from last year (Bernie) and my favorite feature film, period (Nights of Cabiria), expand my sympathy for people. Over time I’ve shifted from valuing films themselves to valuing people involved with them—for instance, I write fewer reviews now than I used to, and conduct more director interviews. But my goal has remained the same throughout: To give exposure to people’s voices.
I’ve put a special priority on voices different from mine. As I read the first round of responses to this symposium, I often felt that I was listening to myself. My own narrative of a Caucasian suburban boy replacing friends with films throughout private school, college, and a subsequent New York life seemed similar to that of many of the other participants, and my critical influences are many of the same white American men named by my white male American and Canadian colleagues. So I’ve turned the remaining questions over to friends whose voices I admire, and who, for varying reasons, I felt were different from mine. The people’s responses can be found at http://aaroncutler.tumblr.com/post/47361731610/film-criticism-the-next-generation. I will reprint this hyperlink at the end of this text, and use the space in between to tell stories:
2) I was sitting in a Lower East Side art space called e-Flux on the night of March 31, 2010. I had gone to New York for graduate school, which really meant seeing between two and four films a day. The day had been long at Columbia, and I thought I could wash the stink of privilege off with a Godard film. Before the screening began, I looked through a book of work by the Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica; though I had to leave early to catch another movie, I didn’t leave without asking a Brazilian woman interning there to send me some information about him. She did, I invited her to see a new print of Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, and she accepted out of the curiosity that came from the strange prospect of someone inviting her to see a silent film. Her name is Mariana Shellard, and in addition to being my fiercest editor, she’s an artist, filmmaker, and critic herself. She has the sharpest critical mind I know, and the most compassionate one. I know this because we’re married, which I consider my amazing luck.
3a) Pedro Fernandes Duarte approached me at this year’s edition of Rotterdam to introduce himself, and soon revealed a habit of bidding farewell, then saying something interesting to make you want to keep him from going. The film programmer and producer at the Portuguese company Rosa Filmes had read two articles I’d written for the Canadian magazine Cinema Scope, the first with a Brazilian director and the second with a pair of Portuguese filmmakers, and guessed I had a Lusophone connection. A few nights later we ate dinner at a cheap Chinese restaurant, where he told me about some of Portuguese cinema’s dirty secrets and hidden treasures.
3b) I was accepted to Rotterdam’s 2012 Trainee Project for Young Critics as the lone representative from the Americas, and attended this year after the festival offered five free hotel nights. Wai Ho later told me that we had been to many of the same screenings at Rotterdam this year. He knew this from my writing; I knew him as a Chinese critic living in Berlin who advocates great-sounding films on Facebook, which is where I first wrote him to ask for his symposium answer. We have since migrated to email.
3c) In the fall of 2011 Mariana had back surgery, and I stayed in the hospital with her, save for leaving to see one film per day. Bruno Cursini stood at the CineSESC bar drinking an espresso before a Beau Travail screening and telling a friend about his favorite Claire Denis movies; I interrupted to add 35 Shots of Rum to the list, and the enormous, bearded, cheerful Bruno and I soon became friends ourselves. He tips me off to cool upcoming São Paulo screenings and warns me about print conditions.
4) While everyone else at the February 2010 Oscar party I attended focused on the television, it seemed much more interesting to talk about silent film with Imogen Sara Smith. At the time I was interning at the great New York repertory and first-run institution Film Forum, exchanging four weekly hours of sitting at a desk for free movie tickets. I had already been abusing this privilege, and when a Victor Fleming retrospective came around, I abused it further by bringing elegant, mysterious Imogen as a frequent guest. I’ve loved hearing her on Buster Keaton, the subject of one of her books, and whenever I’ve had questions about the pre-1960 film world she, like a friend, has been able to help.
5) Several months ago I read a review by Violet Lucca of the movie Viva Riva!and wrote her on Facebook to say that her work was excellent. Since then, she’s become my go-to person for learning about African film, and for making claims to which I can snap my fingers. In a recent article for filmcomment.com (where she serves as digital editor) on the Cartagena International Film Festival, she discussed feeling the weight of the city’s racial and class problems before noting, “To be fair, every country is racist, sexist, classist, xenophobic, etc. in its own way; it’s just experiencing those differences, and knowing that they are not being addressed, that can get you all riled up.” I have never met Violet Lucca in person, but I hope that this changes someday.
Articles not currently available for free online reading:
“The Immortal Stories: An Interview with Miguel Gomes.” Cineaste, Spring 2013, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 2
“Rotterdam: Cristi Puiu’s Three Interpretation Exercises.” Cinema Scope 54, Spring 2013.
“Eternal Moment: A Record of Péter Forgács.” Cinema Scope 51, Summer 2012.
1) If I’m writing on films—and this happens quite rarely now—I’m merely doing it for my own satisfaction. I don’t have a specific audience or target group in mind. No specific goal—the desire to either educate or entertain—is uppermost in my mind. For me, being a film critic means being, first of all, a thinker. A thinker who sees, understands and even feels the world through films which, as we all know, are mediums or/and filters.
I believe, however, that every text—even one not intended for publication—demands readers. For better or worse, the Internet has loosened boundaries between “professional” and “amateur” critics, and also between texts that are intended to be published and those that aren’t. I don’t think it inspired the current wave of film criticism and created a renewed appreciation of film culture. But it indeed increased the sheer amount of available criticism and, in general, democratized the field. Almost everyone is a film critic today. Although this should be upbeat news, the truth is that this multiplicity of voices makes it more difficult to write distinctive criticism and achieve true independence.
2) My cinephilia is mainly attributable to attending screenings at the now-defunct Moscow Film Museum, an institution that’s been homeless since 2005. Moscow’s local government evicted the museum from its permanent home and literally left it dying on the street. It goes without saying that the destruction of this great national treasure is a tremendous shame.
Thanks to this Cinematheque run by Naum Kleiman, I’m still attached to screening rooms and nondigital prints (35mm, 16mm, etc). In that sense, I’m very conservative and still need to make a special effort to force myself to watch films in any other formats except the original ones.
The digital revolution has obviously redefined both cinema and how we perceive it. Everybody has a chance to download everything. Films—even those that were unseen by hard-core cinephiles—became accessible for everybody. That’s a good thing, of course. Every day a new film (old or new, classic, or avant-garde, famous or totally unknown) is uploaded on the Internet. But how many new cinematheques have been opened worldwide since the inception of the digital era? Not so many, perhaps; perhaps none. And that’s a challenge for all of us, because I do believe that films shot on 35mm (or 16mm, or 8mm), and are designed to be projected on a traditional screen, have to be perceived and preserved in this way.
It’s also true that the nearly unlimited number of films available on the Internet has changed how many of us operate as critics. To put it succinctly, its focus has shifted from in-depth writing on films to watching—frequently obscure—films. This kind of (re)viewing of films does not necessarily entail writing on them: another post on Facebook or just a short list of films seen in a week (month, year...) is enough to make you qualify as a film critic.
On the one hand, this situation turns a critic into a curator who finds and rediscovers films. On the other hand, many of these critical judgments are not informed by any coherent aesthetic standards.
Cinema is still based on transforming temporal perception, but today, in the era of accelerated speed in all walks of life, few have time for the temporal demands that every film inevitably offers us—few except film critics, of course. The enormous amount of time they have for watching films is a distinct privilege. And sometimes it’s the only privilege that actually defines them as bona fide “film critics.”
As a result, as film criticism has acquired a much broader scope (more and more films are watched and dragged out into the spotlight), it has not necessarily become more incisive (fewer and fewer of them are honored with the in-depth reviews that would justify their importance). This, of course, affects the intellectual level of film criticism. In many cases, the quantity of films that are consumed does not enhance critical standards or lead to a more profound understanding of film history.
3) An interest in film history (even in its most nuanced form), given the overweening desire to view as many films as possible, does not necessarily contradict the consumerist orientation of much contemporary criticism. Consumerism and voracious film viewing are in fact connected. Actually, there are a number of critics whose primary mission is to constantly revise “official film history” and construct alternative, often quite marginal, versions of the mainstream consensus. I haven’t, however, encountered many particularly convincing accounts of this sort. While being curious about alternative versions of film history, I still feel it’s important to continually explore “mainstream” film history. It’s essential and unavoidable.
4) As I mentioned already, I don’t try to reach as many readers as possible. But it’s obvious that online texts will have a bigger readership than the print outlets. Still, I believe that print publications will endure, as well as 35mm prints.
The Russian film magazine Film Art Monthly (Iskusstvo Kino)
5) Since my school years, I’ve read the Russian magazine Film Art Monthly (Iskusstvo Kino), the oldest film magazine in Europe. It has a great tradition of long and detailed reviews and analyses of films in the broad cultural (as well as socio-political) context. There are several brilliant film critics among its contributors. Neither arrogant nor narrow-minded, they’re sensitive to the merits of a wide variety of films. The magazine provides a good lesson in how to avoid becoming a victim of your own tastes (a common problem in contemporary film criticism). Two other Russian periodicals—Séance and Notes on Film (Kinovedcheskie Zapiski)—are important for me and maintain a high level of film criticism.
Evgeny Gusyatinskiy graduated from VGIK’s (Russian State University of Cinematography), department of film history and film theory. In 2005, he participated in the Trainee Project for Young Film Critics organized by International Film Festival Rotterdam. From 2005 until 2012, he worked as features editor for Film Art Monthly (Iskusstvo Kino) and has written for various magazines such as Vedomosti Daily, Kommersant, and The New Times that specialize in film and culture. Since 2011, he has been a programmer for the International Film Festival Rotterdam responsible for selecting films from Russia, as well as Central and Eastern Europe.
I am drawn to criticism for two reasons—one trivial and the other biblical.
The trivial reason is that I love movies.
I sympathize with the hypothetical spectators in that apocryphal tale who sank into their seats as the Lumière brothers’ train rushed straight at them. I felt the same way when I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark for the first time (and for the fifth time). Even as my sensibilities have developed, the movies never cease to surprise me, both by showing me the world in new ways and by showing me new worlds altogether. The process of articulating those worlds is what I find rewarding about the critical process. Some people want to contribute to this powerful medium by making movies; I feel equally comfortable celebrating its power through the formal process of criticism, sometimes merely by celebrating another transformative cinematic experience and sometimes for the sake of advocacy, because good movies survive through the discussion they instigate, and if I can play a small role in that process in relation to the movies that matter to me then I feel that I have done my job.
The biblical reason is the imperative that keeps me going each day: If not now, when?
The glut of the information age makes it difficult for trenchant analysis and cogent ideas to find room for differentiation from the noise of three-sentence blog posts and blaring headlines designed to make you click here, there, everywhere. People communicate these days with abbreviations; how does a culture reared on LOLs care for a slow-burn masterpiece like Once Upon a Time in Anatolia? Criticism pushes back on the ease of ignorance. That’s an exciting challenge.
The dominant perception is that critics and criticism used to have it better. Pauline Kael, a savvy and entertaining writer but certainly not one offering the definitive paradigm of what criticism should look like, is on the verge of obtaining godly stature. But Kael’s popularity owes much to the mainstream platform that was provided for her. Today’s climate for criticism makes it even harder to find that. The information age levels the playing field so that you’re often only as good as the search-engine optimization strategies surrounding your work. As an editor for Indiewire, I’m inundated with countless requests from freelancers seeking work, and we hope to help out by giving opportunities to critics that validates their commitment to the practice, but because I work for a company that needs to make money, we also have to work with writers to help make sure their brilliant ideas find a big audience.
This is, I think, a noble struggle. Countless online publications run by people with zero regard for journalistic or aesthetic standards will freely subject themselves to the agendas of studio marketing campaigns, traveling to junkets and posting hyperbolic endorsements because, hey, the perks are killer. I don’t blame Harry Knowles; he never set out to be H. L. Mencken, just a fanboy. But criticism is meant to push against those forces in pursuit of the truth, no matter how unflattering it may sometimes look. I hope that my own work occasionally excites readers about the medium while forcing them to question the predetermined power structures that beckon a one-sided understanding of the moving image’s capacity to help us grapple with reality and sometimes react against it.
Maybe that all sounds like a grand exaggeration, but look: If I hadn’t seen Citizen Kane at an impressionable age, my attentiveness to the medium’s powers may have ended at Indiana Jones. Then again, it was André Bazin, in his essay “The Evolution of the Language of Cinema,” who truly made me aware of Citizen Kane’s ability to realize the potential of the medium. I think he may have saved me.
Andre Bazin's influence continues to be felt in film criticism
I probably became a film critic the first time I snuck Bazin’s What is Cinema? into a high school Talmud class. Spending my teenage years in an Orthodox Jewish community, albeit a fairly modern one, meant that I was surrounded by fixed ideologies and a severely limited view of the world. Movies were both my escape and my real education—as were the volumes of analytical texts I could find about them in the absence of like-minded cinephilic peers.
Fortunately, growing up in Seattle in the 1990s meant that I had plenty of art houses to explore on my own. Seeing Le Cercle Rouge at the Neptune Theater or hearing Quentin Tarantino present a series of Roy Rogers Westerns at the Seattle International Film Festival gave me the opportunity to venture beyond the barriers of the multiplex. When I moved to New York to attend NYU’s Cinema Studies program, I discovered that my enthusiasm for film history had barely started. It wasn’t just about loving the movies; I needed to marry the process of discovery with an outlet for championing it.
I was enthusiastic about the possibilities of professionalizing my interests. Immediately after completing my undergraduate degree, I failed to land an editorial assistant position I was up for at a major magazine and instead launched into a freelance career that found me exploring the festival circuit. At the Sundance Film Festival, where I traveled on my own dime, I managed to pick up a sufficient number of assignments to make the trip justifiable (if just barely) while growing cognizant of the broad viewing possibilities available to those willing to peer beyond the constraints of the theatrical-release calendar. Next came Cannes, SXSW, Toronto, as well as a handful of other regional festivals. It was at these places that I was able to diversify my commitment to studying film: It put me on the front lines.
Of course, now you don’t need to attend festivals to access some of the best movies of the year. With countless streaming sites and other means, stay-at-home cinephiles can satisfy most of their immediate needs. But the options are far greater than any one person can possibly comprehend. This has made criticism more valuable than ever. It cuts through the glut of possibilities and makes the prospects of consuming this great art form far more palatable than any given search engine could possibly do.
Criticism, however, shouldn’t preach only to the choir, and I believe today’s binge-and-purge approach to browsing the Web requires a strategy that can keep up. Few readers draw a distinction between unedited blogger critic #453 and a trenchant review in The Nation. The challenge of the digital age is to craft an approach to criticism that tricks carefree media consumers into discovering new possibilities—in a word, to make them think along with you. That’s why, one week, I wrote about Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning as a superior achievement to Skyfall (yes, seriously) and used Wreck-It Ralph to discuss Indie Game: The Movie. By finding popular access points, I hope to figure out ways of burning them to the ground in favor of fresh perspectives. That’s what critics who I admire do best.
At the same time, I think it’s unfair to assume young audiences care less for anything above the bottom line of pop culture. Young people aren’t just discovering movies online; they’re actively contributing to the evolution of film history by consuming a wider range of possibilities than any previous generation ever has. I can very easily call up The Night of the Hunter, The Naked City,Cul-De-Sac and TheSacrifice on my computer (legally) within a matter of seconds. Correct me if I’m wrong, but in the proverbial old days I’m pretty sure it was harder than that. Cinephilia is a more advanced process and most young people I know exploit the hell out of it. You can’t win them all, but when was that ever the case before?
Nowadays, part of my job involves a careful monitoring of traffic sources. I see how numbers are impacted by superficial qualities like star names in headlines, bland listicles, or a single well-followed tweet. I’m less likely to reach readers with a thoughtful review than with a first review, period (although I always hope to make it thoughtful as well). When I write something enthusiastic, whether it’s positive or negative, I tend to see a high volume of responses in a short period of time (for instance, both my Zero Dark Thirty review and my Django Unchained review yielded hundreds of views within an hour of being published, even though one was glaringly positive and the other decidedly mixed).
This stands in contrast to the few occasions when I’ve written for The New York Times and noticed far less immediate engagement even if, at the end of the day, more people may read it. For that reason, I think that online criticism is the ultimate delivery method (and the Times knows this, too; their movie site is a sleek operation that presents its content in a browsible fashion superior to the print layout). Long-form print criticism retains a representational value: Ideas shouldn’t be censored and the dominant model for online criticism suggests that concision rules above all. But movies deserve better than that and so does culture at large. Print outlets will continue to have some value as long as they leave room for discourse cut dispiritingly short by consumerist standards. But ultimately we’re all migrating to the Cloud and will find means of keeping the conversations there as lengthy as ever.
Still, doing the job in this day and age requires a careful juggling act. The critics who inspired me, including J. Hoberman, Andrew Sarris, and Jonas Mekas, never colored within the lines of professional expectations. The late Roger Ebert, a lovely writer but probably the most conventional mainstream critic in terms of his brand, had a crafty agenda lurking beneath his accessible prose (consider his Great Movies series, which doesn’t always involve the most obvious choices). No great critic is beholden to shifts in the marketplace or the country’s intellectual standards or the quality of the medium at the moment. No matter who pays the bills, critics first and foremost work for themselves, and these days they’re busier than ever.
1) First of all, criticism has always been a vocation—something I truly wanted to do and am trying so hard to do well. Now it’s my job, which I enjoy but also take seriously. Film criticism is somewhere between an enormous pleasure and a responsibility. I have the impression that film criticism appeals to disparate constituencies. Although I try to write about cinema keeping broader social and cultural questions in mind, my readers don’t necessarily know who Pedro Costa is but are sufficiently curious to peruse an article devoted to his work. Film critics have to add something more to the discourse than merely proclaiming that we like some movies and dislike others; we have to explain how some films are made and why some may be brilliant and worthwhile, and some not. Not only should we watch films with fresh eyes; we also have to take film history into consideration as well.
2) Maybe I am a bit old-fashioned. I became a cinephile watching classic movies by filmmakers such as Alfred Hitchcock, Nicholas Ray, Samuel Fuller, Jacques Tourneur, and Fritz Lang, auteurs who defined my view of cinema. While I discovered important films such as Jacques Rivette’s L’Amour fou in a cinema, I first saw Persona in VHS (though I didn’t stop until I could see it on the big screen). I’m of a generation that’s halfway between digital and celluloid. I appreciate how the Internet allows people to watch innumerable films, but I think some films were meant to be seen in cinemas and I’m afraid we might lose that option. I don’t need to watch In a Lonely Place several times: the memory I have from seeing it on the big screen is more powerful than any recollections of films I have seen several times on my computer.
3) I realize that I don’t understand film history as well as some of my older colleagues. I try to listen to them when they recommend movies. For example, when I saw Drive at Cannes, I hadn’t yet seen Walter Hill’s The Driver. A colleague of mine told me about Hill’s film, and while seeing it didn’t change my assessment of Drive, it allowed me to understand it more fully. It’s my duty as a film critic to be aware of parallels between contemporary movies and their antecedents. If cinema is to be written about with the same seriousness as is usually applied to the other arts, a comprehensive knowledge of film history is imperative.
4) I have contradictory ideas. Some online publications I work for allow me to write longer pieces and articles about films that aren’t necessarily linked with that week’s releases. And I recently created a blog, so I’ll jot down ideas in that format, as if it was a notebook. On the other hand, I am a bit afraid we might lose part of our history: there are some magazines that were essential influences on my generation’s idea of cinema. I wouldn’t want them to disappear. The anonymous comments below reviews on the Internet are very dangerous. Writing entails a certain amount of responsibility. If criticism is to be taken seriously as a profession, some standards need to be maintained.
5) I used to read a lot of French film critics. Thierry Jousse, Charles Tesson, or Nicole Brenez were some of my favorites. I also benefited from reading many of the Spanish critic José Luis Guarner’s old reviews. His articles combined accessible language with a profoundly intellectual approach to cinema. His beautiful piece on the concept of mise-en-scène and the work of the critic was originally published in 1962 and is like a Bible for me.
Violeta Kovacsics is a film critic based in Barcelona. She writes for magazines such as La Vanguardia’s Cultura/s, Time Out Barcelona, Caimán Cuadernos de Cine (formerly Cahiers du Cinéma-España), Numerocero, and Go Mag. She also works as a programmer and is in charge of the catalogue and daily of the Sitges International Fantastic Film Festival. She also teaches courses on film criticism and classic cinema.
1) I hope that my writing communicates a strong, credible, educated opinion. I’m not always sure that it does, but it’s not for a lack of trying.
2) I didn’t have an impetus for becoming a cinephile, per se. My parents took me to the movies a lot and it went from there. I’m sure that by some people’s standards, I’m not really a cinephile at all. My blind spots are at least as wide as my frames of reference, and every evening that my wife and I spend watching basketball or using Netflix to replay beloved episodes of American sitcoms is a missed opportunity to play catch-up with the scores of Westerns, war movies, melodramas, and musicals that I haven’t seen. As for whether the digital era redefined cinephilia for my generation, I feel a little bit like the man in the middle on that—too young at thirty-one to plausibly grouse about the glory days of seeing all the classics of world cinema projected at my local art house, but too old to not have known and executed that particular drill as best I could. I’m still very resistant to watching movies on Vimeo or YouTube, and I got Netflix only late last year.
I’ve been on a few of the usual whither-cinephilia panels (including one last year at York University in Toronto with Jonathan Rosenbaum and Liam Lacey) and cited my personal pet peeve each time. The purist lament that the younger generation hasn’t really seen certain movies if they’ve only watched them on DVD strikes me as territorialism: it implies that there is no way back to true, original cinephilia, and the rest of us are condemned by our unfortunate birthright to live and work in its shadow. To me there has to be some middle ground. I refuse to accept that my eighteen-year-old self didn’t actually “see” —and gratefully succumb to—The Rules of the Game or A Man Escaped because he first encountered them on VHS cassettes; I similarly won’t admonish my kids about downloading files of Beau Travail or Syndromes and a Century directly to their cerebral cortexes (or whatever science-fictional new televisual delivery system exists by then). But I will try to take them to the movies a lot.
3) This is not an entirely unfair assumption. But In my recent experience as a lecturer and a programmer, it’s less that younger audiences aren’t interested in the nuances of film history than that there aren’t any external factors compelling them to learn it. Not to mention the fact that there’s never been such an intense proliferation of new releases—and readily accessible information and discourse about those new releases, from reviews to previews to message boards to hashtags—to occupy their time. There will always be eager undergraduates and self-styled film buffs who will be happy to present themselves as exceptions to the rule. Ditto younger film critics. I would hazard a guess that the reason a lot of twenty-something critics to tend to fixate on or (sometimes) hyperbolize contemporary movies at either end of the art-house/multiplex spectrum is because they (quite understandably) want something fresh to plant their flag in.
Or it might be because there are so few writing gigs—especially paying ones—that require a dedicated, detailed knowledge of film history. The major beat for newspapers, magazines, and Websites alike is new releases, and if the experience of certain of my peers is any indication, the ability to place contemporary cinema in context is not only undervalued by editors, but in some cases actively resented. This is something that older critics have to put up with, too. One of my very good friends was castigated in 2002 by a radio producer for mentioning Cabaret in his (negative) review of Chicago; she told him, with apparently no irony whatsoever, that the program they were working on “wasn’t a film school.” I don’t know what’s required to combat those sorts of assumptions. The patience of a saint? A spiked two-by-four?
4) I’m not so sure that print outlets for serious criticism have eroded: the stack of Film Comments, Cinema Scopes, and Cineastes holding up my bottom book shelf constitute a pretty swell case for the defense. If anything, it’s that the print outlets for semiserious or inherently compromised criticism—i.e., mainstream magazines and newspapers—have gotten squeezed for space and rerouted their editorial emphasis towards short, snappy pieces that barely resemble reviews at all. The challenge depends on the young film critic’s goal. If the goal is to write for one of those newspapers or magazines, he or she either has to be very clever—even sneaky—in the way they practice their craft, or else to accept (hopefully not gleefully) that think-pieces, trend-pieces and numbered lists are the order of the day, and then take the (measly) money and run. If the goal is to write to the side of all that, then he or she should be prepared to find alternate means of making money, since Film Comment, Cinema Scope, and Cineaste don’t exactly pay a living wage. The situation is basically the same online, except that the stuff that Internet film writers are sometimes forced to churn out is worse than it is in print, as are the wages offered by those few digital magazines or journals that do offer remuneration. Online offers a hypothetically greater reach, of course, but it’s easy to get lost since the boundaries of the playing field are basically endless. I tend to get a lot more feedback about things that have appeared in print, since that still seems more “legitimate” to my older friends and family members (and their friends): it wasn’t until I started doing the odd feature for The Globe and Mail (Canada’ s national newspaper) that some people I know were able to understand what I do for a living.
5) A lot of the critics who I regard as models or mentors are people who I write with or for, including the core crews at Cinema Scope and Reverse Shot—the two magazines that I identify with most strongly. To me, the surest sign that both of these publications—one founded as an online alternative to print criticism, the other a long-standing stronghold of same—are worth caring about is that both have been criticized for being too “polemical,” as if a passionate, unified point of view about cinema were a bad thing in a film-critical community whose members will happily turn on one another at the drop of a tweet. And it’s not as if I’ve ever been reprimanded or even nudged about my taste by my editors at either outlet, at least not in ways that affect what I write or what gets printed. Freelancing is such a solitary pursuit that feeling a sense of community—or, if we’re being bluntly honest, the security of committed teammates—is genuinely heartening, and arguably a spur towards a more confident and independent practice. At least that’s how it’s worked out so far in my case.
I would be remiss if I didn’t use this space to stump for a few—okay, a lot—of other working critics of various ages and persuasions who matter to me and who I measure myself against (not in an adversarial way). Fernando Croce, who writes (too infrequently) for Slant and maintains a site called Cinepassion, is a lucid and poetic writer with a functional bullshit detector. Ryland Walker Knight doesn’t write enough. Daniel Kasman knows what he’s talking about. Michael Sicinski’s Twitter profile once claimed “everything is potentially interesting” without the necessary addendum “especially when Michael chooses to write about it.” Nick Pinkerton is wickedly funny for such a serious critic. Genevieve Yue makes only cameo appearances these days at Reverse Shot but when she does it’s always great, especially on formal stuff; ditto Leah Churner. Eric Hynes, Jeff Reichert, Chris Wisniewski, and Michael Koresky are so good that I get winded trying to keep up. I don’t even try to keep up with Robert Koehler, because he’s got a wicked first step. I always read Manohla Dargis and Kent Jones. I’m proud that I’ve been writing for Mark Peranson for almost ten years, and that I’m on a magazine masthead with the likes of Dennis Lim, Christoph Huber (a Ferronian firebrand and the all-time Austrian ace of alliteration), and Andrew Tracy. And Toronto is filled with interesting film critics, many of whom meet the spring-chicken-age requirement for this survey.
Adam Nayman is a film critic for The Grid and the Globe and Mail and a contributing editor to Cinema Scope. He is a staff critic for Reverse Shot. He teaches film at Ryerson University and his first book, a critical study of Showgirls, will be published by ECW Press in spring 2014.
1) I consider writing criticism an intellectual and literary pursuit. It allows one to develop a distinctive voice and comment on the (still) dominant art form of our day and age. If criticism is good enough to go beyond fandom, it can become a form of engagement with the world that requires almost monastic discipline and commitment. It can also allow for the personality of the writer to shine through the aesthetic judgment she or he is passing. I don’t believe in “pure,” aesthetics-driven criticism at all. It’s always the writer’s personality and worldview that make criticism worth reading.
2) There’s an element of geeky, list-making compulsion in cinephilia that appealed to my personality very early on. I was a natural-born auteurist, seeking out work by specific directors rather than focusing on stars or genres. Years before I even heard of Andrew Sarris (still no hero of mine), I developed an appreciation of the then-current Hollywood product of the mid-Nineties. Jon Turtletaub and Steven Spielberg reigned supreme in the adolescent Pantheon of my own making. At the same time, I devoured every old movie that would play on the two-channel Polish television, no matter the time of day (or night) it screened.
The greatest single change brought by the last decade is the rapid increase in availability of visual content. Having grown up in pre-Internet Poland, I was used to treating movie classics as a phantom collection of barely attainable Holy Grails. When my shortage-prone hometown lost electricity on April 27, 1995, HAL-9000 was just telling Dave there was no way he was getting back on the Discovery One spaceship. The screen went blank and I went berserk. There were no reruns, no pre-1980s movies on VHS. I needed to wait three years before I saw the Kubrick movie in its entirety. Try telling this story to the torrent-happy kids of YouTube, Netflix, and VOD.
Growing up in Poland, Oleszczyk had to wait three years to finish watching 2001 after his hometown lost electricity midway through its TV airing
3) The Internet didn’t bury cinephilia. It transformed it into a new form of instantly shared global obsession. Nuances of film history were never before as available for scrutiny as they are now—the great Open Sesame of forgotten treasures were never as ripe as they are now for full-time spelunking. MUBI, Slant, and Senses of Cinema (not to mention dozens of great individual blogs) offer shot-by-shot analyses of movies that were lost and/or forgotten for decades. Video essays produced by sites like Press Play and Fandor truly redefine criticism, as they merge commentary with innovative editing. The critic of today doesn’t need to rely on recollection of a film—in most cases, the work can be easily consulted. This situation eliminates many factual errors, even as it makes revelatory slips of memory less likely to occur.
4) As much as I love online criticism for the variety of voices it provides, it also brought about an increasing terror of immediacy. Our cultural attention span shrunk dramatically. Movie after movie receives rapid judgment. No sooner does the first Twitter eruption determine a movie’s critical spin that the discussion seems already over. What was once an anticipated work becomes an ancient artifact in a matter of months. It’s rarely that online critics aim at a retrospective synthesis of what they watch: more often than not, they’re happy to work in an assembly-line format of individual reviews. What online criticism truly lacks right now is a visionary critic to propose a wider narrative of contemporary cinema—one that could be argued with, but would prove encompassing enough to inspire a better understanding of where movies are headed.
J. Hoberman is cited by several of the symposium's contributors as a key influence on their approach to writing film criticism (photo by Robin Holland, www.robinholland.com)
5) My holy trinity of influences includes Pauline Kael, J. Hoberman, and Roger Ebert. Talent, brilliance, and productivity aside, these are the critics that seem to have digested film history as a whole and offer personal visions of what movies can be. Hoberman’s brand of high-octane, richly dialectical prose (itself influenced by Manny Farber, but far surpassing it in scope) is probably my personal ideal. Of younger writers—to name just three—I believe Odie Henderson, Simon Abrams, and Fernando F. Croce to be great contemporary critics that I look up to and hope to emulate.
Michal Oleszczyk is a film scholar, critic and translator based in Kraków, Poland. He writes for a number of Polish publications, as well as for RogerEbert.com, Slant, Fandor, and Hammer to Nail. Winner of the Polish Film Institute award for Best Film Critic of 2012, he wrote the first Polish book on the work of Terence Davies and coauthored book-long interviews with Guy Maddin and the Brothers Quay. His translation of J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum’s Midnight Movies was published in 2011.
Film criticism is a matter of drawing a bead on a moving target. It’s a bit like catching a greased pig—a pastime that is not always treated with the utmost of esteem, though almost everyone will grudgingly agree that, yes, it is fairly difficult to do. Maybe a better metaphor is that of trying to sketch a moving train: In trying to “get down” that restless, pulsing, ever-moving thing that’s just passed you by, you respond to a performance by actors, director, and other involved personnel with a performance of your own, using language to “mummify transience,” in the phrase of Kenneth Tynan. In practising this I have, probably with mixed success, always tried to bear in mind the note written on one of Tynan’s papers when he was an Oxford undergraduate by his tutor, C. S. Lewis: “Keep a strict eye on eulogistic and dyslogistic adjectives—They should diagnose (not merely blame) and distinguish (not merely praise).”
This advice jostles up against an ever-lurking, almost-entirely chimerical fantasy of actually wielding influence, of leading polemical charges, of proselytizing for films that fulfill one’s own idea of the medium’s potential, of grabbing “The Public” by the lapels and forcing them to see the qualities in a work that you yourself see—or, alternately, playing the role of town decrier, toppling idols and generally kicking up a fuss. This fantasy, in turn, melts away in harsh light of the knowledge that the vast majority of that public wants nothing more from their movie chat than a consumer guide, and is disinclined to read further past a star rating, assuming they don’t just go straight to the Tomatometer instead, leaving all of your finely tuned adjectives to gather dust. What remains, after all of this, is the duty to write as well and as definitively as possible on the subject at hand, as time and endurance allow.
The question of time allowed leads quite naturally to the issue, raised in this survey’s questionnaire, of the “digital era.” I’m sure that technology has had an incalculable effect on the viewing habits of my generation as on every generation, but right now I’m more interested in the effect that it’s had on writing habits, as enforced by editorial dictum. Specifically, I’m talking about the gradual emergence of a twenty-four-hour film culture news cycle on a voracious Internet which demands ever-refreshing content, regardless of actual news that’s fit to print (or post), with a resultant shortening of response time for evaluation. This creates the concern that to make a go of criticism vocationally will increasingly require the sort of monomaniacal dusk-to-dawn submergence in movies, movies, movies, which forestalls involvement in other things: In reading or gallery-going or sport or videogames or life itself, whatever that may be. I often return to something that Eric Rohmer said in a 1983 interview with Jean Narboni: “I despise, I hate, cinephile madness, cinephile culture…I think that there are other things in the world besides film and, conversely, that film feeds on things that exist outside it. I would even say that film is the art that can feed on itself the least.” Yes, yes, a thousand times yes.
As to the “qualities [which] make for a memorable film critique,” I should say that it could and should encompass everything, just as a memorable film can. This includes “social or political aspects,” though here I think Lewis’s order to “diagnose (not merely blame) and distinguish (not merely praise)” comes in handy. I have no use for criticism as a political amen corner, where the right- (or, you know, left-) thinking critic can put the right-thinking viewer onto movies which express the right thoughts.
As to the assumption that younger critics are not interested in film history: Since we’re swinging massive generalities around, I would suggest that the better of young critics—here I am of course referring to my friends and myself—often have a healthy skepticism towards the buzz surrounding event movies which their elders may lack. For if the young critic lacks position or clout or a savings account or property—should I continue?—he or she does at least have the fact of youth on their side, and thus an inalienable proximity to What’s Going On. The critic of middle-age or later has the conscious burden of proving their relevance, and this can manifest itself in a too-easy receptivity to novelty, an anxiety about missing the boat, or seeming too stick-in-the-mud. It may actually be easier for the young critic to be a killjoy—which, to be sure, is not always a virtue in itself.
All of this is not to engage in unprovoked acts of generational baiting/solidarity. I’ve by now had the opportunity to meet many established critics who are my elders, and without exception I’ve found those whom I admire, and whose accomplishments are most self-evident, have been the most collegial and kind and encouraging, above and beyond the call of duty. I cannot say how much this can mean to someone who is young, and doesn’t have a name to their name.
As to the question of influence, I’m surely a weird mulligan stew myself: Hazlitt and Andrew Sarris and probably some Leonard Maltin, in my overuse of the word “overlong.” More than any predecessors, though, I keep the work of my hungry generational coevals in mind, for there really is a surfeit of talent out there. Of folks who (I think) make the “The Next Generation” cutoff, I’ll cite offhand Adam Nayman, Violet Lucca, R. Emmet Sweeney, Michael Koresky, Ashley Clark, Michael Sicinski, Andrew Tracy, Genevieve Yue, Vadim Rizov, Brandon Harris, Tom McCormack, Leah Churner, Fernando F. Croce… I only hope the best and brightest don’t peel off and throw in the towel, as many threaten to do when real-deal adulthood makes such a time-consuming, low-pay pursuit insupportable. Some of the abovementioned I know well, others slightly, others only through their work—yet dearly do I hope that all of us are one day snugly ensconced at the Home for Retired Film Critics.
Nick Pinkerton’s film criticism has appeared in The Village Voice, ArtForum, Sight & Sound, and ReverseShot.com. He contributes a weekly column, “Bombast,” to the SundanceNOW blog. A member of the New York Film Critic’s Circle, he lives in Brooklyn, NY and hails from Cincinnati, OH.
1) I should probably admit early that I brook no particular delusions about the importance or weight of film criticism in any sort of broad ethical sense. I write film criticism, quite simply, because I enjoy it. More to the point, it’s because I enjoy watching and thinking about movies more than anything else. It’s fun. It might be my favorite thing to do. And if I can manage to get published and paid (or, published and/or paid) to do it, all the better. If I could make an actual, sustainable career out of it (and I’m not there yet), then, well, that’d be the dream.
I have no real target reader in mind when I write stuff, save maybe for myself, or people like me: i.e., people who like to read film criticism. I suppose I have certain concerns about representation, and especially political representation, in films, which I’ve gleaned from reading critics like Jonathan Rosenbaum and Robin Wood over the years, as well as from taking any number of university courses that dealt with, in one way or another, depictions of race, gender, and class in fiction.
I guess I’m sensitive to the ways in which film, being the mass-est of mass media (outside maybe television) shapes the broader cultural landscape. It’s probably a product of my undergraduate work in cultural studies, and that discipline’s focus on the confluence of Marxism and Freudian psychoanalyses: everything is political, and everything political is coded imagistically. Demystifying this coding is the “work” (if you want to call it that) that I try to do when I set about seriously thinking through and writing about a film. I also try to be funny, when I can, because this stuff can get awfully serious.
2) I didn’t really set out to become a cinephile, necessarily. It’s not like I resolved to be a cinephile and then went about meeting the requirements of cinephilia. I’ve always loved watching movies. And as someone who came into a more involved interest in films around high school, right when DVDs were eclipsing VHS, I’d say the digital era totally shaped my then-emerging cinephilia. I voraciously rented, watched, and swapped discs with friends, and was an avid collector and total commodity fetishist about it, a tic that I retain (for better or worse) until today.
I think the relative durability of DVDs, when compared to ever-eroding VHS, opened up certain channels of accessibility. The boom in Criterion Collection titles was especially instrumental in shaping my tastes and general awareness of global cinema and its history. As is still pretty much true today, the brand itself was a mark of quality, and my collector impulse lead me to blind purchases and virginal viewings of pretty seminal, canon-type stuff (Seven Samurai, Breathless,The Seventh Seal, and so on).
3) It’s hard to know if “average viewers” (whatever that means) are any more or less “unduly” consumerist than in previous generations. Were average audiences before me interested in the nuances of film history? I don’t think so. My parents went to see Monty Python movies on dates, not Bresson retrospectives or anything.
I think it’s safe to say that the bottom has been lowered, and mass Hollywood entertainments like Transformers 3 or whatever are dumber than foundational blockbusters like The Exorcist or Jaws. But, at the same time, certain tendencies in international/art-house/“serious” cinema seem comparably, maybe even in some compensatory way, keyed up. In the broadest sense, movies have always been bottom-line driven, so it’s hard to malign that still being the case (especially in a year of decent-to-great franchise blockbusters like The Avengers and Skyfall). Though paying eighteen dollars for a ticket to a 3-D HFR AVX screening of The Hobbit felt like a bit of a fleece.
I hear some critics talk about going into films openly, with no preconceptions. To this I say:pfft. Functionally, how is it even possible to empty your mind of any biases? Is it some sort of Zen thing? Most Hollywood productions, to my mind, begin in a deficit. But when these types of “big” movies are impressive or sophisticated for whatever sets of reasons, they deserve praise. If anything, I feel like I tend to overpraise stuff like this, precisely because the impressiveness seems that much more impressive in light of certain of my sneering (though not, I don’t think, altogether invalid) expectations. Despite all this, I try to be antielitist. I have some editors who might snort at me saying that. As I’ve said to some of them before: it’s not that I hate everything, it’s that I love movies so much that their badness feels like a personal affront.
4) Getting paid. More specifically: getting paid well. The explosion of online outlets is great (when the writing is great), but, from a practical standpoint, raises a whole herd of often very good critics vying for the same positions. I consider film criticism one thing that I do, and not the core of my identity, which I think is vital to my sanity.
5) I’ve mentioned a few above (Rosenbaum, Wood) to which I’ll also add Raymond Durgnat, for standing so largely outside of fashion and group-think, and J. Hoberman, whose syntheses of film and history are honestly astounding to me. Sometimes when I read Hoberman I feel like I felt when I was a kid wanting to be a pro hockey goaltender, and watching Dominik Hasek and thinking, “Yes, this is what it looks like do this well.”
British film critic and scholar Raymond Durgnat (1932-2002)
As far as more contemporary stuff, it’ll sound sycophantic, but I really like the writing of the places I write for, especially Slant, CinemaScope, and this magazine. Many of the writers there have crucially shaped my thinking about films and film writing, as well as entertained me endlessly. I kind of cherish the old Cahiers attitude of certain publications sharing a critical worldview, which I feel I get with these publications, albeit in different registers. This general outlook, our attitude, is more important, and influential, to me than the work of any one or two writers.
John Semley is the online editor and sometimes film critic of NOW Magazine in Toronto, and writes about films for Cinema Scope, Slant, Cineaste, and elsewhere.
Few activities are more solitary than writing—and yet writing is always done for the benefit of an audience.
Writing film criticism compounds this paradox. A film critic writes for a double audience—an audience of readers who are also an audience of viewers. And yet criticism is solitary; a critic is, ideally, a loner, a person for whom watching movies is more difficult than it is for the average person. The only thing they can vouch for is their ability to interpret their own experience; “credibility” for a critic is often synonymous with a sort of inward focus.
I became a film critic for a simple reason: I loved movies and I wanted to make them, but I felt like I didn’t understand them. That’s where criticism should come from: cinephilia, a place of love. Ideally, you write criticism—positive, negative, neutral—because you love a work or a medium and you want to understand that love and explain it to a reader. You want to reach for something outside of yourself, but you can only do it by going inside of your experiences and prejudices. Good film critics are ultimately critics of themselves.
I came up at a time when video stores were still a viable expression of cinephilia—democratic, social spaces where new and old films sat side by side and it was possible to spend hours browsing cover by cover and talking. Movie theaters and living rooms were places to watch movies; video stores were places to gab about them. This was, however, only a transitional period. While video- store culture still exists in a few rare, vibrant examples, the locus of cinephilia—and, by extension, criticism—has largely shifted to the Internet.
People come to movie theaters to be alone together. They use the Internet in order to socialize and interact while being apart. That’s the crisis of film culture in a nutshell: it’s attempting to celebrate one medium using another with opposite properties. But, of course, film culture is chock full of crises and paradoxes—and always has been. Cinema is a very mutable and adaptable medium; as a result, it’s perpetually in crisis. Before the digital crisis, there was the home-video crisis, the television crisis, the widescreen crisis, the color crisis, the sound crisis—and so on and so forth.
The purpose of cinephilia is to endure these crises; to preserve what might otherwise be lost and celebrate what might be ignored. Like criticism, it is a private, inward-looking activity that is done for social, outward-looking ends; cinephilia is completely personal and subjective, and yet it exists to be shared. That’s why screening rare and favorite films remains the ultimate expression of cinephilia—it’s a moment of communal sharing.
While I’m part of a generation that grew up with the Internet, my first introductions to film criticism came from more old-fashioned institutions—libraries, newspapers, movie-theater lobbies, and, again, the culture of Chicago’s specialty video stores, where Jonathan Rosenbaum (still my favorite living American critic), Dave Kehr, J. Hoberman, Manny Farber (then still alive), and the 1950s staff of Cahiers du cinéma were held in cultish high regard. You discovered a film and then someone told you that it was a certain critic’s personal favorite; you read the critic and discovered more films. You went to a college library to read bound collections of classic Cahiers with a pocket French-to-English dictionary. You kept notebooks full of titles you hoped to one day see. It was a perpetual cycle of sharing and discovery.
We live in a time when a wider variety of films are being made in more places than ever before, and when the average person has access to a much larger array of films than at any point in the past—and yet the screening experience, which has historically been the main method through which film culture has been preserved and shared, is eroding. Criticism as an activity is flourishing—and yet criticism as a profession is increasingly unviable. For all the freedom and access it offers, the Internet has a remarkable capacity for compartmentalization; while in magazines and newspapers, film culture could share a page with journalism and politics, on the Internet the readership is niche-y. Film blogs are chiefly read by other film bloggers.
The key, then, is to reach outside of cinephilia. Its migration to the Internet has been by and large a boon, connecting like-minded people across the globe, but it’s all too easy to imagine cinephile culture turning into an irrelevant, online-only echo chamber. Without a nonspecialized audience, the last cinephile will be like the last typewriter repairman; they will have preserved a service no one has any use for.
I believe, perhaps naively, that cinema is the greatest and most complex of media, and that cinephilia—and, by extension, criticism informed by cinephilia—is a sort of small, noble art which exists to share deep-seated personal obsessions with an audience. The former is, I believe, thriving; the latter is trying to find its footing. I’m not sure what the exact solution is. Maybe that’s a question for the next generation; they’ll be smarter.
Ignatiy Vishnevetsky is a critic and essayist for Notebook, a magazine of international film and film culture published by MUBI.com. He is also a founding contributor of Cine-File, and cohosted the syndicated television program Ebert Presents: At the Movies for two seasons. His criticism has appeared in the Chicago Reader, Cargo, Chicago Sun-Times, and other publications. He lives in Chicago.
In Devotional Cinema, Nathaniel Dorsky proposes two takes on the “post-film experience,” each of which demonstrates the medium’s power. Recalling a matinee screening from his childhood, he describes the way in which the afternoon’s movies left him feeling ill and estranged from his surroundings. Movies like Roberto Rossellini’s Journey to Italy, and, later in the book, Michelangelo Antonioni’s La Notte and Ozu Yasujiro’s The Only Son, meanwhile, could produce the opposite effect, one of nourishment. He remarks, “I realized from these experiences that there was something in cinema beyond its intellectual or narrative content. There was something in the actual nature of the cinema, its view, that could produce health or illness in an audience.” This metabolic model of film experience is perhaps familiar to all of us. We know those films that warm us to the presence of the people seated around us, as well as those that send us scurrying away from the theater, averting the eyes of anyone we may pass. Even when watching films is a matter of late-night laptop viewing, we can get a sense of those movies that open us to the world, and those that compel us to turn from it.
Filmmaker Nathaniel Dorsky's book Devotional Cinema
Dorsky’s evocation of film viewing, as an experience that involves so much more than mere looking, suggests, to me, the limitations of cinephilia. While cinephilia, commonly associated with the ardor evoked in postwar Parisian ciné-clubs and their American counterparts, is described as a kind of fanaticism, no less love, Dorsky’s vision is at once gentler and more immediate. He allows films to flood his senses, but never does he seem to drown in what he sees. Instead he remains attentive to the variety of experiences films may have to offer, with love or lovesickness (as the clinical-sounding term cinephilia implies) being but two of many possibilities.
Devotion in cinema, he writes, need not be a religious experience. It is, rather, “is the opening or the interruption that allows us to experience what is hidden, and to accept with our hearts our given situation.” To experience that which is hidden requires a kind of patience and openness sometimes precluded by the fervor of the cinephile. Dorsky’s careful consideration of a general mode of viewing also indicates another departure from the cinephile. While the cinephile hungrily collects and consumes the films of his or her beloved genres and filmmakers, Dorksy speaks about the potentialities of the medium writ large. If the cinephile is concerned more with individual films, devotional cinema is an orientation toward cinema and the myriad experiences it engenders.
I gravitate toward Dorsky’s mode of viewing over the cinephile’s in part because the latter has always remained somewhat elusive to me. I am certainly familiar with the intensity of cinematic obsession, and, like many people my age, I have vivid childhood memories of watching movies on garbled VHS tapes, compulsively rewinding them until the tape sometimes snapped. But I never had an insatiable appetite for film the way the denizens of independent video stores, or many of my film critic colleagues, seem to have. Instead, my appreciation for the medium developed fairly late, during a time, in college, when my critical faculties were also awakened. As I sharpened my ability to think in the context of broader cultural and theoretical concerns, I discovered simultaneously the way that new questions, new possibilities, might be posed in a film; the way that cinema, like any art form, can open us to things we never imagined. Though I, of course, have always had my favorite films, I came to love cinema when I experienced it in the way Dorsky intones: as a mode of thinking, of feeling, of being.
In my capacity as a film scholar and critic, I watch films in many contexts: in multiplexes and museums, and on planes and computers; and in a range of formats, screen sizes, and picture qualities. While there is undoubtedly pleasure in seeing films “the way they were meant to be seen,” I’m not convinced that “ideal” screening conditions warrant the fetishization with which they’re sometimes invested. Cinema can be a richly sensorial experience no matter how it is seen, whether we are alone or with others. Recently, when asked to recount significant memories of watching films, my students described a range of experiences, many that would be considered less than pristine: driving to a second-run theater at the end of the summer, happening upon the television broadcast of a long-forgotten film, or giggling with a friend over avant-garde videos discovered haphazardly on YouTube. I was struck by the ways their film memories were so deeply tied to personal ones, marking moments significant to their relationships, or causing them to be aware of their own maturation.
I was reminded of Dorsky’s proposal that “film [is] a direct and intimate metaphor or model for our being,” both something we experience and a mode of experience in itself, something greater than any single film, any single moment. More than a precious object of love, cinema is an integral part of our lives, indeed an entire way of living. Film, Dorsky continues, “[has] the potential to be transformative, to be an evocation of spirit, and to become a form of devotion.” And every once in a while, usually when I’m least expecting it, a film will remind me of this: the vastness, and the revelatory depth, of cinema. Sitting before an illuminated screen, in the moment when a movie springs to life, I will sometimes shiver with the renewed promise of what the medium can be.
Genevieve Yue is a critic and scholar living in Los Angeles.