A shorter version of these responses appeared with the responses of several other film critics in the November 2013 issue of Verite Magazine, a digital monthly. — J.R.
Film Criticism “Then and Now”:
1.How has film criticism and the role of a film critic evolved since you first started?
One very striking change is the inordinate number of surveys of this kind that exist now as opposed to then. Even after I factor in the frequency with which I’m asked to participate nowadays, because of being better known today than I was in the 1970s, I think the interest in film criticism as a topic has grown quite a bit.
Thanks to academia, the Internet, and other factors, there are many more forms of criticism and outlets for its dissemination now. We also have more ways of discovering these forms and outlets in the present, at least if we’re interested. The conversations and exchanges begin more quickly and can travel much greater distances. There’s much more good stuff and much more bad stuff, which means the task of determining and then focusing on what one is looking for becomes much more complicated — unless one is passive and simply follows the industry’s discourse, which of course is what most people tend to do, one way or another, and what most people also tended to do half a century ago.
Part of the big difference nowadays is the degree to which criticism becomes either canonized or else completely ignored, depending on whether or not it’s available online. In the early 60s, when I was living in New York, film criticism was what I could find in bookstores and newsstands, which wasn’t very much — although some specialized, small-circulation publications such as the New York Film Bulletin and Film Culture were more precious in some ways because of their relative scarcity and obscurity. Sight and Sound and Film Quarterly were radically different publications back then, and more important than they are today for the same reason. It was of course in Film Culture, Monthly Film Bulletin, and Film Quarterly that the so-called auteur wars were first waged, and contemporaries of mine who look back with nostalgia at that era, based on the assumption that American culture was galvanized by such debates, are, I think, deluding themselves. It took many years for these struggles to reach the mainstream, helped along by such major interventions as the Truffaut/Hitchcock interview book and the vicissitudes of Hollywood fashion.
2. Since the birth of the internet and film blogging, how do you believe this has helped or hindered film criticism?
I’ve responded to much of this above. Basically, a few well-aimed snowballs have turned into an avalanche, for better and for worse. One has to carve one’s own snowballs out of this morass and onslaught, but back then, there weren’t so many choices.
3. What made you become a film critic in the first place and who were your influences and why?
My family’s theater chain in Alabama turned me into a compulsive moviegoer, but it was mainly my exposures to art cinema (Welles, Eisenstein, Resnais, Truffaut, Kurosawa, Godard, Antonioni, Bergman, Fellini, etc.) after I went north that eventually got me involved with film criticism. My earliest influences were probably Dwight Macdonald and James Agee, shortly followed by the Cahiers critics, Andrew Sarris, Susan Sontag, Noël Burch, and Manny Farber.
4. How do you see the relationship between academic film scholarship and popular film criticism?
Mainly antagonistic and, for the most part, sadly unproductive. Most people in both fields don’t read nearly enough, or widely enough.
And with newspapers cutting their arts coverage can there possibly be a future for professional film criticism if newspapers die out and if not, what will be the ramifications of film appreciation solely residing within academia?
I’ve already gone on record as someone who disbelieves and distrusts just about every definition of “professionalism” that either film journalism or academic film study has come up with. In other words, a good many so-called “professionals” in both realms know zip about cinema and couldn’t care less, and a good many “amateurs” know a lot and care passionately. There are of course notable exceptions to this rule, but not enough to allow for any generalizations I could make with much confidence. For the most part, “professional” film critics in both realms base their reputations on institutional support more than knowledge or sensitivity or insight or a capacity to write well.
5. In 1974 Pauline Kael said “Criticism is all that stands between the public and advertising”. How do you interpret this statement and do you think she was right?
Whose advertising are we talking about? If we mean the industry’s advertising, I suppose Kael had a point, but she wound up spending much of her time as an industry advertiser, even if she was being selective about who or what chose to advertise. (And let’s not forget she had her own stint of at least trying to be a part of the industry.) I couldn’t exclude myself entirely from this category of turning out ad copy either. Anyone who reviews films with any regularity for an extended period of time usually winds up being an advertiser; the only major exception to this rule that comes to mind is Manny Farber — and even Manny turned out his own version of promotional blurbs on occasion, even if they weren’t subsequently incorporated into literal ads.
6. Do you subscribe to the theory that cinema might be dying or changing as we know it, but analysis and appreciation of cinema is growing?
Declarations of cinema’s impending death have been with us at least since the coming of sound, and certainly “cinema as we know it” has been changing even longer than that. Needless to say, appreciation and analysis as we know them have been changing over the same period.
I don’t know whether or not we can also say that analysis and/or appreciation of cinema has been growing — are we really in a position to judge? The tools of analysis and appreciation do seem to be multiplying, but how wisely or well we’re using them can probably be judged coherently or meaningfully only by future generations.