Saturday, April 21, 2007


Ty Burr, one of The Boston Globe’s sharp film critics, wrote a provocative and insightful think piece in last Sunday’s (4-15-07) Globe Movies section. Entitled “Sandra, meet Ingmar: the education of a critic”, it posed this basic question: “What does a movie reviewer need to know?” Face it-until the advent of film schools and the acceptance of film studies as a legit scholarly pursuit in the late ‘60’s/early 70’s most of the film nitcrits assigned to movie row for America’s dailies, weeklies and monthlies were basically slumming, men and women whose backgrounds consisted of straight reportage, college lit classes, maybe once and a while a theater cat, but mostly those who needed a buck, a job, or a space to vent about their movie-going hobby. I would venture that some of that still exists today, although many of the smarter and insightful movie nitcrits have either come from a film study background, or plunged themselves into that realm of study once they found themselves in the front row seats. Quoting from UK scholar/critic Ronald Bergan, Burr allows him to lay down his challenge” “I believe that every film critic should know, say, the difference between a pan and a dolly shot, a fill and a key light, direct and reflected sound, the signified and the signifier, diegetic and non-digetic music, and how both a tracking shot and depth of field can be ideological. Burr stretches it further--is it necessary to know all about Ingmar in order to dissect (or maybe knife up) the latest Sandra Bullock trifle? Nearly very popcultist around today seems to be able to trot out the basics when it comes to Hitchcock, Welles, Truffaut and Kurosowa, every other one can easily give ya a few minutes on the movies or styles that Tarantino or Scorsese continually lift, and most of ‘em can even probably pronounce the terms genre, homage, and film noir. As a long practicing film nitcrit (one who did indeed major in Film Studies, despite the fact that my ambition was always to be a big timey music writer and crit), I can attest that there are self-proclaimed movie critics poised on nearly every other bar stool in my little towne, and in yer own little towne. Bloggers galore consider movie analysis and commentary as easy as writing about the wrinkles on their toes, and just about every other small city publication seems to let the guy (or gal) with the encyclopedic knowledge of all past Oscar winners on the latest loose on the newest Spike Lee release. I’m a firm believer that a legit diviner of the magic of movies has too have seen as much as possible, from blaxploitation to Godard to the silents to Kenneth Anger, but seeing ain’t all, the true film nitcrit should have logged plenty of his or her time reading the pantheon of movie crits (Sarris, Kael, Farber, et al), digesting Hollywood social history and genre studies, keeping abreast of the smarter contempo crits (Burr, Hoberman, Denby,Thomson), and watching as much new stuff (art film, popcorn movie, pure celluloid crapola) as possible. I’ve always felt that when writing about movies for the general public it’s as important to both entertain and inform, to both educate and elucidate, to make apparent the underlining fact that no movie-movie, from The Incredible Mr. Limpet to In the Realm of the Senses is created in a vaccum, that all movies are crafted with very specific cinematic language and authorial choice, propelled by the notions of genre and style, and fueled by a dizzying backlog of shared celluloid history and a very basic filmic consciousness.


Té la mà Maria said...

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Charlie Drago said...


In case you haven't noticed, this site is being spammed.

Act accordingly.

On to business. As a once and future jazz critic and thinking human being, I concur with your position regarding requisite knowledge, experience, and erudition for all film critics worthy of the name.

And of course these expectations carry forward to critics of all genres of artistic expression.

There are many interesting spinoff discussions inherent in your mini-essay. I'll tackle just one: I would argue that implicit in our shared position is recognition that there exist universal, objective criteria for the evaluation of art.

As jazz saxophonist/composer/thinker Phil Woods said it so memorably, "Play 'September Song' right and you can make a Pygmy cry."

His point, of course, is that the verities of art are universal. So when you play the Kurt Weill/Maxwell Anderson standard and, in the process, locate and expound upon its themes of the transient nature of life and the the overaching importance of loving and being loved for however much time we have on this ride, then temporal and cultural barriers should be breached by touching that which is common to all mankind (at least).

How do you accomplish this daunting task? By getting good on your axe. Take it from this alto sax hobbyist: Phil Woods is far more likely to communicate at such levels than I am ... which makes him a better musical artist.

So yes, critics must search for and express the verities. And -- this is, you'll excuse the word choice, critical -- they must begin by learning to differentiate between "favorite" and "best."

Here's the truism: The greater one's sophistication as a consumer and/or creator of art, the more likely one is to have "favorite" and "best" coincide.

Have at it.


lisa said...

nitcrit, good word. Informing onself is one thing and must agree that it is essential. In additon it must be very difficult to remain objective. I am no film critic but there are many instances where I really hated the experience of a particular movie but KNEW that it was in fact a brilliant film nevertheless. I've always wondered who critics get past that type of love/hate feeling and write a worthy review.

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Warm Regards

Biby Cletus :- Wishing you a very Happy Earth Day

mdoggie said...

Well, I visited telemaria, and Although my Spanish is worse than my French I was able to read the pictures of the woman with large breasts and a hat, some video content, several B&W photos from another era, and an article on Gladys Knight and the Pips. I'm not sure they're spamming us, I think they are reaching out...

I grew up one year behind ScottyD and subject to many of the same influences. I think my first exposure to the critical essay was probably Cleveland Armory in TV Guide. This came before the rock n' roll rags like Creem, Fusion, and Rolling Stone which was not slick but newspaper at the time. I'm sure there were others that I can't recall but "Clevey" predated Sarris, Haskell, Youngblood, Bogdonavich, et al. Although I can claim a certain lofty position by virtue of having lived in LA during the 80's and 90's and being a regular at AFI festivals and events during some of those years, I never really took the plunge into serious critical reading or writing. Admittedly, the earliest and most influential hotbed of critical thought and discussion would have to be the letters pages in our favorite comics. Mostly Marvel issues at the time, consumed voraciously like all of our media, I know that I read every page carefully, even the ads. The letters were essentially critiques; discussions, praising or damning the authors, artists, editors and publishers alike, freewheeling and written by mostly if not exclusively males under the age of 12.
As a film student of course I encountered the big time of film criticism and kept the habit for years after, reading everything from Film Comment to The Hollywood Reporter and Variety collecting and passing on Maltin's yearly compilation like some ancient and abstruse scroll. I continue to be a fan of the fan of, in every city I've lived in, I always check out the film writing in the local free weekly (or weeklies) and assemble my list of thumbs up and thumbs down on the 'nitcrits'. Michael Ventura of the LA Weekly in the 80's being near the top of my top ten. Scott gave me a copy of Andrew Sarris's "The American Cinema" (1929-1968) sometime before, during, or after my college years which no doubt formed the basis for my own critical thinking about film and movies. I still have that same yellowed paperback.
Ultimately, the best writers in any particular genre are those that have the passion and the intellect. You can pass with one or the other but you need both to thrive and inspire.
On a somewhat related note, let's all mourn the passing of David Halberstam, a journalist and writer of the first order. He was killed in a car crash yesterday, was driven to his death by a journalism grad student hosting him for a lecture. I have not read all of Halberstam's work, just "The Best and the Brightest" and "The Powers That Be" and an occasional essay. He was the best and brightest himself, his passing may sadly signify the end of an era in contemporary journalism.

Scotty D said...

Brother Mark, how intriquing you bring up both Cleaveland Amory and the Marvel Comics Letter's page, as Mr. Drago and myself were just invoking both of these recently in a barside (not internet) discussion. (Charlie-why don't you lay out the tale of your first taste of publication?) As far as the one and only Andrew Sarris, the book purty much changed my life, converting me to a hardline autuerist and opening my (then) high falutin' eyes to the wicked pleasures of American mavericks and stylists like Robert Aldrich, Sam Fuller, Nick Ray, and Anthony Mann. Now, Lisa, you bring up one of constant speedtraps of movie criticism, wherein a film is brilliant executed, essentially fully achieving it's intended goals, but the overall viewing experience is somehow off-putting. These are the films that fall just short of lofty status, flawed by theme, plot, political thrust, etc. Equally disconcerting is the slight misfire by an ackowledged master, where the nitcrit's naturally heightened anticipation for the latest Scorsese, Lynch, Coen, Jarmusch effort is slowly dampened by the realization that that the movie just ain't quite working on all cylinders. Somehow you haveta convey to the readership that this breed of filmmaker still has fashioned a film that's better than 75% of what's around it, yet it's not up to the Olympian standards that the prior work has set.

Charlie Drago said...

Okay, Scott. It's 8:11 AM, I haven't embarassed myself yet today, so what the hell.

It is within the "Letters" pages of "Fantastic Four" #77 that I burst upon the literary scene. Marvel-ites can do the math; I'm figuring that I was somewhere in the neighborhood of ten years old.

So yeah, I was under 12, but my submission could hardly be labeled a "critique."

No, it was far more egomaniacal than that.

I decided that I knew exactly where Stan Lee and Jack Kirby ("Dear Stan and Jack")needed to steer what at the time was their wildly successful, flagship comic. So I graciously shared an original story arc involving a union of super villains (Doc Doom was among them, I seem to recall) allied against the FF.

"The best part of my modest idea," is the only line from the missive I can recall.

Yeah. Even then.

And I wonder why I have just one friend ...

Time to move on to a less earth-shaking topic:

Scott, you wrote: "Equally disconcerting is the slight misfire by an ackowledged master, where the nitcrit's naturally heightened anticipation for the latest Scorsese, Lynch, Coen, Jarmusch effort is slowly dampened by the realization that that the movie just ain't quite working on all cylinders."

To the degree that you suggest that critics -- or, if you will, public editors -- at times can see more of a given artist's forest than the auteur lost in the trees, we're in agreement.

Ditto if you're suggesting that objective measurement criteria may be applied to arts criticism.

I would add that, upon rare occasion, artistic sensibilities may evolve at a pace beyond that of the evolution of the critic's faculties.

In other words, what we see/hear today as a failure very well may turn around and, in the fullness of time, bite us on the collective ass tomorrow.

See, for instance, the self-righteous, predatory, 1940s reviews of Charlie Parker's "Chinese music." Or hear the derisive whistling of the French audiences at the premiere of "The Rites of Spring" and similar derision directed at John Coltrane during his final European concert as a member of the Miles Davis Quintet.

The fault, dear Brutus ...


mdoggie said...


I remember reading that letter! It changed my young life!

Hee hee. You should feel all pride and no embarrassment at your precocious pretensions. That letter belongs on the inside jacket of your posthumous bio...

barely sentient said...

Well, I am so late to this dance, as to be laughable, but what can I say? Have you never experienced a self-imposed hibernation from the scene?
About the critic business, I have to concur with Charlie Draggo, if I take him correctly. After viewing so many films, and back in the day, writing about so many records and shows, the nexus of what one thinks consitutes art and what one likes becomes a mandate. I seek out in films and music those experiences that I anticipate will meet some aesthetic criteria that I logged a long time ago...perhaps timeless and universal appeal are part of that, but i don't know anymore because it's so reflexive. Of course, that doesn't preclude being educated, even if it's to what Tarantino has to offer. Does he have anything to offer (just kidding...bad critic, go away!). But as a general response to your very well-written take Scott, I can only say, that's why you get the honorarium.