More from the Mouths of Critics

Recently, I have been thinking about the nature and function of film criticism and movie reviewing, which was prompted by the last episode of Moguls and Movie Stars. Episode 7, “Fade Out, Fade In” noted the influence of a new generation of critics during the 1960s and 1970s. Many college-age movie-goers were excited by the film s of the era and enthusiastically read the reviews of such critics as Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris, and Stanley Kaufmann. Their reviews featured thoughtful comparisons to the other arts and a general regard for film style and aesthetics—something missing from the writing of the old guard of movie reviewers.  [See last week’s post.]

Then, while searching online for a specific review by Roger Ebert for another project, I came across several blogs and forums that vehemently attacked the country’s best-known critic.  Basically, these bloggers/commentators were irked because Ebert had panned several of their favorite movies.  From the nature and writing level of their comments, I deduced that these detractors were teenagers and/or college-age kids. I couldn’t help compare their negative attitudes and immature perspectives on film criticism with those of young movie-goers during the Film School Generation.

Like all arts discourse, good film criticism expands readers’ own views and ideas, champions works that need attention, stimulates interest in talented individuals, and takes measure of relevant trends and movements.  And yet, the majority of contemporary film reviewing does not do any of this. Because movies are a commercial art dependent on likability and popularity, the general discourse of popular film has been reduced to “I like it” or “I didn’t like it,” with the reviewers’ opinions masquerading as expertise. There is not a lot of true criticism in contemporary film reviewing, because personal taste is used as a measure of judgment in lieu of concrete criteria. The proliferation of movie-review sites on the Internet has only propagated this aspect of contemporary reviewing. Sadly, readers now look to critics and reviewers to validate their tastes rather than to expand their perceptions. These are only some of my random thoughts on the state of movie reviewing; I don’t have any solutions or suggestions. Film criticism and reviewing are vital; I just wish that, in general, it was better.

Last week, I offered a glimpse at reviews of classic Hollywood films that missed the mark, which are amusing to read because history has proven these critics wrong, and far from being universal, their all-too-personal tastes are exposed as being quirky and irrelevant. This week, I offer several examples of reviews from the modern era that reveal the limitations of the discipline and the biases of the critics.

Pauline Kael on Raging Bull in The New Yorker (December 8, 1980): “I know I’m supposed to be responding to a powerful ironic realism, but I just feel trapped. Jake says, ‘You dumb f__k,’ and Joey says, ‘You dumb f__k,’ and they repeat it and repeat it. And I think, what am I doing here watching these two dumb f__ks?”

H.H. on Jean-Luc Godard and Breathless in Films in Review (March 1961): “Godard’s directorial abilities seem to me to be rather flash-in-the-pan-ish. He lacks intellectual and artistic integrity.”

Adelaide Comerford on The Graduate in Films in Review (January 1968): “The Graduate is a genuinely funny comedy which succeeds in being so despite an uninteresting and untalented actor in the title role.”

Stanley Kauffmann on Jaws in The New Republic (July 26, 1975): “The direction is by Steven Spielberg, who did the unbearable Sugarland Express. At least here he has shucked most of his arty mannerisms and has progressed almost to the level of a stock director of the ‘30s—say, Roy Del Ruth.”

Rena Andrews on Taxi Driver in the Denver Post (February 26, 1976): “After seeing Taxi Driver, you’ll think twice about the integrity of a movie that begins impressively as it shapes the inarticulated disorder, aggression, and isolation in a man and concludes like so many other pictures that had nothing to say after all—with ghoulishness, some facile irony, and a cutesy-pie twist . . . .That the film, with so much going for it early on, turns into a hack job can only be blamed on Scorsese.”

John Simon on What’s Up Doc? In New Leader (April 3, 1972): “Miss Streisand looks like a cross between an aardvark and an albino rat surmounted by a platinum-coated horse bun.”

John Simon on Up the Sandbox in New Leader (February 5, 1973): “I find Miss Streisand’s looks repellent.”

John Simon on The Way We Were in Esquire (January 1974): “. . . Miss Streisand. . . cannot conquer our impression that, were she to collide with a Mack truck, it is the truck that would drop dead. And, as always, I am repelled by  her looks.”

Variety on Night of the Living Dead (October 16, 1968): “Until the Supreme Court establishes clearcut guidelines for the pornography of violence, Night of the Living Dead will serve nicely . . . .”

Sherwood Ross on The Wild Bunch in Christian Century (August 20, 1969): “. . . contains not one but two (count ‘em) massacres violent and gory enough to make Caligula puke. . . . Technically The Wild Bunch is a masterpiece; ethically, it’s a monstrosity . . . .What Stalin or Hitler could have conceived a more stunning paean to death than Peckinpah’s visual descent into hell.”

40 Responses More from the Mouths of Critics
Posted By Taylor : December 27, 2010 1:38 pm

I lived in the DC area in the 1980s and the Washington Post had Paul Attanasio for its film critic. Great, intelligent reviews, and every letters page flooded with complaints about his negativity. Eventually he took off for screenwriting in Hollywood, and the Post was left with Rita Kempley. According to Ms Kempley, the 1980s was the Golden Age of Hollywood film-making.

You should have quoted Pauline Kael’s review of Dirty Harry. I hear Eastwood needed therapy to deal with her reviews. [Dirty Harry by the way was Don Siegel's masterpiece.]

Posted By Taylor : December 27, 2010 1:38 pm

I lived in the DC area in the 1980s and the Washington Post had Paul Attanasio for its film critic. Great, intelligent reviews, and every letters page flooded with complaints about his negativity. Eventually he took off for screenwriting in Hollywood, and the Post was left with Rita Kempley. According to Ms Kempley, the 1980s was the Golden Age of Hollywood film-making.

You should have quoted Pauline Kael’s review of Dirty Harry. I hear Eastwood needed therapy to deal with her reviews. [Dirty Harry by the way was Don Siegel's masterpiece.]

Posted By Dennis Cozzalio : December 27, 2010 2:17 pm

John Simon, on the other hand, was and always will be a stone-cold fox. Right? Jesus…

Posted By Dennis Cozzalio : December 27, 2010 2:17 pm

John Simon, on the other hand, was and always will be a stone-cold fox. Right? Jesus…

Posted By heather : December 27, 2010 3:25 pm

Ugh, those John Simon quotes are vile.

Posted By heather : December 27, 2010 3:25 pm

Ugh, those John Simon quotes are vile.

Posted By dukeroberts : December 27, 2010 4:04 pm

While I cannot disagree with those critics about Streisand’s looks, what did they think of the movies? I would find that more interesting than another person who agrees with me about how ugly Barbra Streisand is.

Posted By dukeroberts : December 27, 2010 4:04 pm

While I cannot disagree with those critics about Streisand’s looks, what did they think of the movies? I would find that more interesting than another person who agrees with me about how ugly Barbra Streisand is.

Posted By dukeroberts : December 27, 2010 4:06 pm

Didn’t Pauline Kael eventually change her mind about Dirty Harry? Years later?

Posted By dukeroberts : December 27, 2010 4:06 pm

Didn’t Pauline Kael eventually change her mind about Dirty Harry? Years later?

Posted By Jeff Heise : December 27, 2010 4:39 pm

Let us not forget Bosley Crowther’s (now infamous) pan of BONNIE AND CLYDE back in ’67, which he later retracted but caused him to lose so much credibility as to resign his job not too long afterward.

I still have not forgiven Ebert (or his late partner, Siskel) for putting THE BLUES BROTHERS on their 10 best lists in 1980 and leaving off Kurosawa’s KAGEMUSHA.

Posted By Jeff Heise : December 27, 2010 4:39 pm

Let us not forget Bosley Crowther’s (now infamous) pan of BONNIE AND CLYDE back in ’67, which he later retracted but caused him to lose so much credibility as to resign his job not too long afterward.

I still have not forgiven Ebert (or his late partner, Siskel) for putting THE BLUES BROTHERS on their 10 best lists in 1980 and leaving off Kurosawa’s KAGEMUSHA.

Posted By dukeroberts : December 27, 2010 5:01 pm

What’s wrong with The Blues Brothers?

Posted By dukeroberts : December 27, 2010 5:01 pm

What’s wrong with The Blues Brothers?

Posted By Jeff Heise : December 27, 2010 5:04 pm

Nothing wrong with it, but Landis? Better than Kurosawa? C’mon!

Posted By Jeff Heise : December 27, 2010 5:04 pm

Nothing wrong with it, but Landis? Better than Kurosawa? C’mon!

Posted By Mitch Farish : December 27, 2010 5:17 pm

Despite the writer’s assertion that film criticism should somehow transcend personal opinion, every artist in literature or film, depending upon the public’s changing tastes, has been in or out at one time or another. The only two figures to fly above the critics’ barbs through the millenia are Homer and Shakespeare. Is anybody seriously suggesting Arthur Penn or Martin Scorsese are the cinematic equivalent of those artists?

Posted By Mitch Farish : December 27, 2010 5:17 pm

Despite the writer’s assertion that film criticism should somehow transcend personal opinion, every artist in literature or film, depending upon the public’s changing tastes, has been in or out at one time or another. The only two figures to fly above the critics’ barbs through the millenia are Homer and Shakespeare. Is anybody seriously suggesting Arthur Penn or Martin Scorsese are the cinematic equivalent of those artists?

Posted By AL : December 27, 2010 6:00 pm

Pauline Kael was my Mentor! I’m not kidding. I met her when I was 15. She was running The Cinema Guild And Studio right down from UC Berkeley. She was the first adult I had ever met who was as passionate about film as I was. Needless to say, Pauline had a profound effect on me. She introduced me to silents, froreigns, classics–wasn’t I lucky?! She also helped me put myself through college by paying me to work for her…

Posted By AL : December 27, 2010 6:00 pm

Pauline Kael was my Mentor! I’m not kidding. I met her when I was 15. She was running The Cinema Guild And Studio right down from UC Berkeley. She was the first adult I had ever met who was as passionate about film as I was. Needless to say, Pauline had a profound effect on me. She introduced me to silents, froreigns, classics–wasn’t I lucky?! She also helped me put myself through college by paying me to work for her…

Posted By franko : December 27, 2010 6:22 pm

“The only two figures to fly above the critics’ barbs through the millenia are Homer and Shakespeare.”

. . . I can’t stand Shakespeare . . .

Posted By franko : December 27, 2010 6:22 pm

“The only two figures to fly above the critics’ barbs through the millenia are Homer and Shakespeare.”

. . . I can’t stand Shakespeare . . .

Posted By AL : December 27, 2010 8:25 pm

franco: I agree. I don’t like Shakespeare because he uses so many cliches

Posted By AL : December 27, 2010 8:25 pm

franco: I agree. I don’t like Shakespeare because he uses so many cliches

Posted By Vincent : December 27, 2010 9:47 pm

“Then, while searching online for a specific review by Roger Ebert for another project, I came across several blogs and forums that vehemently attacked the country’s best-known critic. Basically, these bloggers/commentators were irked because Ebert had panned several of their favorite movies. From the nature and writing level of their comments, I deduced that these detractors were teenagers and/or college-age kids. I couldn’t help compare their negative attitudes and immature perspectives on film criticism with those of young movie-goers during the Film School Generation.”
___________________

To be fair, comparing 2010 to say, 1965, is apples and oranges. Had the Internet existed during the Film School Generation, you would have had far more many comments on films make the rounds, from a vast array of people (“teenagers and/or college-age kids”) who frankly weren’t, or aren’t, trained in film criticism.

Then again, it could be argued that had the Internet existed in 1965, perhaps newspapers and magazines would have found then, as they sadly do now, that film critics were superfluous. A Pauline Kael might have been that era’s Self-Styled Siren (to cite a top blog of today, one whose author assisted TCM on its “Song Of Russia” project).

And to those who criticize Ebert because his tastes vary from theirs, I suggest they visit his website and check out his other writing, much of which has little to do with film. The man is a brilliant writer, a treasure.

Posted By Vincent : December 27, 2010 9:47 pm

“Then, while searching online for a specific review by Roger Ebert for another project, I came across several blogs and forums that vehemently attacked the country’s best-known critic. Basically, these bloggers/commentators were irked because Ebert had panned several of their favorite movies. From the nature and writing level of their comments, I deduced that these detractors were teenagers and/or college-age kids. I couldn’t help compare their negative attitudes and immature perspectives on film criticism with those of young movie-goers during the Film School Generation.”
___________________

To be fair, comparing 2010 to say, 1965, is apples and oranges. Had the Internet existed during the Film School Generation, you would have had far more many comments on films make the rounds, from a vast array of people (“teenagers and/or college-age kids”) who frankly weren’t, or aren’t, trained in film criticism.

Then again, it could be argued that had the Internet existed in 1965, perhaps newspapers and magazines would have found then, as they sadly do now, that film critics were superfluous. A Pauline Kael might have been that era’s Self-Styled Siren (to cite a top blog of today, one whose author assisted TCM on its “Song Of Russia” project).

And to those who criticize Ebert because his tastes vary from theirs, I suggest they visit his website and check out his other writing, much of which has little to do with film. The man is a brilliant writer, a treasure.

Posted By davidkalat : December 28, 2010 9:21 am

Separating serious criticism from personal opinion involves digging into some unacknowledged assumptions that underlie how you go about generating those opinions in the first place–and this can be hard. For example, if I were a food critic, I’d have to deal with the fact that I despise liver. So it would almost never be the case that a dish involving liver would strike me as “good,” regardless of what the chef did with it–and if by chance I did like a liver dish, it would be one that had few characteristics of liver. And as such, my version of “good” wouldn’t line up with someone who did like liver.

In the realm of movies, genres serve as those stumbling blocks. Critics in the 1930s and 40s who lambasted Lubitsch and Hitchcock for wasting their talents on trifles did so because they fundamentally disregarded comedies and thrillers as serious genres.

Today, movies have become more violent, cynical, dark, and derivative–and these very characteristics turn off some reviewers right from the outset, before you even get to whether the dark, violent, cynical movie in question is a good one. If your opinion has hardened against this kind of film in general, you’re not likely to find many good words to say about Scorsese, or Tarantino, or so on.

Posted By davidkalat : December 28, 2010 9:21 am

Separating serious criticism from personal opinion involves digging into some unacknowledged assumptions that underlie how you go about generating those opinions in the first place–and this can be hard. For example, if I were a food critic, I’d have to deal with the fact that I despise liver. So it would almost never be the case that a dish involving liver would strike me as “good,” regardless of what the chef did with it–and if by chance I did like a liver dish, it would be one that had few characteristics of liver. And as such, my version of “good” wouldn’t line up with someone who did like liver.

In the realm of movies, genres serve as those stumbling blocks. Critics in the 1930s and 40s who lambasted Lubitsch and Hitchcock for wasting their talents on trifles did so because they fundamentally disregarded comedies and thrillers as serious genres.

Today, movies have become more violent, cynical, dark, and derivative–and these very characteristics turn off some reviewers right from the outset, before you even get to whether the dark, violent, cynical movie in question is a good one. If your opinion has hardened against this kind of film in general, you’re not likely to find many good words to say about Scorsese, or Tarantino, or so on.

Posted By dukeroberts : December 28, 2010 12:44 pm

That makes great sense, davidkalat. I myself am not a big fan of horror movies. They stink much more often than not. If a horror film released these days offers something more than buckets of blood or a story derivative of so many others, chances are that I will like it more. And don’t get me started on Anime or the “films” of Michael Moore or Steven Seagal.

Posted By dukeroberts : December 28, 2010 12:44 pm

That makes great sense, davidkalat. I myself am not a big fan of horror movies. They stink much more often than not. If a horror film released these days offers something more than buckets of blood or a story derivative of so many others, chances are that I will like it more. And don’t get me started on Anime or the “films” of Michael Moore or Steven Seagal.

Posted By Kingrat : December 28, 2010 8:55 pm

I would actually agree with a more moderately expressed version of some of these comments. The quote from Kael is hilarious and beautifully written.

If we’re surprised that critics in the early 60s and late 70s reacted so strongly and negatively to violence in films–films we might even allow our children to see–that merely shows how habituated we have become to gore, violence, and sadism on screen.

Posted By Kingrat : December 28, 2010 8:55 pm

I would actually agree with a more moderately expressed version of some of these comments. The quote from Kael is hilarious and beautifully written.

If we’re surprised that critics in the early 60s and late 70s reacted so strongly and negatively to violence in films–films we might even allow our children to see–that merely shows how habituated we have become to gore, violence, and sadism on screen.

Posted By debbe : December 29, 2010 2:43 pm

interesting blog suzidoll. comments also interesting. agree or disagree with film critics. like the movie or not. a good film critic, as you write uses real criteria. (not I dont know much about art but I know what I like) if someone doesnt agree… dont spend the money to see the movie. the internet has given everyone an opinion. informed or not. ok to believe uninformed opinions.. but it sometimes makes someone look like an idiot. critics who dont like films, or directors, or actresses or studio execs have a forum to vent their bias. some of them are going to be wrong. pure and simple.

Posted By debbe : December 29, 2010 2:43 pm

interesting blog suzidoll. comments also interesting. agree or disagree with film critics. like the movie or not. a good film critic, as you write uses real criteria. (not I dont know much about art but I know what I like) if someone doesnt agree… dont spend the money to see the movie. the internet has given everyone an opinion. informed or not. ok to believe uninformed opinions.. but it sometimes makes someone look like an idiot. critics who dont like films, or directors, or actresses or studio execs have a forum to vent their bias. some of them are going to be wrong. pure and simple.

Posted By Andrew : December 30, 2010 7:28 pm

Jeff, it’s not that Landis is better than Kurosawa, it’s that The Blues Brothers succeeds as an absurdist farce where Kagemusha lumbers–albeit spectacularly–toward a needlessly protracted climax. I appreciate and admire Kagemusha. I love The Blues Brothers. It’s no knock against Kurosawa.

Posted By Andrew : December 30, 2010 7:28 pm

Jeff, it’s not that Landis is better than Kurosawa, it’s that The Blues Brothers succeeds as an absurdist farce where Kagemusha lumbers–albeit spectacularly–toward a needlessly protracted climax. I appreciate and admire Kagemusha. I love The Blues Brothers. It’s no knock against Kurosawa.

Posted By tracey : January 16, 2011 5:17 pm

AL–If Shakespeare seems cliched, it’s only because everyone who came after copied his characters, plots and devices (some of which he copied from earlier sources, its true. Of course there’s the possiblity that you were being facetious??

Posted By tracey : January 16, 2011 5:17 pm

AL–If Shakespeare seems cliched, it’s only because everyone who came after copied his characters, plots and devices (some of which he copied from earlier sources, its true. Of course there’s the possiblity that you were being facetious??

Posted By tracey : January 16, 2011 5:18 pm

I find Pauline Kael interestng to read, but I still haven’t forgiven her for her review of The Lion in Winter…

Posted By tracey : January 16, 2011 5:18 pm

I find Pauline Kael interestng to read, but I still haven’t forgiven her for her review of The Lion in Winter…

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