Posted by Susan Doll on December 27, 2010
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.”
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