17 Essential Film Critics on Film Criticism

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In his recently published book Better Living Through Criticism , “an impassioned plea to consider films as the complex works of art they are,” New York Times film critic A. O. Scott explains why he feels criticism is more essential than ever. But if you ask a professional film critic if film criticism is dead, you’ll hear a wild variety of responses — some marking its evolution with the passing of greats like Roger Ebert and Pauline Kael, the emergence of social media, and the precarious state of long-form writing in an Insta world. Here’s a brief survey featuring 17 established critics on the role of film criticism.

A. O. Scott The New York Times

“In terms of the discovery of films and bringing attention to films that might be overlooked or neglected otherwise, critics still have a role to play, and I don’t think that the critics at the Times are necessarily anomalous. We’re not alone. I feel like—and I don’t have data to back this up—there is an appetite for it. I feel like people still want to read something interesting or thought-provoking or useful about the stuff that they’re seeing. I’m not sure whether in the past there was quite as large as a constituency for film criticism as we sometimes think. It’s always been a minority that has sought out the opinions of critics. Even the great influential ones, like the Pauline Kaels, the Andrews Sarrises, and the Vincent Canbys, were reaching a narrower public than we think.”

Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert At the Movies

“There has to be some reporting in every review. First of all, you have to play fair with your reader. Here’s what I think a movie review should do: it should give some notion to the reader of what the movie is about and what it is like. If you play fair with your reader, you can give a movie a bad review and they’ll still be able to read that review and know that they would like to go see the movie. You shouldn’t just blast it in such a way that they think no reasonable person would want to go see this film. You have to give the movie its day in court, too. There has to be something in there that conveys what the experience is like.” —Roger Ebert

“I start my reviews thinking that I’m a beat reporter covering a fire and the fire is my reaction to the picture. What’s the most important thing I could tell you? If we met on the street, I should tell you the same thing that I’m going to tell you in that review. Get you into it right away.” — Gene Siskel

Pauline Kael The New Yorker

via Michelle Dean

Raymond Durgnat Film Comment

via Alex Heller-Nicholas

Leonard Maltin Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide

HollywoodChicago.com: “Finally, so many more film critics exist now because of the internet. Do you think that maybe this is the last generation where pure film criticism will get any attention, or do you think the future will continue to allow for notable film analysis?”

Leonard Maltin: “Well, I hope that anything of quality, whether it’s a movie, stage musical production or good piece of film writing will have a place in our crumbling society. The internet has empowered everyone – everyone’s a critic, a musician, a filmmaker – and that’s fine on one level. But why should I listen to your music or watch your film? Is it any good? Does it show any signs of talent? It’s the same with writing, do you have something to say? Whatever media it’s in, quality will still make it’s way to the top. That’s my optimistic answer.”

Jonathan Rosenbaum Chicago Reader

“Speaking as someone who set out to become a professional writer but not a professional film critic, I’ve never felt that movie reviewing was an especially exalted activity, but I didn’t start out with any contempt or disdain for the profession either. It was only after the institutionalizing of academic film studies got started in the early 1970s and the glamorizing of mainstream film reviewing got started a little after that I began to wonder about whether the public was often being sold a bill of goods about the so-called “credentials” of film critics. . . . Film critics, who usually put their faith in chance more than they care to admit — hoping to predict audience responses and trends, “banking” on certain favorite directors and actors — tend to read and listen to one another compulsively. . . . Whether acknowledged or not, virtually all critical discourse is part of a conversation that begins before the review starts and continues well after it’s over; and all the best critics allude in some fashion to this dialogue, however obliquely. The worst usually try to convince you that they’re the only experts in sight.”

Carrie Rickey The Philadelphia Inquirer

“But how will they find the films they don’t know that they want? Not everyone is a movie geek reading the aggregators. I see a potential for remuneration in filling that gap: Matching consumers with the kinds of movies they’d like to see, a kind of fine-grain version of the broad-stroke recommender systems of Amazon and Netflix. Lord knows, this isn’t film criticism. It’s a cultural version of matchmaking. It’s a means of connecting under-known or obscure titles to those who will appreciate them (which is a byproduct of film criticism) and a means of supporting the writers’ other critical pursuits. It’s just another change in the evolution of film criticism.”

Jean-Luc Godard Cahiers du cinéma

Jean-Luc Godard: “Those people [filmmakers] should understand that it’s because of us that they have their name credited above the title. If at a time, which was 25 years ago, from making our own survival to try to make the movie that we wanted to make, we needed the help of some other people. We needed exterior help. We had to get where it was possible . . . we said Hawks is better than this one, Hawks is a great novelist, as good as Faulkner.”

Dick Cavett: “Howard Hawks.”

JLG: “Howard Hawks. We said Hitchcock was a great novelist, as good as Dostoevsky. But it was a help from us. And then we existed through them too. And we give them back credits because now you can see a Howard Hawks. Before us, it was not. It was a Selznick picture or a Zanuck picture.”

DC: “By us, do you mean when you were a critic, a film critic?”

JLG: “Yeah. Which I still am.”

“Try to be a critic, not a regular reviewer. Sometimes I prefer teachers who do occasional pieces. It’s not possible to be a critic once a week.”

François Truffaut Cahiers du cinéma

“In Cahiers, telling the story of each film could easily be dispensed with. In a weekly journal, the story must be told, and for me, this was an extremely good exercise. Also, I think that in Cahiers, the critic feels the obligation to criticize each film on its own level, that is, to try and adapt the critical criteria to the film. For one film it may be necessary to speak abstractly of the directorial concep-tion, for another, to analyze the scenario itelf – each film demands its own particular treatment. In any case, the necessity to tell the story of a film every week was very good for me. Before that, I didn’t really see the films.”

Andrew Sarris The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929–1968

“I am always being asked to appear on panels bemoaning the state of contemporary film criticism when compared with the supposed golden age of the nouvelle vague and the Kael-Sarris contretemps. I always pour cold water on these projects by asserting, as I do now, that film criticism today is far superior to what it was back in the supposed golden age of the Kael-Sarris cat-and-dog fight, when two comparatively provincial and unsophisticated careerists — one in San Francisco and the other in New York — collided in a maze of misunderstandings that concealed the fact that they were both consumed by movies with much the same emotional intensity. . . . All critics were in some sense consumer guides. There is nothing wrong with being a consumer guide. I know that the term is used in derogation. But the best writers were also the best consumer guides.”

Susan Sontag Against Interpretation

“Today is such a time, when the project of interpretation is largely reactionary, stifling. Like the fumes of the automobile and of heavy industry which befoul the urban atmosphere, the effusion of interpretations of art today poisons our sensibilities. In a culture whose already classical dilemma is the hypertrophy of the intellect at the expense of energy and sensual capability, interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art. . . . What kind of criticism, of commentary on the arts, is desirable today? For I am not saying that works of art are ineffable, that they cannot be described or paraphrased. They can be. The question is how. What would criticism look like that would serve the work of art, not usurp its place? . . . The best criticism, and it is uncommon, is of this sort that dissolves considerations of content into those of form. . . . Equally valuable would be acts of criticism which would supply a really accurate, sharp, loving description of the appearance of a work of art. This seems even harder to do than formal analysis. . . . These are essays which reveal the sensuous surface of art without mucking about in it.”

André Bazin Cahiers du cinéma

“The great artists, of course, have always been able to combine the two tendencies. They have allotted to each its proper place in the hierarchy of things, holding reality at their command and molding it at will into the fabric of their art. Nevertheless, the fact remains that we are faced with two essentially different phenomena and these any objective critic must view separately if he is to understand the evolution of the pictorial. The need for illusion has not ceased to trouble the heart of painting since the sixteenth century. It is a purely mental need, of itself nonaesthetic, the origins of which must be sought in the proclivity of the mind towards magic. However, it is a need the pull of which has been strong enough to have seriously upset the equilibrium of the plastic arts.”

Armond White National Review

“In this age of conformity, unanimity hides bias and truth-tellers get ostracized. Film criticism has lost its independence. Group-think not only removes honor from consensus opinion, it also promotes hostility to the practice of journalistic criticism.”

Otis Ferguson The New Republic

“Film criticism is obediently dull and uninformative, and surely unworthy of so lively and immanent a subject. We started out by paying the movies no respect, and now we lag behind them and are taken into camp. The respect is now there but it is a poor thing and it is paid rather to the wishes of the men who merely sell them for profit rather than to the movies themselves.”

Manohla Dargis The New York Times

“I wanted to get [Kathryn Bigelow] on the cover of ‘Arts and Leisure’. I wanted this fantastic woman director to get her face on the front of the New York Times…[But] I am an equal opportunity critic. I will pan women as hard as men. I’ve had testy people imply that I should go easier on women’s movies. I find that incredibly insulting. Are you kidding me? I don’t want to be graded on a curve. None of us want to be a good woman writer. I don’t want to be the woman critic. I don’t want to be the feminist critic. I don’t want to be the shrew. What I want to do is talk about the art that I love and point out, every so often, inequities….It’s a weird balancing act and I’m not saying there aren’t contradictions.”

Lisa Schwarzbaum Entertainment Weekly

“I tend to think critics are taken seriously — or not — on a byline-by-byline basis, male or female. When we all get together in our “clubs” and “circles” there are more men in the room than women, certainly (I’m thinking about our award-voting meetings), but I’m not nearly as aware of a gender split as I am of a children-of-Kael affinity group.”