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PLACING MOVIES, Part 1:
The Critical Apparatus (Introduction)




PLACING MOVIES, Part 1: The Critical Apparatus (Introduction)

This is the Introduction to the first section of my first collection, Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism (University of California Press, 1993). I've taking the liberty of adding a few links to some of the pieces of mine mentioned here which appear on this web site. — J.R.

Introduction

Although this entire book is devoted to film criticism as a practice, this section emphasizes this fact by dealing with film criticism directly as a subject. This includes both specific examinations of the work of other critics and polemical forays into questions about how critics and reviewers operate on a day-to-day basis. A broader look at the same topic might question whether film criticism as it's presently constituted is a worthy activity in the first place — if in fact the public would be better off without it.

I should add that it's the institutional glibness of film criticism in both its academic and mainstream branches — above all in the United States, where it seems most widespread and least justifiable — that has led me on occasion to raise this latter question. 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 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.

Admittedly, film academics had to begin by weathering both the scorn and the envy of other humanities professors, who were formerly free to handle film however or whenever they saw fit without the nuisance of specialists glancing over their shoulders. The rapidity with which academic film study developed and promulgated its own jargon undoubtedly had a lot to do with the impatience of pioneers in the field to establish their own sphere of expertise; like the difficult unison lines composed by the best of the early beboppers in 1940s jazz, this jargon was designed not only to scare off amateurs, but also to allow the "experts" to strut their stuff. Unfortunately, a grasp of this jargon didn't necessarily have much bearing on any historical or technical or aesthetic understanding of film; it served mainly as a badge of entry for "film studies," which often proved to be a different thing entirely.

Some of the reasons for this were initially quite positive. The absence of any firmly established canon for film studies left the field potentially wide open. But the only way this canon could grow would be if academics decided to work collectively to expand both what they knew and what was already available, and this has rarely happened. (The sheer scarcity of curiosity in the field is often breathtaking.) What's happened instead is that film study has mainly tended to establish a canon passively and reactively — refining the discoveries of theoretical or nonacademic auteurist critics while often defining its own canon mainly on the basis of what distributors have already made available.

Similarly, as it's usually practiced, journalistic film reviewing is a profession that has often remained dangerously close to simple news reporting (at best) and unabashed advertising (at worst), and whenever it dares to stray beyond those functions, an inordinate amount of hubris usually comes along with the presumption. Sometimes, as in the criticism of Jean-Luc Godard, this hubris turns out to be more than justified, although it's worth adding that it's mainly Godard's critical intelligence as a filmmaker that created a receptive audience for his written criticism.

Similarly, as it's usually practiced, journalistic film reviewing is a profession that has often remained dangerously close to simple news reporting (at best) and unabashed advertising (at worst), and whenever it dares to stray beyond those functions, an inordinate amount of hubris usually comes along with the presumption. Sometimes, as in the criticism of Jean-Luc Godard, this hubris turns out to be more than justified, although it's worth adding that it's mainly Godard's critical intelligence as a filmmaker that created a receptive audience for his written criticism.

"Theory and Practice: The Criticism of Jean-Luc Godard" was the first piece I ever published in Sight and Sound, my favorite film magazine in English at the time, and I can recall putting an unusual amount of time into writing and rewriting it because I was aspiring to become a regular writer for the magazine. The strategy paid off, and two years later, thanks to the support of the magazine's editor, Penelope Houston, I even found myself moving from Paris to London to become assistant editor of Monthly Film Bulletin and staff writer for Sight and Sound, which were sister publications edited from adjoining offices at 81 Dean Street for the British Film Institute. (Getting a work permit was no easy matter and took about six months of effort and patience on Penelope's part, as well as legal help from the late Richard Roud — votes of confidence that I still feel enormously grateful for.) I remained for two and a half years; "Edinburgh Encounters" and the pieces on Ozu and Rivette in the next two sections were written during this period — the first in my life when I had steady employment as a film critic.

(The second period came in 1980 — when I became a regular film and literary critic for Soho News in New York for a year and a half — and the third in 1987, when I moved to Chicago to become the film critic for the Chicago Reader, where I have been ensconced ever since.)

Almost exactly two decades after my first article appeared in Sight and Sound, when Penelope commissioned her last article from me before she departed as editor (it wound up in the Winter 1990/1991 issue), I deliberately made it a companion piece to my first, entitled "Criticism on Film," which again dealt with "criticism composed in the language of the medium," and concluded symmetrically with a discussion of Godard's HISTOIRE(S) DU CINÉMA. By that time, however, the tone of my approach to both criticism and cinema was distinctly more elegiac, and, under the circumstances, less celebratory.

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

***

One of the more practical of Jean-Luc Godard's gnomic utterances might be, "Trusting to chance is listening to voices." 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. To a certain extent, Pauline Kael first came into prominence through attacking other critics, and although editor William Shawn got her to curb this impulse when she arrived at The New Yorker, she never lost the habit of using the responses of other viewers — friends or foes, often alluded to anonymously — as the springboards for her own polemics.

Most other critics follow suit even when the original sources of their bile (or agreement) go unmentioned. "I'm a reactive critic," Manny Farber told Richard Thompson in a fascinating interview in the May–June 1977Film Comment; "I like to listen to someone else and cut in." Although my sense of Farber's singularity as a critic — explored in an autobiographical piece that concludes this section — originally made this remark seem curious (he rarely mentioned other critics by name in his writing, and he never assigned reading in his classes), I gradually discovered that it was essential to his method, in teaching and writing alike. 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.

One rather grotesque illustration of this is a feeble assigned review I did of Satyajit Ray's DISTANT THUNDER for Sight and Sound in 1975 that confused certain characters with one another, as one irritated reader wrote the magazine to point out. When I started investigating how I could have committed this gaffe, it emerged that part of my preparation for the review was reading another critic's account of the movie at the 1973 Berlin Festival, published in the same magazine, which made the identical error.

To make matters worse, two daily newspaper critics repeated the same blunder after my review appeared, which suggested that they, like me, were prone to believe more in the printed word — anybody's printed word — than in the fleeting evidence on the screen. In just such a fashion, an enormous amount of misinformation routinely gets passed along from one critic to the next, sometimes over the span of several decades. (One would like to think that the availability of many movies on video began to put some damage control on this situation by the early 1980s.)

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