Critics in Crisis

By Phillip Lopate | July 25, 2008
Carl Sandburg Early film critic Carl Sandburg

An examination of the history of film reviewing.

The current fear that film critics are an endangered species certainly has legitimate roots, given recent layoffs in the print media and skepticism that a shift to the internet can sustain the past's standards of quality or provide practitioners with a living wage. However, before panic sets in about whether the field is dying, it would do well to consider the larger picture — where film criticism has come from, and what patterns are suggested by that history.

As I tried to show in American Movie Critics: An Anthology from the Silents Until Now, the paths by which film critics established credibility for their endeavor were diverse and incremental. Initially, not only were movies looked down on as crass pap narcotizing the masses, but many so-called movie reviewers were essentially public relations hacks or shills for the studios. The first independent film critics writing in popular magazines and newspapers tended to be literary moonlighters, enthusiastic hobbyists defending the medium's promise: poets Vachel Lindsay, Carl Sandburg and William Troy, playwright Robert E. Sherwood, social critic Gilbert Seldes, fashion reporter Cecilia Ager, filmmaker Pare Lorentz. Alongside them arose a crew of more intellectual, aesthetic-theoretical critics writing for the quarterlies, both here and abroad, who championed the possibilities of art cinema, experimental cinema or politically engaged cinema: Marxist writer Harry Alan Potamkin, poet H.D., dance impresario Lincoln Kirstein, philosopher Rudolf Arnheim, future filmmaker Abraham Polonsky, generalist extraordinaire Paul Goodman and so on.

The American Cinema: Directors and Directions by Andrew Sarris

The American Cinema

Those who wrote the best film criticism tended to dip in and out of it, while pursuing other day-jobs or equally non-remunerative artistic expressions. Progressive journals such as The Nation and The New Republic, which paid miniscule fees, nevertheless offered a venue for such brilliant stylists as Otis Ferguson, James Agee and Manny Farber to develop their critical voices. Ferguson died young, in World War II, Agee moved onto reviewing for Time before quitting the field for novel-writing and screenplays, and Farber continued to paint, his first love.

In the postwar era, critics began to divide themselves into either a sociological or formalist camp. The best critics moved freely across these lines, but were usually identified more with one than the other. For instance, Siegfried Kracauer, Barbara Deming, Hortense Powdermaker, and Robert Warshow were fascinated with how movie-genre narratives reflected the deeper sociological strains in national character; Parker Tyler and Molly Haskell read movies for their sexual undercurrents and mythologies; Farber, Andrew Sarris and Jonas Mekas focused more on the grammar and syntax of screen images.

In the Sixties, the growth of film culture, thanks to the popularity of international auteurs such as Bergman, Fellini and the French New Wave, and the expanding art-house and film festival circuit, made possible increased berths for regular film columnists, in newspapers, quarterlies and glossy magazines. Since Americans dislike the idea of being lectured to or (God forbid) taught about movies by specialists, the field continued to promote witty amateurs — often accomplished writers in other fields, such as political maven Dwight Macdonald, theater critic John Simon and novelists Brendan Gill and Penelope Gilliatt. The gentlemen critic who was not taken in by arty nonsense, and therefore would protect his or her middle-class readership from their insecurities about the difficulties of new cinema, settled in for a long run. Pauline Kael, probably the most influential film critic of her day, reconciled the two tendencies by being both a bona fide movie expert and a champion of populist anti-snobbery.

From the 1980s onward, the proliferation of film studies programs in universities led to an increasing gap between the more rigorous but also stiff academic language of film scholars and the more casual, impressionistic perceptions of working film critics. Meanwhile, film culture was beginning to lose some of its allure. The universities were thus turning out hundreds of graduates who received training in sophisticated analysis of the medium, at a time when the opportunities for making a living as a film critic were starting to shrink. These graduates' only option, for the most part, was to seek jobs teaching the next generation of academic film scholars, while trying to place their dissertations with university presses.

Film critic Pauline Kael

Pauline Kael

This brings us to the present moment. We have seen that historically film critics have been parasitic not only on the screen medium, but on the print media. As costs of paper and postage increase and advertising revenues diminish, the future of newspapers and magazines in this country looks suddenly rather bleak. Young people tend to get their news, including entertainment news, from television and the web; the venerable habit of newspaper-reading may actually become obsolete. There is some room for film critics to appear on radio or television shows and deliver reviews orally; but how many? As cultural column-inches constrict in general interest magazines, there is a danger for film criticism to become merely a consumer guide, with letter grades or stars replacing nuanced, ambivalent reflection and argumentation.

The glory of American film criticism has been its double life as American essay. Granted, the internet gives virtually everyone an opportunity to expound at length about movie love, but can the formal pressure and elegance of the best essay-writing be brought to bear on a medium that seems to relish amoebic stream-of-consciousness?

My own feeling, based on talking to young cinephiles around the country, is that there continues to be a passion for cinema and an impulse to articulate the experience of falling in love with a certain film, as well as to thrash out the pluses and minuses of any lesser picture. Those who need to think about movies on the page will continue to do so, and the best of these pieces will find their way into literary journals, self-published tracts, blogs and e-zines. I do think a two-track system will develop in web writing, such that concision, originality, erudition and literary sparkle will come to be prized on some sites. As to how these future, stubborn film critics will be able to support their families and pay off their mortgages and college loans, that's a question I must beg off answering. I will only repeat that American film criticism has, traditionally, never been a cushy vocation with a guaranteed income; it has always been nourished by the financial sacrifices of the vast majority of its finest practitioners.

Source Material

Phillip Lopate has written three personal essay collections, Bachelorhood (1981), Against Joie de Vivre (1989), and Portrait of My Body (1996); two novels, Confessions of Summe (1979) and The Rug Merchant (1987); two poetry collections, The Eyes Don't Always Want to Stay Open (1972) and The Daily Round (1976); a memoir of his teaching experiences, Being With Children (1975); a collection of his movie criticism, Totally Tenderly Tragically (1998); an urbanist meditation, Waterfront: A Journey Around Manhattan (2004); and a biographical monograph, Rudy Burckhardt: Photographer and Filmmaker (2004). In addition, there is a Phillip Lopate reader, Getting Personal: Selected Writings (2003). He has edited several anthologies and his essays, fiction, poetry, film and architectural criticism have appeared in numerous periodicals and anthologies. He currently holds the John Cranford Adams Chair at Hofstra University, and also teaches in the MFA graduate programs at Columbia, the New School and Bennington.


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