>I have been thinking lately of the responsibility of film criticism. In regards to film (and other arts), my own training includes both criticism and production. So when it comes to thinking about film criticism I find myself often of two minds. I love to examine, think about, discuss, and write about works of art. I also know a little of what it is like to produce works of art and present them to the world (mine is a rather small world at this point) for examination, thought, discussion, and whatever else. There is a certain amount of vulnerability in being an artist, or creating a film, or singing a song. And yet, I believe works of art (film included, of course) should be critiqued. I believe this because it is, or can be, good for the artist, good for the critic, and good for anyone else who participates. Art criticism is a natural, human endeavour that is a vital part of how we “make” the world in which we live. I also believe that criticism is, or should be, a part of how we do something else that is vital to our existence, that is, to love each other.
To love each other, that is the underlying, fundamental, deeply purposeful project of criticism – even though it may not look that way on its surface.
Love, in this context, is not necessarily emotional, nor is it a cheap sentimentality, and certainly it is not romantic love. This kind of love comes from the realization that to love each other, that is, to care for the well being, the goodness, the growth of another person (of all persons) is the right thing to do. It is a way of behaving, a way of considering, a choice. All too often film criticism, and just about any kind of criticism, emerges from a desire to be clever, or witty, or an intellectual, or just plain right. All of these desires are not wrong in and of themselves, but they can have negative ramifications when uncoupled from a desire for the progress and betterment of the artist, the reader, and even of oneself (the critic). Remember each film, each work of art, is a manifestation of a moment in the artist’s ongoing process as an artist (and as a human being). Consider the following quote from Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles & Ted Orland:
Filmmaker Lou Stouten tells the painfully unapocryphal story about hand-carrying his first film (produced while he was still a student) to the famed teacher and film theorist Slavko Vorkapitch. The teacher watched the entire film in silence, and as the viewing ended rose and left the room without uttering a word. Stouten, more than a bit shaken, ran out after him and asked, “But what did you think of my film?” Replied Vorkapitch, “What film?”
The lesson here is simply that courting approval, even that of peers, puts a dangerous amount of power in the hands of the audience. Worse yet, the audience is seldom in a position to grant (or withhold) approval on the one issue that really counts – namely, whether or not you’re making progress in your work. They’re in a good position to comment on how they’re moved (or challenged or entertained) by the finished product, but have little knowledge or interest in your process. Audience comes later. The only pure communication is between you and your work.
I am sure Stouten’s experience is rather common, in one way or another. I am also sure that the advice given by Bayles and Orland is a typical defense mechanism born out of numerously painful experiences. The truth is, Vorkapitch had an opportunity to take this young filmmaker and help him grow into a better filmmaker, but Vorkapitch chose to love himself, his status, or whatever, rather than Stouten. What Vorkapitch failed to realize is that it is not the film that matters, not really, it is people that matter. Even if Vorkapitch felt he had wasted and hour or two of his life watching a film that he thought was terrible, he still had the responsibility to act as he should, and he didn’t.
To be a loving critic may require one to say hard things, to point out that a work of art is quite bad (and why), to get in an artist’s face and and say she is wrong. Honesty is fundamental to love. But there is a big difference between saying such things as a means of truly participating in an artist’s process, and saying such things as a way to place oneself “above” the artist. Filmmaking (and art-making) is a truly great thing – a kind of gift as it were – and no critic would have a film to judge were it not for the difficult labor of the filmmaker. I frequently need to remind myself of this. I also need to remember that the critic provides (or has the opportunity to provide) an invaluable service to the artist and the art making process. If we want to speak of the responsibility of film criticism, let’s begin with that.
8 thoughts on “>love film love film criticism love”
>Tucker, I think this is a brilliant post (I’ve only just read it).To love each other, that is the underlying, fundamental, deeply purposeful project of criticismI agree with this statement 100%.Remember each film, each work of art, is a manifestation of a moment in the artist’s ongoing process as an artist (and as a human being).I’ve actually written about this before. I’ve heard it said many times that to be an effective critic one has to willfully forget this, to view the film in question as a motherless, fatherless thing. That one has to be merciless. I could not disagree more.If you need to forget that the film you’re reviewing as a maker to say what you want to say, then bite your tongue. That film is a human endeavor is part of what it is.Now the Stouten/Vorkapitch story is interesting to me, because I think it relates directly to the dilemma of writing about film on the internet as an amateur. Note that Vorkapitch walks away. He chooses to say nothing. He gave Stouten a chance. Can we really ask more of him? There is only such much time available to each of us. He parted with some of that time. He decided that this film, this filmmaker weren’t worth more.The “problem” of being a loving filmmaker is that we have to choose what to love, because there’s not time enough to love everything. Which brings me to your final sentence:If we want to speak of the responsibility of film criticism, let’s begin with that.Cheers!
>Andy,Thanks for the comments. The quote about Stouten and his film does present an interesting scenario, which has, of course, at least two sides. For Vorkapitch I’m sure he felt he had wasted his time watching Stouten’s film, which may be true. And I do come down rather hard on Vorkapitch’s response to Stouten’s eager question – probably because of my own feelings about art-making. The main issue I see here is that, even if the film was terrible, Vorkapitch could have responded in such a way, however briefly, as to at least recognize Stouten’s basic humanity – and the film being an extension of that humanity, however poorly made. Also, I can imagine that the film was rather good, or better than Vorkapitch indicated but was unable to recognize. That is always a pitfall for critics: to not yet be able to recognize a worthy work of art, and I don’t have an answer other than to seek open-mindedness as much as possible. What I see (“read into” maybe more appropriate) in Vorkapitch’s actions and statement is that (1) he does not, even briefly, tell Stouten why he thinks the film is bad, (2) he, in fact, states that the film is not even worthy to be considered a “film,” which is a lie of sorts, and (3) he was not humble enough to accept that his understanding may be flawed or limited. I think he should have said something like: “Stouten, as far as I am concerned, watching your film felt like a waste of time to me. Please help me to understand, maybe I missed something. Why did you make that film?” I imagine that Vorkapitch would have hoped, going in to the viewing, that the film might be very good and he would want to talk with its director afterwards, thus providing himself a little time for discussion. If that is so, he might have had the time to ask a question or two, or give reasons for his dislike of the film.Given that filmmaking (and art-making) is often a difficult process, that so many people wish to make films but do not, and that presenting one’s work has connections to one’s soul, I would like to have seen something different in Vorkapitch’s response – assuming that this little story is even accurate. Of course, critics must often be tough when necessary, which is certainly not always easy. And, as you say, there is so little time for all of us. How I know that.
>I think you rightly condemn Vorkapitch’s actions in this situation. But I think that his “symbolic” silence has significance when we consider, as bloggers, how best we can best be “loving film critics.”His silence wasn’t really silence: hs silence said something. Our silence says something, too, but something different. Silence, perhaps, is an option for us…
>Yes, silence may be appropriate in a number of situations. In matters of love I think it is best to avoid prescriptive do’s & don’t’s – there’s just too many variables. The nature of the relationship, the means of communication, issues of proximity, and certainly expectations, all play a big part. Thanks again for your comments.
>Sorry for the late comment.I don’t think love is any more important in criticism than other human feelings we have when watching a movie or interacting with people. This is an excessive optimistic view. It’s a mistake in my opinion, to believe there is anything “kind” in criticism. I mean, I agree with you when you say that it helps the filmmaker to progress (and this whether he chooses to correct the flaws or to reaffirm his “flawed” singularity in a creative way). Being constructive is one thing, but humility is antagonist with a critical stance. If you believe your negative judgement might be wrong, don’t give judgement at all. It’s funny how people don’t worry so much about being wrong and humble with an apraisal… as if it didn’t matter as much to let people believe they are great. Criticism isn’t sociability or humanity.Anyway. You might be misinterpreting Vorkapitch’s reaction. Although it sounds more like a critic’s than a teacher’s behavior. As a teacher, yes, he failed his educational/didactic role, I agree with you there. But as a critic, maybe his laconical “mot d’auteur” was the nicest thing he could say and thus spared him the negativity of what he could have developped in detail. “What film?” is somewhat of a Zen riddle, that may help the filmmaker to reassess his belief in cinema, in an interrogative way rather than in a confrontational way. Thus he’s invited to think by himself, or to reconsider the motive he had put in his project.If Vorkapitch wanted to be insulting he would have left before the end, or be infuriated.A negative response can be productive for the artist sometimes, by giving a strong position to confront and go from there, especially when the work lacks a clear motivation.
>Harry,Thanks for the comments. A couple of things, I won’t go into it much just because I am so busy and it deserves something more substantial than a mere comment on a post, etc. But I would say that I believe it is important to make a distinction between love as a feeling and the love as the opposite of a feeling – that is love as duty. I am building my case on the “love as duty” model. I believe that significantly changes the game. One can dislike the film, dislike the filmmaker, and have no “feelings” of love at all, but one still has a duty to love the person. I am relying of Kierkegaard’s unpacking of “loving one’s neighbor” in his Works of Love for my basic perspective. And, of course, a strongly negative stance may be a result of one’s duty to love. The key is to realize that life is less about works of art than it is about people. How this is worked out, how it actually looks in the day to day, cannot be prescribed, but like many fundamental things in life, love is something that we recognize without being able to fully describe.You state: humility is antagonist with a critical stance. If I understand what you mean I would have to disagree. If humility is antagonistic then it is a false humility, much like there are many intellectuals who are false intellectuals. True humility cannot be a game, nor is it necessarily an action; it is a stance toward oneself. One does not act humbly as much as one is humble. To act humbly for effect could certainly, I believe, be antagonistic. I think we can all notice when someone is posturing their humility for effect, and we rightly find such posturing to be disgusting. As for my interpretation of Vorkapitch’s reaction. You may be entirely right that I am reading it incorrectly. Certainly the authors of the book from which it came were giving the warning to artists to avoid seeking approval, and that may have skewed their presentation which may have affected my reading. Also, a big problem is to read into any such story a psychological or moral state of those in the story, especially when so little info is provided. We really don’t know all that happened or what the full context was. So it is likely I am wrong in some respects. However, it seems to me that Vorkapitch should have behaved differently, and that he probably had the opportunity to do so. I certainly don’t see Vorkapitch offering a Zen riddle as an answer. But even if he was doing that, the story seems to indicate that his behavior was going in a different direction.
>It’s ok if we disagree. Though the reason we don’t meet is, I believe, more a question of perspective than a true disagreement. You see this from a humanist perspective and I see it from an aesthetic perspective. “Love as duty” is comforting or supportive for the people working in cinema.”love thy neighbor”Is it a Christian bias of criticism? ;)”The key is to realize that life is less about works of art than it is about people.”To me criticism is about the work done, not the people. You’re talking about “life”, I’m talking about “theory”. I’m not sure art criticism is just a study of life… Hopefully, a masterpiece is greater, nicer than the artist who did it and who might be a terrible person.Films don’t have feelings, they are good or bad, they are films or not films, they are original or an imitation. Comforting artists because they are fragile and exposed might be a humanistic trait of a critic as a person, that’s diplomacy but it has nothing to do with the actual job of criticism.I know what you mean, we have to be critics AND human at the same time. We are. But what I’m saying is that love doesn’t make you a better critic, even if it might give a more popular/touching image of you to the reader, to everyone. In criticism we need love, but also hate, anger, bitterness, irony, frustration, disappointment… to activate your understanding of the film of what it does. Then it’s your choice to write in a loving manner or with personal attacks but that is a stylistic choice in my opinion, not of content/insight.I’m not talking about the journalistic reviewing existing in the press today, I’m talking about the principles of criticism.A false humility would only affect the critic’s persona, not his scrutiny. You can be humble and ignorant, or arrogant and insightful… Humility doesn’t improve/defeat criticism. I don’t know this Vorkapitch, I don’t know if it is in tune with his personality or his teaching… so as far as I’m concerned it is merely an hypothetical example. I agree with you, he should have reacted differently because he’s a teacher and because he knew the guy personaly, or had a direct interaction with him. In this case it is a matter of “humanity” or correctness. Only a self-concerned megalomaniac critic would walk out with a one liner…