Thinking (And Reading) About Criticism

I’ve been thinking a lot about criticism lately. I’ve been practicing it (here, here and here), but I’ve also been reading quite a great deal of it. And not just new stuff.

I recently read A. O. Scott’s excellent new book, Better Living Through Criticism, a (relatively) concise rumination on the nature of art and the importance of approaching it critically. Having been an avid reader of Scott’s for years, I was surprised neither by how much I loved the book nor the author’s ultimate critical outlook. He is one of those critics whose work I read and often want to shout, “That’s exactly what I thought but couldn’t find the words to say!” Which is, I guess, the point, both of criticism and art.

Criticism is almost as ineffable as art, a point Scott continually comes back to, sometimes in conversation with himself. More frequently than I’d ever expected, someone will off-handedly mention, as if it were a given, that criticism couldn’t exist without art (e.g. the film, the song, the book); and I always coyly correct them that the reverse is true. If the critic is a leech, so too is the artist.

Scott, naturally, puts this much better:

It’s the job of art to free our minds, and the task of criticism to figure out what to do with that freedom.

That’s exactly what I thought but couldn’t find the words to say!

Whether you’re a critic, a writer, an artist, there’s quite a bit of value in Better Living Through Criticism. In fact, if you hate criticism, if you’re the type of person who seethes whenever a scribbler cuts down your comic book flavor of the month (or whatever), then this may prove to be vital reading. You could learn a thing or two, or at the very least peer behind the curtain to see what really goes on as the feeble wizard pulls his levers.

Besides that book and the James Agee criticism I was reading for inspiration, I’ve also been working my way through J. Hoberman’s 2012 meta-critical compilation, Film After Film: Or, What Became Of 21st Century Cinema. Almost everything in the book had been written elsewhere (the bulk of which are contemporaneous film reviews, usually for the Village Voice) then expanded and/or heavily annotated for publication. Hoberman effectively draws the reader a map to the cinema after 9/11 and through the Bush years. (I’m three-quarters through the book; later it gets as far as 2011.)

I forget who said it on Twitter years ago (I want to say it was Matt Zoller Seitz), but the following thought has stuck with me: the problem with some film critics is they only know movies. This rang in my head reading Hoberman, who not only knows more than movies but vociferously insists that movies are more than movies. By that I mean that the cinema is much more than escapist shadows on a wall (which, by the way, is usually how those dismissive of criticism like to defend themselves). The seminal example, from a 2008 Voice cover story, is presidential obsession with Fred Zinnemann’s 1952 High Noon:

The weary loner’s brave posture of prescient and courageous certainty in the face of public (or foreign) cowardice is the American politician’s ego ideal—or so the viewing preferences of American presidents would suggest. Eisenhower screened High Noon three times at the White House. According to White House logs, High Noon ranks as the movie subsequent presidents would most request—none more than Bill Clinton, who watched his favorite film some 20 times and told Dan Rather that he’d recommend the western to his successor as a text. Unfortunately.

Movies don’t exist in a vacuum, so criticism of them can’t. This is why any argument for objectivity in criticism is so toothless. The critic is not just writing about film, he or she is writing about everything. Hoberman succinctly pens one of the best defenses of critical churn in the book’s preface:

The 750-word weekly film review is a specific journalistic form: over a period of months and years, these topical short pieces document a writer’s attempt to make sense of the ongoing flux of movies amid the ongoing flux of events.

I’ve never had much stamina when it comes to criticism, to my great regret. I wish I could have a library of reviews of all the films I’ve seen. One of my favorite aspects of the criticism I have written is the ability to look back, to see what I thought, which sometimes isn’t the same as what I think.

I have quite a few reviews that are half-started, mostly from this year’s SXSW. I’d like to get to them all out on the web and read them years down the line and see if they make (or ever made) any sense.

So will reading make me a better critic? Maybe. More than anything I need to write more. And that’s coming. Here it is, as a matter of fact.