What is Criticism?

When I consider what I sometimes consider to be the sorry state of film and the screenplay today, I am inclined to believe that one of the reasons for this is the lack of meaningful criticism.  Or to paraphrase a statement made in 1945 by the celebrated novelist and screenwriter Raymond Chandler, there is no art of the screenplay because there is no real criticism of it.  Chandler considered the film critics of his day to be essentially critics of entertainment, with little knowledge of how films were made.  Indeed, that would be preferable to what we have today: critics who think that they know everything there is to know about film but sadly don’t.

What then should be the role of the film critic and film criticism?  Let us first look at the history of film criticism in the United States.  But before we do, I am going to define two terms in a way they may not be commonly used today.    The first term is “reviewer.”  This is a person who I will define as someone who writes about film, usually for a daily media outlet, making recommendations for his readers based on his own personal tastes, which, hopefully, are shared by his readers.  Next, there is the “critic.”  He usually expresses his opinions in books and periodicals and, more recently, the internet.  The ideal critic would be someone who writes for the benefit of the creator of the work he is critiquing; thus his criticism should be constructive.  In order to be effective, the critic must know something of how films are made (even financed).  And above all, the critic must know what it is the filmmaker is trying to achieve.  Now let us see how this distinction has manifested itself in both the past and present.

In the early days of cinema in America those who wrote about film for the daily newspapers were essentially “reviewers,” no matter what else they were called.   Many of them began as ordinary journalists who covered mundane subjects such as crime and sports; few had any background in the arts.  Their success was measured on how much their taste mirrored the taste of their readers; and often it did.  Those called “critics,” on the other hand, wrote almost exclusively for the literary and intellectual periodicals that appeared on a weekly or monthly basis.  This afforded them more time to reflect on the films that they critiqued, or screen them again if they so desired (few did).  Although it would be inaccurate to say that the taste of these critics reflected that of their readers, their incisive and erudite writing was generally appreciated by their readership.  And they were immensely influential, especially when it came to foreign films, which, in the 1960’s, they reviewed almost exclusively.  If those “critics,” who include Andrew Sarris, who wrote for the Village Voice, and John Simon, who wrote for New York Magazine, did not write reviews that were constructive for the filmmakers whose films they reviewed, they were, on the other hand, helpful in alerting their readers to exceptional films that were not mere entertainment (they rarely reviewed studio films).

In the 1970’s, a new type of film critic emerged, as personified by two newspaper reviewers/critics from Chicago:  Roger Ebert and the late Gene Siskel.  Those two hosted a national syndicated television program that reviewed four or five films a week and included clips from the same films.  Siskel and Ebert were well versed in film and provided to a national television audience a level of criticism available then to only those who lived in large cities or subscribed to prestigious weekly and monthly periodicals.   But there was a downside to this, for they usually lumped together artistic foreign films with commercial Hollywood fare.  Gradually, the line between the two types of films began to blur.  Whereas critics such as Sarris and Simon would never discuss the likes of a Sergio Leone (a very talented Italian commercial filmmaker) with filmmakers such as Bergman and Fellini in the same review, let alone mention them in the same sentence, the critics of today would probably do so, making no distinction between the three.

Today the term critic refers to all who write about film for newspapers, periodicals, television and the internet.  Contemporary critics are usually well versed in film; and more often than not they fill their writing with references to obscure films and filmmakers.  However, in essence, they are nothing more than “reviewers”:  because despite their very erudite writing, their opinions about a particular film are invariably predicated on their personal tastes.  Do not expect to find constructive criticism in their writing, let alone a real understanding of what the filmmakers attempted to achieve or how they went about doing so. 

So where does this leave us, particularly for the screenplay?  It leads us back, I am afraid, to the 1945 citation by Raymond Chandler which I provided at the beginning of this blog:  without any real criticism of the screenplay/film there can be no art of the same.  (By the way, my The Screenplay as Literature was not a book of film criticism, although there was some.) Perhaps it is unrealistic to expect critics to write for the benefit of the filmmakers that they critique rather than for the benefit of their readers.  And maybe in the future the internet can provide an outlet for those who want to write constructive film criticism for the benefit of filmmakers and screenwriters.  But for now, if filmmakers or screenwriters want real criticism of their work, they will have to provide it themselves.