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Susan Sontag : "It would be hard to find any reputable literary critic today who would care to be caught defending as an idea the old antithesis of style versus content. On this issue a pious consensus prevails. … In the practice of criticism, though, the old antithesis lives on, virtually unassailed. Most of the same critics who disclaim, in passing, the notion that style is an accessory to content maintain the duality whenever they apply themselves to particular works of literature. … Many critics appear not to realize this. They think themselves sufficiently protected by a theoretical disclaimer on the vulgar filtering-off of style from content, all the while their judgments continue to reinforce precisely what they are, in theory, eager to deny." cited at Jahsonic
I know it's awkward for me to pin down mannerism because I can't write in English, and I'm not even a good writer in French. But I'm against style on principle, not to justify or excuse my own lazy and deficiant wordsmith. Actually I feel more comfortable developping content and ideas in criticism in a foreign language precisely because I don't have the possibility to resort to self-indulgent formulas that plague the French intellectual criticism where nice words worth better than ideas or even substitute them. Although the low brow reviewing is not immune to ready-made clichés. Too often words precede ideas. When you start a sentence, or when you use a certain verb, there is a selected possibilities to follow up that are engraved in the collective culture, a series of clichés embedding consensual ideas into catch phrases. Critics believe they said it all when they come up with a nice sentence while there is nothing really new or actually pertinent to the film at hand below the stylish surface.
bradstevens : "I've always believed that film criticism should be approached responsibly, not as an opportunity for stylish displays of wit that end up trivialising both writer and film. I expect film critics to inform or educate, not entertain." at a_film_by
Criticism is a literary genre and I would have nothing against this practice if it was only the icing that does not replace meaning. The reason it's dangerous and that this fallacy should be pointed out here is that most readers are duped by the icing and since they found entertainment in reading believe the critics did a good job. Mannerism breeds routine, apathy, mindlessness. Readers are happy with "word-dropping", "bon mots", and it spares them the bore of an extended demonstration or the underlaying reflexion overlooked by the critic.
Luis Buñuel : "I loath pedantism and jargon. I happened to laugh to tears when reading certain articles in Cahiers du cinéma."
In a recent article, Charles Tesson (former editor at Cahiers) compiled a list of such "generally accepted ideas" that French critics enjoy themselves with : Dictionnaire des idées reçues de la critique (in Panic #4, july 2006) denouncing these self-satisfied, superior, ridicule, smart-ass, hype sophisms.
He points out to certain absurd word combination, tautology ("rigor of construction"), pleonasm ("classic shot-countershot", "impression of reality"). He warns against denegation that spells in words something that shouldn't be brought to the reader's attention even if disabled by the negative form ("The film is not..."). He's annoyed by the trivialization of great theories through adjectivation ("Deuleuzian", "Derridian"). He calls the emptiness of some overused expressions ("debauchery of special effects", "return to real", "curious alchemy", "magnificent movie", "Death of cinema", "Subtil cinema"). If it was clever the first time, it becomes tired and voided of its sense when repeated at every opportunity and sometimes in the wrong instances. Others examples are typically French, or locale jokes, so don't translate well.
Clive James (NYT) : "To know what can't be shown by the gag writers, however, you have to know about a world beyond the movies. But the best critics do, as this book proves; because when we say that the nontheorists are the better writers, that's what we mean. That extra edge that a good writer has is a knowledge of the world, transmuted into a style."
Clive James on the rest of us -- we're doomed (at a_film_by) follow up discussion
My preference goes to rich and precise vocabulary detailing one's mind (closer to the film's reality, which is accuracy not mannerism) than the use of ready-made phrases or the elaboration of stylistic/rhetoric hallucinations (offsetting from reality). Literary skills could go two ways, one is to refine descriptions, one is to evoke a fertile imagination. The former (respectful, insightful, helpful) should never be overwhelmed by the the latter (dubious, extravagant, risky), especially when the credibility of the critic's taste is in question. If two trusted critics disagree frontaly on a film I want to see, how could I tell which one best assumes my perspective if they can only be compared by their style? It's the contrary for the journalists of course who prefer to entertain the reader nomatter what the film is, rather than to engage in an adequate reflexion on cinema.
Anthony Lane (The New Yorker/Nobody's Perfect) : "The primary task of the critic, and no one has surpassed Miss Kael in this regard, is the recreation of texture, filing a sensory report of the kind of experience they will have if they decide to buy a ticket. A review should give off some reek of the concession stand." at Undercurrent
When a good writer with a contradictory taste talks lyrically about a film I haven't seen, I'm particularly warry of stylistic flare focusing on abstract/general appreciation rather than specific evidences... It's easy for the positive review to emphasizes solely on hyperbolic enthousiasm that informs one of many possible experiences of that film. Excess of literary style celebrates the individual emotional reaction of one person as if it was any indication of what every reader will feel themselves.
What is a spellbinding story? What is a haunting movie? What is a mesmerizing performance? What is a riveting plot? Translating a film into appreciative adjectives assumes we believe anything the critic says without the need for an analytical demonstration or any kind of descriptive evidences that would corroborate this summary opinion. First they are impersonal abstract wordings and could apply to any movie, taken out of context, copied and pasted ad infinitum. Second they are evaluative (on an unspecified scale of values) instead of qualitiative (to characterize a certain detail defining THIS film in particular). Perfect quote-ables.
It could be a relative adjective without referential comparison : "it's great/bad, believe me"; unverifiable gradation (praise, success, quality level) "it's the best film of... [insert director, year, country]".
And finally we have the professional jargon (ellitist technical words), abbreviations (acronym, hip shorthands, truncated titles) -- see Variety!, metaphors (themed vocabulary calling all the funny expressions linked to the film's topic) -- see David Edelstein's review of The Devil Wears Prada, puns (smarty wordplay, jokes with the title or actor/character's names) ...
This fits in the larger rhetorical questions : Can words incarnate the multimedia experience of cinema? And what exactly do readers imagine when reading chosen words? What is the gap between the reader experience and the viewer experience? Don't critics manipulate this gap with stylish obfuscation to push their opinions?
Jonathan Rosenbaum : "although initially [Moving Places] had a very negative effect on my career in film criticism, because it wasn’t film criticism and it wasn’t something that could pave the way toward a career in film criticism. I was naïve enough to believe it was a road out of film criticism. I still have a side of me that has an interest in literary writing." Interview at The House NextdoorMannerism could be the vertue of a certain kind of impressionistic criticism, but I leave that to others to chant its glory because this series only deals with the flawed habits of critics. So please defend mannerism in the comments if you wish, to offer a more balanced view.
"The undefined place where the critic stands. When I was a critic, I thought a film, to be accomplished, should express simultaneously an idea of the world and an idea of cinema. Today, I expect the film I watch to express either the joy to make movies, or the anxiety to make movies and I don't care for everything in between, i.e. all films that do not vibrate."
"Anybody can become critic of cinema; the candidates don't need a tenth of knowledge required for literary, musical or painting critics. A filmmaker today shall accept the idea that his/her work will be eventually judged by someone who hadn't ever seen a Murnau film."
François Truffaut (French critic-filmmaker), "A quoi rêve les critiques?" in Les Films de ma Vie (1975)
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"Oeuvres are of infinite solitude; to grasp a work of art, nothing is worse than the word of criticism." Rainer Maria Rilke (German poet)
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"The critic is meant to make see and make listen" Jean-Louis Bory (French critic)
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"I don't believe, as a matter of criticism, in the existence of objective truths or more exactly, I value more contradictory judgments that constrain me to consolidate mine, rather than the confirmation of my principles by weak arguments." Cahiers #44, 1955.
"The critic is meant to continue -- as much as possible within the readers' intelligence and sensibility -- the shock of the work of art."
"Don't be so severe with the film, put yourself in the shoes of the filmmaker, and find out his/her motivations"
André Bazin (French critic)
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"The best in criticism, it's the dialogue that is, sometimes, established with the radio audience or the reader. Business as much profitable when your point of view is disputed by the contestant. Critical dialogue and tea for two."
"We write our critiques for filmmakers first. Readers shouldn't feleft outout though. They are asked to bear witness, we feel more liberated in presence of a third party to express our sentiments."
"Paraphrasing Flaubert: to be a critic of cinema, one shouldn't know personally filmmakers, actresses, producers... But we know some of them! That's the problem."
"A critic : a resistant -- to pressure, to fad, to consensus"
Michel Boujut (French critic), La Promenade du critique, 1996
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"To be a disinhibited critic, one should be a creator in becoming" François Weyergans (French critic)
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"Every competent critic is an aspiring filmmaker" Roger Leenhardt (French critic)
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"A critic is someone who shoots at his own regiment" Jules Renard (French writer) cited in Godard's Nouvelle Vague
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"To be a critic is to be able to reflect on films. The question of criticism is this : shall criticism evolve because the status of cinema has changed?" Jean-Michel Frodon (French critic)
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"What is annoying, isn't that a critic suggests reservations on our films. It's the manner, the tone, the facile and demagogical use of controversial tricks : this semantic of hatred and contempt." Patrice Leconte (French filmmaker), infamous letter against French critics in 1999.
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"To me, criticism is included in cinema. There is no art without commentary." Robert Guédiguian (French filmmaker)
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"The 'critic' of cinema [in the popular press] (often not a specialist, but a journalist from the "culture" pages) is no longer delegated by the community of readers to the front line of cinema, (s)he is the inert "mirror" of the supposed social class of such readership, and is the commercial target of this publication. He/she is commanded to scout for films that will give readers a pleasant, gratifying image of the imaginary demographic they supposedly belong to, of which the publication is the mirror, rather than the spearhead." Alain Bergala (French critic), Cinemas Vol 6, N°2/3, 1996.
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"Like/Like not : matters to nobody; this, apparently, is meaningless. Meanwhile all this means : my body is not the same as yours. Thus, within this anarchy of taste and distaste, kind of distrait mesh, little by little is outlined the figure of a corporeal enigma, calling complicity or irritation. Here begins the intimidation of the body, forcing the other to bear liberally, to remain silent and courteous before pleasures and denials that (s)he doesn't share." Roland Barthes (French semotician), 1975
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"Criticism is the art of Love. It is the fruit of a passion that is not self-devoured, but aspires to control a vigilante lucidity. It consists in a tireless research of harmony within the couple passion-lucidity." Jean Douchet (French critic), Cahiers #126, 1961.
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"Criticism is a business of provocation rather than conviction. Its best role is to call forth, about a film, some reactions, preferably violent, in the reader." Louis Seguin (French critic), Cahiers, 1969.
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"The efficiency of criticism relies on nothing but the seduction of words" Michel Mourlet (French critic), Cahiers #163, 1960.
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"The critical judgment constitutes the only cultural valuation. The artist exists only under the look of the critic. Artists don't exist without commentary! Death of commentary means the disappearance of the artist." Michel Ciment (French critic), 1999.
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"Criticism is hermeneutic by vocation, normative by fatality, impressionistic by facility and aesthetic in practice." René Prédal (French cinema historian), 2004
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"Open criticism gets its efficiency and its fecundity from its ability to discussion and welcoming." Raymond Barkan (French critic), Cinéma 60, #45.
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"My definition of a good critic is somebody who communicates their enthusiasm for work they find of merit, without ruining the option of you, the reader, also discovering the film's merits. " Lisa Nesselson (American critic), Variety
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"The role of the film critic is to write well, or speak well. A critic is someone who I think should try to tell a story about the film that they're reviewing. And the story can be the story of their response to it, the story of their coming to understand that film, coming to a position on it." Adrian Martin (Australian critic), Undercurrent #1, 2006
p.s. Sorry for the approximate translation. Now what are your thoughts provoked by these phrases? Add other quotes if you have more, I'm always interested in these kind of encapsulated thoughts. Thanks.
[EDIT : See also Citations sur la critique]