01 décembre 2006

Defining a critic

The Film Criticism Blog-a-Thon hosted by Andy Horbal Check others' contributions and comments at No More Marriages!
all weekend (Friday, December 1 - Sunday, December 3)

I'll probably post more later, but here's for starters, a compilation of aphorisms by critics, directors or writers trying to define what is a "film critic".

"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.

* * *

"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]

12 commentaires:

Anonyme a dit…

Thanks for contributing this wonderful post, Harry! I love these quote compilations: they're almost invariably pulled from things I haven't read (Ah, but I did read Undercurrent #1!) and they introduce me to myriad new writers.

I mentioned in the comments section of my post that I'd like to put together a zine based on the submissions to this blog-a-thon, and I'd love to use this post with your permission. It would lend itself ideally to being scattered throughout the pages of the issue...

HarryTuttle a dit…

Of course, be my guest! Like it says on the tin : it's all "Open source" here.
I think your idea of a Zine is very good for you. Do you put more faith in paper than the digital media?

Anonyme a dit…

Not necessarily, but I have to admit that the idea of something I can hold in my hand does seem more permanent and more "artistic" to me somehow. I've always been a great fan of the mix tape (none of this mix CD nonsense for me!), and I'm going to approach this zine the same way: as a mix tape constructed from the "songs" that are my blog posts.

girish a dit…

Great collage of quotations here, Harry. It's nice to slosh them around in your head and see what chemical reactions occur!

Since the early days of my cinephilia, I've been a big believer in the Truffaut "idea of the world/idea of cinema" model. The Barthes ("my body is the not the same as yours") is also powerfully evocative. I had never heard it before.

So....you wouldn't call the Barthes aphorism a "mot d'auteur"? :-) Mot d'auteurs are not always bad, you know. Sometimes the best route to the heart of something is through something else (poetic, allusive, metaphorical...)

But in general I agree with you: critical prose that merely draws attention to its own cleverness without any true insight isn't my favorite thing, either...

girish a dit…

Oops, sorry for the typo in the Barthes quote...

HarryTuttle a dit…

You refer to my reply to Andy's appreciation?
I was talking against "mannerism" (I'm thinking mainly of puns, jokes, exaggerated lyrical descriptions, catch phrases, lingo, thesaurus abuse...)
But I'm in favor of poetry or rhetoric which are enhancement of the meaning through form.

As for Barthes... he's a case apart. He's a litterary critic, linguist in Semiology, so his job is to play with the very nature/root/structure of words purposefuly. Not every critic can hold to the standards of semiology. There is a philosophical reflection behind each word/concept...
(I'm sorry for my lame literal translation in particular... an official translation would convey more meaning I guess)

I'll have to find the full article, I believe it's from a contribution to Cahiers. I haven't read any of his book yet, but it sounds like I will like it.

Anonyme a dit…

"A critic is someone who shoots at his own regiment"

I love this Jules Renard quotation. When I first read it, I thought, "man, this is harsh stuff!" But after giving it some (more?) thought, I realize that that's not always the case, because it all depends on what kind of regiment you're in! In fact, applied to the right situation and the wrong regiment, it can be quite heroic.

PS: Harry, you asked why I was intimidated to post here...

The answer, in all its nonsensical glory, is that (partly because you're from France, and mostly because your criticism usually aims higher than I can reach -- I'm a critical midget!) I tend to picture you as Jean-Luc Godard. And Jean-Luc Godard tends to frighten me a little. Hence: in my head, when I read what you write, I imagine Jean-Luc Godard reading it to me, and, because I'm bad at French, I have to struggle to read the subtitles, that, incidentally, I also have to imagine!


I will, however, try to get over my fear, and leave JLG comments more often.

I'll start just by saying: I like a little mannerism sometimes.


PPS: What's a "mot d'auteur"?

HarryTuttle a dit…

I don't quite understand what Jules Renard's quotation means actually... but since his perspective is one of a writer and not a critic, I guess he means it in a negative way, the spite of a writer being judged by a peer (the critic being a writer too).
I agree with you, criticism isn't always pure sadism, sometimes it's difficult and can be heroic.

Please, I hope I'm not JLG! (I don't like nor understand Godard) he frightens me too ;)
You're kidding me right? I can't write as good English as you.
I loved your well documented Schollist Myth analysis, I didn't have time to post a comment because of this overwhelming blogathon... I'll go back to it afterward (I haven't seen either film though).

I guess what you're saying is that my posts are unclear and messy, maybe I should explain myself better.

The point is not to compare/compete with eachother on the blogosphere... It's our job to question and challenge each other's ideas to sustain a healthy pool of interactive collegial reflexion, in contrast to the monolithic/isolationist press world. Like Andy Horbal said, bloggers must support and engage eachother.

It's confrontation that pushes our limits and constantly solidify our own positions. (see the first quotation by Bazin above : confrontation against complacency)

So ignore my arrogant, pseudo-intellectual patronizing, it's all just a pretend posture... I'm just an half-learnt autodidact with a big mouth ;)
What I seek is the development of an informal conversation about criticism from all possible perspectives.

p.s. Sorry for the French phrase "mot d'auteur", it's used untranslated in English, but I guess it's terribly snob...
"Mot d'esprit", "Bon mot", "mot d'auteur" : It's usually a clever/smartass line of dialogue, out of character, obviously coming from the playwriter's mind rather than the personality of the fictitious character. By extension, it means a standalone sentence, beautifully phrased, encapsulating perfectly a spiritual idea. One that we can easily cite elsewhere.

HarryTuttle a dit…

I'll make Mannerism the next segment of the Fallacy series since everyone talks about it.

Michael Guillen a dit…

What a choice ensemble of definitions. Thanks for the translations, Harry. Off the hip:

I like Truffaut's disregard for any film that does not vibrate. That's an accomodating definition because, as times change, so will "the vibe." And examinations of how that original vibration changes, or the various new vibrations that arise, is what makes writing about film (not necessarily criticism per se) of social and cultural relevance.

Rilke's quote appeals because it's a poet's complaint. I too believe that any artist's oeuvre, including the body of one's written commentary, is a solitary and (as Molly Haskell just suggested to me) nearly neurotic act. Shaping art might value from criticism. In fact, I'm sure it would. But grasping art is something separate. Grasping art is an engagement. Criticizing art is like deflecting off the art. It can feel like a sharp piece of shrapnel. It can wound the artist. If there's any ethics to criticsm at all, I think it should be that the criticism shapes the artistry without wounding the artist.

I agree 100% with Bazin. The reviews and critiques I despise the most are ones complaining about a movie they've seen that is not the one the filmmaker made. Or more accurately, that they are more concerned with a movie the director didn't make than the one he or she did.

I would probably have to agree with Flaubert about socializing with the makers of films to be an effective critic and that's probably why I associate with filmmakers so much and refuse to be a critic.

I love that comment: "A critic is someone who shoots at his own regiment." That kind of links in to what I was saying before about wounding the artist. Friendly fire can be lethal.

Right on for Patrice Leconte protesting the heedlessly divisive tones of film critics. I go to a lot of press screenings these days and am bored immensely by critics who have to pronounce their dislikes and who refuse to talk about something they appreciate.

The Barthes quote is absolutely intriguing. What does your body feel in a movie? Why do some sentiments affect you and others not. Why do you receive a frisson shiver when others feel like they've been slapped with a wet fish?

Michel Ciment's quote on critical judgment constituting the only cultural valuation strikes me as something only a critic would say. I think he's sloppy in his interchange of the terms critic and commentarian. I would absolutely disagree with him that the exists only under the look of the critic. How arrogant. Truth is, if he's going to draw some lines in the dirt, critics couldn't exist without artists. Let's put the horse before the cart, shall we? I do agree, however, that commentary is essential; but probably don't understand commentary to mean what he thinks it to mean.

HarryTuttle a dit…

Thanks for the commentary Maya.

These quotes don't always represent my opinion, but I selected them because they say something important about the relationship between a critic and the subject.
For instance Truffaut's "vibrant film" is too subjective to be helpful... anyone will use this to justify their own taste, against somebody else's taste, so it doesn't bear critical relevance that could be shared between several people.

The artist's wound is nicely put. However with all ambition to public recognition in art, comes the risk of being misunderstood. Artists are more sensitive than most people, but criticism that would spare the weaks couldn't call itself criticism. Whether you're a good or a bad artist, negative criticism will always hurt. I don't believe in an evaluation that only gives good marks and... indifference to the rest.

Ditto Bazin. For instance the negative criticism that is directed at something the director didn't mean to do, hurts the artist for no good reason. Sparing this kind of reviews with a greater sense of responsability helps to save the artist's feelings (when it's not deserved).

The job of a critic and one of a journalist are quite different. One is partial and judgmental, the other is neutral and purely informational. The fact that most of the time critics are asked to do the job of a journalist and vice-versa, blurs the limits of the moral standards they go by, both confusing for them and for the reader. Now when we think of a critic is means very different things at the same time : reviewer, interviewer, reporter, scholar, editor, audience... everyone is a critic. Thus critic means nothing anymore.

What I understand from Barthes quote is the individuation of the beholder within an impersonal group of people (the audience). "I" is someone else. The dissociation of perception by two any people watching the same movie. We see the same thing but we don't receive the same material inside. My senses aren't tuned to the same frequency as yours. Therefore we must respect whatever the others have received, and the argument about taste should take place elsewhere, outside of these individuated bodies that are incompatible. Language is an intellectual layer of meaning that translates what the body feels into words that other people can relate to (except for the use of clichés that lost a unique meaning).

I think what ciment means is that art is revealed to the world and preserved into posterity thanks to the work of critics who strive to save the worthwhile pieces from oblivion. For example, African art coming from a culture that ignored the principle of museum and preservation, was saved by the attention of some critics. We could say the same of cinema... reels were systematically destroyed after the end of their commercial run, before Cinémathèques came to light. "Critics" includes historian, curator, researcher... the outsider's eye handpicking the treasures that shall pass on to the next generation. This is the work of critics. If you ask artists themselves, they will tell you everything they make is a masterpiece, or would destroy it when they make one.

HarryTuttle a dit…

Godard interview for Le Mépris (1964)

"I think much more highly of the reviews than most people do. It's probably because I was a critic once, and I said a lot of negative things. I was cruel and mean to a lot of people. And thought my opinions haven't changed, when I read negative reviews, the important thing for me is the discussion that's taking place. Whether it's good or bad is not the issue for me. (...) Reviews could be just but criticism isn't an artistic creation, it will always be inferior. 75% of critics are only in that line of work temporarily. That's why they are always bitter and sad, towards those they praise and those they disparage. "