Filmmakers & Critics on the Art of Film Criticism

Satyajit Ray said, “You cannot really reprehend mediocrity, you can only regret it. But you can and must condemn the gifted filmmakers who has it in him to combine artistic integrity with a consciousness of dual responsibility to the viewing public and to keep the man who backs him but who yet keeps postponing the great film because he must ‘first make a little money’ and therefore must compromise just this little, just the once.”

I strongly believe to be able to ‘judge’ the merits of a film, we need to have an understanding of the history of the cinematic art form. The knowledge of the filmmaking process is crucial to do justice with a work of a filmmaker. But how do we go about educating ourselves about movies? I had to look for the answer in American books. In 1992, when Marc Smirnoff asked the question to Pauline Kael, one of the prominent American film critics of the day, she didn’t think it was possible to ‘catch up’ overnight.

“Oh God, if he has to go about educating himself, forget it,” Pauline said. “I think that popular culture is something you pick up. It seeps into you. It’s in the environment. I’ve heard people getting jobs as movie critics and then watching ten classics to get educated in movies. The whole thought makes me throw dart at them.”

“If you haven’t picked up an education in movies from what’s available in your area, from television and from VCRs, what’s the point? You can never catch up. Sure, you can pick out some of the great ones o go see, but that’s not the same thing as seeing what the great ones spring out of, which is all the crap. Part of getting to know movies is sorting out the great ones from the crap for yourself, seeing all those lousy Warner Brothers movies, out of which really good ones came, and there’s no way you can educate yourself in that.”

Critics’ Role

Pauline felt “the role of the critic is to help people see what is in the work, what is in it that shouldn’t be, what is not in it that could be. He is a good critic if he helps people understand mere about the work than they could see for themselves; he is a great critic, if he by his understanding and feeling for the work, by his passion, he can excite people so that they want to experience more of the art that is there, waiting to be seized. He is not necessarily a bad critic if he makes errors in judgment. (Infallible taste is inconceivable; what could it be measured against?) He is a bad critic if he does not awaken the curiosity, enlarge the interests and understanding of his audience. The art of the critic is to transmit his knowledge of and enthusiasm for art to others.”

Another leading American film critic Stanley Kauffman believed “the best critic is one who illuminates whole provinces if an art that you could not see before, who helps to refine the general public’s taste (which is never good enough – they haven’t time, they are busy studying something else or doing their jobs) and who serves as a sounding board for serious artists. . . But fundamentally you take a critic’s hand and let him lead you further, perhaps higher, only if you are initially convinced of a substantial area of mutual sympathy and interest.

* * *

On the craft of writing criticism

These excerpts attributed to Pauline Kael are from Conversations with Pauline Kael edited by Will Brantley and Nine American Film Critics edited by Edward Murray.

“It really is a wonderfully exciting field to write about when the movies are good. When they’re not so good, it’s to despair. The really bad movies you can write about with some passion and anger. It’s the mediocre ones that wear you down. They’re disgusting to write about because you can feel yourself slipping into the same mediocrity and stupidity.”

* * *

“When you’ve something good, it writes itself, nothing is more fun than using your brain. But suppose you confront, say, King of Gypsies? What can you say? And how do you make a creditable piece of writing from bad movies? If you have pride in your writing, and I do, it becomes an incredible chore.”

“It’s my feeling that no one should trust any critic who does not take the art form he is writing about seriously enough to write a decent paragraph? I simply do not trust the observations of people who write sloppily or in illiterate hyperboles. I can only believe in people whose level of observation in prose does justice to the art of motion pictures or any other art he is writing about. But in order to live up to that requirement, you kill yourself sometimes if the subject is a bummer.”

Pauline Kael to Sheila Benson/1980

* * *

Fellini on Film Critics

No other film can give a glimpse into the working relationship between a critic and a filmmaker better than Otto E Mezzo. According to Fellini, “what is extraordinary about film critics is that they apply critical methods which are a hundred years old to work which couldn’t have existed a hundred years ago.”

Fellini says in Fellini On Fellini, “I’m not a good critic myself. I’m a very poor witness. I put everything out of shape and I’m very partisan. I won’t have any argument; discussion bores me. The critical spirit appears in me in the form of doubt. It’s paralyzing. For someone of my temperament, exercising the critical faculty is masochistic. Why mummify what has moved you, why become lukewarm about it, why mortify it, why extinguish it? It’s physical fact. I can’t bear people who try to define me precisely.”

* * *

“The critic merely by saying, ‘I am a critic,’ inflates himself and causes himself to see not what exists but what he thinks ought to exist. But things are only what they are. Therefore, the critic is usually mistaken. A truly humble critic would look at things from the inside, not from the outside. If the thing is vital and you look at it from your external point of view, you will never understand but will only project onto it what you think it should be.”

Fellini, from Nine American Film Critics

* * *

Critic’s Code?

I’m sure that we who are serious desire that better film criticism stand for values, that it should be able to point and distinguish, speak a coherent language, and espouse at its best, a vigorous, high-level doctrine.

— Parker Tyler

The first and last responsibility of the film critic is – prepare yourself for a thundering truism – to raise the standard of motion pictures.

— John Simon

All art is a game played with ethnic rules.

— Vernon Young

It comes down, ultimately, to value judgments (“taste,” “opinion”) which can never be settled as conclusively as the freshness of an egg. Which is not to say that one man’s opinion is as good as the next one’s. Before the ultimate is reached a critic goes through a process of defining, describing, reasoning, and persuading which is drawn from his own special experience and knowledge and which may or may not persuade his readers that his judgment is more accurate – “true” or “right” would be claiming too much – than other judgments, according to their experience and knowledge. Readers have their own ideas, too, if they’re worth writing for.

— Dwight MacDonald

All excerpts from Nine American Film Critics

March 4, 2014  Leave a comment

David Foster Wallace on Literature

March 4, 2014  Leave a comment

Watched Limitless? Now listen to Ted Chiang’s Sci-fi Thriller ‘Understand’

If you liked Limitless, you will absolutely love Ted Chiang’s sci-fi thriller Understand.

The full story is available on Infinity Plus. (Use dotepub to convert the html page into epub.)

An excellent audiobook is available here. (Download podcast/mp3.)

I think it is read by Rashan Stone (BBC).

Ted Chiang is a hard SF writer with 4 Nebulas, 3 Hugos and
the John W Campbell award for best new  writer.

His first collection of eight stories, Stories of Your Life and Others,
is awesomely mind-blowing.

January 15, 2014  Leave a comment

Ken Liu: The Clockwork Soldier & The Paper Menagerie

Listen to The Paper Menagerie, Ken Liu’s Hugo, Nebula and
World Fantasy Award-winning story on Podcastle. (Download podcast/mp3.)

To read the story online, visit io9. (Use dotepub to convert the html page into epub.)

Ken Liu’s latest story The Clockwork Soldier is available on Clarkesworld. (Save podcast/mp3.)

The paper tiger folded by Gen-Hagiwara.

January 15, 2014  Leave a comment

Isaac Asimov, Hari Seldon, Foundation and Earth


Isaac Asimov’s Foundation heavily borrows from socio-economic theories to re-create the rise and fall of civilizations in a distant galactic empire. The story is familiar but the telling is fabulous. The first story in the Hugo-winning series is a page-turner. For the emerging sci-fi writers, this is a crash course in how to write the best science fiction with bare essentials.

My favorite quote from Foundation:

Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent. 
— Isaac Asimov

My favorite books from the series are Prelude to Foundation and Foundation and Earth.

December 15, 2013  Leave a comment

V.S. Naipaul’s ‘Strange’ Love for Cinema

V.S. Naipaul by Neal Boenzi/The New York Times (1991) /

“[My father] passed on the writing ambition to me; and I growing up in another age, have managed to see that ambition through almost to an end. But I remember how hard it was for me as a child to read serious books; two spheres of darkness separated me from them. Nearly all my imaginative life was in the cinema. Everything there was far away, but everything in that curious, operatic world was accessible. It was truly universal art. I don’t think I overstate when I say that without the Hollywood of the 1930s and 1940s I would have been spiritually quite destitute. That cannot be shut out of this account of reading and writing. And I have to wonder now whether the talent that once went into imaginative literature didn’t in this century go into the first fifty years of the glorious cinema.”

— V.S. Naipaul, Reading and Writing: A Personal Account (1988)

There was a time when V.S. Naipaul could see and articulate the truth, no matter how inconvenient or controversial. These days the old maestro is easily misleading, but his remark on the first fifty years of cinema is definitely on the mark. The cinema that followed till date has been largely formulaic barring notable exceptions like Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (with stellar performance by Daniel Day-Lewis) and Duncan Jones’ Moon (with a terrific Sam Rockwell).

In The Art of Novel (1968), Milan Kundera identifies two kinds of novels: Novels that participate in the sequence of discoveries that for him constitutes the history of the novel and novels that place themselves outside the history of novel—or come after it. Novels that add nothing to the conquest of being, novels that discover no new segment of existence and only confirm what has already been said have no place in it: “Furthermore, in confirming what everyone says (what everyone must say), they fulfill their purpose, their glory, their usefulness to that society.”

When we apply the Kundera-Naipaul logic to cinema, it is evident that films which don’t further the conquest of being fall outside the history of cinema. Language, cinematic or otherwise, is a tool to conquer the being—and without it life has no meaning. Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul’s achievement lies in advancing this conquest of being. V.S. Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival (1987) is not a conquest of an Indian-origin of the British—but the conquest of an individual over the tools and syntaxes of a mode of expression. To say V.S. Naipaul is Trinidadian, Indian or English is to miss the point. Whether you like him or not, the reading here is evident: any creative medium of expression can be taught and mastered irrespective of their origin.

“Most filmmaking is common sense. If you stay on your toes and
think about how to do a thing, it’s right there.”

David Lynch/ Catching the Big Fish:
Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity

 

Further Readings:

Between Father and Son: Family Letters Wikipedia / Amazon
The Enigma of Arrival Wikipedia / Amazon
A Writer’s People Goodreads / Amazon
Literary Occasions  Goodreads / Amazon
The Art of Novel Wikipedia / Amazon
Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth Wikipedia / Amazon
Plato: Phaedrus  Wikipedia / Amazon

Television series:
Kenneth Clark: Civilisation Wikipedia / Amazon

December 5, 2013  Leave a comment

Stephen Fry & Me

Stephen FryStephen Fry Photograph: Steve Forrest for The New York Times

My journey with Stephen Fry began last September with Stephen Fry in America. Stephen had been going through a tough time. He was under medication for bipolar disorder—a psychiatrist’s term for manic depression which has been linked for centuries with creativity (see Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament). Being Stephen, he decided to fight his demons in front of the camera in The Secret Life of The Manic Depressive, away from home in the wilderness of America. The arena Stephen now entered had not been kind to men like him: two actor-comedians had shot themselves to death, while another had jumped off an island ferry.

It suffices to say that Stephen survived both depression and America. The latter gave him the necessary strength to face up to more powerful demons lurking inside him since his childhood.

In Wagner & Me, we see how hard Stephen tries to come in terms with Richard Wagner, the anti-Semitic German, whose music introduced young Stephen, a Jew, to a new world of tension and drama. Once he heard Wagner, Stephen would never be able close his eyes or shut his ears to this mysterious world of mythical powers and demons. The music which once enthralled Hitler and Nazis now constantly haunted post-Holocaust Germany and the Jew in him.

Stephen aims to rescue Richard Wagner by separating his music from the person. Is it possible to separate Stephen Fry from his work? I don’t think so. The battle plays out on a hilltop in Bayreuth. Stephen faces a tremendous opponent and the conflict is of great historical and cultural interest. As with every Stephen Fry production, the battle soon turns out into our hero’s side and we realize this is not the first time Stephen has managed to subvert his project: Wagner & Me reveals more about Stephen than Wagner or his music.

Stephen Fry in America and Wagner & Me both are high on subtle humour. Yet it is impossible to brand Stephen’s sense of humour. His childlike gestures make him endearing, but his comedy is not less varied than his beloved composer’s music. Stephen’s humour scales up and down, and reveals a diverse range of textures and shades which we don’t often see in popular comedy.

During the last ten months since my first encounter with Stephen, I have only managed to scratch the surface of a large body of work which spans three decades of his life. Every time I read, watch or listen to Stephen, it seems necessary to pause and let the ‘humour’ to sink in. Days go by; sometimes months before I return to his work again. He is the sort of person who grows on you bit by bit—a stranger who wants to be your friend and keeps trying to get under your skin. Once he manages to get in, you begin to relish his company. You begin to take delight in his work and success.

I haven’t seen much of Stephen Fry’s work. His most successful production so far to me is Fry’s English Delight, which comes across as a complete departure from Robert MacNeil’s original television production The Story of English (1986), Melvyn Bragg’s The Adventure of English (2003), Seth Lerer’s History of English Language (2008) or his own Fry’s Planet World (2011). A delightful mix of humour and wit, Fry’s English Delight is a radio production packed with his signature commentary. On television, Stephen Fry often doesn’t allow his interviewees enough air time to have their say. On radio, he appears a generous host for a very good reason.

Excerpt from He Said, She Said:

“For men, there is what’s known as hegemonic masculinity which is the heroic, tough, strong, macho type of male that is widely understood to be masculine. But there are lots of other alternatives available to men.

The trouble is in schools today… it seems to very difficult for boys to align themselves with more sensitive kinds of masculinity, because there is very strong ethos that boys gave to prove they are real boys. They have to prove that they are cool. As seen as cool is not to want to do schoolwork, to not concentrate in class, to fool around… And the few boys who do try and listen to the teacher and do what they are asked to do are accused of being gay. That’s the ultimate insult. You want to be cool. You do not want to be gay.” 

— Jennifer Cole tells Stephen Fry

Such a discussion about popular culture doesn’t quite fit the exploration of the English language, and these unexpected turn of events is what makes this series so unique and powerful. While Stephen struggled with his homosexuality, I suffered the cool charade of people around me. Stephen and I now stand in an unexpected point of intersection. I can now understand him better, and he seems to have a good understanding of people who love to read, write and film.

Stephen Fry’s work makes you think and there couldn’t possibly be a better reason to love him.



Resources:
Stephen Fry: Wikipedia
Stephen Fry: Official Website
BBC: Fry’s Planet Word
The Great Courses: Literature &
the English Language
(Amazon)

July 23, 2012  Leave a comment

Frank McCourt: High Noon At Midnight


High Noon

My marriage had collapsed and I was adrift and alone. I tried alcohol but that was the curse of my family and better avoided. At midnight I planted a chair in the middle of the kitchen and dared the demons to come. In various forms they came: priests, teachers, old girlfriends. They howled. They told me what a despi- cable man I was, a failure as son, brother, husband, father. I agreed, Oh, yes, yes, you’re right, till a long solemn comforting face appeared in their midst: Gary Cooper.

In the movie High Noon, Sheriff Gary Cooper has just married Grace Kelly. They are packing and waiting for the train that will take them on their honeymoon.

But there’s disturbing news: on that same train the bad guys are coming to town.

Can you blame Sheriff Cooper if he says, “Waal, this is my honeymoon and I’ve done enough for this town and I deserve this one happy moment in my life”? Of course it depends on who you are, your values, your sense of community responsibility, your romantic or ideological soul, your morality—if you want to call it that.

Can you blame Coop if he ducks the coming menace, skips the train and lights out for the wide-open spaces on horse and buggy, Grace smiling by his side, Grace thinking of intimacies to come, babies gurgling?

No, it is not to be, not yet anyway. Coop has to do the right thing and that is to wait, secure that badge on his vest, sling on those guns, and face the bad guys. Grace is not pleased.

Would you?

Be pleased, that is?

Grace Kelly is exquisitely beautiful and I often wondered what she was doing in that desolation of a town anyway. Why wasn’t she back east serving high tea on Fifth Avenue? She was so desirable you couldn’t blame the Sheriff for entertain- ing thoughts of flight—or did he? No, sir. No, ma’am. Sorry, Grace, but he knew what he had to do. No Hamlet he. The bad guys had to be dealt with—and there was only one Sheriff in town.

The theme song broke my adolescent heart:

Do not forsake me, oh, my darling, On this our wedding day . . . ay.

I was forced to take sides, Grace or Coop. No fence straddling, lad. I pushed it as far as my teen mind would go. Hitch up that old buckboard and head out, man. To hell with the town and citizens who wouldn’t give a damn anyway if you were shot to bits on your wedding day. Take what you have and go. At least you have Grace and a future. It’s risky either way.

If you leave, what will she be thinking? Years down the road will she tell the children how their daddy threw his badge in a drawer, unbuckled his gunbelt, and put the town behind him?

That was the part that often made me, the Coop stand-in, feel uneasy—what Grace might be thinking. Would there be respect as we rode the buckboard and I giddy-upped the horse? Would she cast me the occasional loving glance? You could never say, “Grace, honey, I did it for you, turned tail and ran.” She’d assure you that you did the right thing but . . . but you would never know. Never.

Yes, yes, you knew you loved Grace, but there’s something else in the world and what the hell is it? The bad guys are coming, dictating the course of your life. Bad guys are always coming and you have to stay, badgeless and gunless, and face them. You can dodge, you can run, but where and for how long?

I didn’t know it at the time but I was beginning to listen to the still small voice within, the Coop conscience, and I was troubled. In Ireland no one had encouraged me or my generation to think for ourselves. Before confessing our sins we were told to examine our conscience, and that was simply a list of sins—not the small voice. I hadn’t discovered yet the truth of that fine old plat- itude, “A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.” The dictum from the church was “A man’s gotta do what the church tells him or risk eternal damnation.” Ay, there was the rub, there the risk. To think for yourself, to feel for yourself, was as dangerous as waiting for the bad guys. Examine your conscience—but not too much. Stay within the churchly parameters. There be dragons—and bad guys—and if you’re not careful, you’re riding a buckboard to hell.

I can’t say I was Coop, can’t say I was a hero, but after dodging and running I heeded the still small voice in my head. I squirmed on that kitchen chair and let the demons come. They screeched and squawked around my head but I out- lasted them. I out-Cooped them.

You can’t bargain with bad guys and demons and they don’t give a damn about your gun or your badge or your lovely Grace. You learn from High Noon you have to go it alone.

That is the risk you have to take.


From: Writings on Fear, Risk, and Hope

July 17, 2012  Leave a comment

Crazy Windmills: Signs of Life

“Whilst in Greece I walked around the mountains of Crete where I came across a valley. I had to sit down because I was sure I had gone insane. Before me lay 10,000 windmills—it was like a field of flowers gone mad—turning and turning with these tiny squeaking noises. I sat down and pinched myself. ‘I have either gone insane or have been something very significant indeed.’ Of course, it turned out that the windmills were for real and this central image became a pivotal point of the film, landscape in complete ecstasy and fantastic madness. I knew as I stood there that I would return one day to make a film. Had I never seen the windmills, I would not have made the connecting between this fantastic landscape and the von Arnim story, which I read only later on.”

–  On ‘Signs of Life’ from ‘Herzog on Herzog’

June 10, 2012  Leave a comment

The History of Art

Jan Vermeer
Peter Greenaway

October 22, 2010  Leave a comment

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