Self. Criticism.

When I was around 12 years old, my mom decided I was old enough to decide for myself which movies I wanted to see. It would no doubt be cooler if I could use this as a jumping off point to construct a story of how from then on I started with fearless determination to dive into gory horror flicks that haunted me at the time and have since inspired my undying dedication to genre movies, but I’m afraid the truth is rather more mundane. I never really developed an interest in obscure genre pictures, but I did almost immediately, with the help of the family’s recently purchased VCR and a watchful eye for interesting outings in the TV listings, start to see a whole lot of movies. And, being a precocious kid who read newspaper criticism religiously, I instantly identified with what you might call a «critical sensibility».

The strange thing is that apart from writing a handful of capsule music reviews for a one-off edition of class newspaper (in which I, embarrassingly, panned Backstreet’s Back) and some private ruminations about movies I’d rent from my local video store when I was in my mid-teens, I’ve never really written much criticism of any sort. Even if you scoure the pages of this blog, you will find that movie reviews are few and far between. If I have one regret, it is that I haven’t taken the time to write more criticism.

Regular readers already know that I have a deep admiration for the dedication and craftsmanship of movie critics. When I do so little of it myself, I suppose the reasons are manifold. One is, as I’ve pointed out previously, that I find certain aspects of the actual writing process, like plot summaries and the inevitable risk of getting caught in the trap of countervailing expectations a real drag. But despite having thought of myself as someone with a critical sensibility since I first developed a deep love for movies, my penchant for self-doubt has continued to hold me back from doing much criticism. I may come off as intolerably smug for saying this, but for some reason I have always doubted my own ability to say anything interesting about any movie, or I have convinced myself that since the thought I was about to formulate was not one of staggering clarity or complete originality (assuming such a thing even exists), maybe it would be better left unsaid. I probably should have toughened up and published it anyway, if necessary with a link to my source of intellectual debt, but more often than not, I instead decided to pull the plug on the piece, sensing that there would always be somebody out there who knew more about the subject than I did, or whose insights I should instead yield to. The former is undoubtedly true, but that doesn’t stop the thousands of film bloggers who write for their own enjoyment; much less the many who aim higher than that, regardless of the quality of their writing. So why did it so often stop me?

The abovementioned self-doubt even extends to my relationship with the concept of «cinephilia». I’ve been planning to write about it for the longest time, but like many other subjects I’ve never gotten around to, I have been deterred by a feeling that I should read up on it first, in order to have anything informed to say. This is perhaps symptomatic of my ambivalence toward the term itself. Judging from its Wikipedia page there seems to be only a loose agreement on what it actually means, settling on, simply, “passionate interest in cinema”. I love this definition for its inclusiveness, and thus for being something I feel that even I can aspire to, but nonetheless my temperament instructs me to immediately question the usefulness of the term. If a cinephile is, as the definition suggests, simply a person who well and truly loves cinema, then yes, I am a cinephile.

And yet, most film lovers don’t usually go around calling themselves cinephiles, do they?. This could of course be because it sounds like an abstraction of what is to them fairly straightforward; you say you “love films”, or you “enjoy watching movies”, instead of defining yourself as a “cinephile”. But I could think of another reason: When I encounter the term cinephile, it usually (at least implicitly) refers to a person whose love of film is in some unspecified way deeper, more analytical, better or more informed, than that of people who maybe don’t think of themselves as cinephiles even if they qualify as such. It may be the self-doubt speaking, or simply my fiercely competetive and/or comparative mind-set, but as a result, I often feel that I am not worthy of the moniker, since there will always be other cinephiles, or, if you will, true (truer?) cinephiles more worthy of it than I am. People who’ve seen more Kurosawas, perhaps, or who know more about Bollywood movies, or film theory, or the German Expressionists. It’s a fundamentally narcissistic approach, of course, to think that if I cannot write the piece on a particular, I’d rather not write anything at all. And as even casual readers can attest to, it’s not like this self-doubt always holds me back from publishing posts on other subjects that are works-in-progress, at best.

I don’t know exactly where this sense of being an “undeserving” cinephile who may be somehow unmasked at any moment comes from, or where the urge to qualify as one for that matter, but maybe it could instead be considered an asset?. My drive to educate myself and grow as (or into) a (bona fide) cinephile has inspired me, over the years, to seek out lots of films I probably would not have seen if I didn’t perceive of them as part of my education as a cinephile. I know these are big words, but as I’ve said on this blog previously, I genuinely think that movies, whether they try to say something true by simple means or something radical or original in a way never before seen, can teach us something valuable about ourselves and the world. In that sense, movies have always been a medium of both escapism and introspection for me, although I am perhaps better at thinking about a film’s themes and intentions than I am at actually seeing it; looking for how it is presented on the screen. If I were to attempt a definition that goes a little beyond the democratic one posited above, I think that would have to be my focus. Cinephilia for me is about thinking critically about film, but also about curiosity; to be open-minded and ready to have your core convictions strengthened or challenged visually and intellectually; to look for the themes and the visual modes and motives that makes cinema such a riveting art form. Something like that.

Which brings me back to film criticism. I was thinking how I could share my thoughts and passions about film and criticism without necessarily taking the route of the regular review, when I discovered The CinephiliacsOn this endlessly inspiring bi-weekly podcast, the young critic Peter Labuza interviews critics and movie programmers about everything I love about this specific craft. What the podcast has done more than anything is to inspire me to engage more with the how and why of criticism; the inherent dilemmas of judging works of art, and the prominent role personal taste, background, bias, memory and a million other things play in what I see and what I ignore whenever I watch a movie. Listening to Katey Rich of Cinemablend on trying to keep your moral judgments out of criticism (even if I don’t necessarily agree); to Keith Uhlich of Time Out on the state of queer cinema; to Criticwire‘s Matt Singer on the need to keep an open mind, I’ve started to think more deeply about criticism, and hopefully this will be only the first in an occasional series of posts on the pleasures and pitfalls of film criticism, and trying to muster the confidence in my own abilities to find a more distinctive critical “voice”.

I know from experience that announcing such intentions by no means guarantees that I will actually follow through (remember that promised series on the Hanson discography which never went further than this piece on their debut album, Middle of Nowhere?), but future topics of discussion may include:

  • The evolution of my “taste biography” (to borrow a term from Canadian music critic Carl Wilson)
  • The “somenivore’s” dilemma (about why some genres are almost completely absent from my cinephilic education)
  • My blind spots (blindingly obvious classics and directors I have somehow missed)
  • Pros and cons of rewatching
  • Encountering the classics
  • Further musings on the pleasures and pitfalls of lists, and the challenge of canonization
  • My relationship with Norwegian cinema
  • Watching films in a movie theater versus other settings
  • Film fatigue
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One Response to Self. Criticism.

  1. Mitchell says:

    I’ve looked all over your blog for your real name but could not find it so I will say:

    Dear Queerlefty,

    I very much enjoyed your musings on wanting and not wanting to write film criticism. I, too, am an unabashed ‘cinephile’ and have been viewing and thinking about film for decades. Film criticism, especially the daily kind of criticism that you see in newspapers and on blogs, I find to be tiresome. Every once in a while you encounter a great critic like Andrew Sarris, but more often than not, you are encountering ego. I have noticed this with several of the critics in the New York Times. It is so obvious that they have critic fatigue which is manifested by increasingly facetious reviews.

    I started blogging a few years ago when I was running a film group out of my apartment. I programmed the films, presented them and led a post-viewing discussion. My intention for the group was to give them a grounding in the pantheon of great films. I started the blog as a little intro into the various films that we were viewing – a little something they could read before we got together and that might spur some good conversation.

    Since it was a given that the films we would watch were ‘great films’, I did not need to give my opinion on why they were great. Instead, I concentrated on giving historical and aesthetic context. In other words I was using the blog to teach rather than to put forth my own critical agenda. Once the group disbanded I found myself writing more and more in this vein and it has been very satisfying.

    I realized that most people don’t care what your opinion is, but most people do want to learn something. I have devoted my writing to introducing directors who general viewers might not know, as well as drawing parallels between works that might not necessarily be though of in the same context (e.g, I wrote a piece on the similarities of The Tree of Life and John Ford’s She Wore A Yellow Ribbon).

    In continuing in this teaching vein, I have learned a lot myself and have not felt that I was defending a personal position.

    I would be honored if you looked at and even started following my blog. I would love to hear what you would have to say.

    You can find it at: thediscreetbourgeois.wordpress.com

    I hope you enjoy it

    Mitchell Brown
    Chicago

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