…some thoughts on criticism…

Fredrick Gustafsson, in this good blog post, touches on a subject which fascinates me – criticism (and by extension, understanding what makes great cinema).

When I write about a film I am always very much aware of my inadequacies. Even after having seen a film three times there might still be things that I have missed, that have escape my attention. I might read things into a film which were never there, and most certainly were never intended by anyone to be there. I may also struggle to explain why I like a particular film and not another one which is very similar. There are so many small things that affect us when we watch a film and anything we might say about it is merely a construction after the facts, an effort of our part to intellectualise a feeling, which we may or may not be able to fully understand.

Let’s say that somebody has been watching a film with a long car chase. Afterwards she says “That was a boring film. I don’t like car chases, don’t see the point of them.” But that very same person also happens to love Bullitt (Peter Yates 1968), even though that has a long car chase in it. So it was not the car chase in itself that was the problem, even though it might have felt like it. It was perhaps rather the way the car chase was edited, or the way the car chase was integrated in the film as a whole. But that is more complicated, and just by watching the film we might not easily comprehend what it was we liked or did not like.

But do we need critics?:-

Well, no, not in the sense that we need doctors and firemen. But we do not not need them either. Reading good criticism is just as rewarding as watching a good film or reading a good book, it is just another form of expression, and just as valid and legitimate as any other form of expression… Good criticism can help as make sense of the world, of our thoughts and our likes and dislikes. It can help us grow. Good criticism might make us appreciate a work of art (be it a painting, a novel or a film) that we had not understood or previously liked, or it might help us navigate among the overwhelming amount of books and plays and films and albums out there that we do not have the time to read or watch or listen to.

For me there are four interesting issues flowing from all of this:

  • It is not possible (or even desirable) to create a definitive, objective assessment of a film;
  • Criticism is fundamentally about articulating a personal response to a film, perhaps within some contextualising framework (genre, style, director’s output, etc);
  • We don’t fully understand why we respond to cinema (or any other art), so we may never understand why a film moves us. We can only make hypotheses, provide personal insights;
  • These hypotheses may focus on techniques, such as directing, cinematography, script, etc; however, these same techniques used in another film may not work at all.
  • Analysis of technique, genre, etc does not necessarily provide an objective explanation of why a film is great. It is only ever a conjecture – perhaps providing some insight – but still only conjecture.

In summary, as Gustafsson says:-

The best thing a critic can do is to try and explain how she felt and why, with some humility.

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