An honourable art

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Much like film exhibition’s ever-raging debate over film vs digital, print vs online is the film writer’s conversation that, though it still has legs, is tired and should probably sit down. Earlier this month, Screen Daily published an article out of Karlovy Vary International Film Festival (KVIFF) sensationalising Leonard Maltin’s thoughts on the state of film criticism in an age of self-publishing opportunities on the internet, “US film critic Leonard Maltin has claimed that there is an increasing lack of interest in film criticism due to the emergence of the internet and social media.” Though it reads like a turn of the century fear, it was penned only weeks ago. But it does a huge disservice to film criticism – and very good film criticism, especially – to reduce its complex and multitudinous approaches to an issue of medium.

Much to my delight, this year’s second Philip French Memorial Lecture at Watershed reminded an auditorium full of eager film fans and aspiring critics that good film criticism is not about gloss or matt paper, it’s about engagement. 

Mark Kermode, chief film critic at the Observer, addressed the audience with good humour and great respect for both the art and the man he was invited to reflect upon. “Philip French,” he said, “inspired people to think that film criticism was an honourable art.” Both French and Kermode share in this achievement and the reason is that they believe in what they do. Quite simply, the difference between good film criticism and so-called ‘click-bait’ is that one is the pursuit of grappling, understanding and sharing the potential for ideas within an art form, whilst the other hopes to win web traffic.

Kermode outlined French’s approach to film reviewing and the ingredients that make it tasty for you, dear reader. He explained as follows:

  1. Describe a film accurately
  2. Place it in its cultural context (film history)
  3. Understand how the film got to be what it is (its production history, its references and influences)
  4. Give your own opinion (this, Kermode notes, is the least important element but perhaps the part that people want the most)
  5. Do it in a manner that is elegant and entertaining 

He also told the room that critics have to write three things:

  1. What they believe
  2. Accurately 
  3. With authority 

The summation of these points is that good film criticism is about offering something engaging to someone else. It is the pursuit of sharing and furthering the conversation around film in the hope that it will spark passion and continue what everyone in the industry, from filmmakers, distributors and exhibitors, are trying do. What it’s not about is telling someone what they should or should not go see. 

Those elements of engagement are not something that can be owned or protected in print by copyright. Nor are they opinions and conversations that belong to the elite. They exist in the bar after the movie, in the car, cab, bus, train or on the walk home just as much as they do in nationally respected newspapers. The difference, however, is one of voracity. If anything, what separates a critic from a viewer is the vast dedication in pursuit of holistic knowledge that informs raw opinion.

Most significantly, then, is to say that these things are aspirational and, perhaps, a little rarer than the sheer quantity of voices online and elsewhere suggests. 

The state of things, now, is such that a great many are offering knowledge, expertise, experience and engagement with film across a variety of platforms. To return to Screen Daily’s suggestion that a lack of interest in film criticism is linked to the ease of self-publishing, I have to call bullshit. The suggestion is contradictory. If anything, there is evidence of a great and growing interest in film criticism. The challenge, however, is for each of those many voices to prove that their engagement with so honourable an art is worth reading/hearing.

Image from @MaddyProbst 

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