A Matter of (Informed) Taste
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The very question about the role of film criticism today presupposes something has changed. How could it not have, when both film itself and its modes of viewership have undergone drastic transformations—from the collective gatherings in public spaces to the intimacy and isolation of one’s own cellphone screen, from celluloid to pixels, and from palpable supports to intangible streaming? These changes are matched by new modes of criticism, and, with so-called “democratization” of movie reviewing brought about by the Internet, it is supposed that everyone can now be a critic. The digital age has indeed spawned a number of existential statements on the part of professional critics like Jasmina Kallay, Armond White, and Nick James, among many others. The rate of soul-searching articles multiplied after a number of well-established figures lost their jobs in this century’s first decade.
But the sense of crisis, which is not exclusive to the cinema, precedes the redundancies of leading critics that shocked the film community—Maurice Berger’s The Crisis of Criticism and Rónán McDonald’s The Death of the Critic stand as good examples. The general idea is that critics keep losing ground to lay reviewers on the web and to the industry’s promotional machine. However, the function of criticism goes beyond the critic’s power to make or break a film. That movie reviews may no longer be the reader’s main reference when deciding what to watch on a weekend remains to be proved, and should in any case free the critic to indulge in the pleasure of talking (and thinking) about movies.
The discomfort among critics is nonetheless palpable. Perhaps film criticism has always been in crisis, in the sense that it has constantly revisited and redefined its own parameters and functions, often through discussion about what should be the parameters and functions of the cinema itself. Although the institutions and profession of criticism have undergone profound transformations, their impact on criticism’s aims do not run as deep. Its role remains one and the same: to inform filmic tastes, for evaluation is critical writing’s distinguishable quality. What varies is the methodology employed, ranging from historical, theoretical, stylistic and social considerations to anecdotes, gossip, and interventions as minimalist as the clicking on a “Like” icon—which in Greg Taylor’s view constitutes a critical gesture. But what the professional critic with a weekly column on a daily newspaper and a part-time dilettante with a blog are likely to share is the desire to influence the reader’s tastes through notions of what is good and what is bad.
The Western canon of film criticism shows that the definition of its role has often been articulated through discussions about preferences for specific styles, genres, directors, actors, and sometimes studios. The politique des auteurs hailed the energy and physicality of Hollywood genres against the literariness of mainstream cinema in France, which François Truffaut dismissively described as the “tradition of quality.” Pauline Kael’s famous attack on Andrew Sarris’s auteur theory was largely articulated through an assault on his taste for popular genre movies she deemed “mindless, repetitious commercial products,” which is how she explained Sarris’s favoring of Raoul Walsh or George Cukor over Ingmar Bergman. Penelope Houston and Richard Roud articulated a return to humanist values against the Cahiers’ presumed apolitical formalism through a defense of a cinema that, according to Houston, would be about “the human situation, not about ‘spatial relationships,’” and which Roud hoped would not “transcend” content—an attitude he believed to pertain to his counterparts at the Cahiers—but instead focus on it. The discussion about taste usually takes the form of the isolation of individual titles (or genres, directors, actors) to be embraced or rejected. In her critique of auteurism, Houston stated that “a theory of criticism constructed around an appreciation of Crimson Kimono, or Party Girl, or Written on the Wind” seemed “a distinctly barren one.” More recently, Armond White made a case against an “elitist, art-for-art’s sake” criticism through praises to Jeff Nichols’s Shotgun Stories and Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited.
The centrality of taste persists to this day. Vulgar auteurism’s identity is defined by a list of directors that includes Paul W. S. Anderson, Michael Bay, and John M. Chu. The very anxiety about the “death of the critic” evolves around the fear that the lack of critical expertise may lead to the dumbing down of filmic taste, the threat that unsophisticated preferences pose to the artistry and the meaningfulness of film. In the face of a presumed crisis in criticism, the contemporary articulation of this fear tends to oppose professionals to amateurs. But it is worth remembering that a similar fear is also at the bottom of debates between well-established critics. Truffaut’s attack on the tradition of quality’s literariness is as much about resisting the banalization of taste as Houston’s aforementioned concerns about a “theory” constructed around Party Girl—whose subject Louis Marcorelles considered to be “idiotic,” as Roud pointed out.
Criticism’s forms are undeniably undergoing transformation, but even the feared loss of critical authority is centered around notions of goodness and badness. This is not to undermine critical erudition and sophistication, only to acknowledge that though criticism as a profession may have feared extinction, the very activity of film reviewing does not show any signs of demise. On the contrary, the Internet has facilitated access not only to critical writing (of both the professional and the amateur kind) but also of readers’ responses. When it comes to criticism, and with the exception of the regrettable incidence of trolling, such discussions boil down to likes and dislikes—as they always have. Back in 1960, Roud warned against “the erection of a system based on one’s own tastes.” But what harm could it do when what tastes really reveal is a vision of what the cinema should be?
Cecilia Sayad is Senior Lecturer in Film at the University of Kent (UK). She is the author of Performing Authorship: Self-Inscription and Corporeality in the Cinema (I.B. Tauris, 2013) and co-editor of Film Criticism in the Digital Age (Rutgers University Press, 2015). She worked as a film critic for the Brazilian daily newspaper Folha de S. Paulo and authored a Portuguese-language book on Charlie Kaufman (O jogo da reinvenção: Charlie Kaufman e o lugar do autor no cinema, Alameda, 2008).
Jasmina Kallay, “The Crticic Is Dead...” in Film Criticism in the Digital Age, eds. Mattias Frey and Cecilia Sayad (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2015), 211–215; Armond White, “What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Movies,” in Film Criticism in the Digital Age, eds. Mattias Frey and Cecilia Sayad (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2015), 217-224; Nick James, “Who Needs Critics?” in Film Criticism in the Digital Age, eds. Mattias Frey and Cecilia Sayad (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2015), 225-229.
For a comprehensive account of the impact of the loss of jobs had on the sense of a crisis in criticism see Mattias Frey, “Introduction: Critical Questions,” in Film Criticism in the Digital Age, eds. Mattias Frey and Cecilia Sayad (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2015), 1–20.
Greg Taylor, “Thumbs in the Crowd: Artists and Audiences in the Postvanguard World,” in Film Criticism in the Digital Age, eds. Mattias Frey and Cecilia Sayad (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2015), 25.