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Film criticism in the modern age

Graphic by Joseph Valdez

This Monday afternoon, Apr. 3, about thirty people showed up to the Whitney Humanities Center auditorium to hear four film critics talk. Though all four critics were male, and did not address the gender imbalance, their discussion presented a healthy difference in opinions as they debated the state of film criticism today. The panel, organized by Yale film professors Dudley Andrews and Charles Musser, was split into two parts: one focusing on international cinema and one focusing on American cinema.

The first section was a lecture given by Jean-Michel Frodon, a French film critic and former editor-in-chief of Cahiers du cinéma, the most important film journal of the second half of the twentieth century. Inappropriately titled “The International Situation: Iran and China in Focus,” Frodon had quite a bit to say about the current situation in film criticism, but didn’t speak about Iran or China at all. Instead, most of Frodon’s commentary focused on his native France, and its strong historical tradition of film criticism. Specifically, he reflected on his tenure at Cahiers du cinéma and his attempts to bring it smoothly into the 21st century.

Frodon emphasized the need to distinguish between writing that critiques film and the actual profession of a film critic. Very few people manage to make a living giving their opinions about film, but many more people write amateur film criticism; Frodon does not see bloggers as film critics. People have always talked about movies with their friends and, with the advent of the Internet, moving that discussion into a more visible sphere is easier than ever. Jackie Ferro, BR ’17, a Film and Media Studies major agrees that “anyone with a WordPress account can self-identify as a critic.” Your blogger suitemate probably cannot provide the same insight or scope that a professional critic can, though. “People rely on criticism to cut through the impossibly dense Netflix feed,” Ferro says. Frodon goes even further, in his belief that because the Internet has made many films more accessible than ever, film criticism is more important today than in the past.

The second section was more of an actual panel. Titled “The American Situation,” it featured Wesley Morris of the New York Times (and formerly Grantland, may it rest in peace), Bilge Ebiri of the Village Voice, and Gerald Peary of The Arts Fuse. Both Morris and Ebiri graduated from Yale College in the 1990s, and Peary has been a film critic for various Boston publications since 1978.

Their discussion focused on the role of film criticism in American culture and the ways that criticism is changing in the 21st century. Unlike France, the US has never had an all-consuming collective passion for cinema, so film criticism has never held an integral cultural role. Nonetheless, they agreed with Frodon that the Internet makes it easier than ever to write about film and have people see it, but harder than ever to get paid for that writing. Morris specifically focused on the ways the social media now allows for greater interaction between critics and readers. All three agreed that aggregation sites like Rotten Tomatoes are just one aspect, and not the be-all end-all, of film criticism in this decade.  A number score eliminates the nuance on which the best, thoughtful film criticism thrives. Even great movies have flaws, and even terrible movies usually have some redeeming qualities, but numbers cannot illuminate them for us; only critics can.

The consensus in the room seemed to be that film criticism is alive and well, even if, as Ebiri said, “staff film critics at print papers are like the Supreme Court. There are like nine of them and all you can do is wait for one of them to die.” For all the aspiring film critics out there, the going is tough, but not entirely hopeless. As Peary said near the end of the panel, “Critics are the canary in the coal mine for America.” There is value in expertise and there is value in passion. Film criticism will keep moving forward as long as people still care about film.

One Response

  1. Charles Musser says:

    The person who deserves the credit for organizing at least the American half of the event is Oksana Chefranova–I just moderated (though admittedly I suggested the participants since Morris and Ebiri were Film Studies majors when at Yale. And Gerald Perry was there to show his documentary which provided an historical overview of film criticism in the US.

    I would argue that moviegoing was at least as important in the US as France but film culture was more geographically dispersed. Anyway, while one might note the panel’s lack of gender balance, one should also note that one critic is African American and the other of Turkish descent. And a number of younger women critics were mentioned. It is just that Film and Media Studies can boast two real stars in that world and we wanted to show them off.
    One might also take a broader viewer. I brought up the Filipino-American filmmaker Ramona Diaz for my Documentary Film Workshop last month and Flo Stone, founder of the Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capitol for my course on Documentary and the Environment. So over time it evens out.

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