"Something That Surprises Us"

I’ve worked sporadically as a movie critic for decades, beginning in the 1980s, when local newspapers didn’t import their cultural content from the distant mother ship of whatever conglomerate owned them, but ran their own reviews. Back then, in my 20s, I was a secondary reviewer for a Connecticut paper, The New London Day, taking on assorted lame comedies and schlocky horror films passed over by the paper’s lead film critic – one Paul Baumann. (Impressive as he was, Baumann’s standards were not always the highest, proving notoriously flexible enough to include an avidity for the soft-core aerobics film, Flashdance... but that’s another story.)

Today, the internet has radically democratized criticism, its rampant opinionizing – informed and otherwise – challenging the authority of credentialed, paid critics, and effectively posing a surly question: Who the hell are you to think your opinion is better than mine? Like the novel, whose death has been announced so many times over the decades, professional critics are rumored to face extinction. Do we really need them? New York Times film critic A.O. Scott has recently written a book, Better Living Through Criticism, taking on the question. I’ll rephrase and ask, What do you want from, and in, a movie critic?

For me, a few qualities stand out. Broad and deep knowledge of film, to be sure. (Which critic was it – David Denby, maybe, or perhaps David Thomson – who confessed that he was tempted into film reviewing because when he started at it, film itself was only four decades old, and you could pretty much know all of it – unlike literature, where you had centuries to catch up on?). Just as important is felicity in communicating that knowledge: I want someone who’s a pleasure to read. And pragmatically, I want someone I can depend on as a scout, whose take on movies resembles mine sufficiently that I can use it to distinguish the must-see film from the can-miss, and act accordingly.

These attributes don’t always coincide. There are critics whose writing I like well enough but whose judgments diverge sharply from my own. (The  Times’ Manohla Dargis is a good example). There are some I like more as writers than as critics -- The New Yorker’s enjoyably snarky Anthony Lane, for instance. A. O. Scott, on the other hand, is not a sparkling writer, but I agree with him probably 90% of the time.

Other movie critics who have inspired and edified me down the decades include the late Stanley Kaufmann, notable, over the course of a half-century reign at The New Republic, for his imperious and at times belligerent judgments. Pauline Kael, lead film critic of The New Yorker from 1969 to 1991, confounded highbrow/lowbrow distinctions – here was someone who loved both Bergman and Invasion of the Body Snatchers -- and changed American film criticism by making it much more personal and, for want of a better word, experiential.  A movie was not a set of ideas, she insisted, but an experience, something that works on us. “Without playfulness and the pleasure we take from it, art isn’t art at all,” Kael wrote. “At the movies we want a different kind of truth, something that surprises us.”

And I have returned again and again to British critic and film historian David Thomson, awed by his commanding knowledge of the form and by the eccentricity and panache of his writing. I don’t always agree with him – I cannot accept Blue Velvet at the top of anyone’s list of favorite all-time films. But that hardly matters when I read his prose, studded with gemlike observations and pithy, incisive summaries. Thomson’s massive reference works -- Have You Seen...?: A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films and The New Biographical Dictionary of Film -- strew so many pearls along the path, you’re practically blinded. He’s the kind of writer, profligate with insights, who has you filling the margins of his books with exclamation points. Here he is on the ambiguities of Cary Grant: “The essence of his quality can be put quite simply: he can be attractive and unattractive simultaneously; there is a light and dark side to him but, whichever is dominant, the other creeps into view.” And here on the noir hallmarks of Fritz Lang:

Lang’s films all seem to have been made in a time of emergency. No other director so convinces us that melodramatic threat of extinction in the crime movie is the metaphor of a much greater danger.... His films begin in top gear and then advance into higher ratios unknown to other directors.

Reflecting on the essential affability of Rob Reiner, Thomson lauds his work as an actor over the years, and closes his entry with this observation:

As a director, Reiner seems more struck (or poleaxed) by the notion that niceness could save the world. It is a pretty thought, but one that stifles so many human and social realities. And so his work turns to pie in the sky with “good” and “bad” all too clearly labeled. He’s carried along by a fundamental decency and a sense of scenes that play. But his films are predictable from their first moments, and they begin to establish a weird, dumb orthodoxy – that if we’re good to our kids, everything will be okay. This is not true. Life is more interesting.

I can’t help but agree with novelist John Banville that Thomson is “the greatest living writer on the movies.” I read him, shake my head, and say to myself, Damn, I wish I’d written that. Is there a higher tribute you can pay another writer?

Finally, reading movie critics helps remind you how readily competing interpretations can and do coexist. To illustrate, here’s a link to my Commonweal review of the current documentary, Weiner... and here’s a link to Cathleen Schine’s quite different take in the New York Review of Books. Schine (the ex-wife of David Denby, by the way) sees the film as affirming the essential dignity of Anthony Weiner, asserting that it reveals a “secret everyman” caught up in the perils of the social-media world, and as such constitutes “a film about imperfection in all its glory.” Praising Weiner for what she sees as his “agonized intelligence” and his refusal to blame anyone but himself for his downfall, she’s far more sympathetic to him than I was in my review, which describes “a Narcissus so in love with his reflection in the pool of public life, even his own undoing captivates him.”

Same film, two different sets of eyes. Reading Schine’s take on the movie makes me reconsider my own. Was I too hard on Weiner, and on the filmmakers? I don’t think so. But I’m thinking about it.

Who are the film critics (beyond Richard Alleva and yours truly, of course) you’ve admired and relied on over the years... and for what? 

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal. His fiction has appeared in Harper’s, GQ, Esquire, the Atlantic, and many other magazines, as well as in Best American Short Stories. His novel, The Last to Go, was produced for television by ABC, and he has been a writer-in-residence at Amherst and Emerson colleges. 

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