Didn't like Braveheart? You have a soulmate in cyberspace, and he posted his thoughts on a now-defunct interactive Web site. "I know it has won an oscar," he writes, "but I think it's too long and too bloody, I had to be covering my eyes every time. I also think that the guy (Brave Heart) shouldn't have been killed because what's the point of seeing a 3 hour movie full of blood that will end up with the main character dead."
Didn't like Amelie? You have a soulmate in Baltimore, and he writes for the local newspaper. On the eve of the Academy Awards, The Sun's Michael Sragow noted that the popular French fantasy, up for five Oscars, was a "comedy about an introvert" that nonetheless used a "wildly extroverted plot and style." For that reason, he concluded, it was "100 percent inauthentic."
The first critic is inarticulate and ill-informed, but is expressing his honest reaction to a movie. The second critic -- one of the foremost in the country -- is articulate and well-read, but is offering a flowery non sequitor. He'd be better off muttering that he just doesn't care for this sort of picture.
Criticism is reputed to be dead, film criticism especially so. A few years ago, Susan Sontag complained that cinephilia -- "not simply love of but a certain taste in films" -- is dying, and with it the idea "that films are unique, unrepeatable, magic experiences." Other critics repeated the charge, each evincing nostalgia for the filmgoing culture of the early to mid-1960s, when reviews as well as movies could spark heated debates. Now Raymond Haberski gives us It's Only a Movie! (University Press of Kentucky), which traces the whole history of American film criticism but reserves its closest attention for the cinephile era, and especially for the debates between two prominent critics of the day, Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael.
There is another way to look at the period in question: not as the last gasp of film appreciation, but as the turning point toward the way we watch film now. At the beginning of the century, as Haberski's history underscores, "photoplay" critics were overwhelmingly concerned with cinema's capacity to improve its audience -- and, conversely, with the ways "coarse" movies might lead them astray. The most fervent film critics were, arguably, the censors. With the power to review and alter movies before they were even released, Motion Picture Code enforcer Joseph Breen had an influence that more than one critic today might envy. (For extra credit: Imagine how Hollywood might have evolved if Breen's post had been held by Rex Reed.)
The decay of film censorship in the '50s and '60s coincided with the decay of the formerly dominant style of criticism. The younger critics were idiosyncratic and proud of it, either rejecting outright the idea of objective criticism or making arguments so eccentric that no one could possibly take seriously their pose as system-builders. In The Village Voice and elsewhere, Sarris dressed up his highly personal approach to criticism with theory, adapting French auteurism to defend his fondness for studio pictures previously derided as trash. Kael hewed more closely to the ideal of definable aesthetic standards, yet distrusted the idea that movies were an art and hated any theory that threatened to stand between herself and the screen. She similarly despised the notion that movies should be judged by their ability to uplift their viewers, and she sometimes seemed to devote as many words to those viewers as she did to the films they were viewing.
Today, contra Sontag, cinephilia is scarcely dead. There are fewer film societies but more VCRs, fewer film debates that everyone follows but more film debates in toto. "By the early 1970s," Haberski writes, "debate over culture had shifted from what 'we' as a people want out of life to how we as millions of people live those lives." The consumption of movies has similarly grown more personalized. First video transformed the home into a repertory theater, and now DVDs have turned it into a school for film archeologists as well. The video-store culture that produced Quentin Tarantino has moved online, where one can find sites and e-mail lists devoted to everything from blaxploitation to Tarkovsky. The criticism there is as passionate, as raucous, and sometimes even as well-written and well-informed as Kael could be in her heyday.
There is also, of course, our anonymous review of Braveheart. Then again, it was traditional film criticism that gave us Sragow's description of Amelie. Choose your poison.